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“The Shadows of Owls”

by John Keeble

University of Washington Press, 460 pp., $28.95

With “The Shadows of Owls,” novelist and Eastern Washington University professor emeritus John Keeble has unleashed a sprawling storm of a novel that has all the elements of a Northwest classic.

The action is set in the winter wilds of northern Idaho and the Columbia Mountains of British Columbia, but his story spans the trans-Pacific reach of the world’s petroleum industry and the companies and consortiums bent on dominating the last global-oil reserves.

Marine biologist Kate DeShazer has amassed research that points to a collapse of North Pacific marine ecosystems if planned development of offshore oil wells, transshipment ports and a pipeline in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea are built. As a former research scientist for a powerful consortium, Kate is also privy to damming evidence of political fraud and international collusion.

This is not unfamiliar territory for Keeble. His 1991 nonfiction examination of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, “Out of the Channel,” presents a close-up view of corporate malfeasance and its disastrous effects on a marine environment.

Kate is a scrupulous researcher as well as a devoted wife and mother of three. But her insider knowledge proves a most dangerous possession.

When Kate rescues an accident victim, a frail, near-hypothermic woman from a snowy winter highway, she is propelled into a nether world of white supremacists, Christian militias, international-oil operatives and armed thugs.

The author’s depiction of one Idaho extremist group, “the Lord’s Weapon” during an initiation and cross-burning is chilling. “Jesus has appointments to keep!” roars the minister; “He’s coming now, bringing his fire to our house of prayer, our nation!“ Confidential chats aboard an oil-drilling rig in the Chukchi Sea can be equally as chilling. “There is a breach,” an oil executive tells an operative (referring to Kate). “Breaches must be eliminated.”

The raw power of winter storms in the mountains and arctic storms at sea make landscape itself a forceful player in Keeble’s tale. Harsh and at times deadly environments frame his characters’ inner struggles within a larger context utterly beyond their control.

Still, it is the power of love, a family’s fierce devotion and unswerving friendship that propel this exciting and deeply moving novel. Keeble has crafted an armchair-gripping eco-thriller that is broad and generous in its portrayal of ordinary people caught in the grip of unchecked power.

Throughout, the writing is excellent: clear, compelling and evocative. Here is a passage in which Kate becomes tangled in a drift net on a research dive while her supervisor swims away, oblivious.

“ … the net!

“ … abandoned and all but invisible, dropped down on her from nowhere, and tangled on the regulator on the top of her tank. Sophia swam on, receding into the chalky, silt-laden water like a ghost, unemanating itself into a black slit, while Kate twisted to free herself.”

Kate’s struggle for freedom, her family’s safety and the fate of a broad cast of vividly drawn characters move the novel unerringly to its epic close.

Tim McNulty’s newest poetry collection, “Ascendancies,” will be published this fall by Pleasure Boat Studio.