Dalva Dal­va by Jim Har­ri­son
My rat­ing : 5 of 5 stars

Admit­ted­ly I began the book with a lit­tle dread. I just fin­ished Wolf, Harrison’s first nov­el and one I’d first read in grad­u­ate school in 1988. I have car­ried a high opin­ion of Har­ri­son ever since, but now I had to won­der why ? What I liked about it at 26 left me cold at 53, so I was pre­pared for a sim­i­lar reac­tion to Dal­va, espe­cial­ly since Har­ri­son would be writ­ing in the first per­son as a woman, and I’d hap­pi­ly wash out early. 

But Dal­va is a mar­vel — both the book and the char­ac­ter. Dal­va is in her mid-40s and liv­ing in San­ta Mon­i­ca and work­ing as a social work­er when we meet her. But as the nov­el unfolds, we real­ize this bare­ly her at all : Part Sioux, Dal­va is the great-grand­daugh­ter of a famed mis­sion­ary and hor­ti­cul­tur­ist who was more of a con­vert to the Sioux than a con­vert­er. He took a young Sioux wife and man­aged to find him­self in the mid­dle of much of the ter­ri­ble destruc­tion of the Sioux and their way of life at the hands of the Unit­ed States mil­i­tary. He also had a great deal of land. As such, Dal­va is not only rich with his­to­ry, she’s plain rich ; when she returns to her fam­i­ly home in North­ern Nebras­ka to search for the son she had with her 16 year old Sioux boyfriend, she brings along Michael, an alco­holic pro­fes­sor and her some­time lover, who has been grant­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to read & pub­lish Great-Grand­fa­ther Northridge’s per­son­al letters. 

Har­ri­son lets Dal­va nar­rate the first and sec­ond third of the book, while Michael takes over in the mid­dle. Har­ri­son also includes long pas­sages from Northridge’s jour­nals, so what starts out as a dis­arm­ing­ly prim and undis­tin­guished sto­ry is actu­al­ly the oppo­site. Har­ri­son writes beau­ti­ful­ly as Dal­va as she nav­i­gates her life today and as she recalls the events of the past forty years that have formed her ; while Michael is a com­i­cal, annoy­ing aca­d­e­m­ic, Har­ri­son still invests him with a wry wit, pathos, and some sur­pris­ing insight about Dal­va and her fam­i­ly. Northridge’s let­ters are a mix­ture of 19th cen­tu­ry benev­o­lent naiveté and a more mod­ern sci­en­tif­ic dogged­ness. These three streams of voice and time become a fast and loud riv­er that is as much about the Sioux and their destruc­tion as it is about Dal­va and her sor­rows and solace.

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