This afternoon I finished reading Bad Axe County by John Galligan.* In terms of plot, I thought it was just better than average. As a book that captured the sense of place about my own neck of the woods, I don’t remember ever reading anything better.
Maybe because atmosphere is so important in crime fiction, detective novels often do a good job of returning me to the different places I’ve lived. Spenser novels take me back to Boston, Lucas Davenport novels to the Twin Cities. The place I know best is the Upper Mississippi River Valley, and Bad Axe County made me feel like I was paddling through the Seven Rivers Region in my canoe. In the middle of winter, anything that puts me back on the water is a welcome distraction.
The first strong sense of place happened early in the book when the protagonist visits a suspect in the Blackhawk region along the Mississippi River. Adjacent the Blackhawk campground, there is a row of houses in the river bottoms, all of them on stilts. Acting Sheriff Heidi Kick wonders exactly the same thing that I did the first time I saw these houses. Who would think it was a good idea to build a house where the most powerful river in North America flows directly under it during high water?
My favorite line in the book is, “What looks like uphill from inside the coulees is downhill from out.” I am not sure that anyone from outside the Upper Mississippi River Valley even understands what the sentence means, but everyone who lives here does.
To Galligan’s credit, he does not explain the sentence. That doesn’t mean that I can’t. For me, it describes a slightly uneasy feeling that I try to keep in the back recesses of my mind. I live in La Crosse, Wisconsin. La Crosse is a great little city, but it is in a hole. No one wants to live in a hole,so the residents of La Crosse pretend we don’t.** We imagine the river valley as the natural base and the surrounding bluffs as an uplifted landscape. The bluffs, however, are not uplifted. Their tops are pretty much at the same elevation as the rest of the state, and it is La Crosse that does not conform. I live at the bottom of a huge wash that was created when the melted waters of the Ice Age rushed down the valley and carried away 600 feet of soil, sand, and rock.
As a result (and as Galligan points out), I look up while everyone else looks down.
*Galligan, John. 2019. Bad Axe County. New York: Atria Books.
** Ecopsychology even suggests that a dislike of low places is part of human evolution, that high spots are perceived as more appealing because they offer a better view of potential predators and enemies.