Part of family legend for Lin Enger was how his paternal great-grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant who homesteaded 160 acres in the Dakota Territory, shot one of the last wild buffalo east of the James River when the animal drank from the precious stock tank behind his sod barn. That story haunted Enger, who became obsessed with the history of the American bison. He learned about William Temple Hornaday, curator for what is now the Smithsonian, who, back in the late 1880s, realized that the National Museum, as it was then called, didn’t have an intact specimen of the disappearing American bison. He organized a hunt in Montana, killing 25 of them so that the nearly extinct animal could be preserved for future generations in a panorama he created for the museum.
Enger tells Show Daily: “I wanted to write a book about a man who leaves his family, the family is left wondering what happened to him, and they’re in a situation where they have to go off and find him. One day it occurred to me that I could use that with my knowledge about the near extinction of the American buffalo.”
The High Divide (Algonquin Books, Sept.) opens in 1886, in western Minnesota, not far from where Enger, an English professor, lives with his family. The author took great pleasure in writing about the 19th century. “That time is very real to me. My grandparents, who I felt very close to, were 19th-century people, so I didn’t feel like I was making it up as far as the characters were concerned. I felt like I knew them, how they talked and how they thought.”
His book also focuses on the horrors committed against Native Americans in the West. Enger says, “I realized that the destruction of the bison went hand-in-hand with the decimation of the Plains Indian tribes. Their culture was completely undermined by the loss of the bison, and then they had no food source. I hope that readers will understand the degree to which the bison is both a factor and symbol of what happened in the West. And I want them to feel like they have wandered through the Dakota and Montana territories in 1886.”
Algonquin senior editor Kathy Pories adds, “What I really love about this book is that I don’t think of myself as a reader of historical fiction, but this book felt emotionally immediate and very accessible. You connect with these characters. I think many people know what it’s like to carry a secret, something about which you feel guilty. Also compelling is to be a woman and realize that you don’t really know your husband. And for the sons—which would be the same for daughters—how it is when you discover something about your parents that shifts your idea of who they are.”
Enger signs galleys at the Algonquin booth (839) today, 11 a.m.–noon, and he will participate in the American Library Association’s ALTAFFF panel discussion, “From Writer to Reader,” in Room 1E16, 1–1:50 p.m.