It’s rare these days to find a novel about two people in love in which their love story is not the main story. Larry Watson’s latest, Let Him Go, is not about its two main characters falling in love, or falling out of love; it’s set in the happily ever after, but it isn’t about that, either. George and Margaret Blackledge are about 40 years into a solid marriage. It’s clear from the beginning that they’re crazy about each other, in that comfortable, secure, bickering-included way that comes from being married for ages. They’ve been through a lot, but they have been through it together.
When the story begins, though, Margaret is about to take off. She isn’t leaving: She’s hunting. It’s 1951, and the Blackledges live on the edge of the Badlands in North Dakota. They’ve lost their son, James, and his twin sister lives elsewhere, remote and disinterested. But James had a son—their grandson, Jimmie—and Margaret is determined to find Jimmie and bring him home, where he belongs. Margaret is nothing if not determined, so George, naturally, accompanies her on the search. As the author puts it, “No, there was never any doubt what George would do.”
Except that there is doubt, here and there. Or rather, there are surprises, from both George and Margaret. The narrative has a shifting omniscience that lets us see only so far into the thoughts of any given character, just enough to feel as if we know them. One of the ideas the novel explores is the question of inevitability, to what degree character affects the course of anyone’s journey—“how fixed and foreseeable are human lives,” as Watson puts it. But there’s nothing predetermined or predictable about what happens when the Blackledges find their grandson, Jimmie, age 4, and his sweet mother, Lorna. Lorna has married wild, handsome Donnie Weboy, and she and her son are bound up in the Weboy clan in the town of Gladstone, Montana. And the Weboy clan of Gladstone is no good—as George and Margaret quickly discover.
When the two families collide in a fight for the boy, high melodrama ensues. In a few places it’s almost too much, but Watson has perfect tone control. Besides, having given us the beautiful, meandering first third of the novel, in which we follow George and Margaret as they make their lovely way toward this battle, spending nights in jail cots and borrowed pastures, sipping coffee and watching the streets from cafe windows, gently looking after each other—having given us that, Watson can do anything. We are his.