Jim Harrison's "Returning to Earth"

Updated on December 3, 2016

American realism at its finest, Jim Harrison's Returning to Earth (published in 2007) is a thought-provoking and emotionally-stirring novel about life and death, cultural histories and tradition, and basic human nature.

Other famous novels by author Jim Harrison include: The English Major, Legends of the Fall, True North, The Road Home , and The Woman Lit by Fireflies .


"I just liked to work hard but now I wish I had learned more about how the world works. There’s way too much I don’t understand" - Donald

Summary and Thoughts

***May be some spoilers, but as this novel falls under the genre of realism for the most part, there isn't too much of an actual plot to give away. This book focuses mostly on human nature and our thoughts and emotions as we cope with death and question our lives while still here on earth. There is no large plot twists or surprise endings to give away.

Broken into four sections, Returning to Earth tells a story through the voice of four different characters:

Part One is told by Donald, whom the story revolves around. He is forty-five and has been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, from which he was told to expect to die within two years. He is having his wife, Cynthia, take note while he tells the story of his ancestors and his own past experiences, so that his children have a historical account of their family background after he dies. Cynthia, her brother David, Donald's two children, and his close friend whom he calls K, remain with him in his final months, each dealing with his suffering and impending death in different ways. Donald is prideful, and he is embarrassed by his disease because he has always relied on his strength to work and support his family, and his illness has weakened him to the point where he can not function in any way without the help of another.

Donald's family lives in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, where there is a mix of cultures due to the remaining reservations of Native Americans. Donald's family being of Native American descent (particularly the Chippewas), he has always felt very in-tune with nature, and although he refuses to discuss his religion at length, it becomes known that nature is of great spiritual importance to him. His daughter, Clare, has grown to develop an interest in his ancestral history and always desires information on his tribe's culture. Donald's son, Herald is more like his mother, Cynthia (who is not of Native American descent), and does not buy into the Native American culture and faith as much as his sister does. Although we don't know much about it because Donald feels it is too personal, Cynthia shares small pieces of information concerning Donald's religious belief. She explains that he is a good person without being tied down by moral obligation in any formal religious sense. We also learn that there is a belief in spirits and medicine men in Donald's tribal religion, and Donald expresses his problem with people talking about God as if he was a friend next door. There is a particular spiritual importance to bears in the Chippewa culture, which becomes apparent early in the novel, as Donald seems to have a strange connection with them. Another aspect of the Chippewa religious tradition is to spend three days fasting in the wilderness. Donald had tried many times but failed, but now that he is dying he is more determined, and is finally successful. He has such a profoundly spiritual experience during these three days which he spent in Canada, particularly with nature:

"I became the garter snake that tested the air beside my left knee and the two chickadees that landed on my head. I was lucky enough to have my body fly over the countries of earth and also to walk the bottom of the oceans, which I’d always been curious about. I was scared at one point when I descended into the earth and when I came up I was no longer there."

After his three-day fast in Canada, Donald feels prepared to "return to the earth", and makes it known to his family that he wishes to die purposefully and be buried without a casket in the place where he fasted. His family is naturally concerned about his desire to end his own life, but they understand his emotional pain and suffering pride he is living with as his strength continues to disintegrate, and they wish to honor him and his desires in his remaining days. Donald expresses to them his belief that it is his life, and he should be able to end it the way he wants to. They make the preparations to bring him to his final resting place.

Donald is prepared to die. He has accepted it and does not wish to live in the world the way he is living. He does have curiosities though, and he asks questions that a lot of people would have concerning death such as, “[After death] I wonder how long my mind will keep seeing things and what I’ll see? If we have a spirit how and what does it see?” These thoughts are mere curiosity though rather than the fear that one would expect him to have.

Thoughts: The way Donald tells his story is very simplistic. At times, it almost sounds like a child detailing his/her reactions to the world and the people in it. Donald demonstrates great pride in his family history, and is disheartened knowing that it is a culture that will soon lose its place in the world. His interests don't go far beyond walking through the dense forests of Michigan, fishing, and putting in long days of manual labor, which is all he ever wanted to do. A simple man with nothing particularly original or outstanding, a good and reliable father and husband, Donald's character is an honorable and respectable one and one fitting for an American realist work of literature. Falling under the genre of realism, the style of this novel is very basic. It details day-to-day monotony, and there is a lingering stoic mood throughout the novel and the characters, most notable in Donald. The novel kept me intrigued not because of it's beautiful language choice and it's flow, but because of how very real and very relatable this story and the characters are to the average human being. The thoughts and inquiries into life and death, the experimentation with "raison d'etre" philosophies, and the various types of relationships between the people in the novel are believable and makes one really contemplate their own life. A novel that can do that without a highly decorative style, to me, is incredibly impressive and should be appreciated.

