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During this 2013-2014 winter, most of us have experienced polar vortex temperatures, endless days of cloudiness, and in some parts of the country, mountainous piles of snow; the unusual winter weather caught us unawares. But it does prepare the reader to understand and even vicariously enjoy the small town of Magpie, Montana, caught in its own dead of winter. The chill of winter permeates the landscape and freezes toes, nose, and fingers in minutes. As death resides in the snowdrifts and rides on plateaus and surrounding mountains, just staying alive plays against the odds. The beautiful surroundings do not keep death at bay.
Gwen Florio's second Lola Wicks mystery, DAKOTA, develops in that icy landscape and showcases all of its grittiness and its raw appeal. Still living in Montana with her boyfriend, Charlie Laurendeau, the county's first Indian sheriff, Lola is determined to learn what has happened to a dead Blackfoot Indian girl. Judith Calf Looking has been found dead in the frigid cold of the Montana landscape. Presumably on her way home, Judith may have just returned from North Dakota, the booming oil patch that attracts many men but few women. The scantily clad body and its snowdrift location seem to point to drugs and, perhaps, prostitution.
Florio has few equals when it comes to describing a desolate landscape. She writes, "In Montana, the wind slammed snow against earth frozen hard as iron and then packed it tight enough to hold cattle on a surface so glazed and brittle that when the occasional steer broke through, it emerged with legs sliced and bloodied by the sharp edges." The brutal details of nature underline the story's theme and run like a thread throughout the novel.
Florio's style is by turns tongue-in-cheek or poignant with lost innocence. The novel's storyline calls for a certain amount of poignancy, dealing as it does with teenage runaways who seem fated to become drug users and prostitutes. Even Bub, a three-legged border-line collie, adds a touch of scarred tenacity to the hard-hitting realism of a world seemingly devoid of pity—a world made mad through its lust. The Dakota oil field, where men live and die, drilling for black gold, is the scene of the novel's harshest moments.
As Lola searches for an answer, we see how her background as a news reporter in Afghanistan has prepared her to enter a place of similar brutality toward women. Living in the rugged world of Montana, Lola adapts to the place but not to all of its customs. She is a pretty tough lady, and the icy conditions mirror her toughness and her tenacity. Yet Lola's impetuous style does not always set well with her boyfriend, Charlie. He does not admire what he does not understand.
However, Charlie does what he can to keep a lid on the problems that come up between the tribe and the townspeople. He has to walk a fine line at times. But Lola, as the outsider, is slowly learning how the Blackfeet think and operate. She admires their strong family bonds as "the aunties and the uncles" arrive like a deus ex machina near the end of the novel. In describing the unbreakable bonds between mothers and daughters, Florio leads us to believe that family bonds signal salvation for the tribal young.
If a reader prefers hard-hitting action, this novel includes enough to make readers cringe at times. The violence is directed mostly toward the protagonist. Her tenacious search for the missing girls leads in odd directions, giving Lola many opportunities to turn around and go home; instead, she usually attempts a one-woman search and ends up with broken ribs, dislocated joints, or an oddly-shaped nose. At one point, Lola associates the term "dark meat" with a fried chicken place, and our fertile minds leap to a gruesome conclusion. But the moment passes, and the novel ends on a less horrific note. But be warned, this tough lady faces wicked adversaries whose villainies exceed our imaginations. During the climax, Lola herself strikes a symbolic blow against the hypocrisy in all of us. In that action, we see Florio's desire to be done with cruelty, prejudice, stupidity, and greed.
§ Donna Allard Halford is a retired English professor from Texas A&M University-Kingsville, now residing in the Hill Country with her best friend, the indomitable Charlie, mutt extraordinaire.
Reviewed by Donna Allard Halford, April 2014
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