I should probably begin this review with a friendly disclaimer since, prior to publication, I was asked to write a blurb for A Small Earnest Question, by J. F. Riordan. Now, with that out of the way, allow me to introduce you to a fine read. (Oh, it feels like your summer is about to get better!)
My initial attraction to this well crafted story was the setting, Washington Island, a remote bit of land in the Great Lakes. This beautiful little gem is isolated enough from the mainland that, to survive, locals have to forage strong, albeit sometimes unusual relationships. But without tourists and part-time “vacation home” residents to pour in and feed the economy, the local populace suffers. With this conundrum as the backdrop, an intriguing story begins to unfold.
The Islanders prove to be a fascinating lot. Elisabeth has renovated an old hotel to perfection. Word travels quickly on the mainland and though she’d prefer a proper grand opening, she is already welcoming guests. It’s also a shame she can’t find a way to say no to her partner Roger and his request to tend the bar. (Lacking the interpersonal skills required for successful bartending, the man does have a propensity for wild ideas … goat yoga anyone?) Oliver Robert, assistant to the Town Councilman and a lonely man in search of friends, joins a different bartender, Eddie, to form what becomes a surprisingly successful men’s book club. (They are eventually forced underground and you’ll want to know why.) And what island would be complete without its very own busy body? Enter Emily Martin, who clearly seems the happiest when her nose is in someone else’s business. Starved for attention, and status, she conjures up a literary festival and invites a guest speaker from the mainland who turns out to be a real character in his own right.
There are many more curious members of this intriguing and quirky cast of characters. Sub-plots wander through here and there in an interweaving of humanity that works to entertain while challenging the reader’s thinking. How are the suspicious fires to be explained? Who is mysteriously buying up island properties and … why? Is the elected Town Councilman, Fiona Campbell to be believed? There are spiritual encounters, a lone wolf, and a never ending onslaught of yoga groupies camping out illegally in the local coffee shop parking lot.
A Small Earnest Question (Beaufort Books, 2020) is Book Four in the award-winning “North of the Tension Line” series. (I’m looking forward to reading the first three books.) It is an engaging, thoughtful, and downright funny read. But it is also a real testament to the meaning of community and during our current circumstances all across the nation, I found it worthwhile to be reminded about what it takes to bring people together instead of tearing them apart.