The River We Remember is the third full-length stand-alone novel by William Kent Krueger, who is well known for his 20+ book Cork O'Connor mystery series. Ordinary Grace, his first non-series book, is my favorite novel of all time. I was reluctant to read another stand-alone story written by him because my expectations were so high; as a result, I haven't read This Tender Land even though I have a personally autographed copy on my shelves. I was happy, but not surprised, that I truly appreciated every aspect of The River We Remember. The writing is excellent and approachable, my favorite literary style.
This story has an interesting mystery - solving the death of influential but lowly-regarded Jimmy Quinn - but it's also much more. It's a study of flawed but (mostly) well-intentioned characters, a snapshot of life in the late 1950s in southern Minnesota, and commentary on the impact of WWII on those who served and all who waited on the home front, as illustrated in this quote.
Brody: "To him and Del this probably feels like war."
Anita: "But they're just boys."
Brody: "It's always boys who go to war."
Readers meet a fairly large cast as we live among the residents of Jewel for the summer of 1958; I found it helpful to make a character list. They face alcoholism, abuse, grief, prejudice, post-traumatic stress syndrome, infidelity, and a host of other faults, but they're also altruistic, loving, hard-working, and loyal. The primary character is Sheriff Brody Dern; a decorated war hero, he strives to do the right thing, which may or may not involve following the letter of the law.
Brody: "... you and I both know that justice isn't always about what the law dictates. Hell, maybe it never is."
In his role and as a lifelong resident of Jewel, Brody is connected to everyone in town; he's the throughline of the story. No writer crafts multi-dimensional characters like William Kent Krueger, which is the primary reason I love his novels.
I'm very grateful to Atria for sharing a review copy of his powerful novel and to Kent for writing it and (finally) sharing it with the world.
On September 18, 2023, I heard William Kent Krueger speak about his novels and writing process; here are his most meaningful comments from that event:
While writing novels, his Cork O'Connor mysteries are carefully crafted in his head while the stand-alone stories come from his heart.
He considers his stand-alone novels (Ordinary Grace, This Tender Land, and The River We Remember) to be "companions" to each other because they share these commonalities:
- set in southern Minnesota vs. northern Minnesota for Cork O'Connor novels
- set in earlier years (1930s to 1960s) than the Cork O'Connor series
- common themes of forgiveness, healing, prejudice, spirituality, etc.
- stories are complete at the end of each book; the characters won't appear in any other stories