In his retirement from the sheriff’s department, Cork O’Connor runs a lakeside snack shack and enjoys a quiet life in Aurora, Minnesota. But he can’t sell enough fries to send his older daughter Jenny to college next fall, and he’s obtained his private investigators license to supplement the family bank account. Jenny’s intense romance with Sean concerns both Cork and his wife Jo, and it turns out they have reason to be worried.
But Cork hasn’t the luxury to deal with Jenny’s tragedy head on, because of the trouble that comes to him. Henry Meloux, an ancient Ojibwe medicine man whom Cork has known and revered for 40 years, enters the hospital with chest pain. When Cork rushes to see him, Henry has a request: find the son no one knew he had, a son who Henry has never even met, a son whose name he doesn’t even know. All Cork has to go on is the mother’s name, Henry’s suspicion that the son is somewhere near Ontario, Canada, and a gold pocket watch with the woman’s picture.
Thus begins a quest that takes us deeply into Henry’s story --- the story of a young Ojibwe orphan, conscripted into an American Indian school, forbidden to speak his own language and forced into labor on a farm; the story of how this young man escapes and learns from his uncle to live off the land; and the story of how he meets Maria Lima deep in the Canadian wilderness, an impetuous and intelligent Cuban beauty traveling with her father, one of two gold prospectors, for whom Henry serves as a guide. Violence and greed separate Henry and Maria, but not before they fall deeply in love.
Now, 70 years later, Henry must bear the news that Maria married the other prospector, Leonard Wellington. Yet she named her first son, who was born only two months after their marriage, Henry. When Cork finds the grown-up Henry, a Howard Hughes-style recluse on an island up in Thunder Bay, his hopes for organizing a reunion between father and son fade. The man is a fanatic. He’s not interested in entertaining the notion that his father was an “Indian buck.” But back home in Minnesota, Henry’s heart problems vanish now that he knows his son is alive and needs him. He insists that Cork take him to Canada, and Cork, because he owes so much to Henry, cannot say no.
It’s an exciting and gripping story, and as a bonus, the characterization and writing transcend the usual standards of genre fiction. Krueger conveys much through his use of vivid detail. Here’s his description of Henry Wellington’s bodyguard: “I saw that he was hard all over, well muscled, with a broad chest, narrow waist, thick arms, and a neck like a section of concrete pillar. He wore sunglasses and didn’t remove them. I saw myself small, approaching in their reflection.” To add to the menace, when they arrive in Wellington’s chamber, the television is showing an open heart surgery. “The bloody hands on the television gripped the heart, and I was afraid maybe they were going to pull it out of the body. The screen went black. I didn’t mind.”
And yet, the novel is about more than greed, betrayal and suspense. It’s about relationships --- between father and son, and between father and daughter. And it is here that Krueger shines. When Henry finally sees his son, Cork notes the old man’s uncertainty. “To be a son, to be a father, these things were more than just a blood tie. Maybe that’s what the hesitation was about. Did the relationship matter if, in the end, Wellington didn’t give a damn?”
The story of Cork and his own family’s crisis makes a nice counterpoint to the mystery of Henry Meloux, and Krueger juggles them well. For a “thriller” THUNDER BAY has uncommonly profound, mature and moving things to say about love. You will burn through this book, relishing the twists and turns. But perhaps, if you’re like this jaded reviewer, the biggest surprise will be your leaky eyes on the final page.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 23, 2011