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Reviewed by:
  • True North by Gary Eller
  • Hank Nuwer, emeritus
Gary Eller, True North. Plymouth, MI: BHC Press, 2021. 376 pp. Hardcover, $30; paper, $17.95; e-book, 376.

A common theme in American fiction identified by critic Max Westbrook is the motif of revolt-and-search. This is a story where the hero rebels against a man-made institution and catches hell from society for his integrity. Westbrook maintained that Western fiction authors often employ the revolt-and-search motif and thus are allied with the best American fiction.

To that end True North vaults Gary Eller’s novel into the status of a North Dakota main event and an earned place on bookstore shelves with distinguished authors Louise Erdrich, Wallace Stegner, and Gerald Haslam.

Eller blends the stories of four families subsisting in and near the Turtle Mountain Reservation. The four families experiencing [End Page 87] life and death on the rugged Dakota landscape are the Little Shays, Breens, Morinvilles, and Peaveys. It is the poor and unassuming character Harold Peavey who steals the show. Reminiscent of heroes Tom Joad and Jim Casey in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Harold stands up to the United States government in World War II because he believes war is pointless nonsense caused because a Kaiser or president was eager to waste thousands of lives for vainglory.

Harold serves a long stretch in federal prison and comes home to be beaten to a pulp by a soldier on leave named Sergeant Dale Aingher, later destined to become the sheriff pitted against Harold’s son, torn in the sixties between deployment to Vietnam or flight to Canada. The meeting of Sheriff Aingher and Richie Lee Peavey establishes the book’s penultimate final scene.

Funny, compelling, and disturbing, True North introduces us to characters who endure despite poverty and cruel Fate, and I cheer for them because of and despite their desperation. Particularly well drawn are the Sioux and Chippewa characters, especially the women who endure hardship, rape, and a local Catholic school bent on beating the Native out of Indigenous girls. His hardscrabble county in North Dakota reminds me of the brilliant depiction of the dwellers of Raintree County invented by Ross Lockridge Jr.

Eller creates bleak characters with his engaging literary voice. This fictive voice lures his readers into one tragic situation after another. He is unabashedly funny even in scenes of trauma and tragedy. Life for residents on the blurred and disputed US–Canada border is nasty, brutal, short, and funny as hell.

The novel does have a definite fault in my opinion. The most despicable characters might read as more authentic if Eller presented more of their good sides.

Eller knows the landscape well. He was reared in the North Dakota community of Rolla and owns a cabin there. His late mother survived a twister inside her demolished home. Thus, his depictions of Dakota scenery are stunning and always connected to action on the page. His research from goat raising to North Dakota geography is extensive.

A graduate of the MFA program at Iowa, Eller’s fiction deserves a significant fan base. Particularly compelling is the conflict between [End Page 88] Native Americans who try to keep alive the old ways and the younger generation scoffing at what they see as nonsense. Whether it is Indigenous Natives in North Dakota suffering exploitation or the struggle of Harold Peavey to stick to his beliefs in spite of reckonings, Eller’s chapters conjured up this reader’s tears and venom.

Eller, the author of numerous published short stories, is a storyteller, a Bard of the Badlands, but no mere regionalist. He writes with an angry scowl, then softens his narrative with snicker after snicker. This novel demonstrates Eller’s justified anger in the tradition of two masters of the revolt-and-search motif, Edward Abbey and Kurt Vonnegut.

Hank Nuwer, emeritus
Franklin College (Indiana)

work cited

Westbrook, Max. “The Themes of Western Fiction.” Southwest Review, vol. 43, no. 3, 1958, pp. 232–38,