In the vast stew of 19th-century America, Minnesota forms from the collisions and debris of the frontier, the mountain men and whores, the rich and the greedy, the Indians, the runaway slaves. Near the Saint Croix River, an unfrocked nun and an outcast Indian woman shelter and love abandoned children, running a station on the Underground Railroad on the side, in the outpost of Stillwater.
The fates of three of these children form the core of the novel: the twins Clement Piety and his sister Angel Hatterby, separated at birth, and Davis Christmas, son of a runaway slave. As Stillwater sprouts and teems around them, they grow up in wildly different circumstances. Yet their lives intertwine. Their thoughts drift in and out of each other’s heads. Their fathers appear and disappear in weird ways, especially Angel and Clement’s half-feral parent, Beaver Jean. Their adventures weave back and forth with humor and tragedy and the persistence of love.
All this is told in a vigorous and warmly resonant prose that captures both the ridiculous and the sublime. “Big Waters snored boisterously. She wasn’t sleeping but clearly wanted to be. Mother St John pulled the door shut and went about other business, mumbling the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary as she did so.” Sometimes the story runs a little flat – I had no use for Angel’s adoptive and murderous mother – but the telling of it is a steady pleasure.