What happened to Rauri Parr?

The fate of the Vietnam Vet who showed up in Hatchet Inlet with a hospital bracelet from Walter Reed and a penchant for privacy propels Sarah Stonich’s “Laurentian Divide” like snowmelt down the Temperance River. A slight but grizzled loner, Rauri is the fictional northern Minnesota town’s harbinger of spring, and when he fails to appear, locals worry that the shack-dwelling, Kafka-reading hermit might be dead and that their bets on his arrival (the kitty is up to two grand) might be null and void.

Theories of Rauri’s demise are plentiful, plausible and not un-humorous — death by drowning, head injury, propane asphyxiation, environmental terrorism, badger attack — but as speculation flies (and a search plane is dispatched) the locals go about their lives. A wedding is planned. Two women killed in a car accident are mourned. A daughter contemplates her genetic disposition for Alzheimer’s. An alcoholic veterinarian struggles with past sex abuse. Such rocky footing threatens to pitch the denizens of Hatchet Inlet over “the Divide’s great spine,” but Stonich guides her characters toward a final wedding scene that is heartwarming and humorous.

There are unresolved plot points in the novel and too many characters to keep track of, but if you think of this as “Northern Exposure” — a humorous serial drama of quirky characters in the wilderness — you’ll find yourself eagerly awaiting the next episode.

All in all, it’s a treat to return to Hatchet Inlet (site of Stonich’s “Vacationland”) and revisit characters who continue to face joy and sorrow with a wry resolve that is fetching and funny. But as these characters rail and wrangle — placing bets on Ice Out, debating mining in the Reserve, working custody agreements, hatching business plans — Nature continues to loom: awesome and unchanging, the Great Protagonist.

When Alpo Lahti (the groom of the impending wedding, part poet, part curmudgeon) escapes to his favorite fishing spot, his worries flit away. “He lays his fly case on the open tailgate and snaps on his headlamp. His most recent creations — and therefore his favorites — are the iridescent Lefty’s Deceivers tied with peacock feathers. He’s tied an array of Wooly Buggers, Damsel Nymphs, Muddler Minnows, and Bunny Leeches. … Each fly resting on its felted bed is a testament to patience. He makes his choices for the morning and sets the hooks in the square of sheepskin sewn onto his fishing vest.” It’s as simple as that: a man, his art, the river, and an open sky.

Similarly, Pete and Meg, childhood friends whose adult relationship is strained, would benefit from recalling how as kids they explored streams and bogs, following “each shimmering to its source, then the sources’s source. They traced their routes from the squelch and flow of tiny capillaries to tricklets of snowmelt to rain chunnels and burbled creeks, to waterfalls and racing streams — the flow invariably leading them to the same conclusion every time — big water.”

Big water and little people navigating turbulent lives make this fine novel flow.

Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and reviewer.

Laurentian Divide
By: Sarah Stonich.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 257 pages, $22.95.
Events: 6:30 p.m. Sept. 18, North Folk Winery, Harris, Minn., hosted by Scout & Morgan Books; 7 p.m. Sept. 25, Eagles Club 34, 2507 E. 25th St., Mpls., hosted by Moon Palace Books. More events at <a href="http://sarahstonich.com/home.html">sarahstonich.com</a>.</p>