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Onyx reviews: Spirit of Steamboat by Craig Johnson

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 01/06/2014

Sometimes short stories get out of control. That's what happened to Craig Johnson when he started this one. The tale took off and he ended up with a novella, one of the most difficult types of fiction to place. Spirit of Steamboat is about half the length of one of his Walt Longmire novels. Though the story takes place during one long, stormy Christmas Eve, it doesn't need to be considered a holiday tale. Instead, it is a gripping and chilling adventure that will keep readers on the edges of their seats.

The wrap-around story takes place in Walt's present, on the day before Christmas. A mysterious visitor to the Durant, Wyoming sheriff's office asks to see Lucian Connelly, Walt's former boss, who is now a resident of the Durant Home for Assisted Living. Lucian's glory days are in the past, but he's still feisty. Neither man can recall meeting the woman before.

The visitor has arrived to remind the two men of an adventure that took place on a stormy Christmas Eve in 1988. Two people were killed in a fiery car accident outside of town. The lone survivor is a young girl who is badly burned. No facilities exist in the area to treat her injuries, so she is to be airlifted to Denver. However, the region is in the grips of a blizzard. The falling snow is only part of the problem—the brutal winds prevent most of the aircraft available to them from taking off.

Walt, newly elected as sheriff, is determined that this young girl won't die on Christmas Eve, not on his watch, so he concocts a wild and dangerous scheme to bring a World War II bomber out of mothballs and back into action. The only person around capable of flying the vintage craft is Lucian Connelly, the cantankerous former sheriff who has only one leg and who has been availing himself of Christmas cheer. They cobble together a small crew for the harrowing mission and load the young girl into the back of the plane, along with her Japanese grandmother. A feisty young teacher with her pilot's license acts as copilot, and a local doctor rounds out the team to maintain the equipment keeping the girl alive after the EMS team refuses to take part in this hair-brained scheme. 

Given that the tale is a flashback, there is no doubt that the mission will succeed and little question as to the identity of the mysterious stranger who inspires this reverie, who is a kind of ghost of a Christmas past. However, that does not strip Spirit of Steamboat of any of its suspense. The flight crew goes from one catastrophe to the next, improvising solutions to their various problems and flying on a wing and a prayer. Walt is inspired by the book he reads each year at this time, A Christmas Carol, and uses quotes from Dickens to prop himself and others up as needed. Johnson's descriptions of what it takes to fly the old VB-25J VIP transport plane—one that has a glorious history and special significance for Lucian—seem accurate, as do his descriptions of the medical problems the girl suffers and the solutions the crew finds for them, giving this tale a strong sense of verisimilitude.

Along the way, Johnson brings in some interesting historical details, including the origin of the bucking horse and rider that has appeared on the Wyoming license plates for nearly a century, and why the horse was called Steamboat. It is an inspirational story, but not in the cloying way some of these small volumes sometimes are. The characters are heroic, but they're also human. They banter with each other, but when the going gets tough they knuckle down and do what is needed. 

Readers do not need to be familiar with the Longmire mysteries or the TV show that was inspired by them. Most of the secondary characters are absent from this novella. However, an appreciation of Walt's gruff manner will enhance readers' enjoyment of this adventure tale, especially in seeing his interactions with his wife during happier times.

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