Monthly Archives: January 2019

DEATH OF A RAINMAKER

DEATH OF A RAINMAKER : A DUST BOWL MYSTERY

August 2, 1935
Jackson County, Oklahoma

As soon as [Chester] pulled open the outside door [of the theater] he heard a faint thrumming of wind that resembled the plucking of thick guitar strings… ‘A duster!, Maxine shouted… ‘Tall as a mountain! Oh my God! I’ve never seen one this big!’

Vermillion, Oklahoma in 1935. The Great Depression has strangled the economy of the area and now an unending dry season is destroying the greatest source – the land. The helpless residents face the perfect storm of poverty and an angry earth.

The population of the area is a mishmash of down-on-their-luck souls. Alongside the farms and ranches is a squatters camp down near the train tracks. A Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) work camp is nearby; a collection of young men from all over the country gathered near Vermillion for a chance at a job by the government. As in any community, there are the more fortunate families who live a different anxiety – fearful of the unfortunate. It is a jittery and suspicious time for all.

Everyone, rich or poor, has an individual life story that began somewhere else. Vermillion provided abundance and a good living for four generations. By 1935, no one finds Vermillon a haven. The Great Depression had knocked many to their knees. The eight months of drought that year, finished off those who depended on the earth for their livelihood.

Rain, at this point, is their only solution. Rain would keep the farmers and ranchers on their homesteads and bring commerce to town. Believing that desperate times do call for desperate measures, a small group of merchants cobble together the last of their savings and hire a charlatan who convinces them he knows how to make it rain.

Roland Coombs, their hired Rainmaker, struts into town like a conquering hero; a larger than life superhero to some and a distasteful miscreant to others who believe he is taking advantage of a desperate situation to line his pockets. Claiming he learned his technique in the military, he uses massive rounds of TNT blasted into the sky to make the atmosphere unstable. Only time will tell.

The skeptical and the hopeful join the boisterous and arrogant Rainmaker at the blasting site setting up camp on the ground with their picnic baskets and blankets. The crowd watch in awe as the night sky explodes over and over, louder and more illuminating than the Fourth of July.

Everyone leaves in the dark of night hopeful and wakes to find the next day like every other; dry and gritty. Disappointed farmers stared at their barren fields and discouraged merchants stare at their front doors hoping for business.

In the dire circumstances, folks looked for whatever small pleasures could ease their pain. One popular source of relief came at the local movie theater run by the blind owner, Chester. The other is drinking away the misery at the local bar.

The day after the Rainmaker blasted the sky, Chester readies things for that day’s movie, hoping to sell enough tickets to pay the rent. Maxine, Chester’s teenage ticket taker refills the candy shelves and opens the ticket booth for the matinee.

Sheriff Temple Jennings’ day begins alongside his new deputy, a former CCC worker with a healthy dose of work ethic. Today, Mr. Hodges, visibly upset, complains nothing is being done about the continuing visits of a peeping Tom at his house. The Sheriff learns of a fight the previous night between the Rainmaker Coombs and one of the CCC boys at the local bar. These things will have to wait. He has to perform his least favorite job – keeping the peace at the auction of a foreclosed farm.

Out of sight, an enormous dust storm has formed on the town’s outskirts and is barreling their way. The catastrophic storm catches everyone unprepared and people are forced to take shelter best they can. In the hours after the storm blows through, the clean-up begins. Chester, feeling his way through the storm’s aftermath, begins to remove the sand blocking the emergency exit of his theater. He discovers the body of a man and presumes he died of suffocation. Sheriff Jennings determines it is the Rainmaker, Roland Coombs, and he was bludgeoned to death during the storm. The town jumps to the immediate conclusion that the young CCC worker was the murderer.

As the sheriff and his deputy conduct their investigation, personal secrets are exposed and a political campaign takes a malignant turn threatening the Sheriff’s job. The characters remind us that we often judge a person through the lens of preconceived notion. Some people overcome their worst instincts and find themselves better for it. Others dig in and reject the truth staring them in the face.

