In the early 1970's American Native people started to take action, much like the blacks in the fifties and sixties, fighting back against the hundreds of years of mistreatment their people had received at the hands of the American Government. One of the organizations springing up during this time was the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.).
As all activities on American Native reservations were under the jurisdiction of the Federal government, any policing matters regarding Natives was handled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) One of the hot spots in the years that A.I.M. was making its presence felt was the Pine Ridge Reservation. It was here the most widely known of their protests took place when they occupied a church on the land where the Wounded Knee massacre took place (American soldiers killed over 300 unarmed men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek in the late 1800's).
One of the participants in the occupation was a young woman from Nova Scotia Canada named Anna Mae Aquash. She would become close to the inner circle of A.I.M. and was active on many levels. In 1976 her dead body was found on a road in the Pine Ridge Reservation. She had been shot once in the back of the skull and had been dead for ten days by the time her body was found.
To this day, although there has been much speculation and plenty of accusations back and forth including, Anna Mae was an F.B.I. informant, no one has been found guilty of her murder. It remains as much a mystery today as it was thirty years ago.
Thirty years ago, Thomas King's lead character in his most recent book, The Red Power Murders, photographer and sometime reluctant detective, Thumps DreadfulWater, had been on the fringes of the group known as the Red Power Movement (R.P.M.). Although never personally active in any of their actions he was pretty well acquainted with most of the central figures involved. When the leader of R.P.M. from that time, Noah Ridge, shows up on a book promotion tour in sleepy Chinook where Thumps now lives, not only does it revive bad memories, but it raises a lot of questions.
The question of why is Noah bothering with an out of the way stop like Chinook is quickly supplanted in Thump's mind after Noah approaches the Sheriff for protection due to a death threat he's received since his arrival in town. The presence of an F.B.I. agent before anything happens and then a corpse turning up only adds to the puzzle. When the corpse turns out not only to be an ex federal agent but one who had been involved in a raid thirty years ago that had resulted in the deaths of two agents and three R.P.M. members, questions start to litter the ground like the snowflakes falling as winter descends on Chinook.
Noah also brings the past with him in the form of Dakota Miles, one time, sort of, girl friend of Thumps, but who had been too involved with the movement for any man to have a hope of becoming a central part of her life. Thumps remembers putting her on a train after she had recovered enough from a suicide attempt, following the mysterious murder of her closest friend and fellow R.P.M. member Lucy Kettle, to travel home.
Like Anna Mae, fingers had been pointed at Lucy as a potential F.B.I. informant, but those rumours had as little substance as the guesses as to who killed her. R.P.M. members getting rid of a traitor; the F.B.I. either directly being behind the hit, or indirectly by planting information through their informer that got her killed by fellow R.P.M. members; or the real informer because she was going to expose whoever it was, were just a few of the scenarios bandied about after Lucy's death.
For some people old wounds will simply scar up and leave a mark that will twinge when the weather gets damp. In others the same wound may fester for years and stay raw and exposed no matter what happens. While Thumps has a good healthy layer of scar tissue and deeper wounds from a more recent past that keep memories of Lucy at bay, Dakota's memories have never so much as scabbed. Lucy Kettle could have died yesterday as far as she is concerned.
As the events of the past start to intrude further and further into the present, Thumps is forced to start peeling back his layers of protective scarring by walking trails he hasn't tread in close to thirty years. Other people's memories, newspaper accounts, and information from case files, long moribund but available through the freedom of information act and the Internet, are pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that just gets more confusing each time a new section is filled in.
Is it a coincidence that Lucy Kettle's family was from Chinook and that Noah's book tour showed up here? Could Grover, Lucy's brother be the person responsible for the death threats against Noah? How about the fact that the dead federal agent was the contact for the F.B.I. informant in the R.P.M., and what Thumps asks himself, is he doing in the middle of this mess?
He stayed out of it the first time around because he mistrusted the motives of Noah Ridge thirty years ago. He'd make a lot of noise but never do any of the work after the fact. It was always others who ran the soup kitchens, ensured the schools stayed open, co-ordinated the construction of housing, and anything else that was removed from media attention. How much of these murder threats is just an attempt to increase sales for a book that's barely selling?
When George Orwell spoke out against Stalin and Communist Russia in his newspaper columns and books before and during World War Two he was branded as a traitor by the intellectuals in the British left wing. When a writer is a member of a group who have legitimate grievances, the most difficult task he or she can face is to hold up the mirror of self-criticism and invite people to look into it.
