By William Giraldi, narrated by Richard Ferrone. This crime thriller set in the remote villages and tundra of Alaska lays bare different visions of civilization. The inhabitants of remote Keelut have their own ways of doing things—of dealing with birth, and death, and grief—and no matter how strong the forces of conventional culture are, in the end, the old ways win. In the process, the book “peels away the thin membrane that separates entertainment from art, and nature from civilization,” said reviewer Alan Cheuse in the Boston Globe.
Russell Core is a nature writer and an expert on wolves, with a famous book about them. When wolves take two, then three children from Keelut, the mother of the third child, a six-year-old boy named Bailey, asks him to come help her understand what is happening. Untethered from family and any part of life he finds meaningful, Core responds to her plea, and is drawn deeper and deeper into the lives, ways, and secrets of the remote village. The child’s mother, Medora Slone is married, but her husband Vernon has joined the military, fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, this nation’s “desert wars.” Do not assume this has made a regular American of him.
Yet Slone is described as a renegade, and Core wonders how this squares with life as a soldier. His best friend, an Alaska Native named Cheeon says Slone can make himself look like he is doing what he is supposed to, but will be doing what he wants to, nonetheless. Cheeon did not join the military for that reason. He hadn’t that gift.
When Slone returns to find his son dead and his wife missing, well, in the classic crime novel vernacular, “all hell breaks loose.” Hell, in this case, plays out during the year’s longest nights—18 hours of darkness—and over a tundra so vast “whole states could fit on its frozen breadth.” The weather is practically another character in this frozen terrain: “Like grief, cold is an absence that takes up space. Winter wants the soul and bores into the body to get it.” Before this book is through quite a few souls fall to the cold, the wolves, and the people.
Richard Ferrone’s narration perfectly fits the other-worldliness of the Alaska Natives and the care with which residents of the far north must operate in their unforgiving environment. Giraldi is the fiction editor of Boston University’s literary magazine Agni.