The River We Remember
During my last year of teaching, I read William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land with my sophomore American Literature students. It was, as the author said in an interview, his tribute to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The adventures of the four orphans traveling south on the Minnesota River were engaging; the parallels between Huck and Odie’s stories were, to this old Huck fan, revealing; the themes about the search for home, the healing power of nature, the mystery of God’s relationship to us, lit many a good discussion. And though it is almost 450 pages, even my reluctant readers tore through it, as hook after hook pulled them to the next chapter. It was, simply, a joy to teach.
So, I’d been eager to see what Krueger would write next. Lightning Strike, published in 2021, was another entry in his Cork O’Conner series, and while an engaging murder mystery, it understandably lacked the thematic depth of This Tender Land. With The River We Remember, his latest stand-alone novel, William Kent Krueger has crafted a story as engaging as any he’s written, though not as memorable as This Tender Land.
Krueger is a master storyteller, and this one is no exception. The River We Remember begins with a corpse floating in the Alabaster River, which runs through the fictional town of Jewel, Minnesota. It is Memorial Day 1958, and the brutality of World War II still shadows the citizens of Jewel.
The corpse was Jimmy Quinn, a wealthy bully of a landowner, whom folks in Jewel, including most of his family, found hard to like. At first, it appears to have been an accident—or maybe a suicide, for Jimmy Quinn, a W.W. II vet, had hidden demons like every other soldier who survived. In time, however, it becomes apparent that it was a murder, and the townspeople quickly finger Noah Bluestone, a native American vet who is married to a Japanese woman he met in the war. The latent racism is unleashed, and the complex plot lines twist and turn until the truth finally comes clear. I was hooked throughout.
As was true in This Tender Land, Krueger’s well-drawn characters are neither wholly good nor wholly evil. The damage of war runs deep, and the novel’s main character, Sheriff Brody Dern, who was for a time a prisoner of war in Japan, says about another veteran whose life is a mess, “There were many ways of being wounded” (333). Sheriff Dern is haunted by his past as well as the adulterous affair he inhabits, but he is driven to solve this murder mystery for the sake of the community he loves. Each character is, as Frederick Buechner memorably says in Godric, “a broth of false and true.” Angie, a former child prostitute turned diner owner says, at one point, “I am broken, but I am blessed.” Krueger masterfully peels back layer upon layer until his characters stand before us–women, men, adolescents–as actual human beings with a past, present, and an unknowable future.
The setting of the Alabaster River is the place where not only the murder allegedly took place but also where many characters return to seek solace, a sense of beauty, or to relive a memory its haunting presence triggers. In his epilogue, Krueger says, “Because we are only one part of the whole, the river we each of us remembers is different, and there are many versions of the stories we tell about the past.” Accordingly, he shows the perspectives of many characters—Charlie, the lawyer, whose father abused her; Angie, the diner owner with a hidden past; Scott, her son, with a heart defect, coming of age without the father he lost in the war; and Noah Bluestone’s wife Kyoto, who, as her husband sits stoically in jail, refusing to talk about the murder, manages the farm while dealing with the town’s bitter prejudice toward her as well as her own W.W.II demons.
Besides the racism towards Native Americans and the Japanese, which gives the novel such relevance, Krueger develops other themes. The American belief in land ownership is challenged: Jimmy Quinn has seized his from the ancestors of Noah Bluestone, to which Bluestone replies, “Do you know what Crazy Horse said? He said, ‘How can anyone own the land we walk? It’s like owning the air we breathe.” Another theme is the burden our secrets can become: Sheriff Brody’s affair; Charlie’s gender orientation; Angie Madison’s promiscuous past; young Scott Madison’s duplicity; the Quinn family’s code of silence. One key theme the river symbolizes is stated by Charlie late in the book, as she contemplates all that she’s been through with her abusive father and her subsequent unflagging defense of the marginalized. She says, “What mattered was the serving of its ultimate purpose, which God alone knew. And what was the point of Charlie’s life or anyone’s but to run its course and serve its purpose, though that purpose might remain a mystery?”
There is depth to these and other themes, but the questions the novel explores are not as profound as those in This Tender Land, and the characters that come to life are not as endearing as Odie, Gertie, or Sister Eve. The novel also seems to target a different audience from This Tender Land. While the instance of sexual violence is handled discreetly, the details of Brodie’s adulterous affair verge on the gratuitous, it seems to me—more likely to please a publisher wanting a bigger audience than to enhance an already realistic story.
Finally, while This Tender Land can hold its own in a classroom of classic novels, The River We Remember, though not as weighty, is still a powerful story, well told, by a seasoned storyteller.