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28 september 2009
One of Stan Jones's early reviewers said that he writes "like Tony Hillerman in snowshoes." While that may have been the initial "hook" for a detective series about a native Alaskan, the Nathan Active Mysteries are now well-established as a highly original saga of death, detection, and coming to terms with one's self.
Frozen Sun is the most recent of the Nathan Actives. (A new one, Village of the Ghost Bears, is due out later this year.) The basic plot idea is borrowed from Laura, which IMDb gives succinctly as "a police detective falls in love with the woman whose murder he's investigating." Nathan Active, the Inupiat state trooper in remotest Chukchi, Alaska, is asked by local white schoolteacher Jason Palmer to find his missing daughter Grace. Grace Palmer, daughter of Jason and an Inupiat mother, has disappeared into Anchorage's skid row. When Nathan arrives in Anchorage to pick up Grace's trail, he learns that she may well be long-buried, the "Jane Doe" victim of an errant (or homicidal?) snowplow.
But Grace's picture, from a long-ago beauty-queen photo-shoot, haunts Nathan. His fascination with the photo interferes with his current relationship with Inupiat police dispatcher Lucy Generous, a warm-hearted, simpatico woman who has love and marriage on her mind.
Why can't Nathan let the idea of Grace Palmer fade away? Part of it has to do with the complex character that Jones has developed over a decade of writing and two previous novels (White Sky, Black Ice, 1999, and Shaman Pass, 2003). Nathan is the son of an Inupiat single mother who gave him to white adoptive parents. Raised in a middle-class home in Anchorage, he has joined the state Troopers and been posted to his native town, Chukchi. (Chukchi is fictional, but clearly a lot closer to Nome than it is to Wasilla.) Back in Chukchi, in regular contact with his now-settled but still-young birth mother, Nathan suffers from his split identity: though a full-blooded Inupiat, he is considered by all the villagers to be a naluaqmiiyaaq (which variously means "half-breed," "almost white," or "wannabe white").
Caught between identities, Nathan seems to cope with life in Chukchi by opting for no identity at all. He does his job (intermittently very well, but sometimes distractedly). He reaches a modus vivendi with Lucy. But he can't get close to anyone: not to his mother and stepfamily, not to his adoptive parents, not to his old friend Dennis of the Anchorage PD, and sadly, not to Lucy herself.
White Sky, Black Ice is a sort of eco-mystery, and a good one. Shaman Pass, rich in the traditional culture of the Inupiat, is more of an anthro-mystery and is even better. Frozen Sun is another quantum leap forward for Nathan Active and Stan Jones. The characters are rich and fascinating, while leaving enough of themselves unexplained to make me look forward keenly to Village of the Ghost Bears.
Jones, Stan. Frozen Sun. Anchorage: Bowhead, 2008.