Continuing my reading of this series set in the forests of Wyoming’s Rocky Mountains, I confess myself completely charmed despite a total lack of interest in hunting, fishing and trekking through forests. Joe Pickett is a game warden – as described by the author, C J Box:
Game wardens are unique because they can legitimately be involved in just about every major event or situation that involves the outdoors and the rough edges of the rural new west. They’re trained and armed law enforcement officers, and nearly every human they encounter in the field is armed, which is unique. Often, they’re too far from town to call backup in an emergency so they’re forced to deal with situations with their experience, weapons, and wits. Their districts can encompass 5,000 square miles of rough country filled with wildlife, history, schemes, and secrets. By necessity, they’re lone wolves.
The first three novels have contained some recurring, strong themes: the beauty of the country, as seen through Joe’s eyes – unsentimentally but with complete appreciation; Joe’s family life – he is married to Marybeth and they have three children as well as often having Marybeth’s difficult mother to stay; and the tensions Joe feels as he strives to uphold the law that makes the forest environment and wildlife sustainable while having to live in a local community of hunters, fishers and strong individualists who have moved to the remote hamlet of Saddlestring, often to get away from the excessive interference (as they see it) of the authorities, so not of a helpful temperament from Joe’s perspective.
The character of Joe Pickett is, in a way, the antithesis of many modern literary protagonists. He’s happily married with a growing family of daughters. He does not arrive with excess emotional baggage, or a dark past that haunts him. He works hard and tries, sincerely, to “do the right thing.” He doesn’t talk much. He’s a lousy shot. He’s human, and real, which means he sometimes screws up.
In Winterkill, there is not much mystery about a crime which Joe stumbles across during the course of his duties. His boss at the US Forest and Fishery service goes apparently mad, shooting up a herd of wild elk – but is himself killed before Joe can take him into custody. The case is taken over by the cardboard Marianne Strickland, a 100 per cent bad bureaucrat who arrives with her own little dogs and tame “lifestyle” journalist in tow. Strickland is in charge of investigating anti-government conspiracies, which with her preconceived notions she sees everywhere. While Joe is paying a sympathy call to the new widow, and before anyone can catch their breath, Strickland identifies and jails a local survivalist and falconer, Nate, for the crime, seemingly entirely on the basis of Nate’s lifestyle. Of the posse who arrested him, Nate identifies Joe as the only decent person (i.e. he did not beat him up and destroy his possessions), eventually managing to convince Joe he is probably innocent and to help him (and feed his birds).
The other main thread of this novel concerns April, the young girl whom the Picketts took in at the end of the first novel and who is by now a daughter to them. Here, April’s mother has returned to the area as part of a convoy of survivalists and refugees (some from Waco and Ruby Ridge) who camp illegally in the forest. Joe and Marybeth have to give up April, they hope temporarily, stepping up their long legal battle to adopt her. Strickland, in the meantime, sees the campers as an ideal target and decides to use another forest crime as an excuse to attack them. Joe is on a race against time to find the real criminal(s) before this happens, not only because he sympathises with parts of the campers’ predicament but also for April’s sake.
It’s a sad story, the author using it to highlight his concerns about federal government shortcomings and institutionalised bureaucracies, as well as the painful struggles of the adoption process that hardly put the child’s best interests first. There is also the usual theme of Joe standing up for what is right with very little support from any of the townspeople, let alone the sheriff, a man with whom Joe has scores to settle. Some of the novel is a bit clunky, such as when Nate tells Joe the history of Strickland and her even more evil sidekick, but the story flows well and is both exciting and affecting.
These novels are unpretentious and direct, displaying real humanity and conscience. They are extremely easy and effortless to read, yet they are dark (darker than the reader might anticipate at the start). I do find they justify the use of force as a solution too much for my taste (or in other books, contain unnecessarily protracted violence) but overwhelmingly I highly recommend this series as an impressive mixture of realistically lived lives, personal integrity and a beautifully conveyed sense of “place”.
(I purchased this book, first published in 2003, in Kindle format.)
Author website, including information about the Joe Pickett series.
Other reviews of Winterkill are at: Book Reporter, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, USA Today.
My reviews of the first two novels in the Joe Pickett series, Open Season and Savage Run.