This is the welcome and long awaited return of Cork O’Connor – he’s been missed, and his return is a worthy one. This novel finds Cork perhaps the closest to home in all the novels – the story is very much a small town story of interwoven connections, both good and bad. It also shines the spotlight on Cork’s sister-in-law, Rose, the cook/housekeeper and heart of the O’Connor family, who in this novel leaves home to housekeep temporarily for the Catholic priest. I think one of the reasons Kent Krueger has such a wide appeal is that there’s plenty of action for male readers, and for female readers, there’s both a sensitive exploration of women’s feelings and emotions, as well as a real honoring of women, no matter what their role. Rose is a case in point. She’s a simple housewife, no more, no less, and she aspires to nothing more. That’s not an especially honored role today, but Krueger makes it explicit that their family couldn’t function without her. When she leaves, it’s as though something is missing.
The rest of the novel – Rose is actually a sidebar – concerns the disappearance of a young woman in the dead of winter. Krueger opens the book with one of his trademark, incredibly beautifully written scenes with Cork alone in the woods on his snowmobile, looking for her. To describe it much more would be almost to ruin it – it has to be read to be enjoyed. When the girl’s disappearance becomes tied to Solemn Winter Moon, a young native American man Cork feels practically related to, Cork agrees to help out, and somehow, his wife Jo becomes Solemn’s lawyer when things take a more serious turn. All of the abovementioned scenarios could constitute a complete and satisfying novel – but Krueger adds the twist of spirituality, and it’s not in a proselytizing way – in fact, it’s almost the opposite. When Solemn claims to have talked with Jesus in the woods (and Jesus is wearing Minnetonka moccasins) Cork is appalled, but it seems to him at the same time that Solemn is a more serious and peaceful man afterwards. This touches off a series of troubling spiritual examinations for Cork, who feels the Church has abandoned him. As half native American, half Irish, he feels betwixt and between, and while this book takes him further on his path, you feel there’s more to tell.
The novel unfolds in a chronological fashion that seems to mirror reality more closely than a fast paced discovery of a body and resolution of a crime. Starting in winter, the book runs its natural course through autumn. Krueger has some of the same storytelling rhythms that Tony Hillerman has – it’s a slow build, and once you’re hooked, you can’t stop reading. Like Joe Leaphorn, Cork is a character for the mystery hall of fame, and I look forward to reading more about him almost as much as I enjoyed reading Blood Hollow.