Review: White Sky, Black Ice by Stan Jones

In the first novel of what is, to date, a series of four books, State Trooper Nathan Active has been assigned to the (fictional) small town of Chukchi, in north-western Alaska. Although he was born in the town and is an Inupiat (Eskimo) himself he was raised in Anchorage by his white adoptive parents and as the book opens Active is counting the days until he can leave the small town again and head back to the comforts of the big city. He can only speak a few words of his native language, doesn’t hunt or engage in any of the other activities the Inupiat people traditionally love and is a bit sick of having all the single women in the vicinity foisted upon him. However when a young man is found dead and everyone else assumes it is just another in the long line of suicides of indigenous men Active is the one who thinks there might be something more sinister afoot. He observes a few discrepancies about the crime scene and starts looking into the man’s recent history, particularly his employment at the local copper mine. Even when a second death occurs Active has to fight his own organisation’s hierarchy and the entrenched beliefs of some of the indigenous people about their own futures to ensure a proper investigation is undertaken.

Given my only ‘knowledge’ of Alaskan culture comes from a love of early 90’s TV show Northern Exposure I can’t claim to know if this book has depicted its setting realistically but it certainly has a very credible feel to it.  The physical setting, including the beauty, isolation and potential danger of the location, all feel very authentic to me. And I can at least attest to the fact that the way cultural issues, particularly the tensions and complex relationships between the traditional Inupiat culture and that of the white man, ring true as they are similar to issues evident in contemporary Australia. One of the toughest issues explored in the damage inflicted by alcohol to the Inupiat people; it is partially blamed for the high number of suicides and generates such strong arguments for and against that there is a campaign to have the town become an alcohol free (or dry) town. What I really loved about the book was that it explored this and other cultural issues with sensitivity and intelligence without succumbing to the temptation for overt sentimentality or simplistic explanations for the state of affairs. Once again fiction proves far more adept at examining complex social issues than the bulk of what passes for media commentary these days.

As a balance to these issues there is also a lot of humour and warmth in the novel, some of which comes from Active’s status as not quite considered white or Inupiat. The locals like nothing more than to poke fun at Nathan for not knowing about some aspect of their beliefs or practices that he would have been well aware of if he’d grown up in the town but they’re not cruel about it. There’s also a lot of gentle humour in some of the depictions of the minor characters in the town, like the elderly bingo player who throws her grand daughter at Nathan (almost literally) because she thinks he needs a woman. She likes to be driven to bingo in Nathan’s trooper car with the lights flashing.

To top it all off there’s a cracker of a crime story here which doesn’t tread a predictable path at all. Nathan is quite a young man to be responsible for such a major investigation but Jones does a good job of contextualising this. And in many ways Active’s youth offers a refreshing perspective. He makes mistakes because he’s relatively inexperienced but he’s also tenacious and proves himself the kind of crime solver I will be happy to re-visit in future novels. The resolution to the mystery element of the book is both satisfying and in keeping with the rest of the novel which is an increasingly rare thing in this era of Hollywood-style endings.

White Sky, Black Ice wraps many of the things I really love about crime fiction into a tidy 201 pages. There’s a terrific sense of place and people, a thoughtful exploration of complicated issues which don’t always have an answer let alone an easy one, and a solidly entertaining whodunnit. What more could a reader want?

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Stan Jones has lived in Alaska on and off for most of his life and has participated in many of the activities depicted in the novel (such as being what we’d call a bush pilot here in Oz). As an investigative journalist he won awards for his coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. He modelled his fictional town of Chukchi on the town of Kotzebue where he lived for many years.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 4.5/5
Author website
Publisher Soho [1999]
ISBN 1569473334
Length 201 pages
Format eBook (ePub)
Book Series #1 in Nathan Active series
Source I bought it

This entry was posted in 2011 Global Reading Challenge, book review, Stan Jones, USA. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Review: White Sky, Black Ice by Stan Jones

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Bernadette – An excellent review – thanks! You’re quite right, too, that all too often, the media and public figures try to find easy, superficial answers to difficult and complex questions. Those pat solutions quite often do as much harm as good. I’m very glad you brought that point up.
    Oh, and I loved Northern Exposure, too. Terrific show, and I don’t usually watch much TV.


  2. Rob says:

    I’ve picked this up a couple of times and not bought. Next time it goes in the basket.


    • Hope you like it Rob, I bought it ages ago but put off reading it because I suspected it would be one of the worthy/earnest books that breaks whole cultures into “good” and “bad”. Happily it wasn’t at all like that.


      • Rob says:

        Okay, it’s on it’s way from Amazon along with a box set of the first two series of Northern Exposure. Looking forward to it. I’ve just been on a buying spree so I’ll need to do a TBR shuffle. My policy now is new authors to me rise to the top, so this will slot in on the right of the shelf somewhere.


  3. Norman says:

    Bernadette, thanks for that sensitive review, White Sky, Black Ice sounds like a book my wife, a great Tony Hillerman fan, would enjoy. It is heartbreaking to see the damage alcohol does to indigenous people, wherever they live. Years ago on a visit to the South West USA we were astonished that the roadside verges for miles and miles leading into the Navajo reservation in Arizona were glistening in the sun. Then we realised it was broken glass from thousands of bottles, because the reservation itself was dry.


    • There are similar issues here Norman as we have dry Aboriginal communities where people spend an enormous amount of time working out how to sneak alcohol in. It’s such a complicated problem to untangle.


  4. Kathy D. says:

    That is sad to read about, but here poverty is a big factor. A lot of Native people live in houses in the Southwest with no running water, indoor plumbing or electricity. Their unemployment rate is very high, years of discrimination have taken a toll, depression and hopelessness remain. However, this book looks quite good for the reasons outlined here. A friend of mine who goes to Alaska often would like this, too.
    I loved Northern Exposure, watched it and then reruns. I’d still be watching it if it were on. Rob Morrow who played the main character was on a new legal show last year with Maura Tierney, but it was quickly taken off the air.


  5. Maxine says:

    Must read this – thanks for the review, I’ve browsed the book in Waterstones a few times but been unsure. Sounds as if it has more depth than Dana Stabenow – who evocatively writes about the region (unsurprisingly given her origins) but the two books of hers I’ve read so far are a little on the light/romantic side for me to be that keen to read more…..though they are pacy and quite good.


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