Troubled man’s odyssey divides a family

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 28, 2014

“The High Divide,” by Lin Enger. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2014. 332 pp. $24.95.

The cover of “the High Divide” suggests a soaring mountain pass, with a lone figure standing on a precipice, staring down into the valley.
The cover is based on a 1920 photo of Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
But the contents of the book are firmly grounded in the dusty places of the uncharted western United States in the late 1880s, when St. Paul was a small city and the vast plains, home to the disappearing American bison and the banished Native Americans, stretched out for miles.
Ulysses is the lost warrior who saw and did too much in Custer’s army, who has a debt to pay for what he did, and who is willing to leave his wife and two boys to pay it. The name is drawn straight from ancient literature, Ulysses or Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic poem, “The Odyssey.”
Like the first Ulysses, Ulysses Pope is on a quest. He must quiet the demons in his mind, but he’s so traumatized that he shares none of his pain with his passive wife, Gretta, or his boys, Eli and Danny.
He just leaves, with no note or indication whether or when he’ll be back. He has already alienated the people of Sloan’s Crossing, Minn., by speaking up in church for the burial of a young woman who worked in a house of ill repute. He further distances himself by supporting the rights of the Indians (in this era) who have lost their land and soon, their main food source, the bison.
Gretta, who left Sweden as a teen to come to the United States, has some odd ideas about what being a wife means. She’s upset by Ulysses’ sometimes strange behavior, but she asks no questions, and she doesn’t feel it’s her job to coddle him. It’s not a wife’s job to “hold a man up,” she reasons.
Son Eli intercepts a letter from an unknown woman and sneaks out of the house one night to find his father. He plans to jump on trains to take him where he needs to go. When he discovers his young, sickly brother right behind him, he’s set on sending him back to Mama, but Danny won’t go, so the boys, Eli barely a teen, head off.
They first run into Reverend Pearl, a man Gretta blames, in part, for Ulysses’ changed behavior. Pearl has baptized Ulysses, who spends hours reading his Bible. Gretta doesn’t like the man’s influence.
But when he recognizes the boys, he takes them under his wing and helps them to their next destination, few questions asked.
And that happens to the boys again and again. Someone, at each stop along the way, ends up helping them, not questioning why these children are traveling alone in search of their father. How do they keep meeting people who point them in the right direction?
Gretta meanwhile, struggles with the evil landlord who sees relations with Gretta as a way to pay the debt. Or she can work for him, being conveniently nearby whenever he has needs. Gretta begins to think that may be her only option.
When a Native American in town, Two Blood, a gun dealer, offers her refuge, she must accept, still not knowing whether to go after her boys or wait.
She’s suspicious that Ulysses has left her for another woman, particularly when she learns about the letter. She has little faith in her husband, and is willing to believe the worst at every turn.
When she further discovers he served with Custer after his time in the Civil War, she nearly goes into shock. Ulysses had never told her about his second round of service. Nor does she know that the family name is Popovich. Her foundations crumble.
A lot of certainties are crumbling. Eli doesn’t know what to believe, and the little boys who set out are growing up fast.
Gretta dithers and follows dead ends. Her life is so turned around, she doesn’t know what to do.
Meanwhile, out on the plains and bluffs of the West, Ulysses collects bison bones to sell and keeps asking after an Indian named Magpie. Ulysses is robbed by a group of three patient Indians, but is still determined to find Magpie. He will not say what he wants with the man.
Ulysses is hard to know. He has a great burden that’s impossible to shake. He can ask forgiveness and hope for peace, but he’ll never forget what he did, and he knows how wrong it was.
Mrs. Powers, wife of Ulysses’ war buddy, Jim, sees Gretta’s worst side, and is determined that she may be the answer to Ulysses’ fears. Her husband, lost in guilt, is now dead.
Much of the novel involves Eli and Danny’s search. At times, this almost seems like a young adult story. An omniscient narrator narrows the focus from chapter to chapter, shifting to other parts of the story.
What author Lin Enger does well is paint the country in true colors. You can almost smell the dust riders kick up along a trail; the tiny, smoky house of an old Indian woman is nearly claustrophobic. When Enger is describing the natural world and the displaced Indians and bison, he shines brightest.
Enger also gives a touch of reality to the book, tying in William Hornaday’s expedition to take some of the remaining bison to be stuffed and displayed in the National Museum — what will become the Smithsonian. And he uses tales of Custer’s seemingly mad attacks on innocent women and children in Indian camps.
The characters’ names are real, but he makes no attempt to recreate the real person. They’re in the book to further his fictional story.
What will happen when or if Ulysses is reunited with his family? He’ll first have to go through his self-imposed trial, which, he realizes, doesn’t solve anything.
Can he ever find peace? Can Gretta ever trust him again?
“The High Divide” has spirit and authenticity, even if it stretches credibility at times. It’s a fast journey toward redemption, and the results are so different from what you might expect.