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Monday, March 2, 2015

Robert Clark

At a glance
In the Deep Midwinter
by Robert Clark

288 pages, $$12

If you know the name Robert Clark, it's likely because of his 1999 novel "Mr. White's Confession."

The story of a murder investigation set in 1939 Minnesota, Clark's novel received the kinds of reviews that some of us would consider pinning to our pajamas.

Greil Marcus, writing in Esquire magazine, called the book "as thrilling as it is unnerving."

Time magazine reviewer Pico Iyre labeled it "a pulsing tale of redemption and original goodness."

But just as Clark, who lives in Seattle, made "Mr. White's Confession" more than a mere mystery tale, his career as a writer has been more than a mere exercise in creating fictional murder.

He's written another novel about desperate young love ("Love in the Ruins"), a biography of celebrity chef James Beard ("The Solace of Food: A Life of James Beard"), a memoir ("My Grandfather's House: A Genealogy of Doubt and Faith") and even a history of the Columbia River ("River of the West: A Chronicle of the Columbia").

And let's not forget his 1998 novel, his first, "In the Deep Midwinter" (Picador, 288 pages, $12 paper) which just happens to be the January read of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

If "In the Deep Midwinter" has anything in common with "Mr. White's Confession," it's that the novel is set in the past (in 1949), in Minnesota (where Clark was born and raised) and that it looks below the surface images of people and their relationships and into the sometimes-uncomfortable realities that we so often try to keep hidden.

The practice of keeping secrets was as true in rural Minnesota as anywhere, even in 1949, which was a time of hope in the United States. World War II was over and the country was on the verge of entering an era of unparalleled prosperity.

But mid-20th century America was also a place in which tradition lay heavy on the overall culture, confining the individual to sometimes narrow ways of being. That weight played out in a number of ways, from gender roles to religion both of which play a part in Clark's novel.

"In the Deep Midwinter" begins with a death, of the brother of St. Paul attorney Richard MacEwan. By its end, most of what MacEwan had taken for granted about his family has been shaken, if not broken beyond repair.

Besides MacEwan and his dead brother, there's his wife, Sarah, whose Christian beliefs contrast with her deep-seated emotional needs. And there's MacEwan's divorced daughter, Anna, who seeks out her own sense of purpose by taking up with a married man a relationship that pleases neither of her parents, but ends up affecting her in ways that are as life-changing as they are predictable.

Ultimately, MacEwan learns more about his brother's death. And then there's the letter from Sarah that he finds among his brother's things, a letter that hints of something which MacEwan would never have suspected.

"Sober in tone, moral in content, Clark's vision, especially in matters of adultery, is deeply considered and humane," wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly.

"His characters are fundamentally decent and substantial people who, while believing in moral absolutes, are drawn away by the lure of that other human absolute love."

Jonathan Yardley, book critic for the Washington Post, wrote: "It has been a long time since the last American novel of such compassion, intelligence and maturity."

Not a bad comment about anyone's writing, but it's especially good for a guy who began his career as a food writer (thus the book on Beard).

A 1978 graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, the 53-year-old Clark was doing post-grad work in England when he began writing freelance articles on dining out. Pretty soon he was editing his own food-themed newsletter. Then Julia Child hired him to run her Journal of Gastronomy.

Tired of writing about food, he wrote the Columbia River book. Then came "In the Deep Midwinter," which, he admitted in a 2001 interview, came "just as a dare, to see if I could write fiction."

Which, of course, he could.

But don't take anyone else's word for that. You're free to make up your own mind.

That's the point of a book club, isn't it?

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