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‘Returning to Earth’ and returning to life

Sara Garton
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My book-loving heart races a bit whenever I see a new title by Jim Harrison, the author of “Wolf,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Revenge,” “The Woman Lit by Fireflies” and “Dalva.” I feel Harrison and I are friends. He lived in and loves Michigan, where I lived and still fiercely love, and then moved West. His novels, short stories, poetry, as well as his writing about food and travel, exude a passion for life, namely nature, animals, eating, friendship, uncomplicated sex and complicated family. So I looked forward to meeting my old friend again and hearing what he’s thinking.

Harrison is thinking about how to die. His newest novel, meaningfully titled “Returning to Earth,” is about Donald, a 45-year-old Chippewa-Finnish man dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and about his family and their struggle with how a dignified life lived so well and with so much passion can end with dignity.”Returning to Earth” returns to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the country, culture and people of “True North,” Harrison’s previous novel. Donald, recording the story of his family for his family before he dies, tells in Part 1 a rambling, colorful tale of his Chippewa and Finnish ancestors and of his own life and reconnection to his American Indian spirituality. (I’ll never again look at bears and ravens the same way.)The other three parts, each narrated by a family member, deal with the months following Donald’s death, coping with the loss of a beloved, powerful presence, and finding redemption and joyous surprise in getting on with the business of living. K, Donald’s nephew reflects, “I’ve come to think of Donald as a tugboat … slow to achieve speed but with an irresistible surge of power. To care for Donald in his present state is to finally understand that there are no miracles except that we exist.”

Several months after Donald’s death, Cynthia, his wife, asks a friend, “What’s an appropriate response to death?” The friend replies, “There isn’t a singular response. You keep on truckin’, as that cartoonist Crumb said. You’re probably having a thousand responses a day because your brain simply can’t stop trying to comprehend what has happened to you. It’s the largest question mark we deal with in life and no response will make it go away.””Returning to Earth” was the supportive companion I needed after a long winter of feeling my years, sad for the failing health of friends and very sad for the world in general. Perhaps the reader of “Returning to Earth” needs to be a certain age to receive its comforting message. And if only we were so fortunate to have Donald’s choice of how and when to die.


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