The Farmer’s Daughter

01/06/2010 5:00 AM |

The Farmer’s Daughter
By Jim Harrison
Grove Press

Love may not conquer all, but as the three exquisite novellas comprising Jim Harrison’s The Farmer’s Daughter remind us, having a friend or lover in your corner beats the alternative.

In the title piece, 15-year-old Sarah, a home-schooled kid raised in nearly complete rural isolation, falls in love with a middle-aged professor. On top of age difference, their liaison is troubled because Sarah is suffering from the aftereffects of a brutal sexual assault and is bristling with revenge fantasies. At the same time, she is filled with longing for her arduous suitor. Her ability to engage with Alfredo, or not, rests on whether she can forgive her rapist, a hefty challenge for a girl barely out of junior high. Harrison zeroes in on Sarah’s burgeoning independence while capturing the emotional pushes-and-pulls of adolescence. Throughout, her yearning for the safety of a protective home is palpable.

The two remaining stories also involve characters in precarious straits. In “Brown Dog Redux,” BD, a working-class, Native-American underachiever, has to decide whether to donate his sperm to a white, middle-class social worker he’s lusted after for years. As he thinks about whether to get involved, BD’s ideas about responsibility, race and class come to the fore.

The final entry, “The Games of Night,” introduces a man suffering from damage caused by two almost-simultaneous animal attacks. Now part beast, he has monthly “episodes” that are causing him to age prematurely. This bizarre development puts his childhood pal-cum-girlfriend in a difficult situation: Should she remain in a dyad fated to be short-lived, or cut her losses?

It’s big stuff, and Harrison is a master at subtly depicting the politics of everyday life. He’s a writer who asks questions—explicitly and implicitly—about the limits of love, the nature of community, the need for human connection, and the desire for respect and recognition. His characters are tautly drawn and leave much to the imagination. Nonetheless, they’re people to root for, folks who’ll stick in your head long past the denouement of each story.