A delicious thrill I’ve indulged over the past several days has been the reader’s thrill of dipping into an author’s world and getting lost. Thank you, Lori Armstrong! Lori is from Rapid City, South Dakota, and her books are set in and around Rapid City and the fringes of the Black Hills. Everyone knows by now I was born in Deadwood and my mom grew up on a ranch in the Bear Butte Valley east of Sturgis. My dad’s folks lived in Rapid from 1966 until they died, and my parents lived there for eight years, during part of which I lived on the Rosebud Sioux reservation at Mission. Reading Lori’s books is like a visit home.
Okay, maybe scarier than that. Still and all, I can’t put them down. Lori captures the West River ethos dead on. Yeah, they’re mysteries and her protagonists pack more violence and dead bodies into a week than most South Dakotans, even those living in Shannon County, see in ten years, so that’s a little unrealistic, but hey—she made my spine creep the same way it did when I read student essays with titles like “11 Barred Doors to Freedom: Inside Leavenworth,” or a journal entry from a meat packer about how her father raped her when she was a kid. Western South Dakota can be pretty rough.
I love a good fictional world, be it Middle Earth or Westeros, the far reaches of the universe, C.E. Murphy’s Seattle, Stacia Kane’s Downside, Mayfair in 1814 or any of a thousand imagined places, but none of those are quite as thrilling as looking into another writer’s vision of a world I know intimately. Add a great story, which Armstrong does, every damn time, and I’m lost. I have to read. Everything else is on standby.
There’s a lot of pleasure to be had in any well-drawn setting, but knowing something about the world it’s based on reveals the depth of a writer’s skills. Armstrong is very, very skilled. Her prickly tough girl characters eloquently capture the conflicts and contradictions of women’s lives in such a hard, violence-prone culture. There’s a balancing act here between authenticity and the demands of narrative for identifiable, likable characters. I don’t tend to like tough girls (or boys), especially when they view fighting as just a little something they do for fun on a drunken Saturday night. I don’t hold with using alcohol to numb out real feelings. I deplore the use of violence to cow others, and the use of terror as a style of family discipline. Yet Armstrong carries me through my judgments and engages my compassion for the people doing these things.
She also reminds me why I don’t live in South Dakota now, and why I probably never will again despite the fact that there’s no place I love more on this earth. She also shows me into the hearts and spirits of the people who raised me and the people who raised them. I get a clear view of exactly where a big piece of my own fictional preoccupation with violence comes from, and why I see it in male garb more often than not. I see the awkward mix of pit bull tough, shoot-from-the-hip-and-pick-up-the-pieces-later snarkiness and deep, heartfelt concern for the welfare of others that is so ingrained in my mother and her family. I see why my Dad has always been inclined to let us women fight our own battles. I see why I don’t want to fight at all.
A little of the tension I carry at the core of me eases.
Now there’s a thrill.
And if anyone ever tries to tell me again that genre fiction isn’t as powerful or as rich as literary fiction, I’ll handcuff ‘em to a ball hitch on a crashed pickup in a March blizzard on South Dakota Highway 34 out past the Belle Fourche river and let ‘em think about that for a while. Oh, wait. That’s what one of Lori’s villains did combined with where some of my relatives lived. Never mind…
Thanks, Lori. Keep up the fine work.