My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Long-time fans of Nevada Barr who have followed her Ranger Anna Pigeon series over the years know what to expect by now. There will be bad guys who have no understanding of or respect for the wild environment. They will present a terrible danger to Anna and/or her friends, and Anna, with limited resources, must find a way to rescue them and/or herself and save the day.
Anna and Paul, her husband, are now living in Colorado, where Anna is a ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park, but, in this entry to the series, Anna goes on vacation without Paul. She and two friends and her friends' two teenage daughters head off to the Iron Range of upstate Minnesota for an autumn canoe trip. One of her friends is a paraplegic, a former mountain climber who was injured in a fall from a mountain. The other one is an engineer who designs outdoor equipment. Their trip is to be a test of new speciality camping equipment that she has designed to make the outdoors more accessible to those with physical limitations.
Arriving at their destination, they make camp near the Fox River. Anna, who is never at ease with people as much as she is alone in Nature, decides to take a solo canoe float along the river one evening. While she is away from camp, four armed thugs invade the space and take the two women and two teenagers captive. It seems that the equipment designer is fabulously wealthy and the thugs plan to hold her and her daughter for ransom. The paraplegic and her daughter seem to have no value for them and it is unclear whether they will let them live, but in the end they take them along, also. Not before kicking and crippling their old family dog who tries to protect them. They leave the dog for dead and head out.
Anna hears the commotion and hurries back to camp. With no weapons, she can only watch from hiding as her friends are carried off. She finds the dog and manages to improvise a splint for his broken leg. Then, carrying the dog - no one gets left behind on Ranger Pigeon's watch - she heads out after the group.
Anna is aided by the fact that the kidnappers are city boys who are unfamiliar with Nature and some of them are frankly afraid of it. The dark holds terrors for them. This is where Anna begins to channel Jack Reacher.
With no weapons at first and no food, Anna maintains a relentless pursuit. Her friends, knowing that she is out there somewhere, manage to leave behind some valuables, including a knife. One night, she is able to kill one of the bad guys when he goes into the woods away from the group. She howls like a wolf which spooks the others and real wolves answer her which spooks them even more.
One down, three to go.
There's very little mystery here. It seems pretty clear early on just what is happening, although it isn't entirely certain until close to the end who the instigator ("Mr. Big") is. The only suspense is how Anna will use what she finds in Nature and what she can improvise to hunt down the bad guys and save her friends. Anna is indomitable and invincible in the best tradition of the heroes in thrillers (See Jack Reacher again.) and we know she is going to win in the end and that she will be able to bring all of her friends, including the dog, out of those woods alive.
I've always liked the character of Anna Pigeon very much. She's been through hell and back in her personal life and in her career as a ranger in most of the major national parks around the country. Through it all, she has never lost the anchor which saved her when she was at her lowest point - her love and respect for Nature. That always shines through in each of these stories. It's clear to this reader that those sentiments are deep and sincere and emanate from the experiences of the writer Nevada Barr herself, a former ranger herself. Although this wasn't my favorite Ranger Pigeon story, it still has those qualities in abundance, and that is the thing I like best about this series and is why I continue reading it after all these years.
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