Sunday, January 17, 2010

When Snowstorms Become Scary -- And Dangerous ...

Today's weather in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is "standard January thaw": a soft 42 degrees hovering over a snowpack that isn't going to melt, even if the driveway softens for an hour or so at mid-day. And there's a storm forecast for tonight and tomorrow. We never know how hard it will hit until it gets here. The winds are the toughest part: If they knock out the electricity, we find ourselves on an intense countdown until we'll have to take action, and meanwhile, of course, no computers to write on, no lights for reading.

But I've meet the storms on more risky ground, out on the mountains. And with their danger comes enormous beauty. I like this related passage from Eliot Pattison's newest book, EYE OF THE RAVEN:
... I find myself thinking more and more of my father. Once in a winter when I was young, he came and stole me away against my mother's wishes, took me to a high cave shere he was living, just as a terrible snowstorm arrived. The morning after the storm he took me to the mouth of the cave, where we could see for many miles. The world was white, everywhere, except for a single creature perched on an old dead tree nearby, a raven. My father said he always sat there after snowstorms, because it was a different world then, because in that world nothing moved for as far as a man could see but the eye of that raven.
When the fierce landscape of cold is entangled with human activity, it takes on more emotional possibilities. At the opening of Stan Jones's most recent book, THE VILLAGE OF THE GHOST BEARS, the unfrozen start of winter, in Alaska's late autumn, presents a clean, uncomplicated landscape for Nathan Active, landing at One-Way Lake with his much-loved friend, Grace Palmer. At first, the couple hope for a fresh start to a level of intimacy that both wish they could reach. But all too soon, distraction forces them to call back the pilot and end their interlude:
She was pointing at a dark object a few yards downstream. He had caught it from the corner of his eye before, but in his hurry had passed it off as rocks or a log. Now he saw what she had seen -- a pack frame strapped to a figure lying face-down in the stream.
They splashed through the creek, their Sorels taking on water, and rolled the corpse over. The head flopped forward with the current, as if the neck were without bones, and they both recoiled.
"Oh God," she said. "Where's his face? ... "
The moment marks the start of another Nathan Active investigation, but it also marks the need to look into the faces around him, always trying to gauge which culture a person speaks from: that of the naluaqmiu (white person) or naluaqmiiyaaq (almost white; an Inupiaq who tries to act white), or the rich traditions and closely webbed community of the Inupiat, the Eskimos of northern Alaska. Because Nathan is caught among these groups himself, he's endlessly at a disadvantage when death and crime emerge from the conflicts among them. He can't even grasp names readily, much less the stresses and strains that crack the community apart.

A dead deer hunter. A set of secrets among the bush pilots whose services are essential to policing the northern lands. The onset of winter. And arson, killing people who begin to add up as the ones whose stories Nathan needs to know.

Jones takes Office Nathan Long through tough choices, hard risks, losses that both shame and penalize. His investigation brings more stress to his uncertain relationship with Grace, too. Resolving any of the situations demands speed and sharp thinking, because the oncoming snow and long frozen season ahead will obliterate both the clues and the possibilities.

This is the fourth Nathan Active mystery, and it's a perfect read for winter, with pacing that's crisp, characters whose needs are clear but never mawkish, and a strong, satisfying set of outcomes. Highly recommended -- let me know what you think when you've read it.

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