Coronavirus disrupted our lives like a twisted dish towel. Sudden, snapping, seemingly exciting until the sting sets in. Josh Ritter’s writing style packs a similar punch.
Ritter, Josh. Bright’s Passage. New York: Dial Press, 2012. Print.
Genre: Historical fiction.
Summary: Soon after Henry Bright comes home from World War I, his wife dies, leaving him to care for their newborn child. But his wife’s family have an ax to pick with Bright and they are hunting him down. He burns down the homestead and flees on horseback. Luckily, an angel started talking to Bright during the war. It kept him alive and reliably guided him away from danger. Now, the angel is still with him. It coaches him on where to go and what to do. There’s just one problem: the angel speaks through Bright’s horse. So, either Bright went cookoo-nutso back in the bloody trenches or he really is hearing Divine messages…er well, straight from the horse’s mouth!
Critique: It should come as no surprise that a song writer who sprouted off the same balladry vine as Bob Dylan would write a debut novel that forays into lyrical historical fiction. Many of Ritter’s songs are the poetic equivalent of water-color renderings of historical events. Lucky for readers, he paints in fiction with the same broad brush.
Additionally, he infuses his writing with lots of stunning imagery. Example: “…the light pierced through the gap-toothed slats of the shutters like hot knitting needles” (86). Again, this should come as no surprise from the guy who starts off a love song crooning: All the other girls here are stars, you are the Northern Lights… Or, a virgin Wurlitzer heart never once had a song… Or, every heart is a package tangled up in knots someone else tied. Yeah, these lines flow out of one song. The novel is equally packed with powerhouse writing. All of which proves (to me, at least) that Ritter can simultaneously make young ladies swoon with his singing while making writers swoon with his writing!
He subtly implies rather than states the temporal setting of post-World War I (there are buggies rather than autos, or lanterns instead of light bulbs, etc.). His trench scenes feel surprisingly accurate and tense. Is this the result of intensive research or an intense imagination?
Occasionally, the text feels vague or else lacking research. More often than not, the physical topography feels disconnected or indistinct—could be any post-apocalyptic landscape.
Most fascinating is Ritter’s approach to the narrative. He develops a single, limited third person point of view, split across four different chronologies. First, we get Bright’s immediate present (on the run), next Bright’s pre-war years (childhood), then his actual war experiences, and his immediate post-war events. All four are braided together, sometimes merging, sometimes diverging. The result is a complexly layered story that challenges the reader’s ability to gain solid foothold. Just when the reader thinks she knows why something happened, she gets more back story and then the context shifts. Is Bright crazy and hallucinating? Is he suffering post-traumatic stress? Or has he really been chosen by an angel to change the future? And, how do we know that angle isn’t really the devil? Excellent questions that, when paired with stunning imagery and figurative language, keep the reader hungrily turning pages!