The Farmer’s Daughter, by Jim Harrison

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Wednesday, Jun 16, 2010

Jim Harrison considers himself a poet first and a fiction writer second. Maybe that’s part of the reason his novels and novellas read so well: He has a poet’s gift for elevated language coupled with the heart of a storyteller.

Harrison is at his very best when writing novellas. “Legends of the Fall,” the film starring Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn, was adapted from the novella of the same name, one of Harrison’s greatest stories.

Harrison’s new collection, “The Farmer’s Daughter,” follows his usual novella format; the book presents three stories of about a hundred pages each.

The main character in the title story is a thoughtful (brilliant, actually) 15-year-old girl named Sarah who is uprooted from Ohio and moves to Montana with her family. Forced to deal with a new way of life, Sarah adapts to a place much wilder than that of her childhood. But the adjustments aren’t easy. Then again, adolescence never is. Of Sarah, Harrison writes in his first sentence, “She was born peculiar, or so she thought.” I can’t imagine there’s a teen-ager out there who hasn’t felt this way at some point.

The second novella is another installment in the life of Brown Dog, a character Harrison has revisited frequently over the years. Brown Dog is basically a good-hearted soul who often finds himself on the fringe of the law and the edge of socially acceptable behavior, and in “Brown Dog Redux,” he’s up to his usual antics. As the title implies, though, there is redemption here – if only he can find it.

The final novella, “The Games of Night,” is a werewolf story as only Jim Harrison could write it. That is, it’s great fun, and also quite disturbing.

At his worst, Harrison can be repetitive and self-indulgent. More than once in these three stories, he uses the word “nitwit” to describe minor characters for whom he obviously has contempt. I could have done without that. But I can’t do without Harrison: At his best – which he frequently is here – he’s a writer of great narrative power and emotional resonance.

Written by John Mark E.