By Carolyn See
Friday, February 26, 2010; C03
By Dana Hand
Houghton Mifflin. 308 pp. $25
"Deep Creek" is a gripping, spooky historical novel, told in a way that closely resembles real life. What happens isn't laid out for us in a pretty and accessible way. We come across a character's name and can't quite place him. We have to wait and figure it out later. A mass murder occurs, but it happens over time and in several different places; it's hard, even with the aid of a map, to puzzle out exactly what happened. A family scandal boggles the mind (surely, half that amount of scandal would have done the fictional trick), but in real life scandals do sometimes run to excess.
This novel is like that, full of the unknown and unknowable, but at first the background looks straightforward enough: The story takes place in 1887, in a particularly beautiful patch of the American West, sometimes in the state of Oregon, sometimes on the other side of the Snake River in Idaho Territory. It's still paradise out there; the land has only recently been wrested from the Indians, and a group of seemingly cheerful, enterprising white folk has more or less invented the thriving little town of Lewiston, except that about a quarter of the population is Chinese. There's a bracing freedom to the place. Almost all of the white men take their turn at public service; the Fourth of July picnics are rollicking and patriotic, and the city of Portland is a ferryboat ride away.
Joe Vincent, a police judge, has made a comfortable life here. He has a beautiful if somewhat snippy and shallow wife, three almost-grown children whom he can take or leave alone, and Nell, his last little girl, whom he's crazy about. Through the years he's put together a nice patchwork of careers: He is an auctioneer and owns a hotel in town, along with his sporadic work enforcing the law.
All this is shattered one day when he and Nell go fishing out where Deep Creek meets the Snake, and Nell "catches" a dead Chinese man, horribly mauled and disfigured. And then another and another float into view. Altogether, somewhere between 30 and 40 Chinese gold miners have been killed. Joe is the logical person to look into this crime, and he does, almost without thinking. But he is also hired to investigate the incident by a man named Lee Loi, who works for Sam Yup, a Chinese financial conglomerate and the dead miners' employer. Lee Loi is a former missionary kid who had been sent by Caucasian well-wishers to study at Yale. His outlook on life is a universe away from those poor, dead Cantonese peasants; he's mid-level management through and through. The Sam Yup Company would be more than happy for this whole event to go away, because, when you stop to think about it, why would Sam Yup have sent 30 or 40 men to some godforsaken hole to spend the winter mining for gold, when almost all the gold in the region has been mined by now?
When Joe and Lee decide to go back to Deep Creek to reconnoiter, they need a guide, and -- wouldn't you know it? -- the one they end up with is a half-breed woman of the Nez Perce tribe, Grace Sundown, whom Joe was involved with more than 20 years before and treated rather poorly. This unlikely trio unites to investigate the murders and finds that they truly were senseless.
Again, "Deep Creek" is a historical novel, based on true events. It's a foregone conclusion that justice, in this time and place, isn't going to work very well, but the authors (Dana Hand is the pen name of Will Howarth and Anne Matthews) have used an astonishingly effective ploy in combining Chinese and American realities. Deep Creek is populated, after the murders, by more than 30 "hungry ghosts," irate souls who haven't been buried properly after their ignominious deaths, and they demand their own justice, which will not be denied.
The real mystery, the real attack on rationality, is the intractable fact that a group of otherwise moderately respectable human beings -- far from full-on criminals -- managed to skin innocent victims, castrate them, etc., just because they had the chance and were bored enough to try it. How can humans be so awful? But it turns out that a lot of humans in this book are awful. Their sins are greed and lust, mostly, but there are also the sins of sloth, lethargy and emotional blindness. Joe, a nice guy in his own eyes, is guilty, too, and it comes as a considerable shock to him when he finds all that out.
But once one life fades away, there's always a chance for another. Joe, Lee Loi and Grace form a de facto family and help some appealing children along the way. They create another, entirely credible world, which is what America used to be all about.
"Deep Creek" is highly ambitious and compelling, much more complex than it might appear from paraphrase. The dual authorship of this novel may have something to do with the fact that it's twice as good as it might have been otherwise.
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Sunday in Outlook
-- The crazy, high-speed world of NASCAR.
-- An entirely synthetic fish.
-- One platoon's descent into Iraq's triangle of death.
-- The tumultuous reign of Princess Noire.
-- And a driving tour of China.