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Book Review

A Moody Thriller Tinged by Dark Tribal Medicine

SIX CROOKED HIGHWAYS by Wayne Johnson Harmony Books $23, 320 pages

September 14, 2000|GEORGIA JONES-DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"There's the daylight in me . . . and there's all that is . . . agawateshin, in shadow. Shadow, in Ojibwemowin, is a powerful and dark word," Wayne Johnson's complex hero tells us in this taut sequel to his thriller, "Don't Think Twice."

The aptly named Paul Two Persons exists in light and in shadow. He attempts to pursue a peaceful life, but trouble never seems too far away from the fiercely independent man who is a member of the Red Lake Band of the Chippewa. "Six Crooked Highways" continues the story of Two Persons, who runs a successful fishing lodge on the Minnesota reservation, and the members of his tribal council who have other ideas about how the land might benefit the tribe--or themselves.

When we first meet Two Persons, he is a character carrying around an awful lot of baggage. His young son and two close friends were murdered, and he killed a priest in self-defense. The members of the Chippewa tribal council consider him antisocial, even violent, and want nothing to do with him. How did all this happen, and why?

Readers new to Johnson may feel as if they are entering Two Persons' story in the middle. Our children aside, the author reminds us, don't we all meet one another in the middle of our own dramas? Johnson uses Two Persons' personal history to round him out as a fascinating character who has grown and changed in the course of his rough experiences, enticing the reader to go back to the prequel, "Don't Think Twice." But Johnson's particular approach to building plot and character doesn't always succeed. Certain events that have taken place outside the framework of "Six Crooked Highways"--for example, the subplots of the child molester Father Prideaux and the killing of Stanley LaShapelle's family, Stanley's subsequent trial and prison sentence--feel far too dramatic and cumbersome to be neatly glossed over in a few pages or even a chapter.

Two Persons despises the petty politics of the tribal council but feels a great responsibility toward his own economically deprived people. He recognizes that in some ways he's been luckier than most; educated in the traditions of his tribe, he was given an opportunity to study at a fine university on the East Coast. He employs three poor reservation teenagers at the lodge, where they work as fishing guides and general helpers.

Business is good, things hum along, but then a headless body appears in the lake, a boat spins around without anyone at the wheel, a strange phone conversation is followed by the disappearance of a tribal elder. Then there is the apparent drug overdose death of one of the boys working at the lodge. Two Persons and his sidekick, an overweight Anglo policeman named Charlie, know they have trouble on their hands involving dirty cops, a corrupt road development and murder.

Johnson's knowledge of the Chippewa language and traditions gives the book a wonderfully unique character. An evil fetish proves to be a vital lead. Two Persons describes how some of the tribal elders who practiced the dark arts "were said to be shape shifters, Bear Walkers, who killed their enemies at night. I didn't exactly believe all that," he adds, "but it spooked me just the same." The dark side of tribal medicine will spook the reader, too. As Two Persons pursues the killer, he relies increasingly on his Chippewa teachings. The words of his grandfather come back to him: "The land [is] our blood and bone." Two Persons realizes that he must not dance the "Shut-Eye Dance" and be " blind to things . . . right in front of my face." He remembers his spiritual teacher's advice: "Pay attention to the names." He dreams of "windigos . . . men who, out of hunger, or greed or envy, become cannibal giants, made of ice" just before he faces his real enemy.

Johnson is so comfortable with language that he almost makes it disappear. His descriptions are so clear they are nearly transparent. You have no trouble imagining the Northern woods, the "pines and white birch down on shore, lake after lake, each a jewel. . . ." It's as if you can almost remember being Chippewa, almost remember the "smell of gum pine, taste of fry bread, kick of shotgun, duck hunting. Burning leaves. Soft pine needles underfoot. . . ."

"Six Crooked Highways" is a tough yet tender book. Fans of Tony Hillerman's atmospheric novels about the Navajo tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee will find Wayne Johnson's moody story fascinating, a sharp glimpse into a world as mysterious as it is memorable.

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