Larry Watson’s novel Let Him Go is about a journey. But like most road-trip narratives, it is about past relationships as much as the present undertaking. George and Margaret Blackledge are on a quest to retrieve their grandson from Montana, where their daughter-in-law and her new husband have taken him. From the get-go it is apparent that this is Margaret’s idea more than her husband’s. She finds Jimmy’s stepfather lazy and his treatment of Jimmy cruel. That George has little choice but to follow her is made clear by the items she has already packed for the trip: the coffee pot George cannot function without, most of the food, George’s suitcase. Margaret tells her husband he has a choice, he doesn’t have to follow her, but there is never any doubt that he will go. Only George pretends to briefly contemplate the alternative.
The relationship between these two is the core of the story, and Margaret is its heart. It is a story about love worn thin by the years and strengthened in the same way. We learn the little injustices, the moments of passion, and the stubborn silences as husband and wife travel from their home in North Dakota toward their grandson in Montana. It is 1951, years since they lost their son, James, their grandson’s father. It is said losing a child is one of the hardest losses to endure. Many marriages don’t survive it. The Blackledges’ marriage is intact, but there are moments when it feels as if one of them will walk out on the other. Ever since they lost their son, it seems they have been headed in different directions. Margaret clings to her son’s memory through her grandson, Jimmy, while George tries to distance himself. It is clear that at some point their divergent reactions to their son’s death and their grandson Jimmy will snap them apart. Margaret pulls them toward Montana and Jimmy, and George follows along, but the trip is fraying the tie that binds them. It is painful to listen to George’s silence, but reassuring the way he remains by Margaret’s side.
The drive is short and uneventful, but the stops are filled with color. When George is going about town to collect a few things before leaving, we learn through the fear and respect he inspires in fellow citizens that he was once a sheriff. We never learn why he isn’t one anymore. We discover the secrets of their marriage slowly, the same way the story unfolds: little snippets gleaned during ordinary conversations and actions. Everything is woven together seamlessly. Conversations are spoken without quotes, blending into the rest of the text without interruption. At times this style can be a little confusing, especially when the narrator speaks as if he were one of the characters, like when he says “This meal will have to do the work of two” about the couple’s breakfast. But that is the rare exception; most of the time the lack of quotes makes the prose less distracting instead of more so.
Watson’s descriptions blend in just as well, fitting with the harsh landscape of the West. He describes Gladstone, Montana, as looking as though “it could have been laid out by a shotgun blast”. The dried blood on George’s chapped hands “looks like dots and dashes of Morse code”.
The Blackledges have been weathered by the harsh land; they are seasoned, tough and prepared. But the violence that confronts them in Montana when they encounter the family with whom Jimmy is now living is not something they have ever known. Its sudden brutality surprises them as much as it does the reader. Watson has hinted and prepared us for this moment, but we are shocked all the same.
It is in Montana that another relationship is explored, that between mothers and sons. In Let Him Go there are two kinds of mothers, those who let go too easily and those who hold on too tight. Margaret is one of the latter, and so it seems is the matriarch of the family into which her grandson has fallen. We know it will not end well for the Blackledges, but Watson keeps us guessing until the very end as to which one of them will ruin, or save, the situation.