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Krueger's Cork O'Connor series

August 3, 2013 - Jodelle Greiner
A lot of people read novels to “visit” faraway places or experience exotic lives they can only dream about. Then, there are the books about people and places you know, like William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series, that feel like coming home.

Although Krueger grew up in Oregon, he saw the light and now lives in Minnesota. His novels are set in Aurora, a real town in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. In real life, Aurora is in Saint Louis County, but in Krueger’s world, it’s Tamarack County, named after a native tree.

“Iron Lake” introduces Corcoran “Cork” O’Connor, part Irish and part Anishinaabe Indian. That heritage gives Cork access to both the white and Ojibwe worlds, as well as the problems of both. Personally, Cork’s life fell apart after a clash between the two cultures cost him his sheriff’s badge and destroyed his marriage. Now, Cork spends his days flipping burgers and dishing up ice cream for tourists who come to enjoy the lakes and woods of the North Country. The most important part of his life is making sure he spends time with his three children, when he can talk his not-quite-ex-wife, Jo, an attorney, into it.

When an old friend comes to Cork worried sick that her teenage son didn’t come home from his newspaper delivery route and is sure that the boy’s estranged, alcoholic father kidnapped him, Cork goes looking for Paul. A snowstorm has knocked out phone lines, so Cork bucks drifts to Judge Parrant’s house, the last on Paul’s route. He doesn’t find Paul, but he does find the Judge, dead in his study of a shotgun blast.

Even without any official police status, Cork still becomes involved in the investigation. Before the truth comes out, it affects nearly everyone — white and red — and the reverberations change Cork’s life forever, setting up the rest of the series.

Krueger has a keen eye for the subtleties of Minnesota life. Minnesotans are different from almost anyone anywhere else. Whether that’s because of the hard-working stock we come from or battling what nature dishes out, I’m not sure. Probably a combination of both.

Cork is a likable guy in a lot of ways, but he has his flaws. Ambivalent about his marriage’s survival, Cork is not sleeping alone. A former officer of the law, he’s not above breaking it or at least bending the rules. Krueger uses all of these things to make Cork a real person, not a hero figure, and to fire the plotline. Some authors invent new stuff for each book to keep the series going, but Krueger utilizes aspects in book 3, “Purgatory Ridge,” that he set in motion in “Iron Lake.”

Krueger draws his characters well, putting in that deep-rooted touch that makes them Minnesotans. There is Rose, the salt-of-the-earth sister-in-law who has raised Cork and Jo’s kids as if they were her own; Henry Meloux, the wise old Indian that Cork turns to for clarity; and Wally Schanno, who took over as sheriff when Cork was ousted and balances his duties with taking care of his wife, Arletta, who has Alzheimer’s disease. While everyone is well-written, don’t expect to like them all. I have to admit, I certainly never warmed up to Jo, even three books into the series. There are other characters, who while not villains, carry a hard edge. It’s that gray area that gives the people depth and makes them real.

He uses nature almost as if it’s a character unto itself, whether it’s snow, thunderstorms, wildfires, the lakes and streams, or the terrain. Nature can be unyielding, as any Minnesotan knows, and, so too can be the people. In a world where families can live in the same house, let alone the same town, for several generations, people have long memories and change tends to come slowly. Krueger illustrates that very well in the tension between the whites and Indians, the distrust rooted in events a hundred years before any of them were born.

He also adds little tidbits to remind the reader where they are, whether that’s a reference to the Timberwolves or the relationship between a person and his snowmobile. It all sounds familiar, like he could be telling you a story from right next door.

Krueger’s 15th book (and 13th about Cork) is “Tamarack County,” which will be released Aug. 20, so now’s a good time to catch up with Cork O’Connor.


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