LitStack Review: Windigo Island by William Kent Krueger

by Sharon Browning
Windigo IslandWindigo Island
William Kent Krueger
Atria Books
Release Date:  August 19, 2014
ISBN 978-1-4767-4923-5

Windigo Island is the 14th book in William Kent Krueger’s “Cork O’Connor” detective series, which follows  the exploits of the former sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota.  Cork is not only a north woods sleuth, he’s also a man of mixed heritage – part Irish and part Anishinabe (Ojibwe).  It is his indigenous heritage that comes into play most strongly in this novel, in ways both beautiful and tragic.

Mr. Krueger, a long time resident of Minnesota, has always written respectfully about the beauty of Native American culture and their peoples’ deep spirituality, while not turning away from the challenges and conflicts that beset them, both on reservations and in the greater world beyond “the rez”.  But this novel feels like Mr. Krueger’s most personal to date, for it deals openly with the horrific issues of abuse and sexual exploitation that exist for many Native American girls and women today.  In his Author’s Note, he writes:

In 2009 the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center published a report they’d commissioned, which is called “Shattered Hearts:  The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of American Indian Women and Girls in Minnesota.”  In 2011 the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition in conjunction with Prostitution Research and Education published their own report, titled “Garden of Truth:  The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota.”  These groundbreaking documentations of the appalling reality of life for many Native women and girls are must reading for anyone with a social conscience.  Our willing blindness to the truth is the greatest enemy of change.

A windigo, in Native mythology, is a malevolent, insatiable and cannibalistic man/beast creature of great spiritual power, strongly identified with winter, the north and coldness.  It also is associated with famine and starvation, never satisfied with a kill but always looking for its next victim – some legends say that a windigo (or wendigo) grows in proportion to its meal, so it can never be truly full, personifying both gluttony and emaciation in the same creature.  Terrifyingly, when you hear a windigo call your name, it means you are marked for death.

In his newest novel, William Kent Krueger takes on the human manifestation of the windigo:  men who prey on Native girls, consuming young lives in an insatiable desire for money, power, and sexual gratification.  Girls barely into their teens are lured into a life of prostitution by promises of nice clothes, food and shelter by men who then set them up to be passed around for the often sadistic whims of men on harbor-docked freighters on the Great Lakes, in temporary housing near the oil fields of the Dakotas, at corporate outings anywhere in the Midwest.  Many times these girls come from “the rez”, from broken households and/or families in poverty, or they may already be involved in sexual or physical abuse at home.  For these girls, caught up in a seemingly unending cycle of exploitation and despair, any whiff of personal value – no matter how degrading – would offset the bruises, broken bones and shattered lives that often comes after those new promises are broken.  But sometimes, a girl would be dropped off on an assignment, never to return – brutalized then discarded, abandoned or taking her own life.  There would always be other girls to take her place.

Private investigator Cork O’Connor is pulled into the search for a runaway girl from the Bad Bluff reservation when the friend she left town with washes up dead on tiny Windigo Island, just off the shore of Lake Superior.  Cork suspects the dead girl was part of an underage prostitution ring and fears for missing Mariah Arceneaux, but everywhere he turns he’s met with dead ends.  Families are closed mouthed or deflective, tribal authorities insist that most of the runaways come back if you give them enough time, the police are uninterested or deny that a problem even exists.  If not for a dedicated group of loved ones – Mariah’s mother, her DNR ranger nephew, a tribal elder and mide (medicine man), and Cork’s own daughter, Jenny – Mariah might become just another forgotten statistic, like her friend Carrie.

But as the hunt progresses, the impact of the emerging evil takes a toll on each member of the team and they are faced with the question of how far would they be willing to go to remove an insidious threat to which most have already turned a blind eye?  Where do you draw the line – do you draw the line – when meting out true justice?  Can you fight with monsters without becoming a monster yourself?

The story is heartbreaking, the message is powerful.  Krueger does a very effective job of presenting why a young girl may choose to stay with her abuser, how the very agencies set up to protect these vulnerable girls and women often are the ones who throw up the largest roadblocks for their redemption, and how hard it is to combat society’s apathy and snap rationalizations (after all, isn’t prostitution “the oldest profession” there is?).  His voice is also very strong when the characters struggle with their own motivations and fears, for themselves and for those whom they love.

Unfortunately, although this is may be one of the strongest Cork O’Conner books in story and effect, the writing at times felt trifling.  Whereas in earlier novels, the minutia of the action is endearing and helps to set the mood, in this book, I found myself wondering why (for example) I was being told so often where the team stopped for dinner and what each of them ordered (including what each had to drink).  Sentences seemed to continuously run short and choppy, rather than the flowing narrative I’ve come to expect from a William Kent Krueger book.  Plus there were many subplots, sidetracking the real grist of the story.  While the main theme wove itself tightly around the core of the storyline, the edges were desperately fraying.

It doesn’t help that one of the central themes of the book – that inside each of us are two wolves fighting for control, one that is love and one that is fear, and the one that we feed is the one that wins – while poignant, has unfortunately become the latest slop of social media sentimentality, popping up in online posts and internet memes, lessening its impact as sage Native wisdom (which actually, it isn’t).  This certainly is not Mr. Krueger’s “fault”, but it does give an air of superficiality to something that was meant to instead lend gravitas to the tale.

Luckily, these are stumbles, not show stoppers.  The message still resonates, and Mr. Krueger puts a very human face – faces – on the issue:  not only the victims, broken in body and spirit, but also the emptiness and despair that thrives in the wake of abuse and exploitation, for the girls caught up in the brutal cycle, for the families they left behind, often struggling with the same battles, for those workers who do try to stem the tide of abuse against overwhelming odds, even for the men who sell the girls or those who buy their services.  (That one of the traffickers cares more about his elderly dog than he does about the girls he “provides” or even his own kin is a hauntingly deft touch.)

The investigation twists, and the question at the center of it evolves, from “What happened to Mariah?” to “Will we be able to find Mariah?” and finally to “Will we even be able to save her if we do find her?”.  Cautiously, carefully, the hunt moves forward (for Henry, the old Mide, tells Jenny that the most important attribute a hunter needs is patience), the characters become dear and the heart breaks.  The outcome becomes so important, especially knowing that there are Mariahs out there who may not have hunters coming to find her.  Despite any trifling detractions, Windigo Island should be read for this alone.

Windigo Island needs to be read.  For this alone.

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1 comment

Ron 2 December, 2014 - 12:40 pm

How strange, Sharon. I’m currently half finished with the book. Yes, Patricia and I agree about the stumbles, Patricia, more so than I. Again, how timely.

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