“The Ravenstone Chronicle”
By J. Harper Haines; Epicenter Press, 2022; 248 pages; $16.95.
“Sam was seven years old when his Athabascan uncle, Redshirt, first showed him the Ravenstone,” author J. Harper Haines writes in the opening paragraph of her novel “The Ravenstone Chronicle.” “A feather design had been carved on both sides of a flat piece of black whale Bayleen. It was about four inches long. The dark red eyes looked like garnets and Sam thought they were from Wrangell near Juneau where a lot of garnets were found on the beach.”
The scene takes place in 1917, when Redshirt bequeaths the powerful amulet to young Sam Tallman. Eight decades later, it becomes an object of pursuit for an art dealer, an anthropology professor, a trio of hired thieves turned killers, police, state troopers, the FBI, and Cara Fielding, a half-Native adjunct journalism professor. The ensuing novel offers prime adventure while deftly weaving aspects of the Koyukon Athabascan culture that forms Sam, Cara and other major characters. All are drawn to the fictional town of Goldspring, northeast of Fairbanks, where Sam lives, and where, during a botched robbery that leads to a killing, the Ravenstone goes missing.
The plot, by thriller standards, is pretty good, if a bit complicated. While Cara is visiting her Aunt Lucy in Goldspring for Thanksgiving, an elderly Sam, now the village shaman, approaches his death from cancer. He quietly entrusts the Ravenstone to a single father named Herb for safekeeping, an act that will trigger the events that take place as the story unfolds.
It occurs early enough in the book to offer this spoiler: Herb is the victim of the efforts of the three Alaska Native men who are in Goldspring to find the Ravenstone. Hired by Carl Clyne, a shady art dealer with galleries in Seattle and Anchorage who wants the invaluable object for his collection, the trio fails to locate the amulet, so of course they’ll be coming back.
Cara and Lucy are the ones who discover Herb’s body lying in the snow outside his cabin with one leg severed. Before long, Ron Whitfield, the Village Public Safety Officer, is on the scene, soon followed by Matthew Tomlin, a state trooper who quickly catches Cara’s eye. While she immediately trusts Tomlin, Cara realizes that many in the village won’t for the simple fact that he’s a white law enforcement officer. She sets herself the task of drawing out of local residents information she suspects Tomlin can’t, becoming an amateur private detective in the process.
From there the story rambles all over Alaska, from Fairbanks to Wasilla, to Anchorage, and even to Douglas Island, with Haines expertly evoking the landscapes and varied winter environments of each (winter suffuses this story so much that it is practically a character in itself).
The trio of thieves returns to Goldspring to try to recover the amulet, as does Phil Emerson, a son Sam never knew he had. Now a postgrad anthropology student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he has his own designs on the Ravenstone, which the officials at the museum are seeking to obtain as a priceless artifact. Cara, meanwhile, primarily wants to save lives, particularly her aunt’s, because people tied to the Ravenstone keep showing up dead.
Haines has taken some liberties with Alaska in composing this book. Goldspring lies a couple of hours up the Steese Highway from Fairbanks. Accessible by car, train and plane (it even has an airport), it’s not clearly patterned on any actual town in the Interior, but it allows Haines to create something of a Koyukon hub. There the modern conveniences that Alaskans take for granted but village residents generally don’t are readily available. It’s initially disconcerting for longtime Alaskans, but as Haines creates the community during the many chapters set in it, it becomes an imaginable place, even if it is imagined.
While the storyline is centered in Goldspring, the main characters aren’t. Several are Athabascan, however, including Cara and her brother Ian McIntyre, a Fairbanks police officer. Through them Haines explores an underlying theme, the survival of Native culture in an urban environment dominated by white people. Haines doesn’t make Native identity her central focus. It simply defines several of her characters and drives their actions and decisions. And because each individual has their own motivations in addition to the values they’ve absorbed from childhood, that identity sends the varied characters in differing directions. Identity being formed by many factors, Haines is attentive to the backgrounds of each, and how personal histories form present-day people.
Haines knows Alaska well, and she delivers some brief but spot-on descriptions of life in different parts of the state during winter. In perpetually wet Juneau, “Gray sleet blew diagonally, smacking the glass and building piles of dirty slush that heaped the edges of the driveway,” she writes. In Fairbanks, bone dry at 30 below, Cara experiences a phenomenon Interior residents are well acquainted with: “The air inside the Troopers’ building was warm and very dry. Static electricity snapped at her fingers when she touched the door latch to the waiting area.”
Haines offers readers plenty of action in this book, but the heart of it is the cast of characters she has imagined, the way she fleshes so many of them into fully believable individuals, and the development of their interpersonal relationships. Cara draws strength from her Aunt Lucy, who in turn is empowered by her niece. The all-business Tomlin slowly falls for Cara. Whitfield struggles with decisions he has made out of loyalty to his community, decisions that bring harm to it instead. Brian, one of the three men sent north, has a conscience buried deep and rarely revealed, but it is there.
It’s this human element that makes “The Ravenstone Chronicle” so compelling. The amulet lying at the center of the plot brings all of that humanity, good, bad, and in between, to the forefront. What the humans do to find it makes for a great action thriller. Hopefully there will be a sequel.