What an enticing, and profound, novella this book is! We find ourselves, early 20th century, with pioneer Robert Grainier in the wild northwest corner of Idaho. The characters, tales, and happenings are bigger-than-life American West, permeated by a surrealism born of our protagonist’s isolation. He has dreams bordering on visions which unravel the tragedies that explode his life. This is an American magic realism that appears all too real and possible, today.
It is a much rougher, uncaring, and dark world than, say, the settler tales of a Willa Cather. Yet it is not without its lacing humor and beautiful moments. What I found most interesting among these pioneers is the syncretism, of Christianity mixed with the animist beliefs of the Kootenai Indians, who believe wild animals are part of the spirit world.
We are introduced to Grainier as a laborer who almost casually joins a small posse of American railroad builders wishing to kill a Chinaman for unknown crimes. Johnson, who was also a poet, relates this in sparse, haunting prose:
“The Chinaman dropped from beam to beam like a circus artist downward along the crosshatch structure. A couple of the work gang cheered his escape, while others, though not quite certain why he was being chased, shouted that the villain ought to be stopped.” [p. 5]
The Chinaman escapes, but Grainier doesn’t. Later, he attributes his spontaneous aid to the would-be-killers as the cause of all his future calamities, the Chinaman’s revenge.
They are working on the Great Northern that now stretches from Saint Paul to Seattle. One of the construction details that marvels is how, after building spanner bridges, they would send a car over with no one on board, whereupon “The brakeman caught it at the other end.” [p.12]
Granier, in fact, arrives in Fry, Idaho as a young 6-year old boy, alone, by railway – that is, caught at the other end.
“When a child, Grainier had been sent by himself to Idaho. From precisely where he’d been sent he didn’t know… He arrived after several days on the train with his destination pinned to his chest on the back of a store receipt.” [pps.25-26]
I learned from my book club, where I had suggested the book, that this is less strange than it sounds, as orphan trains were not uncommon in our young country. Grainier was taken in by his aunt and uncle and grew up working in work crews, for the railroad or for lumbering. In his young 30’s, he meets his wife Gladys and they have a baby girl, named Kate, living on a precious parcel of owned land up the Moyea Valley.
Then calamity strikes. Grainier, while away on lumbering work, loses both wife and child. Instead of starting over again, he dwells in it, literally camping out in his destroyed homestead and eventually rebuilding a small log cabin. A small, semi-wild red dog finds him and becomes his only companion. Is the dog part wolf?
Here enters the animist beliefs of the Kootenai, for eventually after much wolfish behavior, including nightly howling in response to the packs just north of the Canadian border, Grainier is visited by a wilding pack one moon-lit night:
“And suddenly they flooded into the clearing and around it, many forms and shadows, voices screaming, and several brushed past him, touching him where he stood in his doorway, and he could hear their pads thudding on the earth. Before his mind could say ‘there are wolves come into my yard,’ they were gone. All but one. And she was the wolf-girl.” [p.100]
He ends up mending the wolf-girl’s leg and becomes convinced it is his baby girl. “‘Kate?’” he said. ‘Is it you? But it was.’” [p.101]
She doesn’t stay long, but Granier does: on the lookout for her return. He becomes a hermit and his dreams are more and more occupied by visions – which are, in turn, fed by the trains:
“Usually he woke in the middle of this roaring dream to find himself surrounded by the thunder of the Spokane International going up the valley in the night.” [p.81]
Here the book’s magic realism, told in taught and realistic prose, comes to full flower. Indeed, the shock of cultures at this vanishing frontier seems the most natural fit for American magic realism, a perfect complement. The European and Christian roots of so many settlers, so far from home soil, are lost in the conquest – less so of the native Indians, than of an unforgiving natural world.
Granier’s life, he realizes towards the end, has been surprisingly limited:
“He’d had one lover – his wife, Gladys – owned one acre of property, two horses, and a wagon. He’d never been drunk.” [p.113]
Yet conscience is a terrible, sharp thing. Grainier is a startlingly humane witness, to not only his own failings, but to the passing of an era.
His tale can be read on several levels. Another is as a parable of contemporary man, who loses the anchor of family that he never really had. (Think of all the single parent homes or books such as It Takes a Village: the family bedrock of civilization has been eroding for generations.) Then, as he descends into a pagan, animist form of solitude, he is very much the modern man, isolated from God and much else.
Grainier dies a solitary death and then, at book’s end, we witness via flashback the mysteries of Nature, in a quasi-spiritual experience, in which the Creation is elevated over the Creator.
“The wonder-horse show that evening in 1935 included a wolf-boy. He wore a mask of fur, and a suit that looked like fur but was really something else.” [p.115]
Yet, despite the artifice, the wolf-boy lets out a howl that shakes the audience – and the reader.
It “coalesced into a voice that penetrated into the sinuses and finally into the very minds of those hearing it, taking itself higher and higher, more and more awful and beautiful, the originating ideal of all such sounds ever made, of a foghorn and the ship’s horn, the locomotive’s lonesome whistle, of opera singers and the music of flutes and the continuous moan-music of bagpipes. And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.” [p.116]
The howl is suitable punctuation to all that occurs, even if the last line borders on the obvious: when the present slips into the past it is, by definition, irretrievable. A brave, cruel, and inexplicable era of human achievement is over, the frontier as lost as Grainier in his only and empty home.
[Denis Johnson, Train Dreams, Picador, NY, 2012]