Dakota by Gwen Florio
This is a book about the interstitial spaces between cultural subgroups. . . Sorry: a burst of excessive exuberance there. Every now and then I’m tempted to write an academic review, not so much to show off, but rather to use some of the more precise language to express the ideas. Yet to do so in this context would be wrong. This is a site where I allow a continuous stream of consciousness to flow through my fingers to the screen, followed by editing to ensure it’s vaguely comprehensible and not too intimidating for those I know read these reviews. The interface with the readers must be properly managed.
Dakota by Gwen Florio (The Permanent Press, 2014) is a fascinating book because, at every turn of the page, you confront an interface or overlaps both between different individuals, and between groups. At a personal level, our protagonist, Lola Wicks, she who was ousted from the journalistic front line in Afghanistan, has now settled down in rural America. Yes, it’s Magpie, Montana and the snow drifts are as high as an elephant’s eye. At the first blush of her encounter with the editor of the local paper, she was forced to admit she’d begun to date the local sheriff. Well, perhaps ”date” is something of an understatement given he’s quite a useful foot-warmer in bed when there’s snow on the ground (not in the bedroom itself, you understand). So that induces a conflict of interest and debars her from reporting on anything connected with the crimes the sheriff investigates — these ethical lines are punctiliously maintained in small-town Montana.
I should mention Charlie Laurendeau, the sheriff, is a part-blood member of the Blackfeet Nation with jurisdiction over the area outside the reservation. That means he’s on a hiding to nothing. If he fails to keep order when members of the tribe make trouble in town, he gets instant criticism from the angry white folk. If he goes into the reservation, he’s viewed as the equivalent of an Uncle Tom, and faces suspicion and resentment.
At a group level, there are the general tensions between the local communities, which is not helped by the difference between the townies and the cattlemen (I hesitate to call them cowboys). There’s little work for many of the men — creating haves and have-nots — so the North Dakota oil fields at Bakken draw roughnecks both from the local communities and further afield. That’s where the fracking occurs — that’s a fracturing of the rock to create a new interface between the ground and the oil. When a young American Indian girl is found dead just outside the reservation, there’s a possibility it was an accident. The snow was deep, the windchill factor severe, and she was inappropriately dressed. Slightly further on, a truck had gone off the road. The driver’s neck was broken, but that looked less like an accident. Naturally, the sheriff begins the investigation and Lola does not ask. However, she’s making new friends on the reservation and keeps her ears open. She discovers this was not the first Blackfeet girl to disappear but, self-evidently, she’s the first one to turn up dead.
The trigger for more serious action comes when the photograph of the dead girl is published in the local paper. One of the men passing through town claims she was working as a prostitute at the shantytown used by the roughnecks. This is not a complete surprise. Both men and women need work. The men work on the rigs, while the women collect a proportion of their pay in the “special” trailers. The one interesting feature is the brand on the dead girl. Perhaps this signals a more predatory tone to the girl’s working conditions. When the funeral comes, many of the Blackfeet who work on the rigs come home, but don’t talk, even a little, about the conditions there.
Following on from the first in the series, Lola then fails to get the balance right between prudence and recklessness, and decides to visit the oil field. It’s at this point we get to perhaps the most fundamental cultural divide. The Bakken rigs draw desperate men from all over America. Cut off from their families and crammed together in poor accommodation, they need relief. Whether the tiny number of women should be expected to tolerate the men’s behaviour is not the issue. Gender roles count for less when the sex ratio is so skewed at somewhere between 50:1 and 100:1. Of course when the Blackfeet workers come back to the reservation and their families, they have more money than everyone else and hold their heads up, protesting they never touch any of the women. This is not a pretty picture, particularly when they lose those jobs and have nothing but debts they cannot now pay off.
Confronted by a reality far worse than she could have imagined, Lola nevertheless survives the investigation and gets her big story. This only leaves the final two interfaces to negotiate. The first is the tricky relationship between a journalist and the people she would write about. Have they not already been through enough without headlines splashing the details all over the front page? On the one side is the public good of better information for all about the condition in these camps. On the other is the pain and humiliation some individuals have endured. How should the decision-to-publish circle be squared? And then there’s the equally challenging space between two people who may just love each other, but have not yet made the commitment. Perhaps that’s the most difficult to bridge. The laconically named Dakota is written in a pleasing prose, crammed with incident and excitement that, at times, is slightly over the top, but I forgive the excess of the thriller because there’s much social observation to chew on and the description of Blackfeet culture is fascinating.
For a review of the first in the series, see Montana.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.