In a response to my last post, reader Roberta Canfield said, “For Kent Haruf and Ivan Doig lovers, try Let Him Go by Larry Watson and The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch.”
I’ve been very enthusiastic in my praise of both Haruf and Doig, so I couldn’t wait to follow up on two authors, unknown to me, who might be publishing work similar to theirs. I immediately downloaded Let Him Go, and was swept up in the harrowing story of a pair of grandparents set on a course to retrieve their grandson after their son’s widow left town with him. In fact, I loved it so much that as soon as I finished, I downloaded another Watson title, Montana, 1948. This one concerns a prominent family who must deal with the repercussions of one member’s illegal and perverted behavior.
I don’t want to go into more detail about the plot. If you read this blog regularly, you know how I feel about spoilers in book reviews. But I will tell you the reasons I am such an enthusiastic convert to Larry Watson’s writing:
1. Like Haruf and Doig, these stories are grounded in the modern day West (okay, 1948 isn’t as “modern” as it used to be, but it’s close enough). In the hands of a skilled writer, there’s something nostalgic, even romantic, about the open plains, the tie to the land, the simplicity of life that is very appealing to me.
Of Dalton, North Dakota, (Let Him Go) we read:
The siren tells the town’s working citizens and students what they already know. It’s twleve o’clock, time for you to fly, too. Put down your hammer, your pencil; close your books, cover your typewriter. Go home. Your wives and mothers are opening can of soup and slicing bread and last night’s roast beef for sandwiches . . . Most drive to their homes, but a man with the width of the town to travel, from Ott’s Livestock Sales out of Highway 41 to Teton Avenue in the town’s northeast corner, walks.
Montana, 1948, places us in Bentrock, Montana, where
. . . all of northeastern Montana is hard country – the land is dry and sparse and the wind never stops blowing. The heat and thunderstorms in summer can be brutal, and the winters are legendary for the fierceness of their blizzards and the depths to which temperatures drop.
Watson knows his geographical territory, and it appears as its own character in his work.
2. Watson’s human characters are people of their time and place: direct, no nonsense, tough. They do what needs to be done, no matter how difficult or distasteful. The author seems to see his protagonists as fond friends, idiosyncratic, flawed, but with an inner strength that they (and he) can count on when needed. He writes with a clear understanding of human nature, as demonstrated in this reflection by David Hayden, the narrator of Montana, who observes:
Young people are supposed to be the impatient ones, but in most circumstances they can outwait their elders. The young are more practiced; time passes slower for them and they are constantly filling their hours, days, months, and years with waiting – for birthdays, for Christmas, for Father to return, for summer to arrive, for graduation, for the rain to stop, for the minister to stop talking, for girls to stop saying, “Not now, not yet; wait.” No, when it comes to patience, even the enforced variety, the young are the real masters.
3. Watson is a true storyteller. In both books – but especially Let Him Go – the suspense of the story, the need to know what happens next, propels the reader forward. He has the shrewd practice of closing chapters with cliffhangers, and he keeps to his story clean of unnecessary embellishment or diversion. His language is clear and crisp, his characters behave in a way that rings true and, as a reader, I found that I really cared about what happened to them. I can’t give any higher praise than that.
So, Roberta, I’m ready to move on to Jim Lynch’s The Highest Tide. Thanks for a great recommendation!