Dalva Book Review

Have you ever read a book in which it’s going good only until you get to a part that’s not? It doesn’t work for you for some reason, but everything else before and after are worth it. I’m sure that this has happened to me in the past, but not in the way I’ve experienced it like I have with Dalva by Jim Harrison. It’s a fascinating look about a woman coming to terms with her family’s and her own past, and yet one section doesn’t gel in the same way that the others do.

Dalva is about a woman whose one-eighth Sioux who gave up her son for adoption years ago. At age 45, the title character embarks on a journey that will take her back to the crux of her family, the half-Sioux man whom she loved when she was a teenager, and her great-grandfather whose journals recounts the annihilation of the Plains Indians. She discovers a story that stretches all across the country, and finds a way to heal her wounded soul.

Harrison tends to have a masculine style of writing, but it’s nice to see him getting less indulgent and depicting women beyond one defining character trait. He pens more concisely than he did with Legends of the Fall. He still digresses, yet it’s only with certain characters, so at least he knows when and when not to use it. As for the female characters, Dalva herself is 45 years old and still hasn’t figured out her life. Her younger sister Ruth is trying to get a man after she divorces her gay husband, and their mother Naomi always senses something is up even though she may not admit it. Unfortunately, I had a problem trying to imagine Dalva in my head. I know a drawing of her is on the book cover, but I couldn’t conceive of her being 45 and being built like Wonder Woman. I’m not saying that a woman that age can’t have a hot, sexy body. She had a baby, so her physique was going to be altered. I think Harrison was playing into his own fantasy of what a woman should look like as opposed to what they actually have. 

A lot of the female reviewers on Goodreads pointed out that Dalva was a man’s woman, as in she’s what men think women are. Don’t get me wrong. Even though I get where those people are coming from, she has an inner life as she conflicts over her identity and past actions. Also, some women are more masculine than others. The book was published in 1988, nine years after Legends of the Fall, so it’s an overall improvement. 

Another part that I liked was the journal entries from Dalva and Ruth’s great-grandfather John Northridge. It was nice seeing a fictional account of someone who lived alongside the Sioux, embraced their culture, and tried to get them the governmental help they needed before the Massacre at Wounded Knee (coincidentally I wrote most of this review on the anniversary of that event). Those records can digress, but characters like Michael the historian and Dalva acknowledge this throughout the book. Despite that, I really felt for Northridge. He seemed like he was trying to do the right thing, but his actions weren’t enough. To an extent, a lot of readers might know about this rich and violent history of the Native Americans, and these (albeit fictional) entries add more of a human component.

Ok, I had a lot of good things to say about it, so what’s holding it back? Before I get into that, I have to provide context. The book is divided into 3 sections. The first and last ones are narrated by the titular character, while the middle one is through the eyes of Michael. Michael is an alcoholic, gluttonous, and neurotic man, who is entrusted to go through Northridge’s journals and share them with the world at large. In other words, he’s simply pathetic. He’s so pathetic that I imagined him sounding like James Corden. Because of that, I constantly kept thinking of the image of Corden’s head on a mouse’s body from the Amazon Prime Cinderella, and that made things worse. Those two things made the section with Michael’s point of view laborious to get through. However, I liked the part where he gets beaten up by Lundquist – a Swedish farm hand for Dalva and her family. The reason will not be surprising to those who have read the book. Also, the novel wasn’t trying to portray him as a saint, so I really couldn’t get that annoyed at it. Knowing how Harrison writes, I wish that it was its own separate story.

Overall, I like Dalva by Jim Harrison much more than Legends of the Fall. I liked getting into the mindset of its main character and how she reconciles her family’s and her own past. Harrison’s depiction of various female characters are improved from the earlier title. I wish the second third wasn’t such a slog (but then again, a part of that was because of me and how I imagined the historian). I would recommend this to those who like Harrison’s works; character studies on strong, but flawed women; and reading stories that involve Native Americans. This shows that even good novels can contain some bumps.

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Published by emilymalek

I work at a public library southeast Michigan, and I facilitate two book clubs there. I also hold a Bachelor's degree in History and Theatre from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI; a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI; and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration also from Wayne. In my downtime, I love hanging out with friends, play trivia and crossword puzzles, listening to music (like classic rock and K-pop), and watching shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

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