In William Kent Krueger’s exquisite The River We Remember, newspaper editor Sam Wicklow wants to write a book about the experiences of the Dakota Sioux people of Jewel, Minnesota. One character describes his project as telling “The history of this place. The whole history. The true history.” And that’s exactly what Krueger so adroitly achieves in this novel, excavating both the history and truth of a memorable town through one compelling mystery: Who killed the town’s wealthiest landowner, a tormented bully of a man named Jimmy Quinn whom no one seemed to like, and left him lying in the Alabaster River to be gnawed on by catfish?
The acclaimed author of 19 Cork O’Conner mysteries, Krueger is no stranger to the form. He sets the scene beautifully, beginning with the discovery of Quinn’s body on Memorial Day 1958, as Sheriff Brody Dern and his part-time deputy, retired sheriff Connie Graff, begin to investigate. The author is a superb director of his large cast of characters, including café owner Angie Madison, who lost her husband in World War II; her 14-year-old son, Scott, who is eager to meet life head-on despite the congenital hole in his heart; and female attorney Charlie Bauer, who, after the war, worked on behalf of Japanese American families who had lost their lives, savings and livelihoods while incarcerated in camps. The aftermath of WWII—and war in general—haunts The River We Remember. Brody, a veteran who has PTSD, is an intriguing central protagonist, and holds several surprising secrets; one of his early actions in the investigation is particularly jaw-dropping.
In this page-turning, but also rewarding read, Krueger deepens the tightly-plotted central mystery by examining many horrors of history that reach out to affect the present day. Suspicion for Quinn’s murder soon falls on Noah Bluestone, a Dakota Sioux veteran who has recently returned to Jewel with a Japanese wife, Kyoko. Numerous prejudices run deep throughout the novel, including those against Quinn’s German widow, Marta, and Wendell Moon, a Black cook at Angie’s café. Krueger excels at embracing both the beauty and the sordid side of his characters’ lives, making them feel alive and all too human.
At one point, Sam’s wife asks her husband, “This book you’re going to write, if you ever do, I wouldn’t count on it being a bestseller. . . Why don’t you write a mystery instead? Everybody loves a good mystery.” The beauty of The River We Remember is that it’s an excellent mystery but also so much more, making readers care about all of these flawed lives while unearthing painful truths about the xenophobia and racism nestled within small-town America.