Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Review of A Night Too Dark by Dana Stabenow

From Washington Post --

Book Review of "A Night Too Dark," by Dana Stabenow --

By Patrick Anderson --
March 1, 2010 --

By Dana Stabenow
Minotaur. 323 pp. $24.99

Dana Stabenow is one of those regional crime novelists who too often don't achieve national attention. She was born in Alaska in 1952 and has lived there ever since, and this is her 17th novel about the Aleut private investigator Kate Shugak. It's an outstanding series and one that has, in fact, won awards and begun to turn up on bestseller lists here in the Lower 48. If you've never visited Alaska, it's also an intriguing introduction to that big, brawling, rather bewildering state. Once you've met the strange characters who inhabit the Shugak novels, Sarah Palin becomes easier to comprehend.

Kate is only 5 feet tall but fears neither man nor beast: Early in this novel she takes down a knife-wielding roustabout and a charging grizzly bear. Her two live-in loves are Sgt. Jim Chopin, a hunky state trooper, and silver-gray Mutt, who's half wolf and half husky and whose ever-changing moods make him somewhat more interesting than the trooper. Kate started her career as an undercover investigator for the DA's office in Anchorage but later moved to the small, isolated town of Niniltna, where she works as a PI and also heads the board of directors of the Niniltna Native Association, the primary governing body in that corner of Alaska.

The plot of "A Night Too Dark" centers on the Suulutaq Mine, where vast gold deposits have been discovered. The gold isn't being mined yet because environmental questions must be answered, but the prospect of a billion-dollar bonanza has various hustlers and corporate vultures circling. (The Suulutaq Mine is fictional, but Stabenow has said it is based on the controversial real-life Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska.) Kate has deeply mixed feelings about the mine; the region needs the jobs but doesn't need the environmental damage and the threat to its way of life. However, she and Sgt. Jim are drawn there after two of the mine's employees mysteriously die and a third goes missing.

This plot unfolds nicely, but what makes the novel outstanding is Stabenow's vivid portrait of the Alaskan culture. In the opening pages we meet an old-timer with a long white beard whose "Carhartt bibs were frayed and stained, the black-and-red plaid Pendleton shirt beneath it patched and faded, and the Xtra Tuffs on his feet looked like they'd been gnawed on by ferrets." We meet the town's four "aunties," Native Alaskan women in their 80s who are the community's social arbiters. We learn that it is unwise to ask an Alaskan "Where are you from?" because so many have pasts they are determined to escape.

We attend a board meeting of the Niniltna Native Association and discover that Native Alaskans are just as angry, stubborn, greedy and duplicitous as anyone else in politics. We learn that in today's Alaska, outsiders sometimes marry indigenous Alaskans for their money -- the Alaska Claims Settlement Act of 1971 having awarded huge amounts of land and nearly a billion dollars to them through regional corporations like the one Kate heads. As a result, at least some Native Alaskans have become prosperous. We see that Sgt. Jim doesn't bother much with dope smokers, bigamists and poachers, if they otherwise behave. We also learn, after a quiet dinner at home, that he and Kate are partial to spontaneous displays of affection: "She laughed harder when he cleared the table with a sweep of one arm and threw her down on it."

Stabenow is blessed with a rich prose style and a fine eye for detail. At one point she devotes two delightful pages to detailing the beauty of Kate's garden ("The deep purple spire of monkshood, its cluster of closed blooms giving off an air of mystery, appeared and disappeared around every bend of trail"), and elsewhere we're treated to a digression on the hunting and cooking of moose ("Old Sam liked his meat crisp on the outside and bloody close to the bone, and this took time and care.").

Stabenow doesn't say much about Alaskan politics, except to have Kate quip, "Anyone in Juneau [the state capital] in their right mind is an oxymoron." However, in an interview with Publishers Weekly, Stabenow said that she'd met then-Gov. Sarah Palin twice, the second time in 2007, when Palin named her Alaska's Artist of the Year. Stabenow added, "She didn't mention the novels either time." This is alarming. It's always wise to greet a novelist with "Loved your book," whether or not you've read the book in question. The writers are invariably grateful, and none has ever been known to demand proof. If Palin can't figure that out, how can she ever hope to lead a great nation?

No comments:

Post a Comment