The Entire Sky: A Novel

Image of The Entire Sky: A Novel
Release Date: 
July 2, 2024
Little, Brown and Company
Reviewed by: 

“the book’s language is lyrical and poetic throughout, making even difficult passages somehow beautiful to read even as they raise goosebumps.”

Less than two pages into The Entire Sky, the reader will find this: “Don’t think about Heck, about Heck’s astonished face. The weight of the splitting maul.” Those may well be as foreboding a few sentences as any ever written. The unwanted thoughts are those of a teenage boy named Justin, one of the novel’s central characters.

Then, the author repeats the performance with the introduction of another character central to the story, Montana rancher Rene Bouchard: “[H]e’d do the few things he came to do, then he’d take a seat on Viv’s sunset bench, prop his rifle on the hard prairie earth, and lean himself down onto the point of the blue-black barrel. Shoot himself through the heart.”

The author has a habit of dropping such portentous phrases. He hints at what has happened, or what will happen, then masterfully leaves readers to relentlessly turn pages, seeking answers and reasons and conclusions, chapter after chapter, enjoying every minute of it and wanting more of what is to come.

Lianne, Bouchard’s daughter, is the third character whose story we follow. Long since grown, married, and moved away to the city, Lianne returns home to bury her mother, then lingers in indecision about when and whether to return to her family and the life she built for herself as a university lecturer and instructor.                                 

The stories are told in alternating timeframes, with the book’s present day set in the spring of 1994, and past periods labeled “Before” that offer context. Whether past or present, Justin, Rene, and Lianne all find themselves awash with uncertainty, although in different ways.

A life of abuse and abandonment has rendered Justin unfamiliar with what might be considered a normal life. He has had to learn to adjust to any given situation. “[W]hen you lived like he had these past years, you got good at pretending. Good at being who you needed, in the moment, to be.” He finds himself lost and alone in the expanses of Eastern Montana. He stumbles onto Rene’s isolated ranch, where he accepts the old man’s offer of temporary bed and board in exchange for assistance during lambing season. He is both fascinated by and appalled with the realities of the work, and finds the relative stability of ranch life befuddling: “To a boy used to the furious disarray of a given span of hours—let alone of a day, a week, a month, a school year—such order indeed felt holy, like evidence of the unseen, a system of belief, faith itself.”

Rene’s befuddlement is of a different kind. While he accepts the skinny, long-haired, mysterious, unfamiliar boy who dropped into his world, the principles and perceptions that have always guided him are slipping away. “It seemed to him now he’d never known his own self, let alone his family. Or he had for a time, but those known to him had deepened in intricacy and become fathomless, the way you might ride a certain ridgeline trail in all weather for years and still be surprised at what the April rains uncovered, what came blooming up from the dry and ancient earth.” And, “The years more than tilting—slipping, spilling, piles of thread and you don’t know which end to pull, what might unravel any of this or what might tighten the knot down hard, hard as bone.” Some level of understanding comes when he realizes that “[T]hings were always a notch or two more complicated than they seemed. Every family was a mystery; every four walls enclosed a world.”

Likewise, Lianne struggles to understand the complexity of her past life, the brothers she grew up with, her parents, and the town she left behind to go off to college and a different life. But she never left any of it behind, really, and finds the troubles back in her hometown overwhelming. “The weight of the entire sky settled then, all those tons of blue. Lianne felt pushed to the ground, pinned, suffocated. Shit. She hadn’t signed up for this. What was this?” Later, after hearing the musings of an old boyfriend, “[S]he suddenly sees herself, her own sputtering attempts to explain what it means to her to write poems. How just the act of putting words onto paper rearranges the world.”

But the world isn’t so easily rearranged. The hatred and abuse the longhaired waif experienced elsewhere finds him in the small Montana town as well. A beating he suffered in the past at the hands of his Uncle Heck had left him wondering, “Were men always like this? Would he end up like them? He didn’t know.” He fears he has found the answer when attacked by an older man at a gathering to brand calves Rene had taken him to: “His feet left the earth, the man simply lifting him into the air like he was skin and sticks, like he was nothing, and Justin felt a sad, sickening rightness rain down through him.”

The three main characters, along with a likewise realistic supporting cast, will capture the reader in a web of conflict with many strands, attached to abuse, abandonment, sexuality, and suicide as well as love, caring, acceptance, and growth. It is worth mentioning that the author’s understanding of the day-to-day details and realities of ranch life ring true, unlike so many writers who get it wrong. Finally, the book’s language is lyrical and poetic throughout, making even difficult passages somehow beautiful to read even as they raise goosebumps. There is no rating system based on stars at New York Journal of Books, but if there were, The Entire Sky would get them all.