By William Kent Krueger, 339 pages, Atria Books (Simon & Schuster), 2014.
Few discoveries delight this reader more than learning at the close of a good novel that the author has published several books, each one in a sense serving as a chapter of a larger work. Such is the case with William Kent Krueger’s latest novel, Windigo Island, the fourteenth in a series of Corcoran “Cork” O’Connor mysteries.
Krueger lives in the Twin Cities with his family and sets his books in northern Minnesota, sometimes allowing his settings to cross the border into Wisconsin. His protagonist is a private investigator of mostly Irish heritage but with a bit of Native American ancestry. He is a retired police officer who, like many fictional detectives, is filled with a sense of yearning and loss; as this story begins, prior action includes the tragic death of his wife and the life-changing injury of his son, both at the hands of bad guys.
O’Connor is no longer a young man; however, any physical vulnerability he might bring to his work is more than compensated for by his wisdom and experience. Cork always gets his man.
Windigo Island entwines two disparate elements in an intriguing mystery. The first is the Ojibwa myth of a horrifyingly destructive beast called the Windigo that in an eerie voice calls potential victims by name.
The second is a far more literal threat, that of the sexual trafficking of young Native American girls, a disturbing exploitive practice that began generations earlier at the Duluth port, teenagers servicing sailors sometimes from foreign countries. Young native runaway girls attempting to escape poverty and brutality at home innocently accept the refuge of men purportedly offering protection but who instead brutalize and violate girls that had trusted them. More recently, oil fields to the west have offered a client base eager for the sexual favors of underage girls. Prostitutes as young as 14 are transported at all times of day and night from one location to the other to meet the sexual demands of men who lack the company of women.
As Krueger’s story begins, the partially clad body of a young teenage girl is found on Windigo Island, a victim of drowning who shows evidence of physical abuse. A second girl, Mariah, who had a year earlier run away with her now deceased friend, is missing. O’Connor, at the request of that girl’s family, undertakes the task of finding her; his daughter Jenny, who has adopted a young native boy, feels an obligation to help in the search.
The journey takes father and daughter, as well as a few tribal men, on an adventure filled with suspense and danger, an investigation that reveals the sordid and repugnant aspects of the sexual trafficking of young women who are still legally children.
An ancient Ojibwe Mide (medicine man) once told O’Connor, “In every human being, there are two wolves constantly fighting. One is fear, and the other is love. The one that wins the battle? The one you feed. Always the one you feed.”
That lesson governs the actions of O’Connor and his companions.
Apart from the intriguing fictional who-dunnit aspect of the narrative, Krueger offers insight into a regional Native American culture, the challenges they have faced as a people, and in particular, the sexual trafficking that continues to exploit their young women.
But above all else, Krueger is a storyteller. His characters are real and sympathetic (a number reappear in his stories); his plotlines are engaging; and his handling of violence is tasteful. Any literary shortcomings that may appear in his pages are those generally inherent in the traditional mystery genre.
Kent Krueger is a celebrated author who regularly appears on bestseller lists and who often receives awards for his novels. Occasionally he gives O’Connor a sabbatical; this writer’s first encounter with Krueger’s fiction was one that is not part of the series, Ordinary Grace, an excellent suspense novel chosen as this year’s Door County Big Read. The protagonist in the book is a 13-year-old boy, the son of a minister and artistic mother; their community one terrible summer encounters deaths through nature, accidents, suicide and murder. The author is scheduled to speak at Crossroads at Big Creek on Feb. 5 at 7 pm.
In the meantime visit williamkentkrueger.com both for biographical information and introductions to his novels.