The heart of this novel, set in Montanaís Glacier Park in 2010, is born of a tragic incident in 1987, when a 14-year-old boy camping with his father awakens to his fatherís screams
as he is being attacked by a grizzly bear. Though the boy survives the incident, he is emotionally traumatized.
His fatherís horrible death still haunts him over twenty years later, when he has reason to revisit the area--and the memories. Based in Denver as a Special Agent for the Department of the Interior, Ted Systead is called to the scene of a murder, the victim bound to a tree with duct tape
and mauled by a grizzly near a campground.
As expected, Park Service officials cooperate with the DOI to solve the bizarre murder, Systead in charge of the investigation
and seconded by Park Service officer Monty Harris. The same man who oversaw the investigation of the mauling of Tedís father, Park Superintendent Eugene Ford, is involved in the current case, though Systead cannot tell if Ford recognizes his name or connection to that other event. And he isnít sure if Monty, the assigned ranger, will be reporting back to Ford, a complication that provides Ted an opportunity to get to know the man and examine his own motives in agreeing to take a case in the same area as his past trauma.
Not only is the crime unusual, with the victim duct-taped to a tree, but the horror of the mauling by a grizzly adds another level of confusion to the investigation. Since it is nearly time for the grizzlies to hibernate for the winter, it is critical that the animal be located before disappearing into the wild, a trove of potential evidence as the bear consumed much of the manís body. This situation adds unnecessary conflict to a murder investigation (Systeadís business) and rangersí concerns with protecting an endangered species (Fordís business). Single-mindedly, Systead focuses on
the death of Victor Lance, not the most sympathetic victim. Lanceís reputation
is marked by violence and drug-addiction, interviews with those who knew him leading Ted and Monty to unsavory characters
who mar the pristine wilderness with meth labs and criminal activity.
The most powerful and compelling aspect of the novel is the balancing of criminal investigation and the emotional baggage that burdens the protagonist. Systead is riddled with internal conflict that pushes him to the edge of his ability to navigate the personal and the professional, dread of the past infringing on his concentration regardless of attempts to ignore his feelings. A conscientious agent with a proven record, Ted has too much at stake to lose control, no matter how difficult the challenges of this particular assignment. His past is a secret he has lived with throughout his career, a private demon in jeopardy of escaping. Returning to Glacier Park has unexpected ramifications for Ted, the force of his memories not fully anticipated, though he understands a need to confront the past. He is shocked by how forcefully that experience affects his investigation, day and night sometimes indistinguishable, memory intruding when least expected
and undermining his confidence. Systead must remain clearheaded and methodical--not so easy in practice, when proximity to a caged grizzly sends him to his knees, his temper hair-trigger, at times uncontrollable.
Carbo alternates both the present circumstances and recurrence of the mauling in 1987 with respect for the power of her protagonistís struggle and the overwhelming emotions the return has evoked, his determination to solve a uniquely complicated case with few tangible clues. The wilderness provides a lush background for this combination of crime and personal redemption, the resolution as nuanced as the death of Victor Lance.
No one remains unscathed at the end. Still, Systead learns to carry the burden of memory more comfortably, understanding that people choose to do evil while ďthe natural cycle vibrates around you and you stand in awe of its lack of good or evil.Ē