Friday, July 15, 2011
Josh Ritter's "Bright's Passage"
He sounds old, does Henry Bright, older than his years. Perhaps it was the war, the Great War, the one that was supposed to end it all but didn’t, especially the war in Henry’s soul. But you don’t know about that war for a while, and you won’t know until the end how that war turns out.
Bright’s Passage is an unusual book by songwriter and first novelist Josh Ritter, whose “The Animal Years” was Stephen King’s favorite album of the last five years. It’s unusual in the sense that it has a bit of magic realism (an angel who speaks through a horse and a shifting timeline) and a main character who argues with the angel but usually does its bidding.
Henry Bright grows up in the mountains of West Virginia. His father died in a coal mine cave-in, and his mother raises him – and raises him well. Living nearby are his mother’s sister and her husband the Colonel. Their three children include two boys and a daughter Rachel, the youngest.
Henry fights in the trenches in France in World War I, and his experiences there leave scars. One of those experiences involves a church and its dome, and what Henry sees there moments before a shell destroys it. He’s shot on Armistice Day, is hospitalized and eventually returns to West Virginia. Once home, the angel-in-the-horse tells Henry he must marry Rachel, because he and Rachel together will have a child, “the future King of Heaven.” Rachel dies in childbirth, and Henry’s grief is enormous. But no matter: the angel keeps giving instructions. Henry is to burn the cabin, and leave with his infant son. And a good thing, too, because the colonel and his two sons are coming to kill Henry and take the child.
Ritter does not use a straight narrative technique to tell the story. Scenes past and present in West Virginia alternate with scenes from the war, but Ritter gradually combines the two so that they become one tightly connected story. The author’s control of the characters and the narrative is impressive, everything aiming for not one but ultimately two confrontations, and almost two endings.
I liked this story of Henry Bright. I liked it a lot.
I found this video of a song by Josh Ritter called "Girl in the War." Although about a different situation, the sense of it seems to fit Bright's Passage.
Related: For EW.com's Shelf Life, John Krasinski, Mary-Louise Parker and others read the first chapter of Bright's Passage. Thanks to Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper for the link.