Henry Bright endures. His mother raised him in a tiny cabin in West Virginia, eking out a marginal survival; when she died, he was left to bury her. He must do the same for his wife, who dies in childbirth, even as he’s mourning her and trying to care for their newborn son. These are just a few of the hardships the 20-year-old Bright has faced: He’s not long back from the Great War, as he would call World War I, where he was a foot soldier engaged in lethal trench warfare.
It’s no wonder his world has cracked open to make room for an angel.
Whether this is a case of magical realism or mental breakdown isn’t important; the angel’s presence is real to Bright. The angel has embodied itself close to him, and he obeys its dictates — even though they’re coming from his broken-down horse.
The debut novel from musician Josh Ritter, a folky singer-songwriter who’s been known to sing of angels, is intensely beautiful, tragic and also funny. Bright argues with the angel as if it were his own conscience, or a parent or a protector whose motives are hard to figure.
After burying his wife, the angel tells him to set his own cabin on fire. “‘We can leave, angel, but I ain’t gonna burn it down!’ he yelled. ‘It’s all I got left!’ On the stump behind him, the baby began to cry. Bright whirled around, shielding his own tears from the horse’s view…. ‘Henry Bright,’ the angel said, finally breaking the silence, ‘do as I say.’” Bright sets the fire and after he departs, it begins to spread to the forest behind him, growing into a full-fledged wildfire heading toward the same town he is.
The story unfolds on two tracks: the first is Bright coming out of the mountain, and the second is his past, both childhood and in the war. In the present moment, Bright is pursued by the fire, firstly, but by something else even more dangerous: an old man called the Colonel. Aided by his two nasty sons, the Colonel is set on avenging the loss of his daughter, Rachel — the wife Bright has just buried.
The relationship between Bright and the Colonel’s family is revealed as the story unspools; it is frightening and dark, a contrast to his caring mother and the simple life she built for them. Ritter, who was born in Idaho and now lives in New York when not touring, evokes the texture of Bright’s world with unhurried attention.
“Henry’s mother taught him how to take care of the rabbits and chickens that they kept in a hutch near the chestnut tree. In the late summer the two of them would eat apples and then push the cores through the fencing and sit watching as the two species shared the remainders decorously with one another. In the mornings the hens liked to lay their eggs where the rabbits had been sleeping, and they would squabble and squawk the rabbits out of their beds, This always made his mother laugh, no matter how many times she saw it, and when he heard her laugh it would make Henry laugh too.”
Although it’s the beginning of the modern age, Bright lives like someone from the 18th century.
He never checks a watch or wonders what might be in the news; he cleans his knife, milks his goat and cleans his son’s bottom by dipping him in a burbling stream. Yet with his world in conflagrations and a newborn in his care, he’ll have to adapt. When he encounters a shopwoman in town it’s tense: Will she show him kindness? In fact, he falls — or is steered by the angel — into the hands of several women who can offer him assistance. But when that same shopwoman comes face to face with the Colonel, who has both a powerful malevolence and a silver tongue, it’s not clear that anyone will be able to protect Bright from him.
The hazards Bright faces are offset by the tragic absurdities he’s already lived through. His wartime service in France begins in the trenches, where men climbed up over the edge only to die, to patrols to grave duty, where he is burying his colleagues by the dozens. So many soldiers die around him that Bright’s survival is all but a miracle. Or it’s the work of the angel, as it reminds him.
Ritter has said that Henry Bright’s story started out as a song but it wanted to be more. He’s right, there’s too much here for a ballad: It expands as it moves forward, complicating relationships, deepening our concern for Bright and blurring the lines between good and bad. And just like fellow musician John Wesley Harding who, as Wesley Stace, published a novel himself this year, Ritter knows how to build a rich, beautiful story with shape: “Bright’s Passage” has a powerful end.