For fans of the popular television series “Longmire,” Wyoming author Craig Johnson offers a stocking-stuffer-sized novella. He takes us back to Sheriff Longmire’s first month on the job in Absaroka County, Wyoming. Cady is only nine years old; Walt’s wife, Martha, is still alive; and Walt has inherited a big pair of boots to fill from former sheriff Lucian Connally.
The book opens on Christmas Eve 2013 with only Ruby, the dispatcher, at the desk. Walt is taking Christmas Eve duty while the familiar faces of his deputies take off for the holidays. Cady is too pregnant to travel, so it will be her and Henry, his Indian buddy, for a quiet observance of the next day.
"With characteristic spine-tingling storytelling, Johnson unfolds a heroic tale from the past that involves a critically burned little girl whose parents were killed in an accident..."
Walt is sitting at his desk reading Dickens’s A CHRISTMAS CAROLwhen an elegantly dressed woman of Asian descent opens the door. She seems to know him, but he can’t place her. “Aren’t you finished with that book, yet?” she asks with a smile. She tells Walt that she’s trying to locate Lucian Connally, the sheriff Walt defeated 25 years ago. She tells Walt that she has something she wants to return to him, indicating a garment bag slung over her shoulder.
What unfolds is not unlike Dickens's ghost of Christmas past as Walt drives the woman to see Lucian, who now lives in a local assisted living facility.
With characteristic spine-tingling storytelling, Johnson unfolds a heroic tale from the past that involves a critically burned little girl whose parents were killed in an accident, her frantic grandmother, a famous World War II plane that flew the hump over Burma, flown by none other than young airforce pilot Lucian Connally. A stem-winder blizzard is bearing down on Wyoming and Colorado, and the little girl has only hours to survive if she isn’t treated in the burn unit of the nearest hospital in Denver. Airports are closed all over the West, commercial flights are grounded, and only an off-the record, potentially suicidal flight through the blizzard offers the chance of saving the child.
Get ready for the flight through a frozen hell and a white-knuckle ride as the greenhorn sheriff, Walt, Connally and a reluctant crew of two take off from the museum in the famous decommissioned B-25 bomber “Steamboat,” which has been mothballed since the end of World War II.
SPIRIT OF STEAMBOAT is a short novel --- square-bound and just under 150 pages --- that fills a hole in the Walt Longmire timeline while telling us a bit more about the man himself. Though a somewhat quicker read than Craig Johnson’s typical work in the Longmire canon, it is a substantial one nonetheless. It might be classified as a Christmas story with some degree of accuracy, but whether or not you consider it to be a seasonal novel, it is certainly worth reading.
There are any number of parallels --- freely acknowledged by Johnson --- between SPIRIT OF STEAMBOAT and Charles Dickens’s classic A CHRISTMAS CAROL. The story begins with Longmire in his office on a lonely Christmas Eve, with the two main women in his life elsewhere. He receives an unexpected visitor, a somewhat unusual young woman who is unknown to Longmire (at least at first) while he is very well known to her. She is looking to visit Lucian Connally, Longmire’s predecessor in the sheriff’s office. Connally is busily tapping a bottle of cheer when Longmire and the woman arrive at his residence in the Durant Home for Assisted Living; Connally swears, sober or otherwise, that he has never seen the woman before. As we might expect, that is not quite accurate, and what follows is an account, in Longmire’s voice, of an incident that took place in 1988 involving himself and Connally.
"Though a somewhat quicker read than Craig Johnson’s typical work in the Longmire canon, it is a substantial one nonetheless. It might be classified as a Christmas story with some degree of accuracy, but whether or not you consider it to be a seasonal novel, it is certainly worth reading."
Both men almost lost their lives during a suicide mission in which they attempted to transport a young burn victim and her elderly grandmother to a hospital, by plane, in the middle of a raging snowstorm. You might ask why you should read this book. It is obvious that Longmire and Connally survived the 1988 incident, considering that they are both sitting in a room more or less intact in 2013. And it becomes fairly obvious pretty early in the game who the young woman is. However, Johnson spins a story that is worthy of your time, as everything that can go wrong physically and mechanically does just that.
The meat of SPIRIT OF STEAMBOAT is the telling of how Longmire, Connally and some equally important players use everything but string and sealing wax to keep the plane in the air and on course, and the young patient who is so tenaciously clinging to life alive. You might learn a bit more than you want to about medical procedures and flying (the latter, particularly, if you’re not entirely comfortable with using a mechanical object to assist you in defying the law of gravity over great distances). But you will also gain a major appreciation for the folks who keep the planes in the air and the hearts beating, as well as for first responders who do good and difficult works while the rest of us sleep comfortably and safely in our beds.
SPIRIT OF STEAMBOAT is shot through with irony both sweet and bitter, which will be obvious to anyone with even a nodding familiarity with the Longmire mythos. Johnson covers everything, including an issue that a number of thriller practitioners often miss: “Why is she showing up now?” Johnson answers this question and much more in this fine addition to the series, which also serves as a terrific introduction for those who only know about the television adaptation.
Reviewed by Roz Shea and Joe Hartlaub on October 17, 2013