I can say without exaggeration that I've read every novel William Kent Krueger has written. I can also say with just as much conviction that over the years I've written reviews of a significant number of them. So, please take note when I say that Krueger's latest stand-alone, "The River We Remember," may be his magnum opus, a literary mic drop.
There's a rich tradition in literature of novels of the American plains and prairie. Some authors we no longer read much (Willa Cather, Ole Rølvaag); others, like the contemporary novels of Minnesota writer Marcie R. Rendon, we should read more.
In "The River We Remember," Krueger has built on this tradition, creating a deeply moving story about fictional Black Earth County in southwestern Minnesota in 1958. The novel explores the "profound tenderness" of the land and the lives "brought forth from it in wondrous measure" with an unwavering historical honesty.
"The River We Remember" is intimate and epic in equal measure. The novel's narrator tells the story of how the catfish of the Alabaster River "came to eat Jimmy Quinn," one of the rural county's preeminent citizens, and how the darkness that rose from Quinn's death tore the rural community asunder.
From a vantage point in the future, the narrator details close-up the lives of a compelling cast of characters that includes "the cantankerous, the laconic, the bigoted, the gentle-hearted, the fearful, the horse's asses, the sheltered, the accepting, the broken." Characters like Sheriff Brody Dern, whose public persona "was nothing but a rickety framework of lies." Or young Scott "Madman" Madison, born with a hole in his heart, and his mom, Angie, a widow, who runs the Wagon Wheel Café, serving Cajun dishes like "hot pepper meat loaf" that folks can't get enough of.
Or farmer Noah Bluestone, a war vet and a Dakota Sioux whose ancestor "first owned the land Jimmy Quinn's family owns now." Or Charlotte "Charlie" Bauer, a retired lawyer who drinks whiskey, smokes cigars and reads Steinbeck. Or Garnet Dern, Brody's sister-in-law, whose love for Brody runs deeper than the Alabaster itself. Or Sam Wicklow, publisher of the Black Earth County Clarion, who "writes to get at the truth of things" he believes are important.
In Black Earth County, "the seasons were living things" with their own "peculiar voice and smell and personality." The white people of Black Earth County and those with the "blood of the Sioux" all know that "the land feeds us, then we feed the land." And the river runs through it all. This is a novel to cherish.
Carole E. Barrowman is a writer and a professor at Alverno College in Milwaukee.
The River We Remember
By: William Kent Krueger.
Publisher: Atria, 421 pages, $28.99.