Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Sue Henry's Murder on the Iditarod Trail

Jeannine talks about our meeting in February 2006 to discuss Sue Henry's Murder on the Iditarod Trail.
The last few months we had smaller groups in the big Ford room, so naturally we had a big group this month in the shrinking Board Room (it seemed to get smaller…). But it was a lot of fun, and no one had to yell to be heard.
For this month’s meeting we returned to everyone reading and discussing a single title, Murder on the Iditarod Trail by Sue Henry. It is the first book in her series about musher Jessie Arnold and State Trooper Alex Jensen, and follows a series of murders during the Iditarod sled race. Mushers begin dropping along the trail through various arranged “accidents,” and the frontrunners have to worry about sabotage as much as exhaustion and the more normal perils of the race. Alex is on the case, and he looks to Jessie to inform him of mushing ways. And, well, golly, he kinda likes her too – but would never let that get in the way of his investigation. Of course.
Most people enjoyed the book. Everyone agreed that it was really more about the Iditarod and dogsled racing than about the mystery, but that that was what was most interesting anyway. One or two became bored with the constant hardships and would not want to read another in the series. But everyone agreed the writing was good, especially for a first novel. Henry wrote it originally without intending (or even hoping) for a series to develop, but many readers thought it was a natural with the just budding romance between Jessie and Alex toward the end of the book. Another reader thought that the way all the loose ends DID tie up showed the author wasn’t intending for a series to come out of it.
Members had a mixed response to character development. One person only liked Alex and thought all others were not likeable (except the dogs). Several thought most of the characters, especially the other mushers, were too similar and had too many alternate names (sometimes referred by first name, by last name, by nickname…) to sort out. Yet one member made the valid point that the race was so grueling, and the musher had to be so focused on only the race (if he/she wanted to finish, or even survive) that there wasn’t much room or opportunity for personality to shine. And some people liked the romantic elements, while others found it distracting from the main story.
One of our members had lived many years in Alaska, and had the good fortune to witness several checkpoints and the finish of the race, so she was a wealth of background information and anecdotes. She also brought some fascinating articles from her stay there, including artwork on the back of rabbit skins and a miniature mukluk, but unfortunately, the dog booties her friend was sending down did not arrive in time (bet it came today). We had an interesting discussion of the “real” race and participants, considering what kind of rewards there may be, and whether they still had to keep their “day jobs.” Some of the most serious racers gain sponsers, and others help finance as dog breeders.
The rather gruesome “accidents” were considered clever, but as usual for our group, everyone was absolutely appalled by the pcp laced dogfood, and the necessary killing of the entire dog team (after … well, it was an awful way to die). We don’t care how many people die, but don’t touch the animals. The motive for this particular accident was questioned – several people weren’t convinced it jibed with the actual motive of the killer.
Members were asked to compare Sue Henry to other “outdoor” mystery writers. She is considered to hold her own with the others – Nevada Barr and Dana Stabenow were mentioned. Stabenow is the most obvious comparison as her main character is Kate Shugak, an Alaskan native. When polled, there was a pretty even split between those who liked one or the other. So obviously both are good and you NEED to read them. A YA author was also mentioned – Gary Paulsen – for his nonfiction work (Winterdance; Puppies, Dogs and Blue Northers; Woodsong) about sled dogs and the Iditarod.
For more information about the Iditarod, see the official site of the race, or a useful site with a good map. Sue Henry doesn’t appear to have her own website, but a list of her books (and their chronological order) can be found here.
As we were in a smaller room, we were limited to a few books, maps (with a copy of the Iditarod route for each person), two huskies (of the stuffed toy variety), some photos from the Iditarod (including a food drop, and one of the dogs wearing their booties), and some necessary trail supplies (a can of beans, mac & cheese and trail mix energy bars). We had some of the trail mix energy bars for refreshments, as well as chocolates (anything fatty and fattening is appropriate) and snowy wild animal cookies (okay, they were frosted animal crackers from the children’s program. We got the rest of their punch too. Thank you Childrens Staff!).