You're not supposed to question, only supposed to say the cause is noble and that's all that counts. They'll use the truth against us so don't rock the boat by giving them ammunition and showing cracks in our unity is the usual argument in those cases. Thomas King has put a lot of boats in heavy seas before this and will hopefully continue to do so in years to come.
The questioning of the integrity of a fictional icon of a fictional Native action group is going to make a lot of people think about A.I.M. and it's leadership. I doubt that it is any coincidence that this book was published in the year marking the 30th anniversary of Anna Mae Aquash's murder. The fact that the case has been re-opened and the actions of various icons of the Native movement from that time are being called into question over what happened makes it even less likely.
Thumps DreadfulWater solves the mystery surrounding the death of Lucy Kettle in The Red Power Murders but he comes no nearer to solving the dilemma of what to do about it. The argument that the ends justify the means (Nobody had better dare take my usage of the word 'means' as an attack on Russell Means) leaves a foul taste in his mouth and an ache in his heart.
He's not so stupid as to deny that Natives have and are still getting a raw deal whenever the government and corporations can get away with it, but he can't reconcile himself to the way Noah Ridge uses the movement to feed his own ego. Sure without him maybe some stuff wouldn't have happened but as a human being he's a self-serving egotist who doesn't care what happens to the people around him as long as he comes out looking martyred and heroic.
Anna Mae Aquash's murder cast a pall over the whole Native rights movement of the seventies and was responsible for a great deal of the discrediting of A.I.M. among the main stream of the Native population and non-native sympathisers. How much of this was deliberately manufactured before her death by the F.B.I. and how much was just opportunistic sowing of discontent after the fact by whoever the real informant was will probably never be known.
Thumps DreadfulWater is faced with the situation people of conscience will always find themselves in when faced with the moral dilemma offered by people like Noah Ridge and the good of a cause. Is a cause better served by letting this type of person do what they do and swallowing the bad taste left in your mouth; does their claim that at least I'm doing something instead of standing on the sidelines and not doing anything, justify the balance of their behaviour and the reprehensible aspects of their character?
The Red Power Murders doesn't offer any easy for either Thumps or for the reader. King knows that each of us have to come to these decisions on our own. Even for those personally involved there are no black and white answers to these questions, and sometimes even posing them is enough to get you in trouble and your loyalty questioned.
All the original cast of characters form DreadfulWater Shows Up are back for the Red Power Murders with some of them reduced to supporting roles and others stepping more into the spotlight. But all of the characters, even Noel Ridges and Dakota Miles, are made more then one dimensional because of the attention to detail that King brings to all his projects.
His usual insightful humour is very much present, but there is an introspective aspect to this book that wasn't as present in the first one. Thumps is not only trying to figure out what's happening in the present, but is having to reconstruct a past he'd just as soon forget about. The things he didn't say and didn't do thirty years ago bubble to the surface and he comes face to face with his old conflict of feelings that revolved around his personal misgivings about Noah and his desire for seeing the plight of his people dealt with.
King's talent for weaving a story is in fine form as he slowly unravels the mystery surrounding both the activities of the present day, and those from thirty years ago. His transitions from introspection to action are seamless in a way that would leave Hollywood scriptwriters jealous. One-moment characters are quietly in conversation and the next they're staring down the barrel of a gun without the least amount of warning but with total believability.
Creating a fictionalized version of events that have happened in the real world is fraught with difficulties. Aside from the inevitable comparisons that will be made with the actual events there is the very real possibility that someone will interpret the author's version of containing a hidden accusation against those involved in the real circumstances.
While there is no denying the obvious connections between R.P.M. and Lucy Kettle and A.I.M. and Anna Mae Aquash, they are for the purpose of soul searching not accusations of guilt. Thumps solves the mystery in both his present and past but is no closer to solving his dilemma of what to do about Noah Ridge. It would be nice to think of Noah as the self-serving pig who got what he came for with his trip to Chinook: five minutes on Jay Leno and a second printing of his book.
But he was also right when he said if it wasn't for him keeping Native issues in the public eye, who would. He's only playing the game the way the American government has been playing it for hundreds of years, manipulating facts and events to get whatever advantage possible from them. Besides, as Dakota Miles tells him, Noah is the R.P.M. and without him it would have ceased to exist in the eyes of the public years ago.
Some mysteries don't have the luxury of the easy answer of simply finding the guilty party, and Thomas King in The Red Power Murders has created that creature. While there are black and white answers to the who done it aspects of this book, the others are left hanging in the air like so much smoke after a three alarm blaze. While this is a good mystery story, it is the places where it slips the boundaries of its genre that make it a great work of fiction.
(Originally published in September 2006)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.