The story is loaded. It would take us months to tap it of all its symbolic potential. It’s structure is surprisingly complicated without ever seeming at all disjointed or forced or confused. The way it connects generations and deaths and baptisms and resurrections is frankly stunning, but—as I realize I’ve just scheduled this post to go live on my father’s birthday—I think I’ll focus on the father-son relationships.
There are several. The primary one is between the protagonist and his father, but there are relationships between other sons and that father, that father and his own father; that father’s father makes a brief appearance; add to that the relationship of a Father Heavenly to any of the other characters, and potential surrogate fathers, and we have a complicated web of nurturing male relationships.
But, at least on the surface, the primary relationship never ceases to be the protagonist and his father.
The protagonist son was traumatized in a swimming pool at a young age by . . . someone . . . only to be rescued by his father. ““It’s all right, Carlie, I’m here. He’s gone. It’s all right.” That experience led to a fear of water, which prevents him from being baptized at age eight. His father, who, from his own age of eight has been refusing to be baptized and who declares a greater affinity for earth than water, gradually teaches his son to swim and not to fear the water. Which leads to Carlie’s baptism at age ten. A move his father inadvertently prepared him for, and, ultimately, serves as a symbolic separation between them.
Yet as the son experiences the sublimity of his new relationship with a different Father, his earthly father interrupts his musings to take him to the mountains to check on his hired sheepherder and his sheep.
(Herding sheep, of course, is socially less in the West than herding cattle, but Carlie’s father “wasn’t a cowboy but a sheepherder” (as was his father before him). And, after all, wasn’t that other shepherd despised and rejected of men as well?)
At the camp, waiting for the sheepherder and the dogs to return, father invites son to help kill and clean a sheep—a task he’d always been able to avoid before—and, having finished,
What surprised him was his father’s face, that it was without revulsion yet without pleasure too, except the satisfaction of having done the thing neatly, the same as when he oiled some kid’s squeaky tricycle or got the water regulated in all the furrows of the garden. What surprised him more was himself, that he too felt this a matter of fact, a kind of work, new, but after the first startling slash of the knife just something to see and do. But it was death and it would feed them.
They eat the yearling lamb and are filled.
The story does not end there, and the two grow closer and closer till they stand together on the edge of the world, take it all in, and declare it good.
The story has much more to offer. Go, return, report.