An Angel Came to Powell’s Last Night and His Name Was Josh Ritter
Musician and debut novelist Josh Ritter dropped by for a reading last night. To the delight of hundreds of fans he also played some guitar, signed books and gave out hugs.
His book, Bright’s Passage, is a charming and humorous but at the same time haunting and well-crafted tale about Henry Bright who has returned home to West Virginia after serving in the World War I trenches in France. He saw and experienced unspeakable atrocities but he also began hearing disembodied voices. It would seem that Henry has his own guardian angel because he is saved many times when others are not. The angel tells Henry, “I am an angel. Be not afraid.”
Upon returning home, Henry marries his first cousin, Rachel, whose father, the Colonel, and his two sons hate him. Henry’s angel begins speaking to him through his newly acquired horse and the advice is not always that helpful. After his wife dies during childbirth, Henry is instructed by the angel to burn down his house and flee with the baby – the Future King of Heaven. Henry does that but the fire turns the surrounding area into an inferno that he is always just one step ahead of. He also has the colonel and his sons on his tail and they are determined to kill Henry and take the baby.
Ritter weaves Henry’s present into memories of his childhood and of his time spent on the battlefield. The three threads are braided into a tale that is both clever and suspenseful. Ostensibly, the horse is an angel who has lots of advice for Henry, but it also serves as a great literary device to fill us in on what Henry is thinking as he makes his way with his baby through the forest to find safe haven from fires and bad guys. They have great conversations. Very funny conversations.
Ritter told the audience that toward the end of writing the book he started “realizing that I’d been writing songs with angels in them and always loved writing about angels. We have such interesting ideas about what they are. I don’t know if this angel that speaks to him (Henry Bright) – that takes up residence in his horse – is a real angel or not or whether it’s something he imagines or something that he needs in his own mind to put his world back together after going to the war, but I do know that angels, when they show up in the Bible, things are about to hit the fan. We have lots of images of angels in our popular culture where they’re helping children away from wells – Michael Landon – we have desktop calendars with angels – and kittens and angels. We try and make them friendly, but evidence points to the contrary. There’s the angel with a fiery sword that kicks Adam and Eve out of heaven, there’s the Angel of Death – the most overworked angel. There’s the angel that tells Mary she’s pregnant – that she’s going to give birth to the King of Heaven – or angels showing up in the sky in big gangs. They are scary and they always say ‘be not afraid’ which is so passive-aggressive. It’s almost like a running joke through the whole Bible. ‘Be not afraid – everything will be fine.’”
Ritter talked about the disconnect “between the claim that ‘everything’s fine and there is a divine plan’, to the actual unfolding of events that seems so chaotic and absurd – often wretched.” He said, “It seemed like what I really wanted to do was to write a discourse between a man and this angel and it felt very much, at times, like Laurel and Hardy – like some sort of strange kind of comedy being played out in the woods. I really, really enjoyed it.”
Probably because of his vast performing experience, Ritter did an incredible job of reading and interpreting his novel. It was almost like a one-man play and it made the pages of his novel jump to life. You could have heard a pin drop the audience was so quiet – so mesmerized by him and his story.
Then there was the music. Between reading passages, Ritter seamlessly picked up his guitar, sans amplification, and simply started strumming and singing his heart out. First, he sang Folk Bloodbath, then Galahad, and then to end on a positive note, he sang the beautiful Snow Is Gone. His voice rang true and clear and the crowd was spellbound and appreciative on this magical Portland night.
I have a confession to make. I was probably one of just a few fans, out of hundreds who filled Powell’s last night, who came to see Josh Ritter based completely on the merits of his novel, Bright’s Passage. I’m embarrassed to say that somehow his music had not penetrated the bubble I apparently live in. So right up front I’ll tell you that I came for his dazzling book and fell in love with his heart-stopping music. I told him this when he was signing my book and he didn’t dismiss me or frown. No, he wrote a beautiful inscription and then gave me a big hug.