Book review: ‘The Life We Bury’ by Allen Askens

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

This review is being repeated. It first appeared in the County Line in the Jan. 31 issue. Author Allen Eskens will be at the Westby Area Performing Center on Thursday, Aug. 22, as part of Vernon County Reads. The event is free. For more information, contact any public library in Vernon County.

Joe Talbert is taking a college English class and has been assigned to write a short biography of an elderly person. Having no elderly relative nearby, he researches people who are in a nearby nursing home. The problem here is that through one form of dementia or another, most residents do not have the capability to reliably recall their lives. There is one, though: Carl Iverson recently was paroled after spending 30years in prison for rape and murder. He has terminal cancer and not long to live. He is, however, rational.

A distinguished Vietnam veteran, Carl Iverson was convicted of the brutal rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. He put up little resistance at the trial, though he did not admit guilt. When approached about the biography, there was some jousting back and forth, but eventually enough mutual trust developed that Carl pledged to tell the truth — a dying declaration.

Joe and his neighbor, Lila, researched the original trial data; Lila did so very carefully. Joe assumed that “telling the truth” would finally lead to a confession. Something quite different happened. The more Carl and Joe talked, and the more Lila researched, the more the case unraveled. Since Carl had only months to live, it became imperative that the young couple find enough evidence to have Carl exonerated sooner rather than later.

Though they do involve law enforcement, the time limit causes them to push beyond what is usual or safe or approved by the police. They manage to decode part of the diary of the victim and thus identify the killer, they think. That mistake nearly costs Joe his life and muddies the waters. But persistence pays off, and they are belatedly able to identify the real killer, a killer who won’t go down without a fight.

Like in many suspense novels, the events leading up to the conclusion are a little hard to accept, but Eskens does enough in the earlier part of the book to make them plausible. As good suspense writers do, Eskens introduces several surprises near the end.

So, as Eskens outlines “The Life We Bury”: let’s see, I want to include romance, autism, bipolar disease, dysfunctional families, risky youth behaviors, murder/killing (they’re different things), guilt, religious belief, PTSD, the Vietnam War, the legal system, keyboarding class; make it suspenseful and set it in Minnesota.

Surprisingly, he does. It’s a good read.

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