A little town that sleeps with the fishes
In William Kent Krueger’s latest novel a Midwest town descends into turmoil after a murder
Literature of the American Midwest is deeply rooted in the region’s vast landscapes and the complexities of small-town life. It explores human connection to the land, the struggles of the working class, family traditions, cultural intersections and the challenges of modernity versus entrenched traditions.
Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Marilynne Robinson and others have delved into these universal themes, providing readers with a nuanced understanding of the region’s soul and character, shedding light on the delicate balance between the simple allure of the Midwest and its hidden intricacies.
For Midwest author William Kent Krueger (Ordinary Grace, 2013; This Tender Land, 2019), Minnesota is a central character in his writing. He examines the deep relationship between people and the land, from its awe-inspiring landscapes to small-town life nestled within its vast plains and rolling hills. In his latest novel, The River We Remember, the bucolic town of Jewel descends into turmoil after a shocking murder.
Krueger examines the dark undertones of “Minnesota Nice”, the stereotypically friendly, polite, and reserved nature of Minnesotans. It’s an understatement that has a hauntedness to it however, a passive-aggressiveness that signals a disconnect between surface amiability and underlying complexity.
The novel begins on Decoration Day, as Memorial Day was called in 1958. While Jewel remembers its war heroes, its wealthiest and universally disliked citizen, Jimmy Quinn, is found dead in the Alabaster River, which runs “a crooked course like a long crack in a china plate”.
Krueger sets the scene for this mystery in his lyrical prologue: “If you visit the Alabaster at sunrise or sunset, you’re likely to see the sudden small explosions of water where fish are feeding. Though there are many kinds of fish who make the Alabaster their home, the most aggressive are channel catfish. They’re mudsuckers, bottom feeders, river vultures, the worst kind of scavengers. Channel cats will eat anything. This is the story of how they came to eat Jimmy Quinn.”
Sheriff Brody Dern, a decorated war hero with his own battle scars, is in charge of solving the crime. As tensions rise, others in the town, including a war widow, a newspaper owner, an old deputy, and a lawyer who represented Japanese American families who had been incarcerated in camps, realise that their own secrets may be exposed because of Quinn’s death.
Before any clear evidence appears, the townspeople believe that the murder was committed by Noah Bluestone, a native American veteran who retuned to the town with his Japanese wife Kyoko. Krueger, who has a background in social anthropology, also delves deep into the prejudices and xenophobia of 1950s’ America. He takes readers into the culture and history of the “First People” of Minnesota, the Ojibwe, whose spiritual connection with the land has marked it for eternity.
The aftermath of World War 2 is central to the story. At its dark heart, the novel looks at the wounds inflicted by wars men fight at home and in foreign countries. “In the end,” Krueger writes, “a soldier kills because all the circumstances of a moment drive him to it. It isn’t for freedom or God, or for the people back home. It’s because he has no choice but to kill. In that moment he’s not thinking of it as a good thing or a bad thing. He’s not thinking about ethics. He’s thinking about keeping himself alive and keeping his comrades alive. And in all that mess, the only thing he wants is for it to end and for him to be alive to see that.”
Not a native of the region, Krueger said in an interview: “Once the Midwest sets a hook in your heart, it always pulls you back.” It’s a theme he explores throughout this tightly plotted novel: “With people, we fall in love too easily, it seems, and too easily fall out of love. But with the land it’s different. We abide much. We can pour our sweat and blood, our very hearts into a piece of earth and get nothing in return but fields of hail-crushed soybean plants or drought-withered cornstalks or fodder for a plague of locusts, and still we love this place enough to die for it. Or kill. In Black Earth County, people understand these things.”
Much more than a mystery, The River We Remember is a profound and stunningly beautiful eulogy to small-town sensibility, to an agrarian past, and to the complex, flawed, and enduring emotional connections people have with the meaning of home.
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