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The River We Remember

A Novel

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About The Book

In 1958, a small Minnesota town is rocked by a shocking murder, pouring fresh fuel on old grievances in this dazzling novel, an instant New York Times bestseller and “a work of art” (The Denver Post).

On Memorial Day in Jewel, Minnesota, the body of wealthy landowner Jimmy Quinn is found floating in the Alabaster River, dead from a shotgun blast. The investigation falls to Sheriff Brody Dern, a highly decorated war hero who still carries the physical and emotional scars from his military service. Even before Dern has the results of the autopsy, vicious rumors begin to circulate that the killer must be Noah Bluestone, a Native American WWII veteran who has recently returned to Jewel with a Japanese wife. As suspicions and accusations mount and the town teeters on the edge of more violence, Dern struggles not only to find the truth of Quinn’s murder but also put to rest the demons from his own past.

Caught up in the torrent of anger that sweeps through Jewel are a war widow and her adolescent son, the intrepid publisher of the local newspaper, an aging deputy, and a crusading female lawyer, all of whom struggle with their own tragic histories and harbor secrets that Quinn’s death threatens to expose.

Both a complex, spellbinding mystery and a masterful portrait of mid-century American life that is “a novel to cherish” (Star Tribune, Minneapolis), The River We Remember offers an unflinching look at the wounds left by the wars we fight abroad and at home, a moving exploration of the ways in which we seek to heal, and a testament to the enduring power of the stories we tell about the places we call home.

Excerpt

Prologue PROLOGUE
THE ALABASTER RIVER cuts diagonally across Black Earth County, Minnesota, a crooked course like a long crack in a china plate. Flowing out of Sioux Lake, it runs seventy miles before crossing the border into Iowa south of Jewel, the county seat. It’s a lovely river filled with water that’s only slightly silted, making it the color of weak tea. Most folks who’ve grown up in Black Earth County have swum in the river, fished its pools, picnicked on its banks. Except in spring, when it’s prone to flooding, they think of it as an old friend. On quiet nights when the moon is full or nearly so and the surface of the Alabaster is mirror-still and glows pure white in the dark bottomland, to stand on a hillside and look down at this river is to fall in love.

With people, we fall in love too easily, it seems, and too easily fall out of love. But with the land it’s different. We abide much. We can pour our sweat and blood, our very hearts into a piece of earth and get nothing in return but fields of hail-crushed soybean plants or drought-withered cornstalks or fodder for a plague of locusts, and still we love this place enough to die for it. Or kill. In Black Earth County, people understand these things.

If you visit the Alabaster at sunrise or sunset, you’re likely to see the sudden small explosions of water where fish are feeding. Although there are many kinds of fish who make the Alabaster their home, the most aggressive are channel catfish. They’re mudsuckers, bottom feeders, river vultures, the worst kind of scavengers. Channel cats will eat anything.

This is the story of how they came to eat Jimmy Quinn.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The River We Remember includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author William Kent Krueger. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

On Memorial Day, 1958, as the people of Jewel, Minnesota gather to remember and honor the sacrifice of so many sons in the wars of the past, the half-clothed body of wealthy landowner Jimmy Quinn is found floating in the Alabaster River, dead from a shotgun blast. Investigation of the murder falls to Sheriff Brody Dern, a highly decorated war hero who still carries the physical and emotional scars from his military service. Even before Dern has the results of the autopsy, vicious rumors begin to circulate that the killer must be Noah Bluestone, a Native American World War II veteran who has recently returned to Jewel with a Japanese wife. As suspicions and accusations mount and the town teeters on the edge of more violence, Dern struggles not only to find the truth of Quinn’s murder but also to put to rest the demons from his own past.

Caught up in the torrent of anger that sweeps through Jewel are a war widow and her adolescent son, the intrepid publisher of the local newspaper, an aging deputy, and a crusading female lawyer, all of whom struggle with their own tragic histories and harbor secrets that Quinn’s death threatens to expose.

