Lin Enger sends The High Divide characters into a sequence of improbable, nearly impossible situations. The novel takes place in 1886, when the West was still largely unsettled and when a man might make something of himself, somehow, somewhere. On the first page of The High Divide, Ulysses Pope, married for seventeen years, father of two sons, silently walks away from his Minnesota home. “The note he’d left was cryptic, cruelly brief: ‘A chance for work, hard cash’ was all it said.” His oldest son, Eli, follows his dad, hopping a freight train west. At the last moment, his younger brother Danny jumps into the boxcar, too. The two boys, ages sixteen and twelve, are determined to find Ulysses and to find out what he is doing and why. Their mother, left alone, then buys a train ticket, seeking her own answers to the conundrum that has turned their family life upside down.
Because Enger employs a shifting point of view to tell the story of The High Divide, the reader knows where the characters are, what they are scheming, and what they actually are doing at any given moment in time. We soon learn Ulysses’ whereabouts, although the true reasons behind his behavior remain a mystery for much of the book. We join the wayward father, his sons and his wife, as they criss-cross one another’s trails from small town Minnesota to St. Paul, from the Dakotas and on to Miles City, Montana, and north from there into the high divide wilderness. Chapter by chapter, we follow their individual paths. At first I couldn’t believe their foolishness, but soon I was totally intrigued by their adventures. As I read, however, I feared the book’s conclusion would either be tragic or sophomoric. Turning the pages, I couldn’t imagine how Enger could bring his novel to a satisfactory close.
At the same time he is writing about the Pope family, Enger also is writing about the West itself. The 1880s were a pivotal time, when the Indians were largely relegated to unwanted reservations and the buffalo had almost disappeared. Enger weaves into his book a number of historical events from the preceding two decades, juxtaposing and paralleling the demise of the plains Indians’ life of freedom against the wanderings of the Popes. Both the historic and the personal narratives are haunted by unfulfilled promises and by broken dreams. We all know how the history of the old West ended, but predicting the end of The High Divide is more problematic.
I dwell on that ending, without revealing any secrets, because Enger’s authorial deftness is truly stunning. Seldom have I read a novel that is so subtle and so satisfying in its final pages. Imagine, if you will, this family traipsing hither and yon. Imagine the weather, the terrain, the alluring women and the avaricious men they might meet. Imagine historic moments that might confront them. Imagine the reactions of a woman abandoned and the overreactions of two teenagers, one nearly a man and the other still a sickly boy. Imagine how Enger might pull all these threads together. For anyone who relishes western history and western storytelling, The High Divide is a must-read kind of book. Trust me, you’ll find the ending astonishingly apt. I recommend it highly. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Lin Enger: Undiscovered Country.