The River We Remember: A Novel
“graceful and eloquent and compelling.”
Historical fiction that resonates with our time makes for a great reading experience—especially when it’s done in the literary style of rich, careful language; realistic evocation of place; and deep exploration into character. William Kent Krueger has delivered just this combination in his latest standalone novel, The River We Remember.
This river, the Alabaster—which “cuts diagonally across Black Earth County, Minnesota, a crooked course like a long crack in a china plate”—is as much a character as any of the cast. Their lives and livelihoods swirl around the river. People die in it, too, which gives the lead into the plot of the story.
A universally disliked, if not despised, character in the town of Jewel is found dead—and half eaten by fish—in the water at a popular fishing and rendezvous spot. The setup is such that maybe he fell in, maybe he committed suicide, maybe he was murdered. Soon it becomes clear that somebody killed him, and the rest of the book is the search for whodunit from a long list of suspects with valid motives.
The time is 1958, still freshly post-war in America, with some people still seething in hatred against Japanese and Germans, as well as nursing long-standing prejudices against Native Americans. One such Native American, Noah Bluestone, even though he has roots in the town and did his service in the war, came home with a Japanese wife. That rocks the community boat and makes him a target for accusation. The sheriff is hard-pressed to prevent a lynching.
So while the mystery is challenging, the writing is gorgeous, and the characters all complex and realistic (with many of them harboring shameful secrets), the novel doesn’t quite work on one level: its structure. It opens with a one-page prologue that establishes the setting, ending with the line, “This is the story of how they came to eat Jimmy Quinn.” The voice of this prologue is an unidentified narrator who conveys a sense of personality; the storyteller.
That voice vanishes when you turn the page, and the story gets rolling. It is self-contained and related through a truly omniscient observer, with narrative viewpoints cycling between the war-haunted sheriff, Brody Dern; the previous sheriff, now deputy, Connie Graff; teenage Scott Madison, a nice boy who gets lured into trouble; his widowed mother, Angie, who has a shady background; and Charlotte “Charlie” Bauer, a daring and compassionate attorney, who takes Noah Bluestone’s case even when he refuses to be represented.
For over 400 pages, readers get immersed in 1958 and all the complex relationships among the townspeople. Occasionally the storyteller speaks without bringing attention to himself, gently guiding the narrative. But then, suddenly, randomly, the voice breaks in as if directly addressing the reader, injecting timeline-related oh-by-the-ways, such as:
“People didn't walk their dogs back then, not like they do now.”
“On the whole, the effect was probably meant to resemble Jacqueline Kennedy, whose photograph, even before she would become First Lady, was in all the magazines.”
And: “It was an uneventful arrest. This was many years before the Miranda decision made mandatory the reading of a suspect's rights.”
Say what? Who is this today-person yanking us out of time?
After these little insertions, the narrative resumes its omniscient voice and style for another 50, 100 pages until the next interference. What the heck! Are these distracting breaks something the author threw in himself, or something an editor required based on misplaced assumptions about reader ignorance? It’s not characteristic of the author’s previous works.
Technically, the book is structurally sound because of the bracketing prologue and epilogue in the storyteller voice. Where it goes afoul is that the insertions are out of context enough to bunt readers out of the story, which is otherwise graceful and eloquent and compelling.
It’s also, often, sad, if not morose. Much emphasis on darkness of the soul and the misery and unfairness of life. Outbreaks of shocking violence, as well. Some of the characters overcome this, and others don’t. Can’t specify who without giving away the ending. The resolution of the mystery offers a strong sense of justice served, although readers might not guess whodunit until late, if at all.
The pull of the mystery makes it easy to dive into 1958 small-town Jewel, in Black Earth County, Minnesota, and be carried along by the Alabaster River, absorbed by the big story questions, losing yourself in the characters’ lives.
If you can ignore the asides.