Idaho author Julie Weston is back with another gripping page-turner in Basque Moon, her second Nellie Burns and Moonshine mystery. As with her first, the widely-praised Moonshadows, Basque Moon features a strong female character who may be naive about sticking her nose into places it doesn't belong, but is fearless (if stubborn); plus a challenging and realistic puzzle that sends the heroine on a transformative journey, a story that tackles difficult issues, and a setting so vivid it becomes a character.
In Basque Moon, Nell, who is still struggling to make a living with her photography, jumps at the chance to visit the remote Stanley Basin with sheep rancher Gynn Campbell and his Basque shepherd Alphonso in order to shoot photos for the railroad's tourist brochures. The drive on the narrow, switchbacking road over Galena Pass is dangerous, and Gynn's continual cursing at his aged pickup threatens to turn the air blue, but the scenery is more than worth the trip:
She gasped at the open vista far below. Jagged blue teeth tore at the sky—the Sawtooth Mountains. Most of the high peaks wore snow patches leading down to rocky chutes that ended in deep green forests, which in turn gave out onto a basin of lush grasses and a river, winding like a silver thread the length of the valley.
Not that Basque Moon is all about the scenery. When Nell and Moonshine arrive dusty and road-bounced at the sheep camp with Campbell and Alphonso, they find the sheep scattered, the herder dead in the sheep wagon—with a bullet hole in his temple, and the dogs gone.
Nell opts to stay at the camp anyway, bent on photographing the scenery, the sheep, and the dudes on a pack trip she meets. Before too long though, she is thrust into a range war between the sheepmen and the cattlemen, and then kidnapped and nearly killed. She finds an unlikely alley in Pearl, the dance-hall girl and wife of the cattle rancher whose men Nell is sure are behind the violence.
Nell's outrage at the lawlessness of the cattlemen sends her on the trail of their mysterious boss, and eventually leads her to discover a large moonshine operation, where she is almost kidnapped again and then arrested by the revenuers who come to bust up the lucrative liquor-making ring. Perhaps worst though is the reaction of her friend, Sheriff Charlie Asteguigoiri, called Azgo by the locals, when he discovers her at the moonshiner's camp:
"How is your arm, Miss Burns?" He stopped in front of Nell. "I thought we were on first-name terms, Sheriff. My arm is better, but I need to cut the stitches." She didn't look up at him, but just stared across at the gun in his belt. He was not a tall man, and he seemed now as cold as the gun metal.
Will Charlie forgive Nell for "so blithely" walking into danger "again and again"? Will Nell, "a mere female," ever gain the local's respect and make a living with her photography? Will she and Charlie find who is responsible for the violence? And will the two of them find a way to bridge the cultural and class gap that divides them, he a Basque man from a poor rural background, and she an educated white woman from the city?
The issues that make Basque Moon an absorbing story—racism, class warfare, women's rights—are at once characteristic of the period, the Roaring Twenties, and startlingly contemporary. Nellie, Azgo, and the other characters are complex and interesting people facing real-life situations, people readers will want to follow through book after book.
Julie Weston grew up in Idaho and practiced law for many years in Seattle, Washington. Her prose has been published in IDAHO Magazine, The Threepenny Review, River Styx, and Rocky Mountain Game & Fish, among other places. Her book The Good Times Are All Gone Now: Life, Death and Rebirth in an Idaho Mining Town (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2009) received an honorable mention in the 2009 Idaho Book Awards. Both an essay and a short story were nominated for Pushcart Awards. She and her husband, Gerry Morrison, live in Central Idaho where they ski, write, photograph, and enjoy the outdoors. Visit her website.
Check out our interview with the author of Basque Moon.
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