MCD, 288 pages, $27
Madson, Nebraska, in Pickard County, is the world described by Chris Harding Thornton in the darkly moving “Pickard County Atlas.” And it’s only a tiny piece of the tiny town of Madson which receives most of Thornton’s attention.
There is a trailer park, and near the trailer park are abandoned homesteads. At least one of the homes has been abandoned because a tragedy occurred. The tragedy belongs to Harley Jensen, 47 years old, who grew up in the town and now serves as a deputy sheriff. Paul and his brother Rick, both in their twenties and much younger than Harley, also have their lives woven into the town through tragedy. Harley’s mother killed herself, and Rick and Paul’s older brother was murdered when he was seven years old, although his body was never found.
This may seem like the makings of a mystery. Who killed the young boy? Why did Harley’s mother kill herself? Are they related? But let me burst that bubble. It is a mystery about the young boy but ostensibly not about who killed him. It is not a mystery about Harley’s mother. The real fabric of the story is woven around how the characters have been influenced by what happened in the past. As a tiny reference to the story of Paul and Rick’s brother, Rick and his wife, Pam, have a three-year-old daughter. She is not so much a child in the story as a reminder of what to treasure. If that is possible.
Rick and Paul’s mother, Victoria, still alive eighteen years after losing her young son, has disappeared. Her adult sons are barely scraping by. Her husband is a mean-spirited son-of-a-gun. She is often unmoored and exhibiting strange behavior, like having been caught dancing naked around a trash fire in a barrel. We primarily meet her in anecdotes describing her unwillingness to make-do with the reality she has been dealt. Paul, the younger of the two adult sons, has been taking care of her, since Rick has his young family to consider.
Pam dreams of saving for a home of their own, instead of having to make do in her family's flimsy trailer. So many things are triggered around the time of Victoria’s disappearance, including finally the overflowing of Pam’s dissatisfaction with her life. A great deal of the book belongs to her. She is a life-long resident of Madson. Her parents disapproved of her marriage to Rick, and it becomes increasingly obvious she shares their opinion.
Harley has the night patrol of the county. One of his routes takes him past the house, now abandoned, in which he grew up and in which his mother killed herself. Too many memories. This house is also one of the main characters in the story. Event after event is situated there, traveling through the years to reach the house’s dark and decaying current state. But not all memories are dark. Not all resolutions are beyond reach.
As Harley’s life intertwines with Paul, Rick, and Pam’s — and one would think they’d all know each other very well, but that isn’t so; Harley is a good deal older than they — several problems put on hold through the years come to a head. Author Thornton has written a masterpiece of small-town secrets, longings, and frustrations revealed.
Here is an example of Thornton’s evocative writing:
What Paul had was the hostile indifference of a person who valued nothing. The kind of rarefied spite that came from never having known a single thing he’d mind losing.
And here’s an example Thornton’s storytelling ability. Ziske is a minor character in the story, an occupant of one of the homesteads, surrounded by abandoned homes, but this little piece of the book shines:
The two old men — Otto Ziske and Jack Christiansen — had parked at the counter of the Range every weekday seemingly since time began, a stool between them, cups of quarter coffee untouched. Folks called them Pershing and the Kaiser. Jack wore his WWI American Legion lapel pin on a freebie seed company hat, and Otto was half German. They were there four days ago when Jack dropped dead. ‘How’d you like that,’ Ziske supposedly said. ‘Man survives a shot through the drumstick at Château-Thierry only to die of bad ham.’ The hospital said it was a coronary.
For Thornton’s ability to wrestle and pin writing to the ground, an MBTB star.