Novelist/memoirist Treuer (Rez Life, 2012, etc.) returns to the northern woodlands with this understated study of cultures in conflict.
On the surface a murder mystery, Treuer’s latest captures rural Minnesota life in a time of transformation. World War II has erupted, sweeping up a generation of young men to go fight; one of them is Frankie Washburn, a child of relative privilege, who is sent off to battle in the skies over Europe. The book begins, however, with a brief prologue set a decade later; there's the arrival of a mysterious Jew—“and no one had seen a Jew on the reservation before”—and the apparently simultaneous death of the title character, a Native American woman whose life is so hard that death must have come as a release. The framing device of that nameless Jew seems odd, since his presence is largely unexplained, but it adds to the sense of impenetrable mystery that surrounds subsequent events. More than one death figures in them, including the sad and memorable dispatch of a “brush wolf,” as does the tumult surrounding the escape of a German submariner from a prison camp nearby. Treuer nicely complicates his storyline by shifting points of view among the principal characters, turning in a kind of Spoon River Anthology of stepping beyond the norms: Here is the love that dare not speak its name and that will kill to hold its silence, there, guilt over killings committed in the name of nations, there the discovery that a presumably guilty man is innocent—almost, anyway—and the roiling, always, of conflicts of generation, class and ethnicity: “Nothing else came to him and he thought, for a moment, how stupid it must sound to the white people behind him.”
A self-assured, absorbing story with a grim arc that moves from bad to worse as Treuer explores the darkness at our cores.