October 04, 2006

Between The Covers

That Heather Sharfeddin doesn't neatly resolve all her characters' problems in her new novel, Mineral Spirits — a murder mystery that unfolds alongside a human interest story about a man and a young boy, both loners — is just one reason that sets this brief, satisfying narrative apart. Readers will be not only compelled to turn pages but pleasantly surprised that, at the end, questions hang in the air.

But that's life: searches for love do not necessarily succeed; reasons for aberrant behavior are not always understood and may even be, in the larger scheme of things, irrelevant. Ms. Sharfeddin leaves readers with lots to mull over, especially about her flawed characters who learn something about themselves but have a way to go, none more so than Kip Edelson, the newly appointed sheriff of Mineral County, Montana, who lives in Magda, a former mining town.

He's a decent man and a dedicated professional, but his wife leaves him because he just doesn't get it, she says. Indeed, he doesn't get too far at first investigating the death that opens the book — a badly decomposed body found by 10-year-old Gray Dausman on the banks of the Clark Fork River.

Ms. Sharfeddin works her criminal and the psychological strands together, finally having them converge, but not conclusively. She also, admirably, brings to life an area of the country most readers know little about — the beautiful, rough terrain of a remote region in the Northwest, inhabited mainly by people on the margin or by loners or those who, for various reasons, have chosen to live with little, far from the madding crowd. Even nearby Missoula, a university town, is a stretch for many of these people, but the city does function as a counterpart to the colder, harsher backwoods where most of the novel takes place.

The author draws on what she knows about such an area where there is a "one-to-100,000 ratio of people to pine trees." A publisher's note indicates that although Ms. Sharfeddin and her husband and son live on a sheep ranch in Oregon, she was raised in "sparsely populated Riggings, Idaho, the daughter of a forester." It all shows.

Particularly commendable is how the author lets setting define character, envelop, challenge and ennoble some of them. The dead body found on the river bank in bear (and llama) country, in an area populated by gun-toting, hard-drinking sons and daughters of wild west immigrants, is not going to be identified easily. And the young boy, Gray, who finds the body, who has been abandoned by his mother and is living hand-to-mouth and in fear and hunger with a man who is not his father, has the odds against him of turning out right. These are people, this is country, that will seem to most urban readers far from their experience, but Ms. Sharfeddin subtly, surely, reins readers in.

Sheriff Edelson gets help, as it turns out, from an anonymous caller who says that the decomposed body belongs to one "Chris" — an autopsy has revealed the corpse to be a woman. And thereby hangs a tale: several people named Chris emerge in the story — Gray's missing mother; the half-sister of the town's sharpie; shady Randy McHugh, who owns the Silver Dog Saloon, the town's gathering and watering hole and drug depot; the missing daughter of a kind, older woman, Mrs. Sherwood, who befriends the intrepid but confused Sheriff Edelson and also Gray; and a busy prostitute who turns tricks in her trailer.

What in lesser hands might come off as forced or sentimental is realized here in a suspenseful story about hard-won humanity in a hardscrabble land. Mineral Spirits is an engrossing and inspiring book.

Mineral Spirits, a novel by Heather Sharfeddin. Bridge Works, 250 pp., $21.95

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