Friday, July 24, 2015

Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere

By Poe Ballantine

Chadron is a small college town in northwestern Nebraska, bisected by U.S. Route 20. After he married his wife Cristina, Poe decided to settle in Chadron, a place he had lived in briefly a few years before. He thought the small town atmosphere would agree with his new wife, a native of Mexico who did not speak English at all well.
Poe was a wanderer before he married Cristina. He wanted to be an author but was not able to support himself writing and so worked at a variety of jobs, none of which paid very well. In fact, Cristina had married him thinking he was a rich American and that she was going to partake in the American Dream. He wasn't rich though, just a working man, working as a short-order cook, cleaning floors at night in the supermarket. This led to some stress in their marriage, as Cristina dealt with her disappointment in her new life, her alienation from the foreigners that surrounded her, and the birth of their son who might or might not be autistic. One of the things they argued about was the time Poe spent writing, which, since it didn't earn much money, Cristina regarded as a waste of time.
Chadron, although a small town of about 6000, has a fairly transient population due to it being a college town. One of the new arrivals to town was Steven Haataja, a math professor hired to teach at the college. Steven came with some baggage, having had some problems in the past, including depression and a suicide attempt. But now he seemed to be doing much better. Divorced, he came to Chadron alone, but had family nearby in South Dakota. He seemed to be settling into his new job and making connections in the local community. But then he disappeared one night in December.
Steven's body was found a few month later on a ranch. He has been tied to a tree and his feet bound. His hands and arms were not tied. His body was severely burned, so badly burned it was not even clear if it was the body of a man or a woman.
What happened to him? Was he murdered? Commit suicide? Or was it some kind of strange accident? Apparently he had been drinking. Was he so drunk he fell into his campfire? These are some of the questions Poe tries to answer while also trying to save his own marriage and raise his son.

It's an interesting look at life in a small town that is dealing with a puzzling tragedy. Also of a man coping with his unhappy spouse and his young son whom some have described as autistic. The first part of the book was certainly more interesting than the second part. In the first part we get to know about Poe and his wife and child and their life together in Chadron. But the second part focuses mainly on Steven and the investigation into his death and, though it should have been the most interesting part of the book, it just wasn't as engaging. But overall, I enjoyed reading this book, mainly the parts about Poe and his friends and family.

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