By the Book: ‘Dakota,’ a New Thriller from East End Publisher

"Dakota" by Gwen Florio.
"Dakota" by Gwen Florio. (The Permanent Press)

In case you missed the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, you can catch up on grim, Northwest cold and feisty female protagonists with Gwen Florio’s suspenseful new thriller Dakota, featuring sleuthing journalist Lola Wicks.

Dakota (The Permanent Press), a sequel to Wicks’ debut appearance in Montana, doesn’t require having read the earlier award-winning book because the author artfully provides exposition (and recap). Lola, tall, mid-30s, taciturn, hails from Baltimore, where she worked as a foreign correspondent with dangerous postings to Kabul, but she winds up in Magpie, Montana, Blackfeet country, living, kind of, with Charlie Laurendeaua, a member of the Niitsitapi Tribe. Laurendeaua is the sheriff in Magpie, Montana, an all-white small town with an Indian reservation (The Res) and lots of low-life characters.

The setting allows Florio to explore fracking, a subject much in the news but rarely fleshed out from the perspective of the rough men who come to work on “the [oil] patch” from all over the country, if not the world.

“Dakota?” As one character asks, since when did they drop the “North?” But in using just the noun, Florio suggests a condition as well as a locale. To be in “Dakota” is to live in a time warp, a place where “civilization ran out of steam.” Lola got there when she came to Big Sky country to be with a friend, but after the friend was killed, Lola stayed on, inheriting her dog, a three-legged border collie named Bub. Magpie, MT is not easy, but Burnt Creek, ND is something else. A guy who runs a stripper bar there, Sweet Crude, used to be a social studies teacher. He says of former students who occasionally show up to lap dance, “I guess we’re all making so much money now the old rules don’t apply.” Then there’s Charlotte, a seriously overweight, maternal former nurse, and her handsome husband, Thor Brevik, who’s the sheriff in Burnt Creek. To tell more about this odd couple would be a spoiler, but Kathy Bates and Matthew McConaughy would do them just fine. What no movie could convey, however, no matter how striking the photography, is what Florio captures in memorable prose—the smell of the town and its degenerate inhabitants, the feel of the biting, menacing cold and dark of winter. Not to mention the “profusion” of oil rigs, “stabbing at the sky, a veritable forest cloaked year-round in green—not the verdure of leaves, but the rustling come-hither of ready cash. First came the ubiquitous pump jacks common even around Magpie, grasshopper heads ducking rhythmically as metronomes toward the earth as their mechanisms turned slow-motion revolutions.”

A prologue dramatically sets up the mystery that drives the narrative. An attractive young Indian girl is in a truck, the driver is someone with whom she has had sex. The night is sub-zero, but she propels herself out of the truck, only a few miles from the reservation. Chapter One then opens: “The dead girl in the snow bank…” Lola shows up, as does Charlie, but there’s nothing yet to indicate foul play though there’s a brand mark on the girl in the shape of a heart, and soon after, the trucker is found dead off the icy road, his neck viciously broken. Other girls, Lola learns, have disappeared from the reservation. She gets herself assigned to do a story about the men from The Res who work at the patch, driving back and forth on the 1,000-mile round trip, but her main interest is to find out about the dead girl. Does she ever!

To read Dakota is not only to settle in with an exciting story but to learn about Indian ways. (No one, by the way, Indian or White, uses the term “Native American” in this carefully researched book.) It’s also to admire Florio’s talent for plot. Half-way through, four dead bodies have turned up, but threats and horrors mount, most directed at Lola, who endures a savage beating and comes to feel that the brutality in Burnt Creek surpasses much of what she saw in Afghanistan. Distinctive, disturbing, Dakota more than suggests that the American Northwest can be a passage to hell.

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