In spite of the foreignness of the landscape (a family farm in Sloan’s Crossing on Minnesota’s northern plains) and its distance in time (circa 1886), Enger’s novel captures perfectly the humanity of its primary characters. Enigmatic Ulysses Pope walks away from his rural family farm after a year of baptism and quiet rumination, leaving wife Gretta and sons Eli and Danny behind. Defended by Eli, the younger Danny, a sensitive boy given to dreams and migraine headaches, is accosted by bullies without a father to protect him. Gretta has no idea why her husband has gone or when he might return, if ever, concerned that their recently mortgaged home might be reclaimed if Ulysses waits too long. Keeping their troubles to themselves, the family clings to the familiar as long as they can.
Secretly, in the early hours before morning, Eli sets out to find his father, planning to ride the rails. In spite of his stealth and careful preparations, Eli is followed by Danny, who refuses to be left behind and begs his older brother to include him on the quest. Discovering both her sons gone, Gretta is at the mercy of the unscrupulous Mead Fogarty, who holds the paper to their farm, his designs apparent as he offers unacceptable alternatives for her family’s future survival, all of them requiring Gretta’s submission. Before long, shunned by the people of Sloan’s Crossing for the rumors spread by Fogarty, Gretta heads out west on the advice of a local Indian. While Ulysses searches for a way to quell the demons awakened in Custer’s Indian Wars, his boys are on their own journey, bereft of father and mother. Gretta treads yet another path, mother and sons on a road that will lead them from the Badlands to Montana Territory and the tragic history of a country at war with its indigenous people. For each, the rail is lonely, brutal and revelatory, a quest to find a man who has lost himself, Ulysses the lodestone that draws them on.
Unable to turn away from a mission he hopes will provide an opportunity to face a man he has gravely wronged, Ulysses has kept his own counsel at the risk of alienating sons and spouse, the very people he loves most in the world. Unwavering, enduring the hardships of a journey to the rugged country between the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, Pope moves inexorably towards his goal. While Eli sheds the vestiges of his youth along the way, later joined with his father in the fated confrontation with the Indian he seeks, the devastation of the Indian Wars is laid bare, the gradual decimation of a culture now fragmented, broken but for a few renegades who cannot accept the terms of their acquiescence. Even Danny, with his headaches and dreaming visions, expands with the rigors of his quest. But Gretta Pope is most deeply changed by the experience, her own flaws exposed by the harsh words of a woman who would take her place, Gretta’s rage inflamed by the hopelessness of her plight without a husband to protect and provide for her and her sons.
Forgiveness threads throughout the novel, the only possible absolution for a family so torn apart by a man who cannot live with his past actions, the price of guilt that leads to abandonment of family played out on a grand stage from Minnesota to the west. Enger’s prose is touched with the beauty and tragedy of history, the harsh grandeur of nature and the ultimate connections of a family who has lost its way, hoping to claim another. Clean and astringent, Enger writes in the language of redemption.