four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
27-Mar-Apr-2007
By: 
Jim Harrison
user_rating: 
0

A-Returning to EarthIn this sequel to True North ( 2.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2004), four narrators reflect on their interrelated histories. The story centers on Donald, part-Chippewa and part-Finnish, who is afflicted with ALS. As death approaches, he dictates his memoir; his wife, Cynthia, transcribes it and inserts her own thoughts. The second part of the novel belongs to "K," an unrelated nephew figure and perpetual student who is in love with Donald and Cynthia’s daughter Clare—and with Cynthia herself. Donald’s brother-in-law, David, suffering from depression and family guilt, reveals tragic events from the family’s past in the third section. In the final part, Cynthia tries to find a path through her grief while coming to terms with the family’s dark history.
Grove Press. 280 pages. $24. ISBN: 0802118380

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Harrison has crafted something remarkable, a set of interlocking stories set in a complex, evolving geography—an artistic achievement worthy of Faulkner. … Returning to Earth, an important work by a major writer, is, at its core, about death, about final reckonings and resolutions." Daniel Dyer

San Diego Union-Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"This could almost be Hemingway, in some of the Michigan stories, but it’s even more stripped than Hemingway. … [The novel] is both familiar and strange, rooted and rootless, endlessly dark and occasionally hilarious." Bart Thurber

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Harrison’s trademark prose, lyric and fluid, seamlessly melds perceptions, memories and dreams to capture his characters’ inner lives. … Harrison’s fiction has always displayed an unsentimental respect for Native American history, custom and belief." Tim McNulty

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Returning to Earth is a much slower, more meditative book [than True North], its plot mostly shucked in favor of the characters’ restless turning over of the heavy stones of love and death. … Harrison has a gift for creating richly detailed female characters—honest, bright, sensually clear if momentarily befuddled by life or, in this case, by the death of the love of her life at 45." Jim Lenfestey

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What sustains Returning to Earth is Harrison’s evident love of the place—the novel’s principal setting, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—and of the characters he has put into it. … Harrison is not always at top form in this novel, but when he is, you feel the hurt." Charles Matthews

Critical Summary

Jim Harrison, best known for Legends of the Fall, evokes both Hemingway and Faulkner in his most recent novel. The novel’s prose is spare and strong, but the characters and their secrets, slowly revealed through four interlocking first-person narratives, are rich and complex. Set 30 years after True North (which should be read first), Returning to Earth is anchored in the death of Donald, who appeared as a teenager in the earlier work. Some critics felt that Returning to Earth didn’t quite measure up to Harrison’s ability, but most praised the new novel as "a prodigious achievement" (San Diego Union-Tribune).

What Came First

True North | Jim Harrison (2004): David Burkett’s ancestors have been pillaging the pine forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula since the 1860s: his own alcoholic father had inherited his family’s rapacious tendencies and acquired a penchant for young girls. Between his teenage years and middle age, David tries to make sense of his family’s sins. Critics were frustrated with the novel’s structure, complaining that Harrison reveals key events too early and allows the story to founder.