Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere

Poe Ballantine lives with his Mexican-born wife, Cristina, and their son, Tom, in Chadron, Neb., a small town where "the quiet of inaction is so thick that you have to get up and check out the window to see if the world has not come to an end." It's also the home of Chadron State College, where math professor Steven Haataja disappeared in December 2006. Nobody thought much of it; the county sheriff half-heartedly investigated until seven months later, when Haataja's charred remains were found on a remote ranch outside of town. The national press ran with the sensational story and the local gossip mill kicked into high gear: Was it a twisted sex tryst? Alcohol? Suicide? Serial killer? accident? The mysterious death went unsolved, but Haataja's story has not gone untold.

Ballantine (501 Minutes to Christ) has a thorough knowledge of Chadron and its citizens and a reporter's instinct for the bizarre. Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere is his take on the Haataja case, but also a personal memoir of settling down after decades of wandering, menial work and various addictions. With Cristina and Tom, he decides to make a fresh go of it, "to be a good neighbor live an honorable life and take out the trash." His account is funny, sensitive and well-paced. It's as if Hunter Thompson, rather than Truman Capote, wrote In Cold Blood--and not as a visiting writer, but as a buddy having a beer at the end of the bar. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

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