15 July 2009

Alaska frontier mystery

Sometimes I finish reading a book and write about it immediately. Other times, I put the book on the corner of my small desk with the intention of writing about it soon. I don't yet know what determines the course I choose. It might be the book or my reaction to it. It might be the press of other tasks. I was thinking it might have to do with whether or not a book is from a library, but I've gotten overdue notices before writing about a borrowed book.

So Dana Stabenow's Whisper to the Blood has been on the corner of my desk for several weeks now. Since I read it, I've written about several other books.

I really liked this mystery. It's one of Stabenow's Kate Shugak novels. I find the little wilderness community of Niniltna as interesting as Lake Wobegon. I think I like it better than Lake Wobegon because, in spite of the murder and mayhem, the events in Niniltna are less fantastic than most of the events old Garrison Keillor spills out on Saturday afternoons.

Okay, so I like the characters in Niniltna. I like the Aunties who spend their evenings in one corner of the local tavern piecing quilts together. I like the local native elder who spends his time there watching sports on the big screen TV. I like the main character, her teen-age foster son, her wolf-dog, and her lover, the local Alaska Trooper. I like most of the other frontier residents, who have escaped from one thing or another.

How does a tiny, mostly subsistence-based community react to the discovery of gold nearby? There won't be a gold rush, but the big company that has rounded up the mineral rights will be creating more jobs than there are people locally. How do the people react when first the company PR rep is murdered? And then when the most outspoken opponent of the mining is also murdered? And how does the local Trooper along with his unofficial partner in love and investigation find the murderer(s) and protect the community? Oh, and how do Kate and her lover resolve the relationship difficulties they have? (There is a bit of soap opera in this book, but it's better than the bits of romance novel that have been stuck into other novels by Stabenow.)

Stabenow is a very good story teller. Even though she's written 15 other Kate Shugak novels, most of them are set away from Niniltna. So the little frontier village is not the hotbed of murder that some writers seem to create in bucolic settings. (It's hard to imagine, for instance, more than a couple murders a century in a place like Lake Wobegon.)

Stabenow is also very good at creating characters, and after 16 books she's got this crew down pretty well. That's why there has to be some soap opera in the central love story, a budding romance for Kate's foster son, and a new character or two who come to town and end up waiting tables in the tavern or catching on with the mining company's PR project.

Enough, already. I liked this book, Whisper to the Blood. If you've read it, let us know what you think. If you haven't read it, try it out and react here.

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