Chippewa family
Chippewa family | Source

"To care for Donald in his present state is to finally understand that there are no miracles except that we exist" - K

Part Two

This part of the novel is told by Donald's best friend, K. He tells stories about his own life, reminisces on memories with Donald, talks about a love affair he had (and is still having on and off) with Clare (Donald's daughter), and provides further insight into Donald's religious beliefs.

”Donald thinks that God is in every living creature, people, bugs, birds, animals, microbes, and that the earth and its mountains, plains, lakes, and rivers are part of His body. The rivers and the creeks are like blood vessels.”

K is not of Native American descent so when he first met Donald's family he was overwhelmed by them. He describes the first time he met Donald's family: "I was in a different world. Everyone seemed poor but more vivid than my life in Chicago except for my dad’s Italian friends. At the time I actually wondered if Indians and Italians were related."

The author demonstrates a true friendship in the relationship between Donald and K. K spends time every day lifting weights soon after learning of Donald's disease, hoping to get stronger in order to better care for him when he can no longer move or do things on his own. He also volunteers to go to the site in Canada where Donald hopes to be buried a couple days early in order to dig his final resting place.

Thoughts: Getting to see this world from four different perspectives in this novel is fascinating, because as individuals we are only limited to one perspective, and we often forget that each person sees the world differently. We don't often make the effort to really consider how someone from a different time or a different culture would view the world. K's eyes are opened to an entirely new world as he got to know Donald's family, and he was enlightened by it. At one point in the novel, he voices his realization that the $2 bottle of water he is drinking seems so common place, but that $2 could feed an entire family for a month somewhere else in the world. Although he was a good student, K was not satisfied with the specificity of the different subjects in school. He cared to know more about the world as a whole - "My worldview was a ten-thousand-piece beige jigsaw puzzle." It's really interesting to see how Donald dying affects each person in his family, and how it affects their views on life. One of the things that I took from this novel is that many people don't truly think about the value of their lives or the realities of life until they are faced personally with death, either their own or a loved one.

The bear is an important spiritual symbol for the Chippewa people and thus has always been meaningful to Donald. After his death, his family believes that his spirit still remains in the body of a bear.
The bear is an important spiritual symbol for the Chippewa people and thus has always been meaningful to Donald. After his death, his family believes that his spirit still remains in the body of a bear.

"I am obsessed with how fragile art, literature, love, and music, even the natural world are in the presence of severe illness and inevitable death." - David

Part Three

This part of the novel is told four months after Donald's death by Cynthia's brother, David. David is described as being very intelligent and educated (an intellectual by definition, though he hates that term and finds it antiquated), but he suffers from episodes of depression, and he has trouble remaining in one place for too long. His only real interests appear to be books and women, and he also has an almost strange obsession with Mexico where he goes frequently to perform social experiments and to do humanitarian work. David has strange habits that his family frequently makes fun of him for, such as napping multiple times a day because he believes that every time you wake from sleeping you have an entirely new perspective of the world. David spends most of his time in deep contemplation about the world, but when Donald dies he is desperate to busy himself with anything that will take his mind off his thoughts of death. When he's not up contemplating the meaning of life and death, he is dreaming about it. One night he dreams of something he finds particularly intriguing:

"In the dream I finally understood that death and numbers don’t cohere. Everyone is “one”. An accident report might say that nine died, four of them in their teens, but each death was “one”. Each of the six millions Jews was “one”. With death it is a series of “ones"."

Although David and Donald were close, they were often on very different pages concerning the evaluation of life. Donald didn't apply any value to the scientific reasoning behind things in life, whereas David had a scientific explanation for everything. Donald also had a firmer belief in the mystical and the higher powers of unknown spirits, whereas David was very much removed from that sort of belief. Donald said to David once during a conversation, "You think a bear is just a bear". However, after Donald dies, David finds that his scientifically-structured mind is frequently wandering towards the mystical and the unexplainable, two things he always ignored. When he sees a bear in the woods near his cabin, he wonders if the bear is Donald, something he would normally not consider for even a moment.

