Revisiting: Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

So far, the revisiting project hasn’t brought me any radical new insights about the (still very few) books from my past that I’ve picked back up, but it has strengthened in me the feeling that you barely read anything until you read it for the second time. Are all first reads worthless? Is it possible to savor them enough; am I just failing at it? I will do my best not to despair but instead to just enjoy these looks back and get what I can from them.

This week I revisited Jim Harrison’s 1979 novella, Legends of the Fall. For those familiar with the film version, the novella is both very similar and very different. There are a number of plot points that are changed—for one thing, the novella opens with the three Ludlow brothers riding off to Calgary to join the Canadian army, something that doesn’t happen until long after we’ve met Susannah (who, in the novella, was originally meant for Alfred and ends up unceremoniously engaged to Tristan). But the overall feel of the story, its sense of place, and the struggle of the brothers and the rest of their extended family at the ranch are very close.

The very first sentence is somewhat strange: “Late in October in 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana, to Calgary in Alberta to enlist in the Great War (the U.S. did not enter until 1917).” That parenthetical, who is it for? In the next sentence, “[a]n old Cheyenne named One Stab” becomes the first character in the novella to be named. Much will be described about him, but he will remain largely in the shadows. The brothers, though it takes Harrison a bit longer to baptize them, seem to come clear as soon as he does:

And a little further on when they all heard the doleful cry of a wolf at midday, they pretended that they had not heard it for the cry at midday was the worst of omens. They took lunch as they roe as if to escape the mournful sound and not wnating to sit at the edge of a glade where the sound might descend on them again. Alfred, the oldest brother, said a prayer while Tristan, the middle brother, cursed and spurred his mount past Alfred and One Stab. Samuel, the youngest, dallied along with his eyes sharp on the flora and fauna. He was the apple of the family’s eye, and at eighteen already had one year in at Harvard studying in the traition of Agassiz at the Peabody Museum. When One Stab paused at the far edge of a great meadow to wait for Samuel to catch up, his heart froze on seeing the roan horse emerge from the woods with its rider carrying half a bleached buffalo skull against his face and his laughter carrying across the meadow to the old Indian.

And thus boys ride off to war… One thing you probably wouldn’t know if you did happen to need that parenthetical above is that the Ludlows haven’t wasted much time in doing this. The war in Europe broke out only at the end of July 1914, and in three scant months they are on their way. Think of how long it must have taken the news to even travel to them, and you get an idea of their impatience and how they might have looked at the war. A homesteader they will meet on the next page does not even know a war is going on.

More on the differences between the brothers:

Tristan shot a deer to the disgust of Samuel who only ate the deer out of instinctive politeness. Alfred, as usual, was ruminative and noncommittal, wondering how One Stab and Tristan could eat so much meat. He preferred beef. When Tristan and One Stab ate the liver first Samuel laughed and said he himself was an omnivore who would end up as a herbivore, but Tristan was a true carnivore who could store up and either ride or sleep or drink and whore for days.

And, finally, just before the first break in the text:

In the month of training before shipping by train to the troopships in Quebec, Alfred quickly became an officer, Samuel an aide-de-camp due to his scholarly German and ability to read topographical maps. Tristan, however, brawled and drank and was demoted to wrangling the horses, where he in fact felt quite comfortable. Uniforms embarrassed him and the drills bored him to tears. Were it not for his fealty to his father and his notion that Samuel needed looking after he would have escaped the barracks and headed back south on a stolen horse on the track of One Stab.

Just as I discovered in American Pastoral, there is an enormous amount of telegraphing in these first few pages. Tristan is a “true carnivore” who can binge on anything with great physicality. Alfred is boring, with his beef and his rule-following. And Samuel is mostly dewy-eyed and young, too nice to want to eat meat and too nice to refuse it when offered, but thinks himself ready to go kill Germans at his first opportunity. The cry of that wolf on the very first day of their journey…Tristan’s lack of interest in the war and desire to follow One Stab…how do writers manage to say so much right away without us noticing, without having everything spoiled? Foreshadowing can be subtle and less so, I suppose, and this is exactly the point of good foreshadowing: to set a scene and a mood without giving away the game. It can be surprising how much machinery there is to lay bare.

2 comments to Revisiting: Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

  • I have vague memories of seeing this film lo these many years ago when it came out, but I obviously remember very little about it since I didn’t even recall that WWI was pivotal in it. Hmm.

    Are all first reads worthless? Is it possible to savor them enough; am I just failing at it?

    They’re at least useful in the sense that they set us up for a second read. Maybe it’s just a different level of “to read,” like we should actually have two different verbs for what you do when you read something for the first time versus what you’re doing when you read something for the second (or third or fourth) time. Not like there’s anything wrong with reading(1), but it’s a different and non-interchangeable animal with reading(2).

  • Yes, I like your two “reading”s. If only we had two lifetimes to do enough of both in.