In "Prudence," natural-born storyteller David Treuer spins a vivid, sorrowful tale set in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s at a lakeside resort and in a nearby reservation town in northern Minnesota.
Every summer, Emma Washburn leaves her elegant Chicago home to run the rustic resort she loves, the Pines. She's visited occasionally (and reluctantly) by her philandering husband. Their introspective son, Frankie, flourishes at the Pines, happy to learn carpentry and wilderness skills from Felix, the Ojibwe caretaker, and to hang out with his friend Billy, who is also Ojibwe.
In August 1942, Frankie returns from college out East to visit his family before heading for Air Force training and World War II. Hours after his arrival, he, Billy and other young men join a boozy search for a German POW who has escaped from a prison camp across the lake from the Pines.
A dark adventure follows. Frankie and Billy are seen kissing in the woods by other searchers. Their embarrassment results in clumsy, dangerous bravado that explodes when one of them shoots at something moving in the brush, certain it is the POW.
It's not. Instead, they've killed a runaway Indian girl and wounded her older sister — the Prudence of the title.
The Washburns and Felix take Prudence under their wing. Before he leaves the Pines, Frankie, addled by shock and guilt, tells her that he'll come back someday to "make it right." Then he goes to war.
That only begins to describe the novel's plot. There's much more. Five characters — Prudence, Felix, Frankie, Billy and Emma — are fully fleshed out as they move through subsequent years, all touched occasionally by small joys but more often by heavy sorrows.
Treuer, who grew up on Minnesota's Leech Lake Reservation and now divides his time between a home there and one in California, is a master craftsman of evocative scenes. The drunken hunt in the woods is one. Another is a Christmas Eve party at a bar during which Indian women, loggers, farm boys, a tipsy priest and a Fezziwigian bartender connect in a rough, comical way.
This story could have become weighed down by ponderous good intentions, but it isn't. While there are underlying themes linked to race, sexuality and war, there is no preaching, only narrative and the larger truths it contains. For "Prudence" is mostly about love — love thwarted, love misunderstood and, most of all, love that breaks hearts.
It's also about sex. There's a lot of sex, frankly and respectfully rendered. Sex is sometimes a mistake, sometimes a way to keep warm, sometimes a weapon, sometimes a gift.
This accomplished novel is not without flaws. A brief prologue that describes Prudence's lonely death serves only to puzzle readers until she is introduced 80 pages in, and after that, knowing her fate robs her story of some of its edge. And a largely unrelated subplot about a mysterious visitor referred to only as "the Jew" is distracting and clumsily tied to the main narrative.
But overall, "Prudence" is evidence that Treuer's literary powers continue to grow. He knows people and goes to places foreign to most American writers, and his stories deeply honor "the unremembered," to whom he dedicates this book.
Pamela Miller is the Star Tribune's West/North Metro Team leader.