Christmas past reveals secrets in Spirit of Steamboat

BOOK REVIEW       

SPIRIT OF STEAMBOAT:  a Walt Longmire Story (2013)  by Craig Johnson

       Review by Sherry Evans,  Portsmouth Public Library

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SPIRIT OF STEAMBOAT:  A dandy of a Western, holiday yarn….

Spirit of Steamboat, a novella, begins in present day, but the majority of the book describes a Christmas Eve long past, 1988, when Sheriff Walt Longmire, former sheriff Lucian Connally, Julie Luerhrman and Doctor Isaac Bloomfield, otherwise known as Doc, undertake a dangerous flight through a Western storm to save a little girl’s life.

Steamboat Springs by Craig Johnson
Steamboat Springs by Craig Johnson

Craig Johnson has created a likeable character in Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming; a man, who transcends the stereotype of Western officers of the law.  He is personable, compassionate, smart, ruminative, honest and well-read.

Walt, a widower, is alone in his office on a present-day Christmas Eve and we find him reading Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, upholding a personal long-time tradition.   His daughter, Cady, lives in Philadelphia and is expecting her first child.  She is too close to giving birth to travel.  His under-sheriff, Victoria Moretti, is in Belize for the holidays.  All is quiet; folks have settled in for a long winter’s night in Absaroka County and Walt is content.

Into the peaceful solitude walks a Japanese woman from San Francisco who asks, ‘Don’t you remember me?’

A curious man and a sheriff, he sets out to find the answer to that stark question and to find out why she is here on Christmas Eve.  Former sheriff Lucian Connally, now retired to a nursing home, spends his time reliving his World War II memories, playing poker and enjoying high-octane spirits whenever he can but he may have the answer.

Flashback to December 24, 1988:

Steamboat is a place; Steamboat is a horse; Steamboat is a Mitchell VB-25J World War II bomber plane.  Walt is a newly minted sheriff, having just won the election from Lucian, an amicable win.  On this Christmas Eve, a big car accident and fire on I-94 has killed 3 people; the survivors are a nine year old girl and her grandmother.  Young Amaterasu, however, has life threatening injuries and will not live unless she reaches Children’s Medical Hospital in Denver.

Walt, ever resourceful and caring, determines that they will get her to the hospital no matter what it takes.   And what it takes a slightly drunk ex-bomber pilot, Lucian, manning the controls of Steamboat, airline flight instructor, Julie, as co-pilot and Walt doing everything else, including sobering up Lucian.  In the back of the ancient plane is Doc, Amaterasu, precariously hooked up to a breathing machine, and her grandmother, Mrs. Oda.

A plane technician in the hangar offers ominous words before take-off:

            His eyes studied the padded surface of the plane’s interior.  “… because you’re not even going to be able to save the girl.  You’re all going to die up there.”  His eyes came back to mine.  “You’re sacrificing five people’s lives for the possibility of saving one girl…”

This is a Western, Walt is a man’s man and a Vietnam vet, and gosh darn it he is going to save young Amaterasu or die trying.  And everyone on board the old bomber feels the same.

The flight plan call numbers are N4030 Raider LC, the LC for Lucian Connally.   Over the intercom it translates to November 4030 Lima Charlie.  The flight appears doomed right from the take-off.  The runway is blocked by huge snow banks the plows have left, thereby shortening the runway.  The radio tower commands Lucian to stop the plane.   Lucian is a crusty character, flying the plane with only one good leg, the other lost in the war and replaced by a wooden one

“I rose up a little in my seat and could see the lights of the terminal growing rapidly closer, Rick’s voice still coming through my headset” [said Walt].  Static.  “Raider Lima Charlie, you need to shut the engines down on that thing right away!”

A minute later:

Static.  “Raider LC, you need to abort!”

Static.  “Lucian!”

Lucian miraculously gets the plane in the air safely, but in flight every possible problem occurs.  And even though we know this story ‘turns out alright’, it is still riveting.   Repeated snow and ice on the plane, pressure loss, low gasoline levels, wind and snow gusts, engine failure, lost radio contact and eventual warnings that landing will not be possible.  And that’s only with the front of the plane.  In the back Doc and Mrs. Oda are being thrown all over by turbulence.  Amaterasu’s artificial life support systems are failing.

As Walt says to Doc,

“Well, we’re going to have to get all western on this, aren’t we?”

Johnson inserts just the right amount of humor and saltiness.  Spirit of Steamboat is a great Western adventure, lacking the schmaltz of many holiday novels.  Spirit of Steamboat is one of Johnson’s shorter Walt Longmire mysteries.  Walt has been brought to life in the successful A&E series, Longmire, starring Robert Taylor and Lou Diamond Phillips.  (Season 2 ended in August 2013 and fans hope for a third season).

This novella reads easily.  Johnson clearly loves his characters and treats them with kindness and compassion.   Prepare for tears and laughter and some holiday miracles.

Craig Allen Johnson is an American novelist and playwright. He lives in Ucross, near Sheridan, Wyoming, population 25. Johnson has written ten novels and a number of short stories.

To see a list of all the Walt Longmire mysteries visit his website:  http://www.craigallenjohnson.com/

SENIOR TIMES,  Portsmouth Herald, December 2013

SME.12.19.13

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