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At first glance, it seems like PRUDENCE might be a murder mystery. After all, David Treuer's fourth novel opens with the discovery of the title character --- a young Indian woman --- dead in a room above a small-town bar in 1952. Then, the action shifts back 10 years. An escaped German POW roams Minnesota's remote north woods, and it appears this might be a war novel. Next, there's an illicit romance between two childhood friends. Treuer takes these disparate elements and weaves them together to tell a quietly devastating story about how circumstance, secrets and shame shape people's lives.

The real action of the novel begins in August 1942, when recent Princeton graduate Frankie Washburn makes one last pilgrimage to the Pines, his family's summer home in northern Minnesota. Frankie, once a scrawny, anemic child, has matured into a broad-shouldered young man. He has joined the Air Force, seeing it as his chance to escape the weight of his parents’ expectations. Restless and eager to prove himself, Frankie arrives at the Pines and immediately leads a group into the brush to hunt for the escaped prisoner. What happens next changes the lives of everyone involved.

"The book culminates in a heartbreaking stream-of-consciousness passage in which Prudence tells her story. It's the emotional centerpiece of the novel, reframing many of the events that came before and allowing readers to see her character in a new light."

In PRUDENCE, Treuer takes that small moment in time, and the decisions leading up to it, and deftly uses it to explore questions of race, identity and sexual politics. Gradually, through careful shifts of perspective, he reveals the story of Prudence, the beautiful, self-destructive Indian runaway who falls in love with Frankie. We also meet Felix, an Indian who survived World War I only to return home to personal devastation, and who now works as the caretaker for the Pines. Finally, there are Frankie and his childhood-friend-turned lover Billy, an Ojibwe Indian who helps out around the Pines. They are in love, but their taboo sexuality, as well as racial and class divides, keep them apart. 

Treuer grew up on Minnesota's Leech Lake Indian Reservation, the son of an Ojibwe mother and a Holocaust survivor, and has explored the contemporary Native American experience in his previous books, including LITTLE and REZ LIFE. He has returned to those roots in PRUDENCE. The remote, unforgiving Minnesota landscape is as much a character as Felix or Frankie, and Treuer captures the unique oppressiveness of both the state's summer (“As soon as they stepped past the window of spruce that bordered the yard and the first few feet of hazel brush, it was as though they had stepped underwater.”) and its notorious winters (“It was terribly cold. Her galoshes sounded like logs banging on the frozen macadam. The road was gray between the mounded snow on either side. The snow glowed between the trees.”).

Perched on the edge of the wilderness, the Pines and the lakes, rivers and woods that surround it are both a refuge and a trap. Frankie’s mother, Emma, sees it as “the world she had been waiting for all her life, a world for which she was intended,” until its peacefulness is abruptly shattered. As a child, Frankie believed “the woods themselves, unfolding behind the Pines, carried only possibility.” But that possibility, once hopeful, turns dark. Meanwhile, Prudence, Felix and Billy all seem waylaid in this unforgiving landscape, trapped by circumstances beyond their control.   

Despite a few dramatic moments, PRUDENCE unspools slowly. Though the characters occasionally venture far from the Pines --- to Texas, England and France --- Treuer returns again and again to that afternoon in August 1942, employing numerous points of view so that multiple versions of the same events emerge. By having the story circle back on itself repeatedly, Treuer is able to put off explaining what really happened to that escaped German soldier. When the truth is finally revealed, it comes like a punch in the gut, a devastating example of how the simplest of decisions can have far-reaching consequences.

The book culminates in a heartbreaking stream-of-consciousness passage in which Prudence tells her story. It's the emotional centerpiece of the novel, reframing many of the events that came before and allowing readers to see her character in a new light. In the end, there's a certain tragic logic in the way events play out for Frankie, Prudence, Billy and the other residents of the Pines, even as they are left to dwell on their mistakes and the things they've lost. “If only he had done what Emma had asked and checked the dock instead of taking the boys out in the woods to look for the German,” laments Felix. “[H]e might have had two daughters, two girls to care for, and the Pines, all of it, would be as it was, only better. But he had not.”

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on February 13, 2015

by David Treuer

  • Publication Date: February 9, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 1594634076
  • ISBN-13: 9781594634079