Thoughts: The fact that someone who sees the world in such a rigid, scientific, and educated way for so long, sees things differently after the death of a loved one isn't surprising, but it is frightening in a way. People often develop strong convictions and beliefs and assumptions about the ways of the world, and it is human nature to stubbornly cling to these beliefs. Whether it is how we were raised, what we learned in school, or what we took from a particularly important experience, we unfortunately often become narrow minded and shortsighted. What I took from David's point of view is that death is one of the only things in the world, if not the only thing, that is capable of shifting those previous assumptions and stubborn convictions. In one of the most meaningful lines in the book (in my opinion) David says to Clare who is trying to understand life and death, "I suppose that death, especially the death of someone we love, pushes us away from all of our built-in assumptions about what life is, I mean the ready-made day-to-day life and all that we’ve learned about what it is supposed to be that we readily accepted. Death gives us a shove into a new sort of landscape”. As humans we are content in our day-to-day activities with our day-to-day beliefs and thoughts, and it often isn't until something shocking or emotionally shattering such as death shakes us from this unchanging mental and physical routine, that we really change how we see the things and the people in our lives and ourselves. That's what I love about this novel- it awakens the reader and makes them think about these profound things, despite this very simple story and these very common characters. Through the minds of these different characters, the reader is able to determine how he/she personally feels about some of these important life questions.

”I’m a fairly clear-headed human and understand that despite all the diversions our culture offers us there’s no escaping the pain of his death" - Cynthia

Part Four

The final part in this novel is from the viewpoint of Cynthia, Donald's wife, and she is speaking five months after Donald has passed away. Cynthia is still struggling with the death of her husband, as she finds she still vividly remembers his scent the sound of his voice. She rarely sleeps and has lost weight which is concerning to her family. She merely tries to pass the time with reading or cleaning or other mundane chores, and she contemplates going back to teaching on a reservation as she did in the past. Like everyone else in their family, she also uses alcohol frequently as a sort of emotional tranquilizer.

Like David, Cynthia never really put too much of her own faith into the type of things that Donald and Native American ancestors believed in, in terms of the powerful spirits within nature. However, also like David, Cynthia found herself wondering about such things more often. Her daughter Clare firmly believes that Donald's spirit is now dwelling in a bear, and Cynthia (likely desperate to cling to her husband like Clare is) starts to accept the possibility.

Cynthia struggles with Donald's instruction to let him go after he dies, even if she can't forget him. He also encourages her to get a new boyfriend, and although she is able to have a sexual relationship with a man to temporarily dull the pain of loneliness, she knows she will never be able to form an attachment with another man.

Cynthia also attempts to answer all of the "whys" associated with the death of her husband, but like everyone else she is not able to find an answer. Frustrated at her constant inconclusive dwelling, Cynthia thinks, "There’s an incalculable rudeness to death. How much am I meant to understand?".

In a very moving conclusion to the novel, Cynthia and Clare (her and Donald's daughter) are standing by a lake where Donald used to love spending time. They see a bear not far away, and the bear sees them and stares for some time. Cynthia says in the final lines, "Is that him? Is that Donald who is greeting us, saying a final goodbye? The bear stared at us and Clare clenched at my hand. And then he trotted over a hill as we all must."

Thoughts: When Cynthia asks her doctor about how she should appropriately respond to the death of her husband, he responds, "There isn’t a singular response. You keep on truckin’... You’re probably having a thousand responses a day because your brain simply can’t stop trying to comprehend what has happened to you. It’s the largest question we deal with in life and no response will make it go away. We envy the devout who experience the pain but have a surefire explanation." I found this statement to be hauntingly true. Besides creation, the biggest questions we as human beings (at least most of us) have all concern death. Regardless of the answers that we come up with, whether it be through religion or not, the fact that death is an inevitable certainty does not change. Some don't fear it due to a strong belief in an after life and others spend their lives devoted to religion and purity in hopes of reaching some higher entity. Some accept the belief that nothing happens after death; that we simply no longer exist. Some can accept it, and some are terrified. Despite all of these personal convictions and responses, it is the one sure thing that faces human beings, and that's why I found this novel to be so profound. It is a novel that simply deals with people, their joys and pain, and their relationships and traditions, but it also is devoted to some of the largest questions that we're faced with, and I think it handles them beautifully.

Author Jim Harrison
Author Jim Harrison

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