Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Gifted by John Daniel

Gifted by John Daniel is a first novel that feels like the polished work of an old master, bringing to my mind the likes of Ivan Doig and Wallace Stegner. Daniel has previously published nonfiction and poetry, so he has certainly put in plenty of time polishing his writing skills.. Here is my review of Gifted:

“Sunrise and sunset are made of the same light, and, like gladness and sadness, you can’t have one without the other.” These words arise in the mind of Henry Fielder at the age of 16. Think he might be an old soul? Yes, oh yes.

His beloved mother dies when he is 15. Then later his father kicks the bucket when a tree falls on their house in rural western Oregon. If that plot line sounds like a formulaic YA premise, don’t go there. This novel runs deep. Henry is one of those kids who doesn’t talk much, who walks the woods in wonder. Woodland creatures who usually bolt away from humans instead step closer to Henry and they share spirit. That is his gift and those are the moments Henry lives for.

But Henry is no saint. A horrific act of violence is at the center of this book. And that violence against Henry only begets more violence. Henry strikes back at the cruel world in ways that only get him deeper into trouble. Yet often he is able to channel wisdom from the native American stories so revered by his mother and from the array of books he hungrily consumes. Henry hates school. He wishes he could just have a tutor for his favorite subject: “biologycosmologyphilosophyreligion.”

Often Henry runs away to the woods, with both positive and negative results. At one point, he commits an act of ecoterrorism that could land him in jail for several years. Like many teenagers, he drinks, smokes and discovers sex. Luckily for him, there are many caring adults surrounding him, including neighbors who become his foster parents, a gay man who lives in a commune and various church members.

The story of Henry’s troubles is told in hindsight as he tries to write a memoir many years after all the drama of his adolescence. This novel hurt to read. It hurt deep. But for all that, Henry’s intuitive pull towards the wisdom of nature is wondrous to behold. Acts of communion are many.

Some readers may find the novel too dark. I like dark and yet, at times the novel was almost too dark for me. But there is pure poetry here. Those sublime moments rang true and thus, I was hooked. I will not forget Gifted. It left me itching to go for a walk in the woods. A quiet walk alone, listening deep….

The text of this review also appears on and if needed, see also the discussion guide posted there.

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