Mary DesJarlais makes her debut as a novelist with this tale of Prohibition-era Minnesota, so you might think of her as a sapling in the field of historical fiction. But in "Dorie LaValle" (North Star Press, 320 pages, $14.95), she skillfully avoids a trap that has ensnared the work of many full-grown Sequoias of the realm -- the temptation to bury a good story under an avalanche of research the narrative doesn't need.
DesJarlais, of St. Paul, keeps her novel from turning into a historical tract by focusing on the physical and emotional dramas of her title character, inspired by a great-aunt who sold moonshine in Osseo during the 1920s. Dorie LaValle has married a hapless potato farmer who lacks the energy and inclination to support her. And she fantasizes about owning a store stocked with silk hosiery and fragrant soaps, though not in tiny Osseo: "Not where women made do by fashioning dresses out of flour sacks and wore threadbare, darned undergarments. No, it would have to be in a big, fine city like Minneapolis where the women would know the importance of surrounding themselves with fine things."
Lacking the money to open a shop, Dorie makes and sells moonshine with the help of a partner, Victor Volk, who has built a hidden distillery amid the pines. She runs a thriving business out of her kitchen until Victor suffers a gunshot wound inflicted by an intruder at the still, where a body soon turns up. As residents of Osseo begin to question what happened, she runs afoul of her neighbors, the sheriff and a gangster from Chicago.
This plot might seem to set up a white-knuckle thriller, but "Dorie LaValle" evolves into something quieter and closer to a love story. As Dorie gets unexpected support from another wife, it also becomes a celebration of female friendship. An implicit theme of the book is that if people associate the Roaring '20s with flappers and jazz clubs, many women led far less glamorous lives. A friend tells Dorie: "The men in my life never looked at me as something of value. They only saw me as something pretty to touch."
"Dorie LaValle" reminds us that the sounds of the 1920s included the stifled roar of women who suffered injustices far beyond the reach of the patent medicines like Lydia Pinkham's Compound that were routinely prescribed for their "female troubles."
Janice Harayda, former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, is the author of "The Accidental Bride" (St. Martin's, 1999).