Books

Murder in Nebraska

Poe Ballantine's True-Crime Memoir

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LOVE AND TERROR on the Howling Plains of Nowhere is the fanciful and evocative title of Poe Ballantine's new book, just published by local press Hawthorne Books. It's an absorbing work that combines memoir and true crime to create a portrait of Chadron, Nebraska, Ballantine's adopted Midwestern home.

The book hinges on a murder, but the 200 or so pages of exposition leading up to it focus more on Ballantine's past, his marriage, and the town. In broad strokes, Ballantine relates his story of drifting between small towns and shitty jobs, writing but not really trying, and eventually making his way to Mexico where he woos a dental assistant, Cristina. Together they end up in Chadron, a town Ballantine had briefly made home in his wanderings, where they settle into a stressful marriage and have a child.

This would drag if Ballantine weren't such an entertaining writer (and if I didn't identify with him so much). Love and Terror is a sociological memoir that explores subjects ranging from fidelity, his son's possible autism, the nature of his own artistic temperament, and the different and conflicting personalities that make up a small town.

Ballantine writes effortlessly about himself without regard to trend or style. He doesn't romanticize his own mistakes. His prose is earnest and honest, punctuated with humor, and suited to his purpose. In building the setting and introducing the reader to the residents of Chadron and their social habits, the effects of the gruesome death that eventually befalls the community are that much stronger. A local college professor, Ballantine's acquaintance, is found burned alive and bound to a tree three months after disappearing. A confused investigation, mixed with the lurid yet vague details of what occurred, sows distrust among the residents. And while the national media descends and confusion reigns, Chadron's populace tries to make do with their once familiar, now changed, circumstances.

It might be spoiling the ending to say that the crime is never solved. The police believe it's a suicide, others don't see how that's possible. The charm of Ballantine's novel is in the telling, the prose, the observations, and in the amazing community of Chadron that Ballantine obviously treasures. It's the sort of place that can easily be pigeonholed by people who choose not to ask any questions about it, but it is a vibrant and unique place to get to know.

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