Both a complex, spellbinding mystery and a masterful portrait of midcentury American life from an author of novels “as big-hearted as they come” (Parade), The River We Remember is an unflinching look at the wounds left by the wars we fight abroad and at home, a moving exploration of the ways in which we seek to heal, and a testament to the enduring power of the stories we tell about the places we call home.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. William Kent Krueger’s background as a mystery writer allows him to expertly place clues in the book, leading readers into assumptions about the identity of the murderer before revealing the truth. Discuss the investigation as it unfolded, when you thought you knew who might have committed the crime, and when you were surprised by any outcome.

2. Brody is far from perfect and is secretly betraying his brother, yet he remains the moral center of the book. How is that possible? What qualities does he possess that make him admirable despite his flaws?

3. Connie Graff and Brody represent two different generations of law enforcement. What are some differences between Connie Graff and Brody? What are some similarities? How do they complement each other on the case?

4. How does the Quinn family’s wealth and status in the town of Jewel factor into the investigation?

5. One of the themes of the novel is the cost of war—both physical and emotional—on soldiers as well as those who remain on the home front. Which characters in the novel are most scarred by their experiences in a war? How do they try to cope with those scars? Have things changed for those who fight in wars today?

6. What role do secrets play in the novel? Many characters have secrets from their past, particularly Brody and Angie. Discuss why they might have kept these secrets and how they came to light. How did learning the truth about each other alter the trajectory of Brody and Angie’s story?

7. There is a moment in the book when Garnet Dern has the power to destroy Angie Madison, whom she views as her rival. Were you surprised when she decided not to use that power? What condition did she impose on Angie? How did you feel about her choice?

8. Discuss the theme of innocence throughout the novel. Consider Scott Madison’s and Del Wolfe’s coming of age and their loss of innocence. How do his fellow citizens’ ideas about Noah Bluestone’s innocence shift over time?

9. America in the 1950s is often viewed as a time of peace, prosperity, and general well-being. How does this book puncture that idealized vision? How are the inner lives of the characters at odds with their appearances?

10. How did Jewel’s judicial system fail Noah Bluestone? What are the larger implications of the trial?

11. Consider Sam Wicklow’s published book. Why is it important and how did it contribute to the story? How did it rectify history?

12. Charlie Bauer seeks to exonerate Noah Bluestone, and ultimately offers solace to not just Noah, but to other citizens of Jewel. How does Charlie help these individuals? How did her childhood story make her the woman she became?

13. Consider the resolution of Jimmy Quinn’s murder case. Was it just? How do the citizens of Jewel move forward individually, and together?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. The River We Remember features a vibrant cast of characters, all influential and intentional in their own way. Create a list of the major characters and discuss each character’s history and the role they play in the investigation.

2. Angie Madison often references the journal that she kept during a different time in her life. Write a journal entry (or entries) from the perspective of an earlier time in your life. Try and remember how it felt to be that younger version of yourself. Have your beliefs, hopes, and fears changed since then? If so, how? Consider keeping a journal now that captures your daily thoughts and experiences.

3. Read more of William Kent Krueger’s novels and connect with him on Twitter @WmKentKrueger and on Facebook @WilliamKentKrueger.

A Conversation with William Kent Krueger

Q: The small-town dynamics of Jewel are alive on the page and contribute greatly to the investigation as it unfolds. What was it like to plot this intricate web of interconnected histories? Did any of the characters surprise you?

A: A mystery is one of the most tightly woven of narrative fabrics. Each thread must connect to every other in a meaningful way. Imagining the story line for each character and how all these storylines would intersect was quite a challenge. Of course, the difficulty always is to make sure that the pace of the narrative doesn’t drag while a character’s history is revealed. I had a good sense of the essential elements of each character’s backstory as I wrote the novel, but I was often surprised by the specifics. The history of Angie Madison, for example, or what exactly happened to Brody Dern in the war were situations that I didn’t fully imagine until I was actually writing them, which required a lot of research on the fly. Maybe the character who most surprised and pleased me as I created her was Charlie Bauer. The more I wrote her, the more wonderfully multifaceted she became.

Q: Brody Dern is a complicated character—a good and honorable man who also does some morally questionable things in the course of the novel. How do you reconcile these two qualities in a single character? Wouldn’t it be easier to write a character who is all one thing?

