Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Last Hunter by Will Weaver

Dan Sinykin

In a harvest season long past, Moffet Weaver traveled from farm to Minnesota farm with a work crew and his Hart-Parr grain thresher. Moffet’s grandson, Will, imagines how his father might have fallen in love with his mother when the Weavers came to the Swenson farm. “Their eyes locked,” Will Weaver writes, “A lightning bolt” (21).

Weaver’s memoir, The Last Hunter, navigates between a hard-edged nostalgia and the stubborn facts of family history. He begins with his parents and ends with his children, telling along the way his own story of growing-up.

He remembers roaming the family farm, outside Park Rapids, with a slingshot and license to kill pigeons and sparrows. But his pastoral childhood rapidly encounters modern death when he asks his uncle how many Germans he’d killed in WWII. The “stricken” look on his uncle’s face gave him, as he puts it, “a vague but gloomy feeling that something large had changed in my life, and that there was no changing it back” (33).

Throughout the memoir, Weaver’s personal changes parallel America’s urbanization. His father had wanted to be a railroad engineer, but polio restrained him. By the time Will is old enough to join in the family deer hunts, his father’s dream of what-might-have-been has become an impossibility. Returning from the hunt, they come to the crossing. Weaver remembers how, “from habit, [my father] looked both ways down the tracks. I did, too, but we need not have. By that year, the trains had stopped running altogether” (69).

Weaver heads to college and falls in love with literature. His life becomes a tug-of-war between books and hunting, which is reflected in his writing. He may be the first person to deploy T.S. Eliot to describe mincemeat. He buries small treasures for the attentive reader, painting a blueberry pie “wine-dark,” an allusion to the color of Homer’s seas. He slyly nods to The Great Gatsby in his description of the homes on Big Sand Lake (124, 84).

Unsurprisingly, then, he becomes a writer and an English professor. His children grow up as town kids in Bemidji and refuse to take up hunting, deflecting his hopes. His relatives grow old and the annual hunting party disintegrates. Still, he persists, and learns to find joy when his son, a vegetarian in Austin, Texas, willingly eats his wild game, or when his vacuum-sealed venison reaches his daughter in Manhattan. Times change. Minnesota farmers no longer share Hart-Parr grain threshers. But Weaver, at least, takes some small solace in “food from home,” which, shared, remains, in his words, “a ritual that binds and knits us together no matter on what coast or in what decade we have landed” (167).

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