What I’m Reading: Divine Animal, Scott Russell Sanders

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

My mother did not like growing older, but she often remarked that one of the advantages of living a long time is getting to see how interesting life can be. What she meant was the way things turned out, the people moving in and out of your life, the turnings and weavings, risings, failings and surprising developments.

I’ve lived long enough now myself to understand what she meant.

It’s what this novel, Divine Animal, is about.

Divine Animal, Scott Russell Sanders

It’s the story of people and family, the linkages of generations. Young people run away and spend years looking back, unable to get over the past. Parents live with loss, unable to retrieve what once was theirs. There’s regret and pain and new, emerging love and that universal tension between unlocking the past and keeping the ghosts boxed and buried.

Then, through the chance meetings of strangers and the photograph of a young woman at a soldier’s gravesite, the boxes get opened and the secrets uncovered, the tumblers engage and the gears turn and the lives of disparate people — in Vermont, Ohio, New York, Indiana, Washington and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — wheel along a course that feels inevitable and right.

Life is more interesting when viewed over time — as a book rather than a few beginning chapters.

And here, too, the characters feel like real people, regular people: a waitress, a runaway, an architect and a physician, a handyman and an Ojibwa woman and a Swedish au pair and a folksinger whose song about the photograph accelerates the action. Mothers and fathers and children who grow up.

Each is endowed with humanity, vulnerability and integrity. They’re good people who do good things but need to be better to get past the hurdles life put before them. And you pull for them to be strong, to overcome themselves and to find happiness — because pulling for them is to pull for life.

The author, Scott Russell Sanders, has written probably a dozen essays for this magazine. He’s also published a dozen books of essays, several children’s books and a half dozen novels — Divine Animal being his latest.

Sanders’ writing carries good weight — the value in our relationship with the earth, the importance of place, of community, of building a home. The strength of family and love and the intrinsic quality of things well made. These themes pervade the book. But the book, too, is about courage and reconciliation, forgiveness and healing. It also offers some insights into 21st century America.

And it’s about the Divine Animal — that unseen spiritual force that we all ride through the decades, that carries us through the world, through a lifetime, one generation to the next. Although a work of fiction, the book makes you want to pull, too, for providence, for a faith that some mysterious current does indeed power our lives.

The author is making the ebook available for free; see his website at http://www.scottrussellsanders.com/.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.