Imagine waking up, on your back, snow covering your face with your coat frozen to the pavement in the middle of an unfamiliar rural road. Thus begins “Hell And Back,” by prolific and popular author Craig Johnson. In this atmospheric and cerebral 18th installment featuring Walt Longmire, Absaroka County, Wyoming’s intrepid sheriff, nothing is normal.
When Walt is finally able to move and get vertical, he realizes he has no clue where he is. As he turns, he sees a small town down a slight hill and behind him a what appears to be a graveyard with a burned building nearby. At the entrance to the area is a weathered metal arch that reads “Fort Pratt Industrial Indian Boarding School.” Seeing he has few options, Walt starts toward town.
The town turns out to be Fort Pratt, Montana, and it seems to be deserted and the road is buried in snow. Walt finally finds a cafe open and is able to get out of the weather. The only occupant is the waitress, Martha, who looks vaguely familiar. When she asks him his name, Walt discovers he has no clue what his name is, where he is and why and how he got there.
This is good place to stop and interject that readers new to Johnson’s series should read his previous work, 2021’s “Daughter Of The Morning Star.” In that book, Johnson addresses the rampant problem of missing and endangered Indigenous women that plagues our nation. As with many fine writers, these last two books have been inspired by real events. “Daughter Of The Morning Star” had its beginning when Johnson saw a weathered poster about a missing Indigenous woman when he was on a book tour in the West.
Craig Johnson’s “Hell and Back” is available at Maria’s Bookshop, 960 Main Ave. For more information, visit https://bit.ly/3exAZwc.
As he did his research, Johnson also became alerted to the past practices of the government-run Indian boarding schools. Started by Civil War veteran Lt. Colonel Richard Pratt in 1879 in Pennsylvania, the schools were run military style. The first was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and was only one of 25 federal off-reservation boarding schools. Pratt said “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” The children were stripped of their language, culture and appearance. Many were brutalized, killed and never returned to their devastated parents or tribes. Over 300 more schools were run by religious groups. These “schools” operated from the late 1800s to the 1960s. Recently, the media has been discovering the hard truths about what happened to those unfortunate Indigenous children in both Canada and the United States.
Johnson has taken this research and created a mysterious, mythic journey for Walt, the bloodhound detective. As Walt runs across some more people in Fort Pratt, he realizes he must work backward to discover why he is there. This leads him back to where he woke up and to the old boarding school where on New Year’s Eve in 1896 it burned down, killing 31 Native boys ages 9 to 17. Then things get really weird when he appears to be taken back in time and meets the people who were there, before and during the disaster.
As Walt stumbles around his current, murky existence, Henry Standing Bear, otherwise known as The Cheyenne Nation, and Vic Moretti, Walt’s undersheriff, show up in Fort Pratt looking for him. Walt is in fact missing in the here and now. They are not leaving until they find him. As events unfold, and time and people come together, the mythical and much feared Native creature known as the Wandering Without, comes into the story with devastating result. Johnson has plumbed the past and formed a fascinating, compelling and mythic tale, taking Walt to the edge of his ability to survive. “Hell and Back” is a riveting read.
Leslie Doran is a retired teacher, freelance writer and former New Mexican who claims Durango as her forever home.