Sam McAlister, the 15-year-old narrator of story writer Valerie Geary's first novel, has her hands full. Her mother recently died of a heart attack on July 4 and her 10-year-old sister Ollie, obsessed with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and shadowed by the ghost of their mother, refuses to talk. After disappearing from their suburban family life in Eugene, Ore., for two years, their father, Bear, now lives in a teepee and keeps bees along the Crooked River outside rural Terrebonne. With few options, Sam and Ollie move in with Bear, and almost immediately discover a woman's brutally beaten corpse snagged in a tree branch hanging over a river eddy.
When the local deputy sheriff puts together enough evidence to lock up the odd and reclusive Bear for the murder, Sam's bad summer takes a serious turn for the terrible. It's hard enough being a teenager with a "regular" family, but now she has to take care of herself and Ollie and try to prove Bear's not a murderer. In exasperation, she laments that "adults were supposed to fix things, not make them worse."
Geary alternately tells her story in Sam's tomboy teen voice and through Ollie's silent observations and channeling of the ghosts she describes as "shimmering... like heat rising off pavement... the shiny, light parts people leave behind when they die." Crooked River is as much a coming-of-age novel as it is a well-paced mystery. Metaphorically punctuated with strategic quotations from Alice and nuggets of bee lore, it is also a story of family--in whatever shape it may come.
The mystery, however, drives the narrative. Despite the deputy's admonishment that she not be "a Nancy Drew," Sam methodically uncovers clues suggesting her father's innocence; the victim was a reporter on assignment, hoping to profile the town's other recluse, a formerly famous artist secretly at work on a sculpture to reclaim his reputation. But Sam's nosy poking around also reveals secrets about her father and the cause of his two-year disappearance from their lives.
When vandals destroy Bear's beehives, Sam takes a lesson from the bees: "Those who survived the violence... needed to go and find a better place, a new hive where they could start over." And when Sam's efforts on her father's behalf are finally rewarded, she finds comfort in her new understanding that "love is a wide-eyed believer in second chances and impossibles." Geary takes teenage Sam through a looking-glass and then pulls her back with an adult's sense of loyalty and compassion--a journey equally worthwhile for all of us.
Bruce Jacobs' review first appeared in Shelf Awareness on Friday, Oct. 3.