two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
12-Sept-Oct-2004
By: 
Jim Harrison
user_rating: 
0
A-TrueNorthDavid Burkett has a tough act to follow. His ancestors have been pillaging the pine forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula since the 1860s. His alcoholic father has inherited the family’s rapacious tendencies and added a penchant for young girls. True North chronicles Burkett’s attempts, between his teenage years and middle age, to make sense of his family’s sins. He does so by embarking on a journey across the peninsula with the goal of writing its history. Punctuated by encounters with women, family, and the land itself, Burkett’s trip becomes a quest for a moral and emotional compass that points true north, free from the pull of ancestral guilt.
Grove/Atlantic Press. 390 pages. $24.
ISBN: 0802117732

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Harrison’s picture of old money, of a debauched lineage, of the sins of the fathers, is not new, but he is especially rigorous in his regard. … Harrison consistently commands our attention for his humanity and his tenderness." Thomas Curwen

San Antonio Express-News 3 of 5 Stars
"Burkett’s obsession with his father threatens to drag down the novel into a morass of emasculated introspection. … Harrison’s clipped style sometimes settles into monotony, but he bursts through with splashes of true brilliance and soulful clarity that few living novelists can match." Dan R. Goddard

San Diego Union-Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"Events lurch in fits and starts throughout, with David’s indecisive actions and procrastinating ways entirely human, but exasperating. … [T]he most authentically portrayed and vivid scenes in True North are those that take place in the Upper Peninsula, making a rustic backwoods cabin in the forbidding frozen wilderness seem the quintessence of hearth and home." Gordon Hauptfleisch

Oregonian 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The ecological destruction of the Great Lakes states is tragic but fails to supply a needed narrative jolt. … Harrison’s writing is superb, as always, rippling with thematic leaps and poetic insights." Tim McNulty

Boston Globe 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Through burly but graceful prose [Harrison] gives us characters who practice a hardy, wind-in-the-face self-reliance. … [B]y and large Harrison does far too much telling and not enough showing." Scott W. Helman

NY Times Book Review 1.5 of 5 Stars
"It is hard to decide whether Harrison is offering us a coming-of-age story, a familial saga of estrangement or a slow-burning revenge tragedy; the knottier it becomes, the more likely it seems that we are actually reading all three. … This sprawling, rackety novel will not do a great deal for Jim Harrison’s reputation as a stylist, but in his portrait of a father and a son he has made an indelible addition to the gallery of literature’s ‘bad dads.’" Anthony Quinn

Critical Summary

"True North," says the Boston Globe, "has its moments," which sums up general reaction to this novel. Almost everyone found something to like, be it the passionate narration or the novel’s strong sense of place. However, most reviewers also found serious flaws. While some praised Harrison’s writing, a few pointed out its sloppiness. And nearly all were frustrated with the novel’s structure, complaining that Harrison reveals key events too early and allows the story to founder as Burkett painstakingly searches his soul. Harrison has called American readers "grotesquely plot-oriented," and those who fit this description should avoid his newest novel. But for those who don’t mind a long walk through the woods, there’s True North.