Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky. He became a best-selling author. His memoir, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” brought him international recognition and fame. In 1968 Merton died under mysterious circumstances while visiting Thailand.
The author John Straley has been an admirer of Merton’s work and he heard that at one point the monk passed through Alaska on his travels. Straley thought it could be fun to create a fictional story about the time that Merton, known as Brother Louis, paid a visit to the remote fishing village of Cold Storage, Alaska.
This is Straley’s fourth novel about Cold Storage. The town doesn’t really exist. In interviews he has mentioned that it is a fictional composite of three little towns in Alaska that he knows well. Straley lived in Alaska for decades. He was a private investigator and the former Writer Laureate of Alaska.
Cold Storage has no roads. You arrive by boat or seaplane. As “Blown by the Same Wind” opens Brother Louis is enroute to Cold Storage to meditate and reflect. Straley suggests his abbot in Kentucky asked Louis to take a sabbatical because hordes of Merton fans kept showing up there.
Brother Louis is graciously accepted by the quirky citizenry of that tiny town. He observes. There’s a beautiful young woman named Venus and she seems to be in love with a haunted Viet Nam vet who was present at the notorious My Lai massacre.
Straley set this story in 1968, a pivotal year in our history. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis by a drifter named James Earl Ray. Ray managed to make it all the way to England before they caught him. How was that possible?
The FBI had MLK under constant surveillance, how could they have not known of that plot to kill him? Did Ray act alone? Or did he have help? Right after Brother Louis appears in Alaska an FBI agent shows up looking for him. This agent had previously been surveilling MLK.
Boston Corbett, the FBI agent, is a racist. And his fake name is a classic footnote in history. Look it up. Two other strangers arrived before him. These men are true believers searching for the mummified corpse of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth, who according to a conspiracy theory, was never apprehended.
There’s a hero dog in the story. Her name is Dot, a sea dog who spends most of her time on board a fishing boat. At a crucial moment Dot clamps down on a rather sensitive part of a man’s anatomy to incapacitate him and not a moment too soon.
Those scary southerners looking for the Booth mummy are deranged. They have weirdly suspicious names, too. The FBI has had Merton on their radar, also. He was outspoken against the Vietnam War; they labelled him a communist. In 1968 he was considered a problem. Brother Louis senses something weird is happening in Cold Storage. This convergence of imported crazies, a gentle monk, and these innocent locals is well worth reading about.
Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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