Kiefer paints an indelible portrait of despair and the elusiveness of redemption in this contrast of a life from boyhood to manhood and the lengths
to which a man goes to atone for the errors of his past. The first introduction to the character of Bill Reed is his experience as caretaker at a wildlife sanctuary: the Idaho Wildlife Rescue bequeathed to him by his uncle, a few volunteers supplementing a slim budget. Though unlicensed, the sanctuary grew from a necessity to provide shelter for wounded wild animals, most of which would die if left to fend for themselves.
Among the rescued are the now-blind grizzly bear, Majer, the crippled wolf, Zeke, waiting patiently for a mate, and an assortment of other wilderness creatures large and small, each endowed with names
and become family to their caretaker. In a loving relationship with local veterinarian, Grace Burlow, and her son, Jake, Bill stoically faces unpleasant news from Idaho Fish and Game warden Steve Colman that the federal government can no longer permit the illegal rescue facility to flaunt regulations. The sequestered animals will eventually have to be relocated to accommodating zoos or be put down. Bill cannot bear to entertain the enormity of such a loss, hoping somehow to buy time for his animals.
The novel transitions smoothly between the present (1996) and the past (1984), where a childhood friendship with Rick Harris leads a younger Reed to a downward-spiraling existence in Reno, Nevada. There petty crime, drugs and an addiction to gambling have become a way of life. This is a different kind of wilderness with quite another breed of animal, a hollow cycle of excess and stupidity as two friends locked in dysfunction navigate a hostile world. Rick has just been released from jail, returning to find Reed in a dangerous predicament, owing money to men who expect a return on time and with interest.
Absent the money, they will demand more painful, physical payment. Bereft since
a devastating loss as a teenager, Reed has drifted aimlessly toward Rickís lifestyle with no resistance or sense of purpose. When the two undertake a bold robbery to solve their current financial shortfall, a premature celebration is aborted by unforeseen circumstances. Rick heads back to prison as Reed watches the convergence of flashing red lights from the receding perspective of his rearview mirror as he drives away.
In 1996, the idyllic but demanding life Bill has fashioned for himself is shattered by a phone call from a familiar voice. Itís time for retribution.
The tentacles of the past encroach on the pristine stillness of snow-clad Idaho, where Bill has been waiting out the latest winter storm at the sanctuary, confessing his secrets to the weathered grizzly, convinced Majer understands him in their one-way conversation.
While the stern beauty of Idaho has scrubbed Billís weary soul of most of his regrets, his solace and private renewal
are threatened by unfinished business and a formidable enemy that cannot be ignored, Rick willing to go to extremes in revenge for the lost years. It is a struggle for life in the jaws of death, white snow stained with the blood of the desperate and the determined, a final reckoning as chilling as the rage one man carries toward another.
Despite the violence of such a landscape, Kieferís prose transcends the grief and pain of youthful hubris and the failures of men, Billís affection for Majer, Zeke and the other animals imbues this tale with the sacred bonds sometimes forged between human and animals, a harsh, volatile world at odds with a place meant to heal the wounded, where a man seeks the company of a grizzly, discovers a restoration to his finer self through his work at the wild animal sanctuary and the love of a good woman. He will not willingly concede this hard-won peace of mind. More than his way of life is threatened by Rickís intended mayhem: it is the state of his soul.