"Heaven's Keep" opens one morning as Jo Corcoran, near Casper, Wyoming, prepares to and does board a charter plane which will take her and her fellow passengers to Seattle, Washington. Other than Jo, the others are all Native Americans. They are all "part of a committee tasked with drafting recommendations for oversight of Indian gaming casinos, recommendations they've scheduled to present at the annual conference of the National Congress of American Indians." Except for Jo, all those aboard have a tribal affiliation: Eastern Shoshone, Northern Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ojibwe. They are told that stormy weather is due and snow is moving into the Rockies.
In the North Country of Aurora, Minnesota, Corcoran ("Cork") O'Connor, no longer County Sheriff, is now considering seeking employment as Deputy Sheriff, but his replacement, Sheriff Marsha Dross, is unsure how he would like taking orders from an officer he himself had trained. [The other woman unsure of the wisdom of the move is Cork's beloved wife, Jo, and they had a bit of an argument on the subject just as she was above to leave on her mission.] Cork has been building a good reputation as a PI, but there is pending litigation that he fears will drain him and he wants the security of a regular job again. The litigation involved deals with, as do so many things in the "rez" areas, development of the land: how much and what kind, and to what end, and to say there is controversy is to understate the matter, especially where the gaming casinos come into the picture.
All those thoughts fly right out of Cork's mind when he finds that the chartered plane with Jo aboard has disappeared from radar over the Wyoming mountains, and no contact has been made with the pilot. Cork and, of course, his thirteen-year-old son, Stevie [now, insistently, "Stephen"], are devastated, and they soon join the search-and-rescue efforts determined to find the plane and, especially, Jo. Cork, part Ojibwe, should have no problem working with members of the tribal police as well as the County Sheriff's Department, with the help of an unlikely and unexpected colleague. They go into the mountains, in an area called Heaven's Keep: "The mountains became deep blue in the twilight, and the canyons between were like dark, poisoned veins. Though the sun had dropped below the rest of the range, it hadn't yet set on Heaven's Keep, which towered above everything else." In trying to determine how it got its name, Cork said: "I always figured it's because it's so high that it feels connected to heaven. That's my explanation anyway. Now the Arapaho take a whole different approach. They call it "honoocooniinit. Basically means they consider it the devil." When Cork actually sees it, "Its walls burned with the angry red of sunset, and it looked more like the gate to hell than anything to do with heaven."
The writing is absolutely elegant, and frequently poignant, with understated emotion; the novel is no less heart-tugging for that. Well-plotted, and filled with secondary characters about whom small vignettes are woven, such as pilot Jon Rude [pronounced "Roo-day"] and his wife and young daughter, and well as those known to Mr. Krueger's readers from past books, such as Henry Meloux, now in his nineties and the oldest man Cork knew, to whom Cork often turns for his insight and wisdom.
Meloux was an Ojibwe Mide, a member of the Grand Medicine Society, frequently just called "the old Mide" by Cork. But more than anything he is a dear and a trusted friend. Cork tells him than an old Indian man, an Arapaho spirit walker, has had a vision that can be interpreted as showing the crash site: "I seen an eagle come out of a cloud. Not like any eagle I ever seen before. Wings spread, all stiff, like it was frozen. It circled and glided into something looked like a bed only with sides to it. It landed and a white blanket floated down and covered it. That's pretty much it. Except that as it faded away, I heard a scream . . . it sounded to me like a woman." As well, there are visions that have visited Stephen for years that seemed to be about his mother being behind a white door, but how to explain what they mean is another matter. Meloux tells him: "A vision is never seen with eyes, Stephen. Your heart is the only witness, and only your heart understands."
Throughout, the magnificent countryside comes alive in the author's words. As the book approaches its denouement I let out a breath I hadn't realized I was holding, as Cork, and the reader, must put all emotions on hold for a moment, or three, till all becomes clear.
When asked, as I have been numerous times, what make a good book great, I always say something to the effect that of course it always fine writing but, more than that, a fine storyteller, and the two don't often meet in the same person. But in this book, all the ingredients are there.
Not to be repetitious, but I have to conclude this review with the words I used after reading Mr. Krueger's last book, "Thunder Bay": The beauty, elegance, and lyricism of the writing makes this a novel not to be missed, and it is, obviously, highly recommended.