Nathan Active, an Alaskan state trooper, has been assigned to Chuckchi, a small, remote town in Alaska. Although he was born there to Inuquiat (native Alaskan) parents, he was bought up in Anchorage by a white adoptive couple as his birth mother, a young teenager, could not cope with looking after a baby. Nathan’s mother has long since grown up, become educated, remarried and settled into a local job as a teachers’ aide. She tries to reconnect with her son, but Nathan feels resentful for her long-ago abandonment. His main ambition is to stay single and to get promoted so he can be transferred to Anchorage as soon as possible.
This background becomes clear in the first chapter or two of the novel, in which a young Inuquiat man has been found shot and Nathan is sent to investigate. Everyone is convinced the death is a suicide, partly because suicide is prevalent among the young at this time of year in such a dark, cold and remote region; and partly because George Clinton, the victim, is a member of a family said to have a curse on them. Nathan is not convinced as he’s never heard of a suicide who is shot in the throat, and a confused old woman claims to have seen someone shooting the boy. Although Nathan is pretty easy-going, giving the locals lifts in his police vehicle (with the ‘flashers’ on if required), he’s both conflicted about his mixed past, and stubborn. He feels he does not belong as an Inuquiat – in fact he does not even speak the language – and this discomfort is mirrored in his own attitude to his work, as he’s unable to accept the authority of his superiors unquestioningly.
Hence, when the husband of a friend of Nathan’s mother goes missing and there’s no budget for a search party, Nathan does some freelance investigating in the guise of chartering a plane to attend a course. He finds the body of the man, shot in the same way as George Clinton. Even more convinced that the deaths were not accidents, Nathan begins to investigate the Grey Wolf mine, the main source of labour in the region, where both men worked. The plot widens into broader issues: alcoholism is rife in the little community and is responsible not only for many crimes but also for the high suicide rate; and some unusual shifts in the water level and some diseased fish could, Nathan thinks, be connected both to the mine and to the men’s deaths.
Part of the charm of this novel is due to the typical dogged, loner investigator typified by Nathan – in this case made distinctive by his inner conflicts about his racial identity. Much of it is due to the window on life in the snowy wastes of Alaska, where communication is intermittent and possessions have to be flown in by small charter planes, so everything is kept, reused and recycled for years. People spend their time either hunting or drinking, but the constant challenge of living in winter darkness, in a place where the water is always frozen (sanitation being a major problem) and anything you might want has to be expensively ordered and waited-for, takes a long-term toll on the residents. This background, together with several telling character sketches among the residents, colleagues and later, people associated with the mine and state politics, provide a satisfying roundness. To my mind, the plot itself is slightly simplistic and naively resolved (it was written in 1999, and the world has changed since then, not least in the price of copper), but nevertheless I enjoyed this engaging novel, and hope to read more in the series (of which this book is the first).
I purchased my copy of this book.
Author’s website (includes the Nathan Active series in reading order).