Review: ‘Legends of the Fall’

With more than three dozen titles to his name, Jim Harrison is considered one of America’s most prolific and versatile writers

By Maggie Doherty
Cover of “Legends of the Fall."

In the early 1990s, Montana received the Hollywood treatment with two films, both starring a striking young actor on his rise to fame, Brad Pitt. The Oscar-winning movies “A River Runs Through It” and “Legends of the Fall” captured filmgoers’ imaginations by showcasing the state’s sweeping vistas and rugged wilderness. In both movies, Pitt plays the charming and handsome rascal brother who leaves a trail of heartbreak and violence in his wake. Aside from Pitt’s A-list star power in his early career, there’s another common thread connecting both films: their origins as novellas written by two of Montana’s most acclaimed authors. 

The pair of novellas were published in the late 1970s. Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories” hit bookshelves in 1976 when the writer and retired university professor, who was raised in Missoula and spent his formative years religiously fly-fishing the Blackfoot River, was in his seventies. His second book, “Young Men and Fire,” which chronicles the tragedy of the Mann Gulch wildfire, was published posthumously after the author passed away in 1990. In 1979, “Legends of the Fall,” written by Michigan native Jim Harrison, debuted and would become one of the most memorable works by the master of the form. With more than three dozen titles to his name, Harrison is considered one of America’s most prolific and versatile writers. While “Legends of the Fall” was his first novella, a trilogy of stories, it was the writer’s fourth book in what would be a long and distinct career of novels, novellas, essays, poems, and a children’s book. 

In the early 2000s, Harrison moved from northern Michigan to Livingston and continued to write and publish until he died at his winter residence in Arizona in 2016. Both Michigan and Montana rightly claim Harrison as their own, and the bulk of his esteemed work centers on characters who inhabit the rural, remote, and wild spaces each state is known for. 

The novella “Legends of the Fall” is the final installment in the collection, a book that explodes with violence and passion from its first line in the opening story, “Revenge.” All three of the stories are connected by untamable characters. In “Revenge,” Harrison tells of a Navy veteran who turns up nearly dead in Mexico, chronicling his bloody quest to reunite with his lost love. In “The Man Who Gave Up His Name,” the protagonist is a man named Nordstrom who has long loved to dance, even solo, and is in search of a new life after his divorce. The story follows Nordstrom through the years as he shucks the shell of his former self as an oil executive and tries to find new purpose, even amid danger in New York City. He tours the country until, eventually, he settles upon, most happily, a vocation as a “water, wind and cloud watcher …” 

Finally, with “Legends,” Harrison transports the reader to Montana in 1914. America had yet to enter World War I but that didn’t stop the three Ludlow sons, of Choteau, from enlisting with the Canadian Armed Forces. “Legends of the Fall” is the epic tale of the Ludlow family, irrevocably shaped by the horrors of war, and how the harsh notes of grief echo across the decades and reverberate through generations. The family’s patriarch, Colonel Ludlow, a Cornish immigrant and engineer for the U.S. Army, finds reprieve from the devastation wrought by the government toward Indians nations on the family’s expansive ranch in northern Montana, where he raises his three sons. The story traces the reckless wanderings of the middle son, Tristan — played by Pitt in the film — from Europe, across the globe’s oceans, to Montana and back. Adventure, heartbreak, familial ties, and a maddening, schismatic love triangle propels the title work. 

Although each novella is distinct, they are joined by Harrison’s hallmark writing style, which is intimate, searing and carnal. The visceral prose is intoxicating, even if ribald, and highly propellant. The men and women in the stories bear ferocious yearnings, often at their own peril. Harrison renders them in such a complex and compassionate manner that their decisions betray no acquiescence or surrender. As much as he populates his stories with memorable characters, his impressive body of work is also driven by his attention to the natural world. From the windswept Rocky Mountain Front to the arid Mexican desert and the quieted woodlands of the upper Great Lakes region, Harrison writes of the landscape that inspires connection and transformation. 

It’s no wonder that Hollywood came knocking to Montana with beautifully rendered stories like “Legends of the Fall” and “A River Runs Through It.” The state’s enduring fame was written by two titans of American letters.