As the investigation proceeds, Sheriff Jennings believes in the young man’s guilt and the CCC worker is arrested. His wife is not so sure that the murderer has been found. As she begins her own investigation, their marriage is tested. She befriends the prisoner and listens to his story with an open mind. Another part of her recognizes that she is transferring her feelings as she has mourned the death of her own son.

Someone in town during the storm murdered the Rainmaker. The mystery, when solved, will surprise you. Along the way you will fall in love with some of the people and reject the false friendships of others. In the end, you will find a piece of happily ever after.

An excellent story revealing that ordinary life continues amid a larger national tragedy.

Enjoyed the read and look forward to more by this author.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING: a novel

What d’ya mean, where the crawdads sing? Ma used to say that”, [said Kya]… Tate said, “Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.

Behold a story set along North Carolina’s marshy coastline in the 1950s and 1960s that will hold you captive to the very end. Listen closely to human silence and hear the sounds of the crawdads singing as waves lap against the skiff.  Smell the living marsh or feel repelled by the recycling odors of the swamp; a place void of gas fumes, fried foods and the detritus of sanctimonious humans void of compassion and racial superiority. Become one with the lonesomeness and isolation of an abandoned child striving to be alive in all its manifestations – body, mind, and soul.

Kya was six years-old when Ma, wearing her favorite fake alligator skin shoes, left the marsh displaying the fresh bruises Pa had pounded into her. Pa shifted focus and foisted his anger and violence down the food chain onto his five children. One by one Kya watched her much older siblings take Ma’s freedom walk. When she was ten years-old, Pa,too, and never returned.

Being alone in the Marsh didn’t frighten Kya. She had grown used to escaping for long periods into the wilds when Pa would be on a rampage. What did bother her was why none of her siblings or Ma took her with them when they made their escape. Was she disposable? Worthless? Invisible?

Kya, crudely referred to as “The Marsh Girl” by the residents of Barkley Cove, repelled by her own kind, turned to the natural world of the wetlands for emotional and physical survival. The wildlife and waterways raised her. She learned about group dynamics, gender roles, survival techniques, marshland justice, and the natural order of life up and down the food chain. Her best friends are seagulls. Her source of meager income for town dependent supplies – selling mussels to a warm-hearted old African American man, himself stifled by the stench of racism.

The sun, warm as a blanket,
wrapped Kya’s shoulders… whenever she stumbled,
it was the land that caught her…
Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth,
and the marsh became her mother.

One day, a few years after she was abandoned, she unexpectedly finds a boy fishing in her marsh. Although he seems to not see her, she finds gifts of rare feathers appearing in a stump near her house. The careful contact between them leads to a comfortable friendship. The kind-hearted Tate recognizes Kya as smart and intellectually curious and teaches her to read. When Tate graduates high school he breaks Kya’s heart as he leaves for college and a life away from the coast. He vows to return but becomes ensnared in the outside world and reneges on his promise. And the lonely years begin again for Kya.

Occasionally she spots people on her beach, usually a cluster of entitled teenagers she has seen in town. A quickly maturing Kya feeling the need for human contact, spots the teens and watches from a stealth position. She yearns to belong, to share in their enjoyment of each other. The alpha male, Chase Andrews, spots the beautiful and mysterious Marsh girl observing the group. Intrigued, he begins to court her and she falls in love. On his first visit to her house, he had assumed she was an uneducated wild creature and was surprised to find her intelligent, self-educated, and self-sufficient. Over time he promises to bring her to the town, introduce her to his parents with the goal of marrying her. She begins to lower her guard and allows herself to believe she will finally be recognized and accepted.

