“Let Him Go” by Larry Watson (2013) – 269 pages
George and Margaret Blackledge are out to get their grandson back, and nothing will stop them. The case here must be a fairly common situation today. A young couple gets married, have a kid or kids, split (In this novel’s case the young husband dies). The woman usually gets the kids, and the paternal grandparents are shut out from their grandchildren to a lesser or greater extent. The woman takes up with another man on whom the paternal grandparents cast a particularly skeptical eye. Then the woman and her new man take off for another town or state taking the kids with them, leaving the paternal grandparents in their dust.
Most grandparents might complain about this situation but will leave the thing alone. Not George and Margaret. These two grandparents are so sure of their own goodness and the new defacto step-father’s badness, they decide to attempt a ‘rescue’ of their grandson even if they have to break the law to do it. George takes his gun with him. They leave North Dakota and head to Montana to get their grandson back by any means possible. At first one doubts their sense of moral superiority, but soon events unfold that reveal the essential shabbiness of their grandson’s new plight.
“Let Him Go” is an intense violent novel. I have previously read Watson’s “American Boy” and “Montana 1948”. Those were wistful coming-of-age nostalgic novels that take place in the northern states of Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota. Those novels are strong, because of their sense of complex moral ambiguity This new novel “Let Him Go” takes place in the same locale, but has a new sharper edge to it. It is dark and unrelenting in its violent view of the world.
I did not like George and Margaret, the main characters, because they are so sure of their own goodness. They have no doubts in their own rightness in taking this grandson away from his new family. Yet the novelist Watson sides totally with these aggressive grandparents. As it turns out, the family they confront, the Weboys, are about as mean as can be. Watson seems to be painting this story as an epic battle of good versus evil. This does not seem realistic to me. Real life is usually more inconclusive. Both sides in this custody dispute are quick to take out their weapons and do real damage to each other. The results are about what one would expect.
I know some reviewers have praised this intensity in Watson’s new novel. The writing is sharp in all of these chapters of 5 or 6 pages, and there is little chance a reader will lose interest. My only criticism is that the story is a little too simple-minded to be entirely realistic. Perhaps if Watson had given a little more background on how these grandparents knew their grandson was in a terrible situation, I could have accepted their aggression. But I suppose more background would have slowed down the pace of the novel.