March 17, 2015


One of the things I love about mysteries is how much they vary. This mystery could be described as "cozy," because of the presence of old ladies, but the main character is an out of work child actress who really is the most reluctant of Miss Marples. A little bit of humor, a lot of atmosphere, and a bit of a mystery make this a perfect complement to a wish for summer-to-come. It's difficult to describe without spoilers, so I won't go into it too much - but pick this up if you need a break from annoying characters who don't ask enough questions -- Francie is insatiably curious, quick on her feet and determined - even when she doesn't intend to be.

Summary: Seventeen year old Francine - "Frenchy," to her nutty aunties, Astrid and Jeanette, and "Francie" to the people around the lake where they live - has been left behind one time too many. First, by an absent mother, and than by a father who died too soon - in an inexplicable car accident. Packing her heart away, Francie's preferred interaction with the world is taking on other roles and other personalities, though it seems those other roles are drowning her. A former child star, Francie's auditioning in Manhattan and going to summer school as her grandfather wants her to when she receives a baffling phone call from the aunts in northern Minnesota. Something is happening, or has happened. Maybe. People are dying - they're in imminent danger - or they're not. Francie isn't clear what's going on, and by the time she gets all the way out to Enchantment from New York, the water is even muddier. People around the lake have been dying - lots of them. But in odd little accidents, not murders. A tree falling through a roof. A well being poisoned. Snakes -- on the island which has none. Nobody could be doing all of that, no matter what the Aunts say. Unless the developer who wants their land has been offing them all? Are her aunts in danger? Or did they just want her to come back to Enchantment - to the dark little box in her heart she's been avoiding since her mother's desertion and her father's death?

“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

~ Wendell Berry, "To Know the Dark"
from Farming, A Handbook (Harcourt Brace, 1970)

Peaks: Francie reads poetry, which is a delight. At times she seems a bit world-weary and mature for seventeen, but she is a loner, an independent who has chosen to fend for herself, instead of getting too involved with others. Much of who Francie is comes through in the snippets of poetry -- but mostly what she's NOT is bandied around the town. Loudly. She's NOT a detective - but she did play one on TV...

This is a wonderfully evocative novel; the sense of place is second to none. The screen door's slap, the trill of the chickadees and the sound of the boats on the lake give deeper layers to the idyllic town of Enchantment. The friendly, slightly scruffy people who make it their home are charming and real. Francie alone seems solitary and aloof. She's a stranger to herself, but Astrid and Jeanette help her begin to see who she is again. Returning to Enchantment only focuses her view.

The mystery in this novel isn't hard-edged or hard-boiled. There really ARE mysterious deaths, spooky sounds in the woods, watchers and stalkers and kinda-confessions -- though it's all introduced in as bumbling and roundabout a way as the aunts minds work. The reader shares Francie's affection for - and exasperation with - the pair of them. Hints about a mystery under the lake, environmental issues, unscrupulous real estate agents and land grabs are derailed with red herrings in killer casserole dishes. Nerve-wracking night-walkers are diffused by an indifferent, near-retirement Sheriff but a sweet legal assistant who pays attention gets things stirred to a nice simmer, and finally - eventually - things reach a surprising boil. A quiet novel, but don't let that fool you.

Valleys: While this isn't a particularly diverse cast of characters, this is nonetheless a lovely afternoon read and a perfect lakeside accompaniment to a float chair, sunscreen and mosquito coils. (Let's all think hopeful thoughts that direction, right?) Some readers who like a straightforward plot, and to be told everything rather than allowing it to unfold may be impatient with the pacing, but I feel that this moves along in exactly the right way, and will find its home as the returned-to favorite of many readers.

Conclusion:A quirky, disarming gem of a mystery about the lovely, lake-filled Midwest, this moves as sweetly and simply as a loom skimming over sunlit waves - but as with every lake, there's more than you imagine underneath. I'm hopeful we'll see Francie again.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of University of Minnesota Press. You can find ENCHANTMENT LAKE: A Northwoods Mystery by Margi Preus at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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