The world turns upside down when Chase’s body is found near an abandoned fire tower in the marsh. Who killed him? Why? Instinctively, without cause, the town blames the mysterious Marsh Girl leading to an excruciating trial for Kya. Will she find herself imprisoned, alienated from both town and her marsh? A trapped animal?

No more clues. Just remember that Kya is sensitive, extraordinary, curious, intelligent and adaptive. There is a lot more to see here. The final chapters are heartwarming as she finally finds peace and love. The ending will blow your mind.

Outstanding fiction at its best. Good book club selection.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

THE LAST WOMEN IN THE FOREST: a novel

It’s a terrible thing to have loved someone and not know the extent to which you have been deceived… – Marian Engström

Marian Engström scanned the seasonal conservation job listings for her next position. Her latest job had taken her to South Padre Island, Texas to rescue sea turtles but the contract ended and time to move along.

As a dog lover, she was pleased to find a position with Conservation Canines through the University of Washington. The study would be in the bitter sub-zero cold of the snowy mountains near Alberta where oil exploration in oil sands was taking place. The team of dog handlers and trip orienteers would be based out of Whitefish, Montana in a place the group called “The Den”.  Marian, and the other orienteers, would assist the dog handlers setting up trip navigation in designated zones locating wolf, caribou and moose scat, bagging each detected specimen, and charting the waypoints. The purpose of the study is to examine the effects of the oil drilling on the wildlife in the area. This aspect of the novel is well researched and reads a little bit clinical but very interesting.

The book opens with the vividly described murder of a trusting young woman charmed by someone she perceived to be a good Samaritan. Labeling the murdered girl, (Stillwater) Victim #1, alerts the reader to watch for clues. One of the primary or secondary characters is a serial killer!

We meet Marian six months after she has moved to the Whitefish base camp. She is wading into Bull Creek sprinkling the ashes of her boyfriend and dog handler, Tate, and watching them flow downstream. The accident that caused his death unknown to the reader.

It was a beautiful spot…Tate had chosen this location…had pressed the river rock against her palm and asked her to remember.

Marian stands in the cold stream reflecting on their brief relationship with its sweet and sour tones. Heading back to camp, she’s left with an edgy feeling that something was off.  Did he really loved her as much as she loved him? Where to begin to unravel her contradictory feelings?

Tate would share life stories with her making her cry in sympathy for him. One tear-jerker described a stray dog he adopted as a child that died after falling into a swift stream.  Another time, out of the blue, he tells her he found the body of one of the four Stillwater murders. She decides to confirm the accuracy of this story to ease her mind.

She contacts Nick Shepard, a retired forensic profiler, known to be intimately involved in the Stillwater murder investigations. Although he is dying of cancer, a fact he tries to keep from her, he agrees to help confirm or dispel the facts of Tate’s story.

With Marian and Nick narrating, the story gymnastically flips back and forth in time beginning when Tate picked her up at the airport and ultimately reaches present day where we learn about Tate’s fate. Juxtaposed between Marian and Nick’s chapters are vivid tales of the other three unsolved Stillwater murders that may be a bit disturbing to some people. The final chapters pull together loose threads leading to a dramatic conclusion.

The isolation and loneliness of the job were palpable. As one person said, “It a way of life – not a job”; someone comfortable with themselves alone or someone running from life and reaching the end of the line. It’s do or die time. Survival is not so much the result of luck as it is of skill and training. The overarching themes of observation and situational awareness crisscrossed Marian’s job as well as her personal life.

The job was never a problem for Marian. She was well-suited for the conditions and the work. The issue was emotional and her insecurity with humans. Was she as gullible as it seemed or was she out maneuvered by a mastermind of evil? Surrounded by macho mountain men with personalities like Jeremiah Johnson, was it easy for a young woman to be drawn to a man seemingly devoted to her? Did Nick find peace for the families of the murdered girls?

A good solid book worthy of a read. There’s something for everyone -love, friendship, trust and distrust, murder, dogs, freezing cold and stark wilderness settings.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews