Lin Enger’s moving and enlightening second novel resonates emotionally and intellectually on several levels: as an homage to the vanished American bison, a reflection on the forceful removal of Northern Plains Indians from their homelands and an engaging family saga peopled with characters who could have been this Midwestern author’s own ancestors.
The High Divide opens in the summer of 1886, when Ulysses Pope, husband to Norwegian-born Gretta and father to Eli, 16, and younger son Danny, abruptly disappears from their western Minnesota home. Shortly thereafter, Eli finds a letter to his father from a woman in Bismarck—so he and Danny hop a freight train west, following their only clue to their father’s whereabouts. Gretta, in turn, embarks on her own journey, “with two dollars left in her purse and not a single blood relative in all the North American continent—aside from her own two sons, whose whereabouts were unknown to her.” She instead heads east to St. Paul, the home of Ulysses’ sister, who shares details of her brother’s military years that were unknown to Gretta—and which may somehow be connected to his disappearance now, nearly two decades later.
Enger entwines Ulysses’ odyssey with the actual Hornaday Expedition of 1886, during which the curator of the National Museum in Washington, D.C., now the Smithsonian, sought to kill a large number of the vanishing bison—paradoxically, to stuff and preserve them for future generations.
Though the reader gradually learns the facts behind Ulysses’ disappearance, his ultimate search is for forgiveness for his part in what he now knows is the decimation of the Cheyenne, Crow, Lakota and Blackfeet tribes that were part of the land on which he was raised. Enger’s gripping story is a marvelous blend of strong characters and a brilliant depiction of a land and time now lost.