By Russell Heath, Koehlerbooks, 2020. 341 pages. $19.95.
Alaskans know the big issues that our residents have been divided over for years. One is subsistence rights — that is, whether Alaska Natives are recognized to have priority use of fish and game as traditional food sources. While this has quieted down, with bifurcated state and federal authorities in effect, this issue and related sovereignty ones still underpin our politics. Other divisive issues include abortion rights, logging, oil taxes, and union activities.
Author Russell Heath, a former Alaskan who now lives in Maine, chose as the premise for his political thriller a situation in which Alaska’s governor and members of its legislature package a combination of bills to assure (“buy”) a majority of votes. One measure would be a resolution to amend the state constitution to guarantee the subsistence rights of Alaska Natives. Four other bills of disparate and controversial legislation (concerning abortion, logging, oil taxes, and unions) would pass together with the resolution in a special session, or none of it would.
Is such a vote-trading scenario far-fetched? One would hope so. Heath, who once worked for an environmental organization in Juneau, makes his novel as plausible as possible, featuring corrupt politicians, cyber theft, and an abundance of legislative procedure.
The story begins, though, with the main character, a loner named Rinn, sabotaging a Native-owned logging operation. Then there’s an explosion, a man is dead, and the director of the environmental lobby, a woman named Kit, is accused of murder. We learn that Rinn, Kit, and Dan — the head of the Native-owned logging company and a Native veteran of the long subsistence fight — were all once close friends but have separated over personal and political differences.
The action begins in early June, just before the start of a special session, and goes day by day until the end of the session, following various characters as they interact with one another and advance their interests.
As a thriller, the book is packed with mystery, conflict, flights, and fights. There are break-ins, burglaries, brutal behavior, and more death. At one point, a drug held by the Department of Fish and Game to sedate large animals is used on a man. The only slow sections concern legislative procedure. The process of moving bills through the system, with details about files, motions, operating rules, votes, and the rescinding of votes, may intrigue political junkies, but will likely test the patience of those more interested in the characters and the trouble they get into.
Interestingly, the environmental lobbyist, Kit, is portrayed as a key power figure — one capable of putting together deals and influencing legislators and their votes. She has a young son and a mean boss. She also is tragically lovelorn and keeps a very big secret. Rinn himself has a hole where his heart should be. “He felt encaged by emptiness, like a bug in a glass jar.” Dan is an embittered Alaska Native, worn-out by fighting for rights, sold-out to corporate interests, and angry with himself for abandoning the values of his elders. His logging company has been stealing trees and one of his employees is dead.
So many other characters fill the pages that, even in a reading spread over just a few days, it’s difficult to remember who is who and what the significance of each is. It doesn’t help that so many have similar names — Baker, Bitters, Barrett all entwined. Also Brigalli, Blascom, and a representative named Barbara.
Juneau, as the setting, is recognizable throughout for anyone who has lived there or visited. Buildings, streets, parks, neighborhoods, restaurants, etc. are named. Readers are taken up staircases at the ends of streets, hear floatplanes taking off, sit in committee rooms and galleries, and walk through town and on familiar trails. There are even references, used fictionally, to real past events, such as a legislator banging drunkenly on the motel door of a legislative aide. Or, current events, unforeseen by the author — like the idea of “zeroing out” a legal agency’s budget in retaliation. The rain comes down and the mold grows.
Heath clearly knows a thing or two about Alaska’s Native and environmental histories and is sympathetic to both indigenous rights and conservation. When Rinn, the loner character, visits the logging camp, he walks a newly scraped road through a denuded forest. “The trees had been western hemlock and Sitka spruce, five and six hundred years old, and if they had been still standing, their tops would have brushed the heavy clouds slipping by overhead.” Elsewhere, the embittered Native leader laments that “his uncle’s generation had been cut off at the knees.”
Political thriller, mystery, procedural, environmental treatise, cultural commentary, morality tale, and romance. That’s a lot of boxes to check for one novel, and the author’s ambition makes for a certain amount of clutter, loose ends, unlikely situations and outcomes, and a love story that stretches credulity. Still, “Rinn’s Crossing” entertains while striking some truths about our state, the forces that shape it, and issues of loyalty and integrity.
As an attorney character says at one point, “You know how testy Alaskans get when Outsiders tell them what to think.”