Astonishingly accomplished debut pits a fiercely independent, emotionally scarred descendant of rapacious Oregon ranchers against members of the Nez Perce Indian tribe—in a courtroom battle for the ownership of land that is sacred to both.
On the same day that her mother dies of a lingering brain cancer, Iris Steele gets a registered letter informing her she's being sued by members of the Nez Perce over the ownership of a portion of her family's cattle ranch known to both her family, and the Indians, as the Heart of the Beast. After burying her mother in the family plot that holds her father and brother, Iris, 28, stoically brings in the wheat crop, but can't suppress memories of her horrifically dysfunctional family. Haunted by her emotionally abusive mother Elise, her brutally sadistic father Ike, her sensitive but doomed brother Jake, she finds herself unburdening her grief to 70-year-old Aunt Hanna, who emerges from a 30-year stay in an insane asylum to complete a series of sculptures of the family. Iris toys with giving up the ranch since, with the rare exception of the love and loss of her brother's best friend Henry, ranching has been for her an almost unending history of terrifying violence (a scene in which a harvesting combine explodes and turns wheat fields into a raging holocaust is a masterpiece of edge-of-the-seat action prose) and exploitation going all the way back to her Norwegian pioneer ancestors. She decides to fight for the land, though, because events, within her family, and in the larger history of the region, suggest that the crimes and rapacity isolating whites from Indians are not as clearly drawn as both sides would want to admit. As Hanna completes her sculptures and the courtroom confrontation wounds everyone, Iris resolves her traumatic past in a single, selfless act.
A splendid, relentlessly suspenseful fictional examination of centuries of cruelty, frustration, and disasters, both natural and man-made, played out against a pitiless, magnificently dangerous northwestern landscape.