In 1886, Gretta Pope wakes up one morning to discover that her husband is gone. Ulysses Pope has left his family behind on the far edge of Minnesota’s western prairie, with only the briefest of notes and no explanation for why he left or where he’s heading. It doesn’t take long for Gretta’s young sons, Eli and Danny, to set off after him, leaving Gretta no choice but to search for the boys and their father in hopes of bringing them all home. Enger’s breathtaking portrait of the vast plains landscape is matched by the rich expanse of his characters’ emotional terrain, as pivotal historical events--the bloody turmoil of expansionism, the near total demise of the bison herds, and the subjugation of the Plains Indians--blend seamlessly with the intimate story of a family’s sacrifice and devotion.
1886 Minnesota. Gretta Pope wakes one morning to see her husband, Ulysses, off on a trip. Naturally, she expects him to return from this trip but he does not... instead, she finds she is only left with a mysterious and vague note from him. The note shows that he had intentions to leave like this for some time but Ulysses doesn't explain why. So now Mrs. Pope finds she's basically stranded out on the western prairie with two young sons and no ideas for income -- a stressful position to be left in, as the Popes were struggling financially, already in the dodging-the-landlord phase of things. Gretta's oldest son, Elijah, takes it upon himself to travel across the wild western territory to try to track down his dad. He's silently watched his father for years, noticing a brooding restlessness to Ulysses' spirit, always fearing that one day the man might try something like this disappearing act, perhaps never to come back.
Elijah doesn't tell his mother of his plan to sniff out his father's whereabouts, deciding instead to sneak out alone early one morning with the intention of hobo-ing it alone. But wouldn't you know his curious little brother, Danny, finds a way to shadow him until they reach the train tracks, where Elijah discovers him. Danny doesn't make his presence known until the train is moving, so Elijah has no choice to let little brother tag along. It does make Elijah nervous, traveling with Danny, as Danny has a mysterious illness that leaves him with crippling or otherwise debilitating headaches, nausea, sometimes even periods of black-out (It's not directly named in the book, but much of what IS described of Danny's condition made me think of possible epilepsy).
Gretta is understandably pretty distraught when she discovers what her sons have done. She tries to go on her own mission to find them but her efforts quickly prove futile, so she decides it's maybe just best to hold down the home front until all her men get back. Unfortunately, that decision means she has to fight off the unsavory, suggestively salacious offers on how she can pay off her debts from her somewhat skeevy landlord, Mead Fogarty.
While her guys are trekking all over the territory at different points, Gretta is left with little else for company than her own inner thoughts on motherhood and her marriage, which she admits had been showing signs of strain of late. She wonders if this flight of Ulysses is partly her doing. She also has to field gossip floating around town about her, thanks to meddling Mead. Meanwhile, her sons are on a great adventure that has them not only uncovering never-before-known facts about their father's life before his family man days, but they also get quite the education on the plight of the Plains Indians and the decimation of wild buffalo herds, via their introduction to real life historical figure William Hornaday.
Historical fiction aside, when you break it down there are basically three main storylines woven together here -- that of Gretta as a wife and mother, that of Ulysses as a husband, father and Civil War veteran, and that of the two brothers trying to figure out what the heck is up with their parents lately. Personally, it took me about 100 pages or so to get honestly invested in the plot. While I did enjoy the descriptions of the time period and the details of individual characters, there was still something somewhat lacking to really get me sucked into the pages. Much of what was moving my reading along was a simple mild curiosity as to how Ulysses's disappearance would be explained. That, and I really enjoyed the story of strengthening brotherhood between Elijah and Danny.
I am glad I stuck with it! The closing scenes of the novel offer a nice pay-off for time invested. When the explanation for the father's disappearance is ultimately revealed, it involves touching upon some pretty heavy topics. I had to chuckle and nod knowingly at Elijah's reaction to the reveal, which amounted to a kind of ticked off, "UGH! This could've been handled so much better!" Haha, been there, kid!
I also recommend reading the afterword essay by Lin Enger that gets into some of the true history behind the novel's inspiration. The story behind the buffalo nickle was a fascinating bit I never knew before!