Book Review: The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan

There are winter books and there are summer books. Summer books aren’t necessarily light, but they are warm and irreverent and sometimes a little silly. I like my summer books to be close to home, about New York City and people like myself (or close enough). Winter books are heavy–not physically heavy, but dense–and challenging. They’re atmospheric. They’re cold on the surface, keeping you at a distance before finally letting you in.

The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan, is a winter book if I’ve ever read one. And not just because of that cover:

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The bare bones of the plot: Valentine Millimaki is a deputy officer whose job is, more often than not, to work with his canine partner to locate the missing and the dead. When he isn’t searching the lost places of Montana, he works the night shift at the local jail, drifting away from his wife. John Gload is a serial killer who has finally allowed himself to be caught. He takes a friendly interest in Millimaki, in whom he sees flashes of himself: a farmer’s son, someone appreciative of nature, an insomniac. Our story progresses from there.

Zupan’s dense, rich prose made The Ploughmen feel like a much longer novel. I’m a speed-reader, but I took time and care with each page, picking my way through the rambling thoughts of a killer or the delirious dreamings of a policeman. It was actually impossible for me to read it quickly, but I was happy to be able to savor it for a longer period of time. There are long descriptions of place, and the atmosphere is spare, but beautiful. Zupan has a deep respect and admiration for the spaces of Montana, both empty and inhabited by man. The fields of a farmer are treated with as much sensitivity and nuance as the lonesome gullies and sparse cliffs that Millimaki traverses with his dog.

The characters, much like the wilds of Montana, are sketched beautifully. Millimaki is a subtle contrast to Gload, and the bond between the two feels organic, almost understandable, but disturbing. The two draw one another out, seeing one another for who they are even as they stand on opposite sides of the law and of morality. And the sleeplessness of the main character gave much of the novel a haunted feel; it became hard for me to distinguish between night and day, reality and nightmares. Like being alone in the woods, where a branch snapping could be caused by the weight of snow just as easily as a childhood monster.

The novel ends with many unanswered questions, an incomplete circle. But that hardly takes away from its heavy, lonely, atmospheric beauty. To say too much more would be to spoil the enjoyment of coming across Zupan’s stunning work on your own.

The Ploughmen is now available for purchase. I received The Ploughmen free for review from Henry Holt and Co.

Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “He sits high on the spring seat and the tractor churns through the dirt and the polished discs are small brilliant suns themselves, turning the soil in long slow serpents.”
Other Reviews: Fourth Street Review, Kirkus, BookPage, For the Love of Words

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