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Lonesome Animals by Bruce Holbert

It’s rare that I read such a lyrical, almost poetic novel.  Holbert vividly captures the essence of his characters and of the place that spawned them in “Lonesome Animals.”

Holbert is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a native of the Okanogan Mountains of northeastern Washington state that serve as the backdrop for this novel.

The author has fictionalized an account of his great-grandfather, Arthur Strahl, who was an early settler of Grand Coulee and an Indian Scout.  I am sure that the tale contains some combination of facts turned into family lore and fiction to make it a really exciting story.

We meet Holbert’s main character,  Russell Strawl, and his family in the 1930s. Strawl is a rancher and a retired lawman with a reputation for having a short fuse and a quick trigger.  His step-son, Elijah, not only learned old-fashioned vigilante law from Strawl, his violent streak seems even more pronounced and unpredictable because of his hell-fire and brimstone Old Testament viewpoint.  Elijah identifies with, and his actions are reminiscent of,  God’s avenging prophet and namesake, Elijah.

It’s possible to understand and accept some of the violence that pervades this book when the protagonists are seen as instruments of God’s righteous retribution.  Strawl and Elijah cast their vengeance on anyone who gets in their way or slows them down in the quest for a particularly gruesome serial killer.  Still, not every instance of torture, maiming or killing has an apparent purpose except for shock value, and that is the one element of the book that bothers me.  It makes it extremely difficult for the reader to feel any sympathy for Strawl or Elijah or to care what happens to them.  The revelation about who has actually committed the series of extremely violent murders that are described in great detail by the author comes as no surprise.

So, in the end, this is a mixed review of Holbert’s “Lonesome Animals.”  It is beautifully written in poetic prose.  There is lots of action, suspense and drama.  But ultimately, the protagonists are flawed and damaged making it difficult to feel any sense of empathy for the difficulties that beset them.  Many readers will react negatively to the extreme violence of the book—others will find it adds the kind of vicarious thrill similar to that can be experienced in a graphic horror novel or movie.  To each his own.

The book was reviewed from a supplied pre-pub copy and should now be available in libraries and bookstores.

[Name of the main character has been corrected.]

Liz Nichols

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