T.S. Eliot described April as the “cruelest month,” but according to Cork O’Connor, Eliot never knew Minnesota in November. Never felt “spitting sleet” like “bits of gravel” on his skin, never boated on a lake when “the sky was a roil of poisonous-looking clouds that turned the water black,” never felt so cold that his bones creaked. No, for Cork, November “was the bastard of all months,” full of ghosts and regrets.
While Eliot may never have known Minnesota in November, William Kent Krueger in his latest novel certainly does. When I finished reading, I realized that Krueger’s opening reference to Eliot is more than a nodding mention. It’s a symbolic map to the novel’s themes. Eliot’s narrator in “The Waste Land” crouches between winter and spring, despair and hope, meditating on his modernist world and its barren landscapes.
Krueger’s novel explores the tension between belief and truth, between protecting a sacred place and embracing technological progress, between having empathy for a cause and taking action to defend it. But where Eliot’s narrator laments the emptiness of the modern world, Krueger’s characters celebrate the natural one even while trying to make sense of its capriciousness.
For example, Cork thinks of the “thousand moments when a man’s breath is taken away by some sudden, unexpected beauty … [then with] no warnings of the dangers — severe storms that blew out of nowhere, high waves that could founder a canoe, falling trees, forest fires.” He’s also taking stock of his life.
Now before you decide I’ve gone all English professor on you, let me make this clear. Krueger has crafted a gripping thriller (a scene in a sinking canoe was nail-biting) steeped in the mythology of American Indian tribes of Minnesota.
The novel opens after one of Cork’s neighbors, a wealthy businessman, disappears during a fishing trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Cork investigates, and he disappears. With Cork gone, his family, particularly the younger generation — his son, his soon-to-be-married daughter and her fiancé — investigate.
The narrative cuts between Cork’s survival as a captive on a treacherous trip through the Boundary Waters to Canada and his family’s search for him and the reason he’s been taken. When the two narratives flow together, Cork finds himself in a very dangerous place, physically and morally.
Close to the middle of the novel, a character denounces “spirits or visions,” and says that she believes “in medicine.” Henry Meloux, a mide, a traditional healer and Cork’s spiritual mentor, replies: “That is your brain talking. Speak to me with your heart.” Perhaps that’s how you should really approach this deeply spiritual novel. Read it with your heart.
Carole E. Barrowman is a writer and an English professor at Alverno College in Milwaukee. Reach her at barrowmanbooks.com.
By: William Kent Krueger.
Publisher: Atria Books, 328 pages, $24.99.
Events: Book launch, 7 p.m. Sept. 6, Once Upon a Crime, Mpls.; reading 7 p.m. Sept. 8, Barnes & Noble, Roseville; 7 p.m. Sept. 12, Micawber's, 2230 Carter Av., St. Paul; 7 p.m. Sept. 15, Barnes & Noble, Edina; 7 p.m. Sept. 16. University Club, 420 Summit Av., St. Paul; with Jess Lourey, 7 p.m. Sept. 26, Common Good Books, St. Paul.