In 1950, an idealistic New York couple and their two kids resettle on a cattle ranch in South Dakota only to find their initial success undermined and destroyed by right-wing fanatics in a novel based loosely on the actual case of a family victimized by anti-Communist hysteria in Okanogan, Washington, during the McCarthy era.
As the novel opens in 1985, Jo Kusek returns after 20 years to Rapid City under heartbreaking circumstances: a home invasion has left her younger brother Lance’s wife dead, Lance and his young son in critical condition. Smith (A Star for Mrs. Blake, 2014, etc.) then cuts to 1950: 4-year-old Jo and baby Lance arrive in Rapid City with their parents, Cal, a 42-year-old Yale-educated sometime union lawyer and WWII fighter pilot, and nurse Betsy, who briefly belonged to the Communist Party in her teens. They've decided to start over in Rapid City, where Cal’s Army buddy Scotty Roy lives. Quick learners, the Kuseks buy a spread and, despite total agricultural ignorance and inexperience, are soon among the most successful ranchers in town. Democrat Cal also builds an increasingly successful political career for himself in heavily Republican South Dakota. But religious bigotry (neighbors wonder if they're Jewish, though they're not) and virulent anti-communism flourish alongside neighborliness in Rapid City until xenophobic fearmongering turns all the Kuseks’ lives upside down. Unfortunately, by painting Cal and Betsy as such maddeningly superior individuals—“There were no jobs, really, either one couldn’t perform”—compared to the narrow-minded, cartoonishly dimwitted but more colorfully portrayed locals, Smith diminishes both the political and personal drama. Although the novel returns in intervals to the 1985 crime, there is little suspense in the episodic reveal, and the connections between events in 1985 and 30 years earlier, meant to create drama, feel manufactured at best.
A tragedy built on accumulating misunderstandings between people of different political persuasions should be riveting in this political season, but flat prose and a self-righteous tone make for a dreary read.