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Into the Snowstorm: CJ Box's Winterkill Preview and Review by Darren Nguyen

Author's Note: The 2nd part of the analysis deals with major spoilers in the book. If you want to avoid such spoilers then click here.


Christmas week has arrived in Twelve Sleep County and things could not be worse for Joe Pickett and his family. April Keeley, Joe’s “adopted” daughter, is about to be taken away from the Pickett family due to her real mother being in town. In addition, Forest Service manager Lamar Gardiner was killed brutally while under arrest for hunting violations. Lamar’s death has triggered a cascade of events that involves the FBI, Wyoming Department of Investigation (DCI), and the Saddlesastring Sheriff. Supervising the investigation of Gardiner’s death is Melinda Strickland of the Forest Service special taskforce dealing with deaths of Forest Service employees. Furthermore, FBI agents Dick Munker and Tony Portenson are deployed to assist with the investigation.

Evidence gathered at the crime scene points to a man named Nate Romanowski, an anti-government loner and falconer as the prime suspect. Upon interrogation, Romanowski maintains his innocence but the evidence is stacked against him. A compound bow and a knife found in Romanowski’s house matchs the arrows that impaled Gardiner and the knife that slit Gardiner’s throat. Furthermore, Romanowski has admitted openly to how he disliked the government, talking specifically about its land management policies which he claims limit his hunting territory. However, despite the evidence, Joe is skeptical that Nate killed Lamar.

Now, Joe has to find the real killer, and a car accident involving Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employee Birch Wardell puts him closer to proving Nate’s innocence. When a potential suspect is spotted heading to an anti-government resistance faction called the “Sovereigns,” Strickland and Munker order a full-on assault on the Sovereigns’s compound. However, that is not the only problem on Joe’s mind. Jeanne Keely (April’s birth mother who abandoned and neglected her) filed a court order to force April out of Joe’s home. It seems only a matter of time before April is returned back to her abusive mother, but Joe and Marybeth are determined not to let that happen. But, with the upcoming assault on the Sovereigns, is it possible for Joe to save April and stop a blood bath? Will he have to sacrifice April to save more lives? Will Joe save April but risk the lives of his friends? Or, will that choice be made for him? Now, Joe is on the clock. In order to prevent a war between the police and the Sovereigns, Joe has to juggle three impossible tasks. First, Joe has to prove Nate’s innocence. Next, Joe has to stop the war between the Sovereigns and Strickland. Finally, Joe has to save April.

The Man, The Myth, The…Ear Ripper? (Minor Spoilers) “He’s a hunter and a killer […] He could also be, Joe thought, a hell of an ally” (Box, p. 244)

As I mentioned in the last review, I will be talking about my favorite character of the Joe Pickett series. That man is named Nate Romanowski. Despite how Nate is portrayed by Strickland, Nate is not a murderous lