Thursday, November 19, 2009

Review: Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison


Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison is a collection of three novellas. I reviewed the first two novellas in the book on Friday: Revenge and The Man Who Gave Up His Name. I finally finished the title novella yesterday.

Legends of the Fall is the third and shortest novella in the book, coming in at 83 pages. It begins with three brothers leaving Montana in 1914 to enlist in Canada to join the Great War. When the youngest brother (Samuel) dies, it changes the family forever. The middle son, Tristan, is haunted by his death, and spends seven years basically wandering at sea, even though his actions really hurt the rest of his family and the young wife he abandoned. "[T]here was the unspoken, unthought, unrehearsed sense that time and distance would reveal to him why Samuel died" (pg. 237). I don't think he is ever enlightened, but he does make his way back home when he learns his father's health is failing. He tries to settle down and live a more normal life, remarrying and raising a family, but when his involvement in rum running results in the death of his wife, he loses it again.

Tristan's relationship with his older brother, Alfred, is also sad. Alfred doesn't really understand Tristan, and Tristan never let Alfred share in his grief: not when Samuel died, and not when his wife Isabel was killed. Their relationship is further complicated by the fact that Alfred married Tristan's first wife (whom he abandoned when he went to sea after Samuel's burial).

The novella has a couple of characters who have psychological problems. Tristan goes a little crazy every time someone close to him dies, and his first wife appears to be bipolar and eventually commits suicide because "she could no longer bear the phases of insanity and his [Tristan's] absence" (pg. 265).

It also touches on the familiar theme of revenge. Tristan and revenge go hand-in-hand--when some rival smugglers threaten Tristan's alcohol smuggling operation in Seattle with a machine gun, he strikes back with an elephant gun. When members of the smuggling gang follow him back to Montana, he doesn't hesitate to kill them with his bare hands. The novella ends with Tristan's elderly father killing two policemen (I can't figure out if they were real policemen who were smugglers or if they were smugglers posing as policemen) to keep them from taking Tristan away. Tristan eventually runs to Canada to avoid the police and reprisals.

After trying to summarize the story a bit here, I think I'm finding that it wasn't the story itself as much as the emotion in the story that drew me in the most. I'm not generally a fan of illegal activities and murder, but in the context of Tristan's emotional development I could understand why he kept putting his life on the line the way he did. At one point, he even makes the statement that he expected more interference in his smuggling activities. Unfortunately, his own pain and self-destructive actions tended to spill over with devastating results on the rest of the people he loved. Even though he tried to keep himself apart from everyone else, he was never really alone in his torments.

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Taken as a whole, this set of three novellas is very masculine in style and heavy with revenge, but I really enjoyed it. Even when I found myself disgusted with one or more of the characters, I kept reading because I found myself surprised and intrigued by what I was reading. If I were to rank the three novellas on how much I enjoyed them, I would list Legends of the Fall in first place, Revenge in second place, and The Man Who Gave Up His Name in third place.

I think one of the things that surprised me about this book was that I enjoyed it even though it isn't the kind of book or subject matter I normally read. Perhaps this diversion into something different helped make the stories stand out for me. Or perhaps it is because Harrison is such a unique and talented writer.

The novellas are better than their screen adaptations (Revenge and Legends of the Fall were both made into movies), but it's been so long since I've seen the two films that I'm tempted to watch them both again.


With this review, I am now finished with the November Novella Challenge. I'm going to stop at Level I with just three novellas--one short of Level II. I've enjoyed this challenge, but I'm ready to work on clearing out my toppling TBR pile. Thanks for hosting this challenge J.T.! It has been a fun diversion!

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