Acclaimed Minnesota attorney-turned-writer Allen Eskens has taken a sharp turn into new territory with his latest book, a literary novel that explores racial prejudice in mid-1970s Missouri. It’s a heavy theme, but “Nothing More Dangerous” buzzes along with the tempo of a boyhood story that almost tells itself.
Boady Sanden is a high school freshman who lives in a beaten-down bungalow on a remote gravel road in fictional Jessup, Missouri. His mother, depressed and withdrawn after losing Boady’s father to an accident some years before, is a shadow in his life. In her grief she is a hollowed-out ghost, though she holds down a decent job at a warehouse just walking distance from their house. Lacking any neighborhood friends, the self-reliant Boady learns to navigate the nearby woods and trails, spending long days by himself fishing or camping out.
Boady takes a summer job at the warehouse where his mom works, learning all too quickly to keep his mouth shut and his head down as the rough-cut men discuss the goings-on in town. It’s then that he learns he’s smack-dab in the center of the biggest thing to happen in his town in a long time.
A new boss has been hired to take over the plastics factory, the town’s biggest employer. Allegations of embezzlement and corruption are pointing directly at the father of one of the tough families that crew at the warehouse. And a bookkeeper has disappeared, presumably with the missing money. Now the company is bringing in a big-city outsider to set the factory right.
The new man moves his family from suburban Edina to a sprawling, once-fine house right next door to Boady’s. He’s shocked to learn that the family is black.
Boady watches as the family moves in and brings new life to the place. He runs into Thomas, the exec’s son, at the fishing hole, but they get off on the wrong foot when Boady naively uses an offensive term for rigging a fishing line and doesn’t realize he’s insulted the boy. After an apology, Boady and Thomas start wandering the countryside together, and it’s clear the Edina boy feels just as out of place in this rural, white backwater as Boady would in the big city.
The story is gripping and yet reassuring as the boys’ friendship deepens. Their summer adventures exploring the woods take on a “Stand By Me” quality with Stephen King-like dread around every bend. The boys find themselves in danger as a few intolerant thugs demand a price for their interracial socializing. It could be a story of the 1950s, but sadly it’s playing out decades later in a place where a racial conscience has never evolved.
Eskens has won several major awards for his Minnesota-based crime novels. Here he weaves a fine mystery that involves layers of racial introspection — persecution, guilt and retribution, important lessons learned in a region where prejudice has been passed down through generations and barely acknowledged for what it is. In fact, the book’s title draws from a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
The characters are intriguing; some you love and some you hate. And numerous backstories enrich the plot, taking us deep into personal purgatories and explaining how some very good people ended up living on that lonely gravel road. And how some otherwise decent people turned a blind eye to some very bad things.
The author wrote “Nothing More Dangerous” as a sort of prequel to his other works. Fans will recognize Boady Sanden’s name and draw the connection.
Eskens tells us in an author’s note that he started this book in 1991 and kept putting it away, never quite feeling it was ready. He can proudly pronounce it ready now.