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Pickard County Atlas

Review

Pickard County Atlas

PICKARD COUNTY ATLAS was the last book I picked up to read in 2020 and the first I finished in 2021. It was a terrific way to end one year and begin a new one. The quality of the plotting and writing are equally high, and I was thrilled to discover Chris Harding Thornton, who is now on my must-read list.

Thornton is, by her own description, a seventh-generation Nebraskan whose day gig is a professorship at the University of Nebraska, the institution where she acquired her PhD. This is her debut novel (she also has published a very limited collection of short stories), and the book’s 1978 Nebraska setting is as far removed from the ivy halls of academia as might be possible.

"Thornton is reportedly working on her next novel, and it cannot come soon enough for me. My copy of this one is well-highlighted over her numerous and wonderful turns of phrase and descriptions, which beg to be reread until her next offering appears."

The Pickard County of the title is a fictional but all-too-real location where hardscrabble poverty is a mind-numbing reality for many. As a result, the king of the hill is Dell Reddick, whose family business is repairing or repurposing house trailers, depending in large part on their condition. He is aided by his sons, Rick and Paul. The memory of their deceased older brother hangs over the family and casts a dark, tragic shadow. Dell Jr. was killed when he was seven years old by a disturbed individual who readily confessed to what he had done. The problem is that he never told anyone what he did with the boy’s corpse. As the novel begins, Dell is conducting a funeral for his dead son some 17 years later, a ceremony without a body.

Rather than providing closure, the event further tears open emotional wounds that have never healed, particularly for Virginia, Dell Jr.’s mother. Rick, meanwhile, seems too capable of doing more than working at substandard wages for his father but does not have the fortitude to do so. This is a situation that chafes at his wife, Pam, who vaguely envisions a life far away from her parents, her husband and their three-year-old daughter.

Harley Jensen, the local deputy sheriff, has been a native of Pickard County for almost five decades and is well-settled into his 12-to-14-hour nightshifts other than for the occasional run-in with Paul Reddick, a lost soul who seems to be at or near whatever trouble occurs in the county. When Virginia goes missing after the funeral, Harley’s patrols become more intense, which leads him to a chance encounter with Pam, whose restless nighttime wanderings will cause a chain reaction of consequences beginning in her own home and radiating outward. One can foresee some but not all of the results, which continue to play out through the book’s last page and beyond.

Thornton is reportedly working on a second novel, and it cannot come soon enough for me. My copy of this one is well-highlighted over her numerous and wonderful turns of phrase and descriptions, which beg to be reread until her next offering appears. There certainly seems to be enough potential for additional tales and trouble in her fictional Nebraska county to fill several more books. Anyone who reads PICKARD COUNTY ATLAS will want to see if that is true.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 8, 2021

Pickard County Atlas
by Chris Harding Thornton

  • Publication Date: January 5, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Noir, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: MCD
  • ISBN-10: 0374231257
  • ISBN-13: 9780374231255