I’ve just started ‘No Fixed Line’ by Dana Stabenow, the twenty-second Kate Shugak book. This morning, I picked it up eagerly, read to the end of Chapter Two and recognised that it brings me comfort to be back in Kate Shugak land. That’s odd really as Dana Stabenow doesn’t write cosy mysteries. Her books have very bad people in them. She confronts hate, corruption, misogyny, racism, greed and a hunger for violence. She looks at Alaska and sees both its beauty and its lethal indifference. She doesn’t whitewash politics or history and she understands that even the people who think of themselves as the good guys sometimes betray themselves and the things they believe in.
So why does reading a Kate Shugak story bring me comfort?
Because, at the heart of almost all of the stories, there is a refusal to abandon hope, to find the courage to persist and a determination not to look away. There’s also friendship, community, love, independence and honesty. It’s a home I’d like to have. A home I’d like to be able to live up to even though I know I’d probably fail.
So, after a prologue and two chapters where am I?
Well, there’s the title. It’s taken from a Robert Frost poem I didn’t recognise called ‘There Are Roughly Zones’. That was a gift because it showed me how little Frost I’d read and pointed me at his ‘A Further Range’ collection. It’s also a perfect match for the way Kate thinks: that there are boundaries that mustn’t be crossed and that becoming blind to those boundaries, failing to see that ‘there are roughly zones’ that keep us human, is how we become monstrous.
Given that quote, I shouldn’t have been surprised that, straight from the Prologue, Dana Stabenow starts to dig into the human consequences of one of the worst evils Trump has created, one that I think the rest of the world looks at and wonders why the rest of America allows it: the separation of children from their parents at the border. Keeping children in cages, sleeping on concrete floors. Destroying families by dispersing children across America without documenting where they went or who their parents were. All of it overseen by ICE, Trump’s own SS.
Of course, that’s my, entirely political neutral and objective, summary, not Stabelnow’s. She’s a more ‘show don’t tell’ writer, so her prologue deals with two children, a brother and a sister, separated from their mother, kept in cages and then sold on to human traffickers.
Then she gave me a chapter showing the fast, instinctive response of two young people who face a fierce ice storm to rescue any survivors of a plane crash, followed by a chapter with Kate at home, cooking and discussing the merits of college and the problems with the State defunding education.
So, I know I’m home. I know things are going to get fraught. And I know I’m going to have to exercise control not to snarf the whole book down in a day, like a Labrador with fresh meat.