Spellbinding translator of the Irish saga of the Ulster Cycle, Eickhoff also writes novels whose plots knot until they sweat (Fallon’s Wake, 2000).
Set in South Dakota farm country, this one turns on a murder. At first it’s muted, woven into other deaths—a woman who skidded off the highway and froze in the snow, and a madwoman who blew her brains out with a shotgun. The story, like Carson McCullers’s Member of the Wedding, features a 12-year-old tomboy, Samantha “Sam” McCaslin, short-haired, fistfighting, cattle-herding by horseback in winter ice, and pushing back puberty while Eickhoff loads on the local color and family background. Every fourth year or so, Sam’s birthday lands on Thanksgiving Day, and this time, in the early ’50s with the Korean War on, her birthday collapses when she slights her precious cousin Rose Marie, who eats one bean at a time and chews it thirty times. So Sam’s present of a Marlin rifle is withheld for awhile. A visiting gypsy fortuneteller warns her to watch out for danger in the snow, while another gives her an amulet against the Evil Eye. Earlier, she’d been grounded for three weeks when she asked in Sunday School whether she was a figment of God’s imagination or He a figment of hers. Then her friend and her father’s hired hand, Abel Six Feathers, is missing. Sam had got into a fistfight with Tubby Watson and been defended by Abel. After Abel’s daughter is raped, Sam and her father find Abel’s frozen body by the south fence, shot in the back. When Sam sees Abel’s split Yellowboy knife in Tubby’s hands, Tubby takes after her. Later, she rides in bad weather to take Christmas gifts to the Six Feathers family, only to find Tubby shooting at her. And then her mother is hospitalized for cancer . . . .
Nicely written—but talk about a Christmas carol.