Dallas Morning News
Most people know Garth Stein for his 2008 hit, The Art of Racing in the Rain , which was told from the point of view of a gregarious lab-terrier mix named Enzo. The book shot onto best-seller lists after it was picked by Starbucks for its book program.
Now that Stein is something of a household name, at least among coffee addicts, Harper has reissued his first novel, Raven Stole the Moon, which first appeared in 1998. The marketing ploy turns out be a good thing for readers: Raven is just as winning as Racing, in a completely different way.
Both books ask readers to suspend disbelief to the nth degree. With Racing, we had to take on faith the ability of a dog not only to write (with excellent grammar and a strong sense of wit and irony), but also to critique films and comment on legal proceedings.
In Raven, set in a small Alaskan outpost, Stein makes use of his heritage to evoke the superstitions and traditions of the area’s native Tlingit Indians (pronounced klink-it). One legend tells of spirits called kushtaka, who take the form of either otters or furry humanish creatures that delight in leading people to their deaths, usually involving water, then kidnapping their souls before they can get to the afterlife.
“The Tlingit soul is born many times,” a character explains to Jenna, the book’s protagonist, a grieving mother whose young son has drowned in a resort lake.
“When a person dies, the Tlingit burn his body so he can pass safely to the Land of Dead Souls. From there, his soul will return to his body. If he is saved from drowning by the kushtaka, his soul will be trapped with them forever.”
As with Racing, just a little ways into Raven, readers will themselves believe the most outlandish things: that a shaman can be turned into a giant otterlike critter if he messes with the kushtaka, that a dying woman can be saved by drinking human blood.
For dog fans, this book also boasts an excellent one, named Oscar, although he possesses no writing skills, as far as we learn.
Stein, though, boasts plenty of those. This is a worthy reissue, but it also left me hoping the author has something new for us soon.
The Denver Post
Garth Stein’s “Raven Stole the Moon” is driven by tragedy and greed. Most prominently, avarice rises from speculators hustling a land deal by which a Japanese company puts up big money to develop a resort in an abandoned Alaskan town.
Deep in the northern wilds, upscale vacationers will be able to hunt and fish and then return to civilized comforts and have their take prepared as gourmet meals. As bad luck would have it for Robert Rosen, a Seattle real estate salesman, this nest of luxury also harbors calamity. During a preview stay at the lodge, he skips a promised day of fishing with his son to hunt big game. His wife, Jenna, rows their crestfallen boy into the bay to fish deep water. In a horrible moment of miscues, the child is lost. He slips from his oversized adult life jacket, falls into the water and is sucked down by the weight of his sweater.
The loss breaks Robert and Jenna’s hearts and their marriage. She veers into drugs, alcohol, numbness. He turns to sullen blame games.
Out of this horror, Jenna finds herself inexplicably drawn back toward Alaska, the land of her family roots. Along her trail home, Stein exposes the depth of his mysterious plot. Blindly, Jenna falls into a terrible web of intrigue.
According to Tlingit tribal legend, the part of Alaska where Jenna’s son was lost is haunted by a race of supernatural creatures who harvest the souls of unprotected humans. These victims must spend eternity in semibestial form, slipping between the earthly and spiritual worlds, stealing more souls. The creatures, called kushtaka, apparently also lay claim to lands on which the resort is to be built.
A native shaman called in by the Japanese to purify the grounds before the development is completed (to “broker a deal” with angry spirits) disappears into the night, then returns beaten up. He warns them not to build, but the project marches on…to disaster.
Much of this may sound far-fetched, but Stein does a remarkable job of allowing the reader to participate in Jenna’s doubts, all the while exposing the possibility of the myths being true. Anyone capable of mustering even a dash of agnosticism regarding the fantastic scenes that end the novel is in for a treat.
In fact, except for the occasional jolt from the novel’s shifting narrative point of view, the story reads as effortlessly as falling down one of the hobbit holes the kushtaka call home.
Progress Tribune (Scottsdale, AZ)
Telling the difference between fantasy and reality isn’t always easy when you’re a grief-stricken mother whose 5-year-old son has drowned. But it’s especially difficult when the Tlingit legends you learned as a child in Alaska come back to haunt your sleepless nights.
This is the backdrop of Raven Stole the Moon, a touching though harrowing first novel by Garth Stein, who is the great-grandson of a Tlingit Indian.
Now living in New York City, Stein uses the time and distance from his early childhood experiences to pointed effect. This is most noticeable in his creation of Jenna Rosen, Raven’s main character.
Jenna is a creature of two worlds. Her days are spent among Seattle’s affluent yuppie set, but in her dreams she travels back to the small village of Thunder Bay, Alaska, where her Tlingit ancestors once lived. And where she remembers being happy.
The book opens on the second anniversary of the death of Jenna’s son. She isn’t coping well and her husband, who at first seems the stronger of the two, is losing patience. In a misguided attempt to shock Jenna out of her grief, he first insists on lighting a candle to celebrate the anniversary, then demands that she accompany him to a party where she can practice “acting like a normal person again.”
Jenna goes to the party, but flees early and hops a ferry back to Thunder Bay to make peace with her son’s death. But once she reaches Alaska, her hold on reality begins to weaken.
Or is she seeing things clearly for the very first time?
While staying in Thunder Bay, Jenna learns about the kushtaka, the soul-stealers who inhabit Alaska’s many bays. The kushtaka–who from a distance appear to be otters–steal the souls of drowning victims and carry them off to their underground homes so that they may become kushtaka themselves.
Jenna becomes convinced that Bobby’s soul has been stolen by the kushtaka, and she sets out to reclaim it. While searching for her son’s spirit, she in turn is tracked by the private detective her husband has sent after her. And he does not believe in the kushtaka.
An unusual hybrid of literary novel and ghost story, Raven Stole the Moon is distinguished by some wonderful writing, especially in the passages describing Alaska’s stark beauty:
“The beach was wild and untamed. Huge, sharp rocks jutted out of the sand and ran down toward the water. Large pieces of driftwood littered the beach along with clumps of sea grass that had been lined up in rows by the retreating tide. Around the rocks were tidal pools that were deep and clear, home to little see-through fish and tiny baby crabs. The smell of the ocean at low tide was pungent and almost disturbing–as if something left exposed to the sun was dying without the water to protect it.”
Raven Stole the Moon is rich in Alaskan and Tlingit lore, but richer still in its understanding of the human heart. Upon reading it, few of us will be able to look at the world in quite the same way again.