Nick Ripatrazone’s slim novella This Darksome Burn takes its title from the opening line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Inversnaid,” a celebratory poem on the power of nature, but finds its own unsettling power in that poem’s opposite—examining nature’s indifference toward, if not its open hostility to, life. Set against the frozen backdrop of the Siskiyou Mountains in Oregon, the novella opens with its protagonist Luke Coleman—a grizzled rancher, widower, and father to a college-aged daughter, Aurea, and young son, Ford—camping alone in the wilderness, a tranquility broken by the sound of wolves approaching his campsite. Luke fends off the attack by firing warning shots into the night sky, but not before his wounded horse flees into the woods, stranding him. At daybreak, Luke begins a cold trek back toward his family ranch on foot, arriving to find the farmhouse door ajar and, inside, his young son locked in the basement, his daughter splayed on the floor, the victim of an apparent sexual assault by her ex-boyfriend, Baxter. All of this within the novella’s first four pages.
Needless to say, This Darksome Burn isn’t exactly the feel-good book of the year. It is, however, an ambitious, unflinching meditation on power and powerlessness, on the seeming impossibility of protecting the ones we love from a world that remains, in spite of our best attempts to “civilize” it, threatening, wild, often indiscriminate in its hostility. The wilderness setting and grim tone evoke the tradition of the Western, with the land serving almost as a character in itself, a stark reminder that death is potentially never far away. And Luke Coleman fits very much into the Western grain—stoic, weathered, more at ease expressing himself through actions than words, and a man who has, even before the book has begun, suffered the shock of loss with the death of his wife, Bel... a death referenced throughout but interestingly never fully addressed or explained, as if the text itself, like the protagonist, can’t bear to bring those details to mind.
The death of his wife has Luke in a position he appears particularly ill-suited for: that of a single father trying to hold his family together, and not always possessing the emotional tools to do so. Neither sympathy nor connection comes easy for him—he seems in many ways a throwback to a wilder, more dangerous time—and most of what the reader gets of him comes through observing his behaviors rather than having access to his emotions or even his interiority. Instead we get a world-weary exterior, a hyper-masculine, emotionally-reserved facade that makes him often difficult to sympathize with or fully understand. Take, for example, the scene wherein Luke’s son Ford has been bitten by a stable fly and begins to tear up, whereupon Luke offers up the gruff advice, “You keep those tears down... Save them for something worthwhile.” Or when Luke teaches his history class at the local elementary schoola lesson on how militiamen during the Revolutionary War had to trudge through muck and dung while hunting redcoats: “Rivers had to be forded,” Luke tells his students, in a moment of Louis L’Amour poetry that may or may not be on the test. “Water dictates life.”
Luke is cast, at least early on, as an almost-archetypal Western hero, a man whose resigned demeanor belies a troubled past and a capacity for violence, which we don’t have to wait long to see: his primal first reaction when he reaches the farmhouse and discovers that his family has been attacked—after taking a moment to secure his children and his home—is to reach for a shotgun and trudge back out into the snow to find Baxter with the hopes not of meting out justice but exacting revenge.
For all its Western tropes, the novella doesn’t follow a revenge-epic arc as we might expect, given the genre, from this point on; instead, what follows increasingly resembles an Elizabethan revenge...