A: No human being is one-dimensional. We all have many facets, some good, some not so good. And really, how interesting would a one-dimensional character be to a reader? Brody is a man at war with himself, and in this, I believe he reflects the reality of most of us. Don’t we all struggle to be better people? Don’t we all battle inner demons? Brody tries to live up to the image people hold of him because it is in many ways the man he would like to be. But he knows the truth about his past, the ghost of disgrace that haunts him. And it’s this understanding of the frailty of human beings that makes Brody a compassionate and complicated man, a man capable of both honorable deeds and questionable behavior.

Q: Scott Madison and Del Wolfe’s evolution throughout the novel is particularly moving and speaks to themes that inform other facets of the novel. Can you speak to these characters, their relationship, and what you hoped to achieve through shedding a light on their part in the investigation of Jimmy Quinn’s murder?

A: In my own experience and observation, the deep trust that Scott and Del share is often an important element of adolescent friendships. Although I don’t think of the novel as a coming-of-age story, it does deal significantly with the fascination, particularly in the post-World War II years, of adolescent males with war and with manhood. Like so many men of my generation, I grew up on John Wayne war movies and had an unrealistic attitude about warfare. I used Scott Madison and Del Wolfe to explore and to shatter the myths so many people have held about the nobility war. As he fights his own battles and watches others fight theirs—Del in particular—Scott comes to realize the devastation in both war and peace that hatred and violence do to the human body and the human spirit.

Q: The Alabaster River comes to represent multiple themes over the course of the novel and means something different for each character as well. Can you speak to its evolution and what you hoped readers would take away from it?

A: Much of my life, I’ve lived on big rivers. They always loom large in my imagination, and I often use a river as an important character in a story. In The River We Remember, the Alabaster is a thread that ties together the past and present. Its nature and its history in many ways bind the characters of the story to one another. Because the setting of almost every scene lies along or near the river, it’s also a way to connect all the physical elements of the story and to give the story boundaries, because it feels, in a way, that the world outside Black Earth County doesn’t have much relevance. And of course, it allows readers to explore their own ideas about how rivers, both real and metaphorical, run through our consciousness and our lives.

Q: There are numerous historical events referenced throughout the novel, including the Sioux uprising, and soldiers’ wartime experiences in Japan and Germany. What research did you conduct and was there anything that you learned that surprised you that didn’t make it into the book?

A: Whenever you write a novel set in the past, historical research is a necessary part of the venture. For the general setting of my story, the summer of 1958, I did my homework to make sure that any cultural references—books, movies, tunes—were correct. For the other historical references, I did a good deal of research to make sure my facts were solid. Brody Dern’s wartime experiences, Charlie Bauer’s time in California, the Dakota Conflict of 1862, the various postings of Noah Bluestone during his time in the service, these and so many other historical details large and small I did my best to draw from reliable sources. The early drafts of the novel contained many more historical references, but, as with any good story, only what’s necessary survived the editorial process. I’m sure that if I’d tried to include every piece of fascinating information I came across, the story would have ballooned out of all reasonable proportions.

Q: Many of your books are set in small, midwestern towns. What is it about that setting that appeals to you? Do you ever think about setting one of your books in a very different place?

A: Between my birth and leaving home for college, half my life was spent living in small towns or on farms very near small towns. Much of this time was spent in the Midwest. I’m a firm believer that once the Midwest sets its hook in your heart it will always pull you back. That’s certainly been true for me. Southern Minnesota is very like the landscape where I spent so much of my adolescence. It’s easy for me to invest my heart in creating towns that resemble those I knew when I was a child. I’ve put real places and elements from my past into each of these locales. In The River We Remember, the Quinn’s homestead very much resembles one of the farms my family rented. There’s a little wooden bridge on the farm of the Dern family where Brody sits with his mother and with Garnet. I sat on that bridge myself. The Wagon Wheel Café is very like a diner in a small Ohio town where my family sometimes ate. Because my stand-alone novels have come so significantly from my heart, it’s felt very natural for me to imagine them in a Midwest setting. Except for the great Northwoods of my Cork O’Connor series, I have no desire at the moment to set my work anywhere else.

Q: Some families featured in the novel suffer from the repercussions of generational trauma, including the Quinns and the Creasys. Can you speak to that piece of the novel and how that’s represented in the makeup and people of Black Earth County?

