The tamarack tree is one of the most stunning conifers in the North Woods of Minnesota and Wisconsin. In the fall, a tamarack boldly stands out from the crowd when its needles turn golden yellow. In Tamarack County, fans like me of William Kent Krueger's acclaimed Iron Lake mysteries know that Sheriff Cork O'Connor is not unlike the tree after which his bailiwick is named.
Despite Cork's losses over the years and the hard battles he's fought, he stands boldly as a staunch seeker of justice, a protector of the land and its First People, and a man of peace despite the violence that often swirls around him.
In "Lightning Strike," Krueger winds back time, literally and symbolically, to the sowing of the seeds that shaped Cork and to the first investigation when he assisted his father, then Sheriff Liam O'Connor. The novel opens beautifully with Cork reminiscing on a bench beneath the courthouse clock that stopped when a bullet from gunfire that killed his father decades ago lodged in it. With the author's suspenseful measured pacing, his accomplished prose and his carefully crafted plot, "Lightning Strike" is Cork's creation story, his rite of passage to adulthood, unfolding during an investigation that "threatened the peace in the Connor household."
"Lightning Strike" is also Cork's father's back story. After all, Liam O'Connor's legacy branches across most of the 18 books in the series. Liam left a "hard road map" for his son to follow; yet, in many of the earlier novels Cork's choices are often held against his father's principles. "Lightning Strike" "unravels the mystery" that was Cork's father.
What happens is this. While on a hike in the woods, a young Cork discovers Big John Manydeeds' body hanging from a tree on the precipice of Lightning Strike, a place sacred to the Anishinaabe.
After Big John's death, "rumors flew like harpies." Big John couldn't face his life anymore, they said. He was driven to suicide "in the grip of booze," they proclaimed. He finally gave in to his demons, they whispered. Everyone sees what they want to see in Big John's death — except the truth. No one was looking at the death of a Native American man that hard. At first, not even Liam.
"I know your father's heart is in the right place," says Cork's grandmother, an Anishinaabe woman, "but, in the end, he's still the arm of a system that has oppressed The People for generations."
Liam walks a rocky path during most of his investigation into Big John's death, facing angry silence from the reservation, and racism from the white community against their Native American neighbors. As a result, the wisdom Liam seeds to Cork is compelling and complicated, and I'm so glad the author decided to share it with us.
Carole E. Barrowman teaches English at Alverno College in Milwaukee.
By: William Kent Krueger.
Publisher: Atria Books, 400 pages, $27.