Bookworm: Mystery and emotion in ‘Lightning Strike’

Back to school reads and LGBTQ parenthood

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Lightning Strike: A Novel”

  • By William Kent Krueger
  • c. 2021, Atria
  • $27, $36 Canada; 385 pages

Once was a time when you couldn’t wait to be big. Eager to make decisions, set your own bedtime, eat what you wanted for dinner, so many of your sentences started with “When I grow up ... ” and now you have. Is it all you thought it would be? Or, as in the new novel, “Lightning Strike” by William Kent Krueger, is adulthood stormier than you wanted?

“Lightning Strike: A Novel” by William Kent Krueger.

Twelve-year-old Cork O’Conner didn’t care how many bottles of beer were on the wall. He just wanted his friend to stop singing that stupid song while they were hiking the Boundary Waters to earn their merit badges. Cork was running out of patience, it was hot that summer of 1963, blackflies were horrible, and there was a stench coming from the woods near Lightning Strike, a meadow that was sacred to the Anishinaabe.

Any kid growing up by the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota would figure the smell was a dead deer.

The form hanging from a tree was no deer.

Big John Many deeds had lived up to his name, physically and spiritually; he was a good man, a war veteran, an experienced guide, beloved on the Rez and off. He’d gotten his life straightened around – he’d even stopped drinking – so when the official conclusion was made that Big John hung himself and he was drunk when he did it, nobody on the Rez believed it.

“Lightning Strike: A Novel” author William Kent Krueger.

Tamarack County Sheriff Liam O’Connor had always wrestled with his job on the reservation; the Anishinaabe chose him as their sheriff but his white skin made him a controversial pick. He knew that there’d be an uproar about the ruling on Big John’s death, but Liam had a job to do. He also had a son who was curious as a cat.

So, if, as the Anishinaabe community insisted, Big John didn’t hang himself, who would want him dead? Convinced that he was seeing things with the wrong eyes, Liam had to re-assess.

The community’s Mide told Cork to follow “crumbs” for a solution.

Would they lead to an answer for Liam, too?

You can think about “Lightning Strike” as a burrito.

On the outside, the wrapper is the Corcoran O’Connor series and if you’re unfamiliar, this is a fine place to start, since it takes readers back to a beginning that fans are only just learning. Author William Kent Krueger’s built a story empire here and this book works nicely as its foundation.

Bite into it and you’ll find that inside, a double-spiced tryst is mixed in a shredded mystery, spooned over pre-Civil Rights-Movement racism and divisive small-town life. Bite again, and you’ll find that it’s seasoned by a hot-summer-night feel and lush sentences that will appeal to any gruesome-murder-loving softie.

That adds up to the kind of book that, when you’re done reading, you’ll close the covers and blink, momentarily surprised that you’re only still in your favorite reading spot. It’s the kind of book that makes you gasp here and reach for a tissue there.

Yep, “Lightning Strike” is that big.

More:Bookworm: Books on camping, hiking, and enjoying nature

Back to school books from various authors.

Back-to-school books

  • By various authors
  • c. 2021, various publishers
  • $16.95-$27.99 various page counts

Nothing but the perfect notebook will ever do.

Same with the crayons, the colored pencils, pens and the three-ring binder. School – whether virtual, in-person, or hybrid – is not the same without the perfect supplies. So why not start the year off right by adding these great books to the Back-to-School pile ... ?

For the youngster who’s super-extra-ultra-excited about school, you’ll want to have “Sounds Like School Spirit” by Meg Fleming, pictures by Lucy Ruth Cummins (Dial Books for Young Readers, $17.99) around. It’s a cheer! It’s an action-packed rally! It’s a book to get kids up to second grade really excited about going back to school.

For the child who speaks English as a second language, or for the kid who’s learning Spanish, “Isabel and Her Colores Go to School” by Alexandra Alessandri, illustrated by Courtney Dawson (Sleeping Bear Press, $16.99) is a great book to read aloud. It’s the story of Isabel, who doesn’t want to go to school if they speak English there. English reminds her of dark colors, while Spanish reminds her of bright oranges and pinks. What happens is a sweet ending to this book, presented in both languages, so any 3-to-8-year-old can easily follow along.

