In the opening scene of Gwen Florio's latest book, an old Navajo man sets up his lawn chair in the middle of the Arizona desert on a day that promises to be a scorcher. As he waits for tourists to pass by—hoping they'll hire him as a guide to a roadside attraction—he, along with the billboard he seeks shade behind, is blown to bits by a bomb. It's a sudden and shocking event in which the Missoula author does a great job of setting the wheels of the story in motion.
Reservations is the fourth installment of Florio's Lola Wicks mystery series. In this one, investigative reporter Lola, her husband, Charlie, and their daughter, Margaret, find themselves in the middle of the chaos surrounding the bombing, which occurs the day they leave Montana to visit Charlie's family on the Navajo reservation. Charlie's estranged brother and sister-in-law are key players in a conflict between indigenous rights and the expansion of a giant coal mine on Indian land. When the bombing happens, eco-terrorists are suspected, since the mine is a center of anti-coal activism. Then a second bomb—this one set off along a mine access road—destroys a truck and kills the driver, increasing the tension even more. Who is the bomber, what is the motivation, and when will the next one strike?
The narrative reveals fairly early on who the bomber seems to be, but this criminal is clearly working at the behest of someone behind the scenes. Discovering who these responsible people are is the mystery, and clues point to members of Lola's new extended family. Or do they?
As the centerpiece of Florio's series, Wicks is both the strength and weakness of the story. She is dogged in the pursuit of answers, fiercely independent and relatively fearless. In addition, she is often obnoxious and not self-aware enough to realize it. She is consistently rude to people around her, hard-headed and prone to endangering others through her single-mindedness. These traits may be endearing to some readers in the way Florio handles them, others may find her too prickly. I have something of a love-hate relationship with Lola. She's not a person anyone with a thin skin would find enjoyable to be around.
A lot of the book's scenes take place in a kitchen or on a shady porch, where the characters' interactions are on full display. Passive aggressiveness abounds, along with barely veiled prejudices. Racial tension, class and tribal loyalty are key issues here. For example, Lola is white but Charlie is a Blackfeet policeman who is criticized for not living on the reservation. The stress creates a wedge between Lola and her husband, making the reader wonder how loyalties will play out. Then there's Charlie's brother, Edgar, who lives with his wife, Naomi, on her Navajo reservation. Edgar and Naomi, both Ivy League-educated professionals, are clearly far wealthier than the vast majority of their neighbors and kin. The relationships can be complicated, and Florio skillfully ratchets up the pressure around the small family group.
Florio does several things well. Right from the beginning of the book she captures life in the desert perfectly. I felt the heat, the dryness, the seeming desolation of the landscape, the harsh light and relentless sun, and the way it saps a person's energy. In addition, Florio knows how to tell a compelling story that keeps the reader flipping pages. Her pacing is excellent when it comes to balancing action with the creation of suspense. Florio clearly did an impressive amount of digging into the complex politics between the federal government and indigenous people, but she avoids letting all the research overwhelm the story. That's a hallmark of the Lola Wicks series across the board. Setting has been a character in each of the four books, and Florio handles that aspect masterfully. These kinds of stories can be tricky to navigate and Florio deftly avoids making it feel like she's appropriating another culture's stories to pursue her own.
Characters are what keep readers coming back to a series like this, and Lola Wicks is a memorable one. In Reservations, she doesn't escape unscathed from her desert adventures (though I think this isn't the last we'll hear from her) and there is a final twist that may throw off some readers. That's how life is, though, and Florio's series is well rooted in the real world.
Gwen Florio reads from Reservations at Shakespeare & Co. Thu., April 20, at 7 PM.
[Note: This review of a Missoulian editor's book was assigned before we knew the Indy would be purchased by Lee Enterprises. Lee didn't make us do it. We would have reviewed Gwen's book anyway, just as we have reviewed her earlier books. We'll probably review her next one, too.]