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Book review

‘The Hour of Lead’

by Bruce Holbert

Counterpoint, 320 pp., $25

The rugged land and lives of rural Eastern Washington form the setting for Bruce Holbert’s riveting and beautifully written new novel, “The Hour of Lead.” This tough world of laconic ranchers, resourceful women and beautiful but dangerous terrain was also the setting of “Lonesome Animals,” Holbert’s previous book. (Born near Grand Coulee Dam, the author has lived in Eastern Washington all his life.)

The book’s opening scene is a doozy. In 1918, teenage twins Matt and Luke Lawson leave their one-room schoolhouse, riding on horseback to the family ranch as a massive blizzard moves in. Things quickly go bad and Matt is forced to return to the schoolhouse, hauling the nearly dead Luke with him.

Matt and the schoolteacher, Linda Jefferson, try desperately to save Luke and huddle together for warmth through the night. But by morning Luke is dead and the survivors have found a kind of intimate refuge with each other.

Meanwhile, the twins’ father, searching in the storm, also succumbs. Matt and his mother are left with double holes in their hearts.

The rest of the novel traces Matt’s next decades. The solemn and stolid boy-man woos Wendy, the local grocer’s daughter, leaving gifts on her doorstep because he can’t bring himself to court her in person. And he works the farm, assisted by his increasingly troubled mother, Linda the schoolteacher and the teacher’s odd child.

In time Matt leaves, finding work where he can and abandoning his home, its memories, and Wendy, who has rejected him. He befriends the Jarmses, an elderly farmer and his son, stepping in when the son is endangered over a gambling debt. The women, tough and resilient, stay behind.

After decades Matt feels “safe for people” and circles warily back and grapples with his memories. Then marriage and a family.

In a way, nothing much happens: It’s just Matt, leading a life as best he can. But it’s a strange and powerful life, and Matt is a strange and powerful man, outwardly unemotional but capable of surprising tenderness — as when he and the Jarmses, contrary to their unsentimental natures, create a Christmas for themselves.

Not that things get gooey — far from it. The narrative is slow and stately, punctuated by frequent bursts of startling, often inexplicable violence. (There’s a scene of childbirth, with the mother unattended in a barn, that I won’t soon forget.)

The outside world barely registers in “The Hour of Lead.” The Great Depression and FDR are mentioned, cars make brief appearances, and Matt finds work building the Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930s (many geographical locations in “The Hour of Lead” are in Washington’s Lincoln County). What’s here instead is a portrait of a disappearing way of life, lovingly told in gorgeous and moving prose.

Adam Woog reviews crime fiction the second Sunday of each month for The Seattle Times.