For the child who loves his teacher instantly and for the parent who knows this years’ teacher is a true partner in education, “A Teacher Like You” by Frank Murphy and Barbara Dan, illustrated by Kayla Harren (Sleeping Bear Press, $16.99) is a great gift to bring to the classroom. Written in picture-book style, this small tale offers colorful, heart-felt thanks to the educators, inspirations, leaders, and those who believe in and guide your child.

If you’re a parent and you watched helplessly as your child struggled last year, look for “The Disintegrating Student: Struggling But Smart and Falling Apart... and How to Turn It Around” by Jeannine Jannot, PhD (Citadel Press, $16.95). Offering case studies, a plethora of things to watch for, and tips to help your student succeed in adverse school situations, this book offers advice that can be adapted to fit any student, whether this year will be spent at home, at school, or a little of both. Best of all, it’s easy-to-understand and great for parents and caregivers of kids grades fifth and up.

And finally, if there’s a college student in your life – especially if yours is a Student of Color – then look for “The State Must Provide” by Adam Harris (Ecco, $27.99). Here, Harris writes about how colleges have been historically slanted toward education for white students, leaving HBCUs to struggle financially and otherwise. It goes deep and it goes far back and it’s going to frustrate you a lot. The good news in this book is that, for parents and students who want to end this inequality, it’s fixable.

Your favorite bookseller or librarian has more for you to read if these great back-to-school books aren’t enough for your family. Find something new to read for fall because a great school year starts with books worth noting.

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“How We Do Family: From Adoption to Trans Pregnancy, What We Learned About Love and LGBTQ Parenthood”

  • By Trystan Reese
  • c. 2021, The Experiment                                              
  • $24.95, $32.95 Canada; 216 pages

There is no picket fence in front of your house. There’s no singing milkman to bring your breakfast and the next door neighbor doesn’t coffee-klatsch with you every morning after your two-point-five kids go to school. There’s not, in fact, one 1962-normal thing about your home or your family but as in the new memoir, “How We Do Family” by Trystan Reese, what you’ve got is better.

“How We Do Family: From Adoption to Trans Pregnancy, What We Learned About Love and LGBTQ Parenthood” by Trystan Reese.

Parenthood was never on the table. Finding love seemed hard enough for Trystan Reese, perhaps because he “came out as transgender at age nineteen” and hadn’t had “any models for healthy non-heterosexual relationships.” Still, Reese knew he “was a boy who liked other boys” and he “fell in love... almost immediately” with a man named Biff.

They decided to weigh their relationship deliberately – no rushing – but there ended up being a complication: Biff’s sister was having problems, and his baby niece and toddler nephew were caught up in the situation. Though Reese and Biff had only been dating for about a year and they were living together in a non-child-proof apartment, there was no questioning what to do. They stepped in to care for both children.

It was not all instant Mary Poppins.

Biff’s niece had a nasty case of diaper rash. His nephew was “profoundly traumatized” and couldn’t handle loud noises. Communication was basically via hand signal. But the longer the kids were with them, the deeper in love Reese fell for them, and for Biff.

The two men got engaged in the middle of a small concert, and although marriage wasn’t legal in the area in which they lived, they married anyway before formally adopting the kids and then settling down to a happily ever after.

And yet, there was something nagging at Reese. He’d always dreamed of a dark-eyed baby and felt that it was meant to be his; though he’d been a trans man for about a decade, it was still possible for him to give birth. He’d have to convince Biff, but... baby? Maybe?

Not to be a spoiler, but you know the answer. The story itself might even be familiar, too. When there are so many trans-man-gives-birth books on the shelves today, why should you read “How We Do Family”?

Because author Trystan Reese goes beyond.

This isn’t just an angsty, tizzied, nervous story of boy-meets-boy, boom-instant-family. It’s also somewhat of a guidebook, going beyond with hints and reminders for LGBT parent-caretakers, and pages of advice snuck between chapters in a gentle, non-intrusive manner that feels like an arm around the shoulder. This, plus Reese’s unabashed willingness to be frank and his work as an activist give readers the ability to trust the veracity of what they read. Win-win.

One thing: be warned. In “How We Do Family,” Reese details his first pregnancy, which ended in miscarriage, and the account follows the rest of the books’ no-holds-barred frankness. It’s graphic, but it’s a part of the story – maybe your story – so if you’re doing family your own way, then pick it.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at marconews.com.