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Dakota by Gwen Florio

dakota

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.

Gwen Florio

Gwen Florio

 

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.

 

Montana by Gwen Florio

September 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Montana by Gwen Florio

Montana by Gwen Florio (Permanent Press, 2013) starts by reminding us of the problems faced by those in the military who have been repeatedly deployed into theatres of war. During their time “under fire”, many develop stress-related disorders. When they return to a supposedly safer civilian environment, not everyone makes a swift readjustment. It’s convenient to slap a generic label like PTSD on these problems and to reassure timorous citizens that proper and adequate care is available to all who need it. The difficulty, of course, is that not all those returning admit to these problems or respond constructively to the care offered. But active combatants do not operate in a vacuum. Once you stray away from those formally enrolled in the military, there are multiple roles for civilian support staff and journalists who are embedded in the forces overseas. Then there are the lone wolves who operate as freelance war correspondents. For these individuals, little or no formal monitoring or care is available. The majority are left to sink or swim. So when Lola Wicks is untimely ripped from her rather dangerous assignment with militants in the Afghan field, she exhibits many of the symptoms of PTSD from simple anxiety to hypervigilance. In the subtext to this novel, we’re therefore engaged in answering a simple but powerful question. When civilians return from a landscape torn by war, how do they come home? Where is that quiet place where they can relax, unwind and finally rediscover the innocent peace of mind they had when young?

 

From this you’ll understand this is not a straightforward murder mystery novel. Equally, it’s not pretentiously setting out to be a literary mystery although it is very well written. Rather it’s what I’ll choose to call a character-driven novel. In this case, we’re looking at the life of Lola Wicks, a foreign correspondent who has lost her way, and the titular US state. I’m not in any sense knowledgeable about America, but I get as far as knowing this state is a paradoxical place. The TARDIS is always described as bigger on the inside. Well Montana is a vast area of mostly empty space with mountains on the inside. I suspect the pressure of geography does something to the psychology of those who choose to live and work there. They are more likely to be loners, stuck out on ranches, cutting down trees or extracting oil or coal from the ground. It’s an unforgiving place to live, but one which can develop a very strong sense of community. So you could see the book as a recruitment interview in which the state tries to decide whether Lola could fit in and Lola devises a contingency plan in case the state does offer her a place to stay.

Gwen Florio

Gwen Florio

 

In the midst of all this there’s a murder to solve. Someone shot her friend at the cabin where she lived near the Blackfeet reservation. To our stressed hero, the local sheriff doesn’t seem to be the sharpest pencil in the box. So the live journalist decides to honour her dead friend’s memory by applying her investigative skills to determining who the killer is. It’s at this point that I mutter darkly about the need to look beyond the superficial and see the real person beneath. As Lola herself recognises, a good journalist never relies on assumptions when it comes to writing a good story. So when you read this book, and you definitely should read it, the key to understanding motives and corresponding actions is to identify what’s really important. To one of the Blackfeet, for example, it may be maintaining cultural and linguistic traditions in a world that’s hostile and judgmental. To a sheriff, it may be a desire to keep people safe in difficult circumstances. With the elections raising the race issue, this includes balancing the interests of both the native Americans and the more recently arrived white folk. This might prompt him to move more slowly than an outsider might expect. And so on. Once you start thinking about the people, their status and roles in the community, it should get easier to see the “big picture”. I was fascinated by the detailed way in which it all fits together with even an interest in art being relevant.

 

This is one of the times when I can unashamedly admit to not seeing the reveal. I can’t remember ever seeing this particular idea applied to this situation before. It’s most ingenious. So when you put the two halves of the book together, Montana proves to be one of the best murder mysteries I’ve read so far this year. It’s a remarkably assured first novel. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long for a second.

 

For a review of the second, see Dakota.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

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