Remember the playground game Red Rover? It's out of favor now, because a lot of kids got hurt playing it. Two teams lined up, linking arms, and one designated...

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Remember the playground game Red Rover? It’s out of favor now, because a lot of kids got hurt playing it. Two teams lined up, linking arms, and one designated kid (“Red Rover, Red Rover, send Timmy right over”) would run as hard as he could to launch himself through the other’s line. Too many arms were bruised and wrists broken for the game ever to be played on today’s oh-so-safe playgrounds.

Deirdre McNamer’s haunting Montana-set novel “Red Rover” harkens back to another dangerous time — World War II — then follows the aftershocks of choices made by her characters before, during and after that cataclysmic era.

“Red Rover” opens with a scene of almost heartbreaking beauty and innocence: Two brothers, Aidan and Neil Tierney, take off on a long, long horseback ride into central Montana’s Sweet Grass Hills. It’s 1927, and two boys on horses who imagine themselves Argentinean gauchos can leave their home for days on end without anyone worrying much: “They’d done it before, on their own, the hundred-mile circle. See you in a few days, the parents had said. Adios. Keep your powder dry.”

Aidan, the older, is the risk-taker. He’s played the Red Rover game, “crashing through the linked hands of the strong boys, heedless of his own safety, eager for surprise.” Younger brother Neil is more cautious but immensely capable. When World War II comes, Aidan volunteers for hazardous duty with the FBI and is sent to Argentina; Neil becomes a bomber pilot.

Then it’s 1946, and the Tierney family’s car, with parents, Neil and younger brother Mike inside, is crawling toward Missoula in a blizzard: “The travelers appeared, each of them, as if they had been hit in the face by a stranger.” The news is the worst. Both Neil and Aidan have survived the war, but now Aidan is dead of a gunshot wound — maybe self-inflicted, maybe not.

It’s here that “Red Rover” becomes part character study, part meditation on aging and destiny, and part mystery. Was Aidan, wasting away from a disease contracted in Argentina, murdered? Perhaps executed? Or did he commit suicide?

Several people will spend the rest of their lives entangled in that mystery: Roland Taliaferro, Aidan’s fellow FBI agent, a Butte, Mont., boy with a tormented past and an alcohol problem. Opal Mix, a grotesquely incompetent county coroner. Wendell Whitcomb, a voyeuristic “junior G-Man” as a child, and a reporter for the Missoula paper when he grows up.

Throughout “Red Rover,” McNamer uses the notion that there are crucial moments in time that determine our fate. Of the ring Neil’s wife, Rosalind, has lost late in life, McNamer writes: “They would have to wait for the moment when the light was right and their attention was right, for the kind of fortuitous intersection that would echo … the criss-crossings of fifty-six years ago that had produced the diamond on her finger in the first place.” For 50 years, her characters recross each other’s paths, until resolution, or at least atonement, is achieved in the confines of a Missoula rehabilitation center.

Like all McNamer’s books (“Rima in the Weeds,” “My Russian”), “Red Rover” is lyrical, insightful and woven with vivid characterization and sense of place. But there’s a bit of a hole at the center. What internal forces drove Aidan Tierney, and what enemies undid him? We learn some answers, but this reader longed for more time with this linchpin character, and with his brother Neil — upright, no-nonsense Neil, the brother who never buys the official explanation for Aidan’s death.

But in the end, “Red Rover” kept me under the evanescent spell of the Tierney boys, riding through the prairie, waiting for the stars to fall out of the sky. What a load of vision, fantasy and idealism we carry with us through childhood. What an achievement it is to retain its core. “Red Rover” is about that journey, and the longing of its people to make one life make sense.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or She is the Seattle Times book editor and a director of the National Book Critics Circle.