In “Daughter of the Morning Star,” the 17th book in Craig Johnson’s well-loved Longmire series, Walt and Henry Standing Bear, otherwise known as the Cheyenne Nation, are out of Walt’s district. Way out. Montana in fact, not even in Wyoming, where Walt is sheriff of Absaroka County.
“Daughter of the Morning Star” is one of only a few of the Longmire books that doesn’t take place near Walt’s home. On this outing only Henry, Dog and briefly, Vic Moretti, Walt’s undersheriff, are in on the action. In usual Johnson form, the author delivers a cast of memorable and well-fashioned characters that help drive this important story forward.
As the novel opens, Walt is trying to get high school basketball phenom Jaya “Longbow” Long to open up about the more than 30 threatening letters she’s been receiving. Jaya is a senior and varsity player on the Lady Morningstars team on the Cheyenne Reservation. Her aunt, Lolo Long, is the reservation chief of police, and she has asked Walt to come and do her the favor of finding the sick person sending these letters.
Walt soon discovers that a year previously, Jaya’s 17-year-old sister Jeannie disappeared. Jeannie had gotten a ride to Billings with several people to attend a party. On the way back to the reservation, the van broke down in the middle of an early winter storm. While they were trying to get the van running again, Jeannie wandered off and disappeared. Despite efforts by local, regional law enforcement and even the FBI, nothing has been discovered of Jeannie.
As Walt and Henry continue digging into the threats against Jaya, they come to believe the two events are connected. As they look into Jaya and Jeannie’s family: alcoholic mother, father who has been in prison, a brother shot and killed, a sister hit by a car and died, an 11-year-old sibling who committed suicide and then finally Jeannie’s disappearance, they conclude that this family has experienced entirely too much tragedy.
When Walt and Henry widen their investigation, they discover the girls had a former boyfriend with a racist father, while their own father had joined a white supremacist group, Brotherhood of the North, in prison. Anti-Native American feelings run high in this case. Then Walt meets a Crow farmer, the last to see Jeannie, with a haunting story of seeing her in his field before she disappeared.
Johnson weaves into the story Native mysticism as he has done with great effect before in “Hell is Empty,” the seventh book in the series. Walt is no stranger to being drawn into a world beyond the pale and has had experiences with what people would call the supernatural. In this story, Walt is introduced to the Wandering Without, a fabled and feared entity, that seems to attract his interest. Walt’s Native friends urge him to leave it be and not even utter the name. When Walt and Henry figure out what happened to Jeannie and who might be responsible for threatening Jaya, they put themselves in the crosshairs of real danger.
In “Daughter of the Morningstar,“ Johnson shares the depth of Walt and Henry’s friendship. They met as children and were college athletes then both went to Vietnam and fought there. Their upbringing was different though, as Walt was raised in a ranching family while Henry was brought up on the reservation. They enjoy a special bond, despite not always agreeing with each other. Both men are imposing figures who bring respect and sometimes fear.
With the recent publication of “Daughter of the Morningstar,” it seems that Johnson was well ahead the current news cycle, which is finally alerting everyone to what is happening to Native American women. The facts are overwhelming on missing and murdered women. There have been almost 6,000 girls and women missing in a year. Johnson has integrated the harsh facts of this epidemic into a fascinating story, which will affect readers even after the last page. Once again, Johnson has delivered a great read.
Leslie Doran is a retired teacher, freelance writer and former New Mexican who claims Durango as her forever home.