Billings lawyer Carrie La Seur’s debut novel “The Home Place,” coming out this month, is an engaging and thoughtful novel that dares readers to ask: “What is home? And why is it so important?”
The novel tells the story of Alma Terrebonne, a Montana native who is a lawyer in Seattle. When she finds out that her sister Vicky has died, Alma must confront her own past failures as she returns home and tries to find out the truth about her sibling’s death.
La Seur’s story tries to be many things at once, and it succeeds at some more than others. In just over 300 pages, it contains elements of a murder mystery, family drama and romance. It also attempts to address deeper political issues affecting Montana citizens today.
The mystery driving this story is a compelling one: Was Alma’s sister Vicky murdered or did she simply die from overexposure to Billings’ awful winter weather? And, if it’s the former, then who committed the crime? The mystery keeps the audience guessing until the shocking ending.
The quieter family moments are also quite involving due to the well-developed characters that La Seur fills her pages with. Alma is a particularly relatable character as she tries to rectify her past mistakes and struggles to make the right decisions for her orphaned niece Brittany.
The supporting characters are equally memorable. My personal favorites include Alma’s tender and loving grandmother Maddie, Detective Curtis (the Crow man investigating Vicky’s death), and Alma’s Aunt Helen.
La Seur surrounds these characters with some well developed settings. It’s clear that she knows the town of Billings well as she references many local landmarks (including Montana State University Billings and Billings Clinic) throughout the story. However, as La Seur mentions on her website, she’s not going to be writing tourism brochures for the city anytime soon: Her portrayal of Billings focuses on the city’s dark side while ignoring many of its more positive aspects.
Perhaps that’s because the author’s heart is drawn towards Montana’s rural areas. It is obvious that La Seur has a love for this unchanged land and the people who still live on it as if they were from an earlier era. This affection makes the sections of the book set at Alma’s “Home Place” particularly engaging and memorable.
The Oxford-educated La Seur knows how to write some beautiful sentences as well. Take for example, this memorable opening paragraph:
“The cold on a January night in Billings, Montana, is personal and spiritual. It knows your weaknesses. It communicates with your fears. If you have a god, this cold pulls a veil between you and your deity … . It sounds like wolves and reverberates like drums in all the hollow places where you wonder who you are and what you would do in extremis. In this cold, you understand at last that you are not brave at all.”
Perhaps my favorite line comes early on when Alma is talking to Detective Curtis:
“Detective Cutis’s voice is soft, contrite, and marked with the softshoe rhythms of a native Crow speaker. Ka-hay. Sho’o Daa Chi, Alma thinks, the greeting all she remembers of the language that floats unseen through the city like water in the irrigation ditches, dust underfoot, ever present, barely acknowledged.”
Though “The Home Place” works as a whole, there are still some problematic issues that make it a bit less enjoyable.
While the first and last few chapters are engaging and intriguing, the book does lag quite a bit in the middle – especially as La Seur takes a break from both the mystery and the family drama to focus on a romance between Alma and her high school crush Chance Murphy. I am not normally opposed to romances, but this one is so predictable and takes up such a large chunk of the book that it distracts from some of the more thoughtful and creative ideas that La Seur introduces.
La Seur’s political commentary is similarly unsuccessful. Her attempt to address the impact of industrialization on rural lands is too broad. The main coal company employee in the book is a forgettable one-dimensional villain who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get land rights. In reality, this issue is much deeper and complex than the simple conclusion that La Seur reaches: Coal companies are evil and home owners are good.
While the treatment of coal companies in this book is heavy-handed, the other political issue that La Seur addresses is dealt with so briefly that most readers will completely miss it. Through the character of Detective Curtis, La Seur attempts to address the bigotry shown toward Native Americans in Montana. It’s a subject worth addressing, but La Seur only brings it up in two short and fairly forgettable conversations. In fact, I didn’t even realize that La Seur was trying to address this issue until I looked at her website a few days after finishing the book.
Though “The Home Place” has some problems, it is certainly worth reading. At the very least, it serves as a likable introduction to a talented new writer. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another decade for her next book.