Book review: William Kent Kruger’s ‘The River We Remember’ is art

“The River We Remember.” By William Kent Kruger. Atria.

In an epilogue to his novel, author William Kent Kruger writes, “Our lives and the lives of those we love merge to create a river whose current carries us forward from our beginning to our end. Because we are only one part of the whole, the river each of us remembers is different, and there are many versions of the stories we tell about the past. In all of them, there is truth, and in all of them a good deal of innocent misremembering.”

And so Kruger’s brilliant novel, “The River We Remember,” is a pastiche of stories, not just of remembering the past but of coping with the present. They flow together with their snags and hidden debris like the waters of the Alabaster River of Kruger’s story.

Jimmy Quinn is the wealthiest member of Black Earth County, and the most hated. So there is little sorrow when his body, ravished by hungry catfish, washes up on the shore of the Alabaster River, which runs past the town of Jewell, Minn. Quinn didn’t drown, however. He’d been shot before his body either fell or was dumped into the river.

Left alone at the crime scene, Sheriff Brody Dern wipes clean the gun he found, the door handles of Quinn’s truck and everything that might have incriminating fingerprints. He wants the death to be called a suicide, and it would have been if a deputy hadn’t insisted on investigating. As a result, Noah Blackstone is arrested and charged with murder.

Blackstone is an Indian, married to Kayoko, a Japanese woman. This is 1958, little more than a decade after World War II, and many of the men, including Brody, are World War II veterans. It’s easy to blame Noah and his wife for the crime.

At a hearing, Noah refuses to enter a plea. So his lawyer, a retired crusader for justice for California’s downtrodden, pleads him not guilty. Both Noah and his wife refuse to discuss the killing, so the attorney investigates on her own and discovers that Quinn molested his own daughter as well as a housemaid. She and Brody conclude that Noah killed Quinn because the man had attacked Kayoko.

Noah’s silence isn’t the only secret in Black Earth County. Brody is having an affair with his brother’s wife. And a beloved widow and mother who runs the local restaurant once was a prostitute who kept a diary that kept count of the number of tricks she’d turned. Black Earth County is a regular “Peyton Place,” the book published only a couple of years earlier. “The River We Remember” is enriched with a patina of the 1950s. Girls play with hula hoops. Someone drives an Edsel. A host of World War II veterans march in the Fourth of July parade, along with an old veteran who served at Wounded Knee.

More importantly, Kruger describes the 1950s as a gentler time when neighbors helped each other. Boys slept outside at night. Women took food to the sick and the grieving. Still, there was prejudice and discrimination. When Noah’s wife bows to Brody, he is filled with hatred as he is flooded with memories of the Asian woman who betrayed him during the war.

There is beauty to Kruger’s writing. Author of the popular Cork O’Connor mystery series, Kruger is also the author of two best-selling stand-alone novels, “Ordinary Grace” and “This Tender Land.” He is a fine storyteller, but it is his understanding of his characters and his sense of the past that make “The River We Remember” more than just a story. As novels go, this one is a work of art.

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