Sunday, May 4, 2014

Book review: 'Divine Animal' by Scott Russell Sanders

Most of us know Scott Russell Sanders as an essayist. In fact, he's achieved a master status over the years with the publication of such books as A Conservationist Manifesto, A Private History of Awe and Hunting for Hope: A Father's Journey. His essays are finely sculpted works, as polished and shaped as any you'll read.

He has received a boggling number of awards, from the Lannan Literary Award, the Great Lakes Book Award and the Kenyon Review Literary Award, to The Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature's Mark Twain Award.

Sanders, as he ages, grows more urgent about our environmental predicament. The writing is more impassioned, and there's more anger beneath the crafted prose, so the release of a novel — instead of another collection of ever more fervent non-fiction — is a bit of a surprise. That Sanders offers this book in electronic form, for free, just adds to the surprise.

Sanders, now retired from his teaching position at Indiana University, is still wicked busy with teaching, traveling and speaking. I know, because I often reach out to him for advice or support in matters regarding the subject of this Climate Chronicles blog. He is always kind and helpful, but he is often writing me from the road, whether on a short teaching stint somewhere, or as a keynote speaker at some large gathering.

Still, he finds time to write, and his Divine Animal is an ambitious work, captivating and pleasurable. It certainly held me in its grip. The mark a good novel to me is whether I think about it when I'm not reading. Divine Animal passed that test beautifully, as I found myself musing on the protagonist, Harlan, and whether he'd ever end up meeting his mom, Aurora, in person.

There's much to admire in this book. It may very well be Sanders' most complex work, as it weaves numerous separate narratives across a couple of decades. It is a delight to discover how all these disparate protagonists end up connecting to each other. The landscape is a pleasure, too, especially for midwestern readers who will recognize a number of locations in Michigan and Indiana.

What I believe is Sanders' biggest accomplishment is how he deftly weaves the subject of his non-fiction — climate change and human impact on the environment — into his tale of a spurned son trying to makes sense of his abandonment. Katarina, a young Swedish woman with whom Harlan falls in love, is a passionate spokesperson for Sanders' outrage regarding human destruction of the planet. Her simple and straightforward speaking style works well; she is both believable and sympathetic.
Photo by Ruth Sanders

Her matter-of-fact observations draw Harlan into a deeper understanding of his own predicament. As he has been abandoned by his mother, so have we abandoned our connection to nature. The consequences of both are heart-wrenching.

I noted earlier that Sanders' endeavors to give this book away in ebook form. He explains why, saying he didn't intend to produce a commodity while crafting Divine Animal. He adds, "A deeper reason for giving away the e-book version is to make a small return to the cultural commons, that indispensable source for all creative work, including my own—the commons of language, literature, libraries, schools and colleges, the arts and sciences and all forms of knowledge, as well as countless conversations with fellow seekers and makers."

One can buy a hard copy of this book as well, by visiting his web site.


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