3 out of 4 stars
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Shortly after a massive snowstorm hits Winnipeg in 1997, a jogger finds the body of a murdered young woman buried in the snow without identification. The police ask for the public’s help in identifying the victim, and two families step forward to claim her. The first identifies her as Georgia Lee Kay-Stern. Ben and Rona Kay-Stern adopted Georgia as an infant and raised her as their own child until her untimely death at the age of 18. They want her to be buried according to their traditional Jewish customs. The second family identifies her as Rosie McKay. They are her biological grandmother and cousins and members of the Cree tribe, and they claim that Rosie was stolen from their Nation as an infant by social workers to be given to a white family to raise. After learning of her heritage in her teens, Rosie had made contact with her birth family and begun exploring her Cree heritage. She had begun her application for native status shortly before her death, and her relatives want to honor her wishes and return her remains to the place of her birth.
As the two families fight over the rights to Georgia Lee’s body, the police and medical examiners are attempting to find her killer. The snowstorm was followed by extremely warm temperatures, and much of the evidence has melted away. In addition, the historic snowfall and extreme temperatures mean imminent flooding in Winnipeg. Any evidence that remains is in danger of being carried away by the flood, and they are racing against the clock to discover what they can.
What the Living Do by Maggie Dwyer is part crime novel, part exploration of identity and family. It is told from many different perspectives, including members of Georgia Lee’s two families, a police detective, an investigator from the medical examiner’s office, and the killer. The reader even gets glimpses into the mind of Georgia Lee herself through her journal entries. These perspectives allow the reader to view the conflict over the rights to Georgia Lee’s body from several points of view, none of which are necessarily any more right or wrong than any other.
My favorite aspect of the book was its historical context. The book is set to the backdrop of the historic 1997 Red River flood that decimated areas of southern Canada and the northern Midwest in the United States. It also brings to light the racist policies that harmed the tribes in Canada during the ‘70s, where thousands of babies were taken from their native people and given to white families to raise. It highlights the efforts of First Nations repatriation associations to reunite these children with their tribes and heritages. The reader also gets to experience how a murder investigation would proceed in Winnipeg in the ‘90s, complete with excruciatingly slow wait times for lab results and sometimes difficult coordination between varying departments.
This was a very character-driven story. The reader sees how the various family members grieve Georgia Lee’s death as they struggle to find a way to move forward. The murder is described from the killer’s perspective, and the reader sees the effects it has on him after the fact. All of the characters had very detailed backstories, and their thoughts and motivations were clearly and elaborately laid out. They often had complicated relationships with one another, and it was interesting to be able to see the same topic addressed from different points of view. However, this detail into characterization meant that the crime story had to take a back seat. The story often felt very slow-moving and sometimes repetitive to me, and I wish there had been more action related to the investigation. Those hoping for a fast-paced crime novel would likely be disappointed with this book.
Overall, I thought the book was beautifully written and emotional, and I found it to be well-edited. My only complaint was that it was a little slow-paced for my liking. Overall, I rate What the Living Do 3 out of 4 stars. Those who like character-driven novels will enjoy this book. There are some graphic descriptions, including a blow-by-blow detailing of an autopsy, so those sensitive to that content should proceed with caution. The book also contains some coarse language by certain characters.
What The Living Do
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