Reviewed by Sue Merrell.
Don’t you love reading books that describe places where you’ve been and reveal a side of those places you never imagined? That’s what you’ll find in Pat Camalliere’s latest historical novel, The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods.
Although I didn’t read her first book, The Mystery at Sag Bridge, the new book makes enough references to the first that it’s easy to see this as the continuing adventures of Cora Tozzi, who, like the author, lives with her husband in Lemont, IL, and is active in the local historical society. In the latest tale, Cora and her friend, Frannie, join with a young Native American scientist, Nick Pokagon, to write a book about Nick’s ancestor, Wawetseka, a nineteenth century Potawatomi woman who lived in the Lemont area.
Formatted as a book within a book, the 1817 tale of Wawetseka is the shining heart of the action, opening with a line that ensures you can’t put it down: “The dead man arrived in autumn, swept by rising floodwaters…” Wawetseka’s son is charged with the murder of the white man. To save her son, Wawetseka must uncover the real murderer and bring him back to face charges.
Camalliere does an excellent job of describing the Des Plaines River Valley of 1817, which would have been one of the main highways to Fort Dearborn where Chicago is today. The plucky heroine, Wawetseka, reminds me of television’s MacGyver as she comes up with rustic inventions to cross a river or set a broken leg. But there’s a strong element of supernatural as well to help Wawetseka and add a little magic to the story.
Old Indian legends of the water panther and wolf spirit return to life two centuries later as Cora, Frannie, and Nick realize someone or something is trying to prevent them from publishing Wawetseka’s tale. The modern-day portions of the book are not as fast paced and tend to get bogged down in internal monologues. Nevertheless, the characters face a couple of exciting moments including a stormy finale that ends with a body tangled in a tree in the Des Plaines River, not much different than the body that started Wawetseka’s tale in the first place.
As a former resident of the area, and a big history buff, I really enjoyed all the details about Isle a la Cache and the I&M Canal, as well as references to Argonne National Laboratory. The parallels between the 1817 story and modern day reveal interesting remnants of history in the area, which are still available to explore.