'Earthway' offers good action, bad dialogue

Published: Saturday, April 23 2011 2:18 p.m. MDT

"EARTHWAY," by Aimee and David Thurlo, Forge, $14.99, 336 pages (f)

When a group of Navajo activists organize to stop a nuclear power plant on the Rez, the Navajo Tribal Police, led by Special Investigator Ella Clah, are faced with the job of identifying the activists and thwarting their plans.

"Earthway," the 15th novel featuring Clah by husband-and-wife writing team Aimee and David Thurlo, attempts to tackle the challenges of life on the Rez and the clash of the traditional Navajo culture with modern society through this fast-paced police procedural. They only partly succeed.

While "Earthway," which was released in hardcover in 2009 and made its paperback debut in March, keeps the reader's interest with plenty of action — bombings, shootouts, intriguing clues and modern forensic police work, clunky dialogue and clumsy efforts to shoehorn Navajo culture into the story are enough of a distraction that the result is uneven.

The story starts with a bang, quite literally, when a bomb is planted in a junior college lecture room in an apparent attempt to kill Clah's love interest, who happens to be a Navajo Christian minister with a mysterious past as a counterterrorist government agent. The conflict between the boyfriend's religion and Clah's traditional Navajo beliefs is one device the authors use to explore the cultural conflicts on the Navajo reservation.

The bomb goes off, but not until Clah clears the building, and the attempt launches the investigation that uncovers hints of a conspiracy to thwart the opening of a nearly completed nuclear power plant on the reservation. The plant will be an economic boon for the tribe, but stirs up feelings of resentment and fear that date back to the days of uranium mining with sickened many Navajo workers and their families.

Authors Aimee and David Thurlo do a good job of pacing the story, and include enough twists to keep the reader interested as the Navajo police officers and their civilian friends dig deeper into the conspiracy, but the authors' best efforts lag every time a character is called on to speak.

"Earthway" is dialogue challenged. Every character sounds the same, and none of them talk like real people, as each one is required to advance the plot in lines of stilted conversation. In addition, the Thurlos work so hard to introduce Navajo culture into the story that at times the efforts are distracting rather than being an organic part of the lives of these characters.

The result is a thriller long on suspense but filled with characters that don't come off as believable. It's an unsatisfying mix.

Marc Haddock has been a newspaperman for 35 years. He lives in American Fork with his fellow journalist and, more importantly, wife, Sharon Haddock.

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