In Sundt’s (My Helsingfors, 2014) novel, a stranger’s arrival in a nameless, insular town sets off a series of events that affect its residents for years to come.
From the sparse, tantalizing, nearly Dickensian opening line (“The tree had to come down. Just about everyone agreed to that”), the author offers a tragic parable of intolerance, obstinacy, insularity, and rash judgment—all folded into an absorbing mystery. The clean, elegant prose delivers sharp, relevant imagery that reverberates off of these themes: “It is a fact that such a town is like an ear of corn where every kernel fits tightly and the addition of one more would burst all the rest loose.” When Johnson Granville arrives in town, he is that errant kernel, and Ben Selker, owner of the aforementioned tree, greets him with a shotgun. Nathan Bockla’s dog takes on Granville’s, but the stranger’s canine wins the ensuing fight to the death. Then two things happen that somewhat mollify the townspeople’s distrust: Henry Whitehouse hires Granville as a hand, allowing him to live at his farm; and Granville rescues Bockla’s son, Jeff, from drowning. But later, Whitehouse’s house burns down, the farmer can’t be found, and the town is reduced to an angry, unthinking mob. This begins a succession of events and unfolding mysteries that Sundt effectively unwraps like layers of an onion, revealing what truly lies in the hearts and minds of the various townsfolk. Overall, he has penned a thoughtful, insightful tale of humanity at its worst and its best, filling it with tiny but gloriously realistic details: “Ben…lowered his gun and, with his dog, went back toward his house as a window curtain dropped silently back into place.”
An intelligent tale for lovers of well-crafted mysteries and students of the human condition.