|Dalva, portrait by Jim Harrison|
When we first meet her, Dalva is 45 and it is 1986. She has just lost her job as a social worker in Los Angeles due to her direct involvement in the case of an abused kid. It would take too long to go through “channels” to help him, so Dalva just took him to a hospital. Having made an enemy of his powerful abuser, Dalva decides to go home.
Home is an inherited ranch in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Her great grandfather Northridge acquired it after failing to help the Sioux (called Lakota among themselves) adjust to their lives after their losses to disease and battle, and the extermination of the buffalo. Northridge imported thousands of trees, made shelterbelts around his land and became nurseryman to the area. He also married a Sioux woman after his Swedish wife died. The son that resulted is Dalva’s grandfather.
Dalva’s mother Naomi has her own homestead nearby. She has been a country schoolteacher for most of her life, a lover of birds and animals as is Dalva. When Dalva’s father died in the Korean war, she and her sister were raised by her mother and grandfather.
Time means very little in Nebraska. The decisive events in Dalva’s life recur again and again for her. Riding around the ranch on her horse, she circles the places where the great love of her life occurred. Duane Stone Horse came to the ranch in 1956 and began to work for her grandfather. Dalva fell in love with him. She slept with him only once, but became pregnant and had a son at 15. Duane disappeared when he was told Dalva is his half sister. His mother, a Sioux woman, had slept with Dalva’s father at a hunting lodge a year before Dalva was born.
Dalva’s baby is given up for adoption at her grandfather’s insistence. We are not given all the details of how Dalva survives this, but she is helped by her close family. She goes to college, gets a master’s degree and works at various jobs. In one page she tells the story of her working history: “I had always worked because nothing whatsoever in my background had prepared me to act like a rich person, a notorious non-profession, the dregs of which everyone has witnessed in life, or in magazines and on television … All of this adds up to a wonderfully undistinguished career, but an interesting enough life.”
She is in New York in 1972 when Duane Stone Horse calls Naomi from Key West. Dalva goes to him. Duane is dying and wants Dalva, and his son if she can find him, to have the benefits accruing from his army career. He has a sackful of medals from having spent a record amount of time in combat in the Vietnam war, but his kidneys, liver, pancreas, stomach are all shot, the trailer where he lives full of medicine bottles. The captain of a fishing boat marries them and Duane and Dalva fall asleep holding each other. In the middle of the night Duane disappears, riding his horse into the ocean. His body is never found.
Dalva never finds a love to equal her love of Duane. She continues to work, but uses her wealth to fuel her uncompromising nature and restlessness. When she comes home to the ranch in 1986, she begins to look for her son, although everyone tells her it is up to the son to look for her. Also the Northridge saga envelops her. At the ranch are Dalva’s great-grandfather’s secret journals, valuable paintings and native American artifacts which many think belong in a museum. A Stanford historian says that “other than southern New Mexico with its remnant Apache and Comanche conflicts at the end of the century, this was the last area in America where the full collision of cultures had taken place.”
The summer Dalva returns to the ranch, Nelse, a young man who “prefers sky to ceilings,” arrives to work on a Breeding Bird Survey of a section of the ranch. He works with Naomi, who knows instantly that he is Dalva’s son because he looks so much like Duane. He has been nosing around Dalva for months, afraid of showing himself. When he finally meets Dalva, he says she doesn’t look old enough to be his mother. “Oh my God I was only a kid when I had you,” she says.
Finding her son helps Dalva in many ways. Nelse is much like Duane and they become, she thinks, the closest of friends. It is also clear he is able to take on the Northridge mantle and inherit the ranch. In May of the next year, Dalva and Nelse go on a camping trip together, but Dalva is ill. She is taking many pills and has an appointment at Sloan-Kettering in New York. When Nelse realizes how ill she is, he pushes up the appointment. Dalva has ovarian cancer, which has metastasized into the rest of her organs. She refuses the radical chemo and radiation offered and goes back to the ranch to say goodbye to her beloved family. She goes to Key West and drowns herself, writing in a final journal that “I hope I am going to join my lover.”
Dalva’s story is embedded in a rich, overlapping narrative told by many characters. The notebooks of the first John Wesley Northridge tell of his life in the late 1800’s. Dalva’s grandfather, mother, uncle and son each tell their own stories, as does Dalva herself. The picture that emerges is of the kind of nobility which results from hard work, luck and inheritance on the dry plains of western Nebraska. “How could this happen, when there’s an ocean?” asks Dalva when she sees what is done to her charge in Los Angeles. Nelse says, “Drugs are vehicles for people who have forgotten how to walk.” Though Dalva has spent much of her life in cities, she is not in sync with civilization, but with the natural world as it still exists in less-inhabited places.