“Let Him Go” by Larry Watson (Milkweed Editions, 269 pages, $24)
Watson, author of “Montana 1948” and “American Boy,” among other novels, returns to North Dakota and Montana in his new novel. It continues his solid writing, his development of character and a plot that keeps you reading.
The story begins in September 1951 and centers on George and Margaret Blackledge. Years earlier, their son, James, died after being thrown from a horse. Later, his widow, Lorna, left with the Blackledges’ only grandson, Jimmy, and married Donnie Weboy.
Margaret is determined to get her grandson back and packs up their car to go look for him. George, a retired sheriff, is reluctant to go and tries to talk Margaret out of it — but to no avail. They travel through the Dakota Badlands and come to Gladstone, Mont.
Watson carefully describes their journey, delineating George and Margaret’s relationship as they bicker with and care for each other. When they find Lorna and Jimmy among the Weboy clan, we know trouble is ahead. But when it comes, the Weboys’ actions still shock us.
Watson uses detail, backstory and careful pacing to draw us into the Blackledges’ lives. The other characters are drawn equally well and become vivid. While the first half of the book moves slowly, the second half rivets us to the action, eager to learn how their dilemma might be resolved.
Watson uses many details to reveal his setting in the early 1950s. He describes a “coffee pot whose glass top usually rattles with a percolating fresh brew.” Most of the characters smoke, even the doctors and nurses in a hospital. And he references the Korean War.
He also captures actions with apt language: “With the practiced efficiency of one who has lived in the wind all her life, she pivots, ducks her head, and, inside the sheltering cup of her hands, lights a cigarette.”
At a few places, his descriptions feel a bit cliched: “But getting old is like climbing up to a great height, and when you look down, all the paths intertwine.”
“Let Him Go” is not a great book but is a well-told, enjoyable story, told with heart and a fine eye for detail. It captures the powerful familial instincts humans possess. It will especially appeal to those of us who grew up in small towns in the Midwest — or what Easterners call the American West.