The New York Times bestselling author of This Tender Land returns with a powerful prequel to his acclaimed Cork O’Connor series—a book about fathers and sons, long-smoldering conflicts in a small Minnesota town, and the events that echo through youth and shape our lives forever.
Aurora is a small town nestled in the ancient forest alongside the shores of Minnesota’s Iron Lake. In the summer of 1963, it is the whole world to twelveyear-old Cork O’Connor, its rhythms as familiar as his own heartbeat. But when Cork stumbles upon the body of a man he revered hanging from a tree in an abandoned logging camp, it is the first in a series of events that will cause him to question everything he took for granted about his hometown, his family, and himself.
Cork’s father, Liam O’Connor, is Aurora’s sheriff, and it is his job to confirm that the man’s death was the result of suicide, as all the evidence suggests. In the shadow of his father’s official investigation, Cork begins to look for answers on his own. Together, father and son face the ultimate test of choosing between what their heads tell them is true and what their hearts know is right.
In this masterful story of a young man and a town on the cusp of change, beloved novelist William Kent Krueger shows that some mysteries can be solved even as others surpass our understanding.
August 24, 2021
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On his first day as the newly sworn-in sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota, Cork O’Connor seated himself behind the desk that came with the badge. The desk, clear at the moment of all but a morning paper, a ceramic mug that held pens rather than coffee, and a framed family photograph, was a mosaic of scars and cigarette burns, the legacy of his father and the other men who’d sat behind that desk before Cork. He wore the khaki uniform he’d ironed himself for the swearing-in ceremony, which had been held that morning in the county courthouse a block away. His wife, Jo, had been there, along with his three young children and his sister-in-law, Rose. Sam Winter Moon had come, and Cork had been especially pleased to see Henry Meloux at the back of the courtroom. The old Mide had sat erect and expressionless, but his presence—and Sam’s—in that place where the Anishinaabeg had sought but seldom received justice spoke to the hope they now held.
Cork felt the solemnity of the moment. It came to him with a sense of satisfaction but also with a profound sense of burden. Wearing the badge his father had worn, he felt the heavy responsibility of measuring up to a man who’d given his life in the line of duty and, in doing so, had left his son with a hard road map to follow into his own manhood.
Deputy Ed Larson appeared in the doorway. He was tall, laconic, and nearly a decade Cork’s senior. They’d worked alongside one another for years.
“Care to take a victory lap around town?” the deputy said, then added with a grin, “Sheriff.”
It was January, and there was a bracing chill in the air outside the Tamarack County Sheriff’s Department. The sun was a melt of yellow in an aster blue sky. On the streets of Aurora, which were banked with plowed snow, folks greeted him in a neighborly way. Despite the badge and the nature of all that came with it, he was still one of them and had been his entire life. They ate alongside him and his family at the Friday night fish fry in Johnny’s Pinewood Broiler. On fall evenings, they cheered with him among the local fans at the high school football games and sat next to him in the bleachers of the school gymnasium during basketball season. They took communion with him on Sundays at St. Agnes. Yes, he was one of them. And yet, not quite. Because there was something different about Corcoran Liam O’Connor that didn’t show in his face but ran in his blood. And he was reminded of it on that first day he wore the new badge.
As he and Deputy Ed Larson made the rounds of the small business district, an old man stepped from the Crooked Pine, and with him came the musty odor of stale beer. He jammed a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, cupped his hands around a match flame, and blew smoke toward the sky. Then he caught sight of the two officers and gave a drunken grunt.
“Never thought I’d see the day when a Redskin was sheriff here,” he said.
“I take it you didn’t vote for me, Lyle,” Cork said.
“Hell, didn’t vote period.”
“Not much cause to complain then,” Larson said. “And I’ve got a question for you, Lyle. How do you intend to get home? Because it’s clear you’re too drunk to drive.”
The old man swung his eyes to a mud-spattered pickup parked at the curb. “Guess I’ll have a cup of coffee at the Broiler first.”
“Better make it three or four,” Larson said. “And I’ll be watching.”
The two officers walked on, a rough circle that brought them to the courthouse, where they stood looking at the structure, which had been built of red sandstone in the days when the wealth from the mines had fed the county’s economy and ornate public buildings were de rigueur on Minnesota’s Iron Range.
“You promised lots of changes in your campaign speeches. Going to change that?” Larson said, nodding toward the courthouse.
As was often the case with county courthouses, at least in Cork’s experience, a cupola crowned the structure and a large clock face was set within it. The hands had not moved in twenty-five years. The clock had been hit during the exchange of gunfire in which Cork’s father was killed. Periodically, the county commissioners would entertain a motion to have the clock repaired, but so far that motion had never passed. In its way, that frozen clock face was considered a memorial to Sheriff Liam O’Connor.
“Not up to me,” Cork said.
“I didn’t know him,” Larson said. “But he sure left a mark on this town.”
“Tell you what, Ed. Why don’t you go on back to the office? I’d like to spend a few minutes here alone.”
“Sure thing, Sheriff.” Larson gave him a little salute and crossed the street.
As Cork stared up at the frozen clock face, a cool breeze passed over him, which felt to him like the visitation of his father’s spirit. His father would have scowled and said something like “That’s your heart talking. If you’re going to be a good lawman, you need to listen to your head.”
It was a piece of advice in keeping with the kind of man his father had been. Or at least as Cork remembered him. In Cork’s memories, Liam O’Connor had been a lion, powerfully built, with hands like huge paws and a thick mane of red-gold hair. Although not typically given to displays of emotion, when the situation demanded, he was a ferocious, towering figure. Yet these days, whenever he studied the family photographs of his father, Cork saw a man much smaller than he remembered and with a much gentler face, different from the father Cork remembered, a stranger in so many ways.
There was a bench on the sidewalk, and he sat and allowed himself the indulgence of reverie. Beneath a blue sky and a butter yellow sun, with a cool breeze on his face, the weight of a new badge on his chest, and the responsibilities that came with it resting on his shoulders, he considered a summer long ago when he’d first begun to try to unravel the mystery that had been his father.
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