Forget Josh Ritter as singer-songwriter for a minute, and forget recent books by other singer-songwriters (Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Steve Earle et al.)--Ritter's first novel is a standalone work in a style all his own. Bright's Passage is a fable of sorts, with echoes of the Old Testament, All Quiet on the Western Front, Shakespeare and even dashes of Flannery O'Connor, A Passage to India and Cold Mountain thrown in.
Henry Bright is a West Virginia coal miner's son who brings his horrific memories of World War I home to a young wife who dies in childbirth, leaving him with nothing but his uniform, an infant son, a goat and a horse. At the insistence of the mysterious voice of an angel, he buries his bride, burns down his house and takes off, pursued by her father. That self-declared "Colonel" (a veteran of the Philippines) and his two cruel sons are driven by an old family grudge to kill Henry and take his child. Oh, and Henry's house burning accidently sets off a forest fire that chases all of the characters through their passage toward redemption and retribution.
Somehow Ritter holds all this together with a seamless lyricism that blends alternating scenes of the war trenches of France with the wooded ridges of West Virginia, all rendered with surprising verisimilitude and telling metaphor. "The War, the fire, the Colonel, and the angel: It felt as if some gigantic stone had somehow dislodged itself and begun rolling toward him down the long, slow curve of the world." You can't put all that in a five-minute song with a guitar hook. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kans.