Amy Hassinger

Writer. Teacher. Manuscript Consultant.

Scott Russell Sanders' DIVINE ANIMAL

The publishing world is undergoing a sea change these days, in much the same way the music world did not too long ago. More writers—even well-established ones—are choosing to self-publish their work, for a variety of reasons.

Scott Russell Sanders more than qualifies as an established author. He’s published over 20 books, including novels, essay collections, and short story collections. He’s won multiple awards and honors, among them a Lannan Literary Award, an NEA grant, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012. According to his biography, “his writing examines the human place in nature, the pursuit of social justice, the relation between culture and geography, and the search for a spiritual path.” He lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where he taught at the University of Indiana for 38 years.

With his latest novel, Divine Animal, Sanders decided to not only self-publish it, but to make it freely available via a Creative Commons license, an act of real generosity. He has given this novel—which I’m sure took him years of work—to the public as a gift. Why? In his own words, he says, “to make a small return to the cultural commons, that indispensable source for all creative work, including my own—the commons of language, literature, libraries, schools and colleges, the arts and sciences and all forms of knowledge, as well as countless conversations with fellow seekers and makers.” You can accept this generous gift by visiting his website and downloading it for yourself. I recommend you do—it’s a beautiful book.

I’m going to read you the opening few pages, to whet your appetite. Here it is, the opening of Divine Animal, by Scott Russell Sanders:

As Harlan emerged from the woods, where he had searched all afternoon for a black bear that might have existed only in his dreams, he paused in the high pasture and gazed into the airy gulf of the Mad River Valley. In all that expanse of drifting clouds, blowing grasses, grazing sheep, circling hawks, and green mountains receding away ridge beyond ridge, his eye caught on a moving speck down between the farmhouse and barn, a speck he recognized, even from this distance, as the Swedish girl rising from the pond in a long white shirt. He watched her intently, wishing he possessed the hawk’s acute vision. The girl bent over to wring out the tail of her shirt, shook out her tumble of damp hair, and then crossed the lawn toward the farmhouse with the languid, upright gait that reminded him of a browsing deer. Only when she disappeared into the house did he realize that he had been holding his breath. 
Her name was Katarina, and Harlan thought of her as a girl in the same way he still thought of himself as a boy, even though both of them were nineteen, old enough to vote or fight in a war. With the sun dipping toward Black Bear Mountain, she would be going inside to heat water on the woodstove for soaking the widow’s feet. Mrs. Winfield, the widow, complained that she never could get warm here in Vermont, not even now in the dog days of August.
Remembering that he had not filled the wood box before going in search of the bear, Harlan hustled down the mountainside along the mowed path, at the loping, headlong pace that used to make Mr. Winfield laugh.
The old man had once compared Harlan to a spring lamb, leaping about, and himself to a three-legged ram, gimping along. “Kick up your heels while you can, my boy,” Mr. Winfield liked to say, “before gravity catches up with you.”
Recalling this raspy voice, silent now for half a year, Harlan missed the old man keenly. If Mr. Winfield were alive, he would have chided Harlan for neglecting to fill the wood box until Sunday. All chores except milking were to be avoided on the Sabbath. Although Mr. Winfield had refused to attend church since feuding with theLutheran pastor, he believed in keeping the Sabbath holy, which meant resting both man and beast. Even if rain threatened to ruin a crop of hay, which lay cut and windrowed in the field, he would not bale it on a Sunday. In spite of Mr. Winfield’s death, Harlan still felt free only on the Sabbath to lay down his tools and explore the countryside beyond the four hundred acres of the farm.
Nearing the farmstead, he noticed the white shirt fluttering on the clothesline. It was a man’s dress shirt, long enough to reach midway down Katarina’s thighs. He knew she wore it to sleep in, for several times at night, glancing from his room above the workshop, he had seen her as she passed a lit window in the farmhouse on some errand. Had she bought the shirt, or had some man given it to her? If he pressed it to his face, would it smell of Katarina, or of the murky pond? Trembling there in the wind, it was as lovely to Harlan, and as mysterious, as the Queen Anne’s lace swaying on long stems in the ditch.