Hailing from Moscow, Idaho, Josh Ritter is best known as a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter. With his songs containing distinctive narrative lyrics, a jump to full-length fiction offered the natural next step. A graduate of Oberlin College with a self-created major of “American History through Narrative Folk Music,” Ritter launched his career in Ireland with the help of Glen Hansard and the Frames. While on a recent tour, Ritter began writing Bright’s Passage and after significant edits, released it with Dial Press on June 28, 2011. Currently, Ritter lives in Brooklyn.
As a musician and an avid music fan, Josh Ritter’s albums have graced my playlists for the last half decade. When I heard he was writing a novel, my interest piqued since his songs have always felt like short novellas. With much joy, I attended Josh Ritter’s book reading at Elliot Bay Book Company.
During the reading, Ritter elaborated on some of his topical obsessions. One of the themes Ritter constantly considers is angelology.
At one point, Ritter commented facetiously that when angels arrive, they always encourage people to be not afraid. Yet, an angel appearance causes immense levels of fear! In Ritter’s novel, Bright’s Passage, he elaborates,
“’You hear me, Henry Bright.’ The voice was very close to his ear in the blackness.
‘Yes,’ he said finally. Then, ‘Who are you?’
‘I am an angel, Henry Bright, be not afraid.’
‘I am.’ His throat was tight with fear and the words came out with a cracked, whistling sound. ‘I am afraid’” (97).
The word “angel” comes from the Greek word “angelos” meaning messenger. Before its use in the New Testament, angelos was used primarily in terrestrial terms. Yet, with its constant use in the gospels, angelos encounters a spiritual sense as the Greek word became a term for God’s spiritual messengers.
However, what is clear in the history of angelos is that whenever an angel shows up, something important happens.
A Brief Synopsis
Ritter’s obsession with angels provides the bedrock for Bright’s Passage. Set in the aftermath of World War I, the book’s protagonist, Henry Bright, is a veteran returning from an ugly war where probability suggests he should not have survived.
Led by an angel manifested in Bright’s horse, Henry marries his childhood sweetheart and together they conceive what the angel proclaims is “the future king of heaven.”
Describing the newborn, Ritter pens,
“The baby boy wriggled in his arms, a warm, wet mass, softer than a goat and hairier than a rabbit kit” (3).
As the story unfolds, Bright’s Passage depicts the classic chase scene narrative where his antagonistic father-in-law pursues Bright through a West Virginia wildfire.
World War I
Interposed through this narrative are flashbacks to Bright’s time in World War I. Relying heavily on the grim features of warfare, Ritter paints a horrific picture of the front:
“Mud and water and the stumps of trees. In every direction that was all there was. Bodies fell, but the trees died standing up. Nightly they were crucified upon themselves by the zip and whine of machine guns, their leaves corroded by gas, their branches and trunks hacked for kindling, some roots cut by entrenching tools, others drowned by the ceaseless, steady dripping of blood and rain” (13).
The Purpose of Piety in the Face of Carnage
While the story unfolds in West Virginia as the angel leads Bright away from his father-in-law, the literary core of the novel questions the piety of God in the wake of World War I’s carnage. In the course of a conversation between the angel and Henry Bright, Ritter exclaims,
“’What wreckage this King has wrought.’
Bright took the lemon away and spoke softly. ‘Not now.’
‘A new King must be found. This one has soaked the world in blood. He has allowed War to become so terrible that it can kill all of mankind. No King of Heaven has ever allowed War to become so powerful’” (122).
For better or worse, Bright’s Passage explores the relationship between religion and warfare. Sadly, religions carries a checkered past of blood lust and implicit in the pages of Bright’s Passage is a critique of religion’s influence on society.
Of course, Ritter’s observations carry some weight but they are not new condemnations. Many have used the horrors of religious warfare as a proof text against the veracity of religion. In my mind, the problem of war runs deeper than creed and confession. Religious and atheistic regimes alike provide evidence for the depravity of man.
Humanity and the Divine
Having Ritter’s obsession with angelology take center stage, Bright’s Passage forces the reader to interact with the spiritual realm. Is the self-proclaimed angel really divine? Does the angel have Henry Bright’s interests in mind? Could the angel be a figment of Bright’s imagination? If so, is the protagonist mentally unstable? The history of literature references angels often. What does that say about human culture?
An Honest Appraisal
Ritter’s first voyage into the literary realm is a success. On the surface, Bright’s Passage is an entertaining novel with compelling characters; underneath the storyline, Ritter weaves the threads of an essay against religious institutions and just warfare.
If you are a fan of historical fiction and want an easy read with some depth, I highly recommend Bright’s Passage.