Review: Shawn Lawrence Otto. Sins of Our Fathers. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2014. $26.
Screenwriter Shawn Lawrence Otto's debut novel, the story of small town banker JW White, opens with the seminar on "Banking in Indian Country" that JW is presenting to other white bankers assembled in Minneapolis. Woven into the presentation? White's tale of out-foxing Johnny Eagle, an Ojibwe businessman.
Otto soon strips away JW's cockiness, swiftly pulls us into a deftly drawn portrait of the grieving banker at his worst moments. In a visit to casino on the way home, JW's dizzying loss of control to a gambling addiction triggered by the loss of his teenaged son in a single-car accident is made vivid and tangible in Otto's hypnotic prose. The obsession causes White to arrive late to the home he no longer shares with his estranged wife and daughter. When White arrives at work the next morning, Otto strips off the last layer his character's self-deception as his boss, Frank Jorgenson, confronts him with evidence of his embezzlement.
He's offered a scoundrel's path to redemption--or prison--by Jorgenson: discover and destroy whatever plans for a bank Johnny Eagle may have on the nearby reservation. White moves to a trailer near Eagle's place on the reservation, inserting himself into Eagle's life and wild rice business. We'll not give away any spoilers, but the novel's tightly plotted, a suspenseful page turner.
But just as Otto had inserted the conflict between White and Eagle into the "Banking In Indian Country" seminar in the novel's opening chapter, he builds the bonds between the characters through their respective skills of horse training and wild rice harvesting. White's skill as a horseman helped land him the love of the town beauty as a young man; as a grieving parent, his skill taming an unruly horse (named Pride) earns the affection of Eagle's son Jacob. While Eagle was a successful banker in the Twin Cities, he's returned to the reservation after his wife's death, building a native rice business
Otto spins a satisfying subplot from the tensions rise between White and Eagle as JW and Jacob grow close. The storyline works well to advance both the addict's recovery and the plot.
The passages where Otto fleshes out the worlds of horse taming and the rice harvest raise the book above an entertaining thriller and into an exploration of loss, tension and recovery between White and Eagle. It's a beautifully written, unpretentious novel that's grounded in these passages.
About one-fourth of the way through "Sins of Our Fathers," I began to think of the protagonist as the landlocked literary cousin of Dick, the hero of John Casey's national Book Award winner, Spartina. The comparison at first seemed an awkward one, pulling together novelists whose style doesn't resemble that of each other and books that don't share genres. What drew these two books together were the grounding of middle-aged male characters in traditional manual skills as each assumes risks on their paths to redemption.
Sins of the Fathers is a less ambitious book, but its modesty is no defect. I highly recommend the novel and hope that it sees its way onto the screen.
Note: Bluestem hopes to review books set in Greater Minnesota. Next up: "Inedible" by M.G. Nelson.
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