In the dead of winter, outside a small Minnesota town, state troopers pull two young women, Caroline Price and Audrey Sutter, and their car from the icy Black Root River. Caroline’s body is found downriver, while Audrey is discovered at the scene — half frozen and traumatized, but alive.
What happened was no accident, and news of the crime awakens the community’s memories of another young woman who lost her life in the same river ten years earlier, and whose killer may still live among them.
Determined to find answers, Audrey soon realizes that she’s connected to the earlier unsolved case by more than just a river, and the deeper she plunges into her own investigation, the closer she comes to dangerous truths, and to the violence that simmers just below the surface of her hometown.
Grief, suspicion, the innocent and the guilty — all stir to life in this cold northern town where a young woman can come home, but still not be safe.
Tim Johnston’s second novel, The Current, cements his status as a unique, unequaled voice in contemporary fiction. Simply put, The Current is a beautifully written, achingly heartbreaking story with authentic characters and a plot that grabs readers by the heart right at the outset and never lets go. The Current is an exploration of the enduring impact of a crime on innocent people set in the most American surroundings — a small town in the Midwest.
Caroline and Audrey started out as college roommates, found they were completely incompatible, and yet still managed to forge a friendship while living separately. They come from divergent backgrounds: Caroline hails from Georgia while Audrey is the daughter of the former sheriff in a small town in Minnesota. Her father is ill and Audrey needs to get home but she has no car and has maxed out the credit card her father gave her. Caroline decides that, rather than loan Audrey the funds to get home, she’ll go with her.
It isn’t the icy winter road that causes Caroline and Audrey not to reach their destination. It’s something much more sinister. And after she is released from the hospital, Audrey determines to find answers. Soon she discovers a connection to the death of sixteen-year-old Holly Burke ten years ago. She too plunged into the dark, icy waters of the river. Holly’s father, Gordon, still lives in town, leading a quiet life and keeping to himself for the most part as he continues to mourn the loss of his only child. Many people in town suspected Danny Young had something to do with Holly’s death. Shortly after, Danny left town and has never returned, although his mother, Rachel, continues writing letters to him and hopes he might someday return. As Audrey proceeds with her investigation, she finds that her father took some secrets with him to his grave and his suspicions may have been well-founded.
Johnston employs a lovely economy of language and demonstrates a keen understanding of life in America’s heartland, which is not surprising considering that he is a resident of Iowa City, Iowa. With seeming effortlessness, he pulls readers into the small town lives of his characters. They reside where winters are long and treacherous, right is right, and there are no strangers. Against that backdrop, Johnston weaves an intricate tale about getting on with life in the face of unspeakable tragedy, the underlying rage that tremendous loss fuels, and the damage it can do. As Audrey’s father puts it, “A man doesn’t really ever know himself. He thinks he soes, but he doesn’t. There’s something in him that goes deeper than anything in his raising or his beliefs or his badge or whatever the hell he lives by. And once he reaches that place, well. Right and wrong are just words.”
The Current explores Audrey’s coming of age and gradual empowerment as she sees her hometown through adult eyes for the first time. However, the real strength and soul of The Current is its quiet examination of the unconditional, unending love of a parent for his/her child, exquisitely illustrated from the perspectives of Rachel and Gordon. The story’s pace is akin to the flow of the river — constant and steady, surging at particular junctures.
“Life was organic and that was one kind of energy, ashes to ashes, but there was also energy between living beings, currents that traveled between them outside of biology, and that energy could not be buried, and neither could it fade into nothing, because energy never just ended, it transformed and recycled and you felt it even if you didn’t believe in it. Souls. Spirits. Whatever you called it there was a current and you were in it always and you couldn’t bury it.”
The Current is a haunting and poignant study of the ties that bind us to our loved ones and communities, and the power of events to shape our future. Johnston demonstrates the myriad ways in which small town life is not as uncomplicated as, at first glance, it appears. And confirms there is a current running through our lives that binds us together, even as it separates us in significant ways, and gives us strength when we need it most. Just as the current continues flowing under the ice when the river is frozen in the winter. “Despite the ice, it all flows on.”
The Current is destined to be deemed one of the best books of 2019 and become a contemporary classic.
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