Popular character returns

Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2002

A Fine and Bitter Snow

By Dana Stabenow; St. Martin's Minotaur; 211 pages; $24.95.

Three words for all those Kate Shugak fans sitting on the edge of their chairs, eager to see what scrape this feisty Aleut detective gets herself into next: She is back.

In the last installment, "Singing of the Dead," Shugak tackled issues of political intrigue, caught in the middle of two local candidates and, of course, battling the forces of evil which, once again, nearly took her life in a chilling scene that, in true Stabenow style, draws its horror from real life accounts in the Anchorage police blotter.

Now, in "A Fine and Bitter Snow," Shugak comes face to face with a challenge even bigger than Alaska politics, but not big enough to force her or Mutt, her trusty half-wolf companion that serves as a mirror-image to Shugak's no-nonsense personality, to back down.

Her beloved park, home to Shugak and a rag tag group of extended family and colorful characters, is directly in the path of oil exploration.

Like the parting of the Red Sea, park residents square off over the pros and cons of the impacts that could have, pulling the reader into the breach as the stage is set for mystery and, yes, murder. Add to that, the ousting of Shugak's longtime friend Dan O'Brien, chief ranger in this imaginary national park, and the battle to get him reinstalled adds flames and draws a dividing line across an already volatile situation.

In this 12th Shugak novel, Stabenow doesn't disappoint. Readers will be outraged at the death of a lovable innocent with a deep dark secret the author keeps just out of reach.

There are new faces to catch the eye, some that brightly flash and others that cast a dark shadow. There are old faces that become dearer and others that appear more sinister.

Stabenow also weaves in the continuation of some situations unanswered in past books. For instance, there's teen-age Johnny, who came to live with Shugak after a bloody event in "Hunter's Moon," that involved his father, the legendary Jack Morgan, and Mutt.

An event so devastating that it shook Shugak to her foundations and caused Stabenow to receive a flood of mail from concerned readers.

Now there is the threat that Johnny's mother will appear, as she has done in the past, and try to force Johnny to live with her. His desire to stay with Shugak, however, has the support of an entire web of friends and relations, who make sure he stays one step away from being returned to a less than healthy environment.

There's Ethan Int-Hout, Shugak's childhood sweetheart, who has his eye set on helping Shugak heal from the devastating heartbreak of the past.

Again Stabenow teases her readers. Is the timing finally right? Will Shugak, who is as fiercely independent as they come, give in, allow the scars of old wounds to heal and walk off into the sunset, hand in hand with the man intent on winning her heart?

And what about Trooper Jim Chopin? He is tall, handsome and well deserving of a reputation that has crowned him the "father of the park." Or is he?

For faithful Shugak readers, the storm between Chopin and Shugak has been building. Always they are on the scene, working side by side, although not always together, toward stopping lawlessness, putting the park and its residents above their own well being.

Both do their best to ignore the sparks dancing around them that the other characters and readers clearly see.

More than once, Stabenow allows the reader to catch Shugak quietly eyeing the trooper. The voices in her head, however, aren't to her liking, and with what might, or might not, be ironclad resolve, she finally tells herself, "Shut up, Kate."

Chopin has a few thoughts running through his head, too; thoughts loud enough that he is threatened, at one point, with being thrown out.

But only by another character; certainly not by readers who will turn page after page, wondering what turn of events awaits.

There also is mention made of folks that once peopled Stabenow's pages, but have moved on to other rewards.

Their powerful influences continue to be felt, however, helping to determine Shugak's path.

For those who have never read any of Stabenow's Kate Shugak mysteries, it isn't necessary to read the other eleven books before reading this one. There is enough in this one to captivate and intrigue.

But when the last page is finished and the cover closed, Shugak's earlier escapades, including the award winning first novel, "A Cold Day for Murder," will call your name. And it's not too late to catch up.

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