A: It isn’t just individual families who suffer generational trauma. It can affect a whole populace. A place is nothing without its past, and those who live there have grown up in the shadow of that history. The memories of a people go beyond their own experience. They include the stories they’ve been told all their lives about those who came before them and about the events that shaped a landscape, a town, a nation. How the people of Jewel see and respond to Noah and Kyoko Bluestone or to Jimmy Quinn or to the profound influence of the Alabaster River in Black Earth County is rooted a great deal in the past. One of the themes I did my best to weave into the story is my own belief that it takes a conscious effort to move beyond old ideas and old prejudices. It seems to me that unless we do this, we risk finding ourselves mired in what is untrue or half-true and never able to move on, never able to forgive the transgressions or the misunderstandings of the past.

Q: There are multiple references to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Does that book hold special meaning for you in some way? How did you hope it would support the message of your novel?

A: The Catcher in the Rye is one of the books that I periodically reread. For me, it captures so well the pain and the bewilderment that goes along with the struggle to become an adult. One of the appeals of mystery novels is what I think of as the Holden Caulfield syndrome. So often the protagonist of a mystery novel is a loner who doesn’t quite accept the dictates of society, but who sees himself standing alone in a field at the edge of a cliff, and his job is to keep the innocent from falling off. In The River We Remember, that’s Brody Dern.

Q: Charlie Bauer is one of your most memorable creations—an unmarried woman with a successful legal practice in the 1950s, someone who is unafraid to take on unpopular, seemingly unwinnable cases. Is she based on any particular historical figure or figures? On someone you’ve known personally? How unusual would a woman like Charlie have been in a place and time like Jewel in 1958?

A: In the first iteration of this novel, the story was told in first person and Charlie Bauer was the narrative voice. I wanted someone outside the stream of popular opinion in Black Earth County, someone used to bucking the system, so I created Charlie. As nearly as I can recall, she came completely from my imagination, although I suppose I was influenced by so many of the lawyers who crusaded for justice in our history. From the get-go, I saw this character as a strong but compassionate woman. The more I wrote Charlie, the more she opened up to me and the more I liked her—her intelligence, her sense of humor, her humanity. There had been female attorneys in Minnesota for some time prior to 1958. The first woman lawyer admitted to practice in the state was Martha Angle Dorsett. Her application was initially declined because state law permitted only men to practice. She appealed to the state legislature and was successfully admitted to the bar in 1878. But in all probability, Charlie Bauer, a woman with a rural practice, would still have been a bit of an anomaly in the summer in which my story takes place.

About The Author

Diane Krueger

William Kent Krueger is the New York Times bestselling author of The River We Remember, This Tender LandOrdinary Grace (winner of the Edgar Award for best novel), and the original audio novella The Levee, as well as nineteen acclaimed books in the Cork O’Connor mystery series, including Lightning Strike and Fox Creek. He lives in the Twin Cities with his family. Learn more at WilliamKentKrueger.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (May 21, 2024)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982179229

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Raves and Reviews

“[Krueger] is a fine storyteller, but it is his understanding of his characters and his sense of the past that make The River We Remember more than just a story. As novels go, this one is a work of art.”—The Denver Post

The River We Remember may be [Krueger's] magnum opus…deeply movingintimate and epic in equal measure.” —Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

“William Kent Krueger’s page-turning, rewarding mystery The River We Remember is a superb exploration of the prejudices and complexities of post-World War II America.” —Bookpage (starred review)

“Absorbing. . . combines nostalgic settings with depictions of the lingering hardships and traumas of war and the home front . . . in the decade after WWII.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Tender, evocative.” —Shelf Awareness

“Krueger’s graceful prose coupled with his ability to delve deep into his characters’ inner lives makes The River We Remember a stand-out in a career of excellent novels…[The novel] ebbs and flows to a stunning ending that also is life affirming. This is a story not easily forgotten.” —Sun Sentinel

“Irresistible…Book clubs, here’s your next pick. Find The River We Remember, take it home and shut the door.” —Macro Eagle

“Historical fiction that resonates with our time makes for a great reading experience—especially when it’s done in the literary style of rich, careful language; realistic evocation of place; and deep exploration into character. William Kent Krueger has delivered just this combination in his latest standalone novel, The River We Remember.” —New York Journal of Books

Awards and Honors

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