Michael George's murder mystery, set in rural Minnesota, is masterfully plotted and peopled with sharply drawn characters. The latter include the protagonist, Mack Thomas, a recently retired - due to a back injury - rodeo bull rider, his struggling farmer father, and his uncle. These "common folk," unpretentious, ethical, and socially and environmentally conscious, are the heroes of this story. They are pitted against the retrograde system of corruption run by a banker (a local fallen from grace), a sheriff, and other forces from the dark side, all of whom conspire to turn the local wildlife refuge into a resort, a playground for the wealthy. These forces will do anything to achieve their nefarious ends, including financial malfeasance on a massive scale, poisoning Mack's father's organically grown crops, and even murder. The dark forces individually represent other societal ills such as spousal abuse.
The wildlife refuge, the last vestige of central Minnesota's environment in its once pristine state, is at the center of this tale. It contains fast disappearing wetlands, an abundance of wildlife, and Walden-like nature in its purest and most transcendental form, Thoreau personified. The novel, published in 2010, is prescient. The criminal conspiracy that would destroy this Midwest Walden serves as a cautionary tale that speaks to the United States in late 2018, a nation struggling under the weight of environmental degradation, mendacity in the public and private spheres, and corruption in all its myriad forms.
The heroes of this story, Mack, his father and uncle, and two women friends, embody the values and traditions that are the polar opposite of the dark forces. They are generous, empathetic, deeply moral against the hypocrisy - in the view of the main characters - of right-wing fundamentalism, quiet and reserved as opposed to the bluster of those on the side of darkness. It is almost as if Trump himself were lurking in the background of this story.
WHY A REFUGE manages to communicate these ideas without preaching. As a thriller, the plot's the thing. Suspense and plot twists and turns are in more than sufficient supply to keep the reader turning the pages. For many fans of murder mysteries, the novel is a one-sit-down read.
Other attractions include the poetic and deeply moving descriptions of the refuge, the spare and salty speech of the heroes, psychological believability, and authenticity of setting. Not everyone will side with the novel's implicit - and on occasion explicit - take on political and social issues, but there is more than enough of the "good stuff" to keep the reader engaged. This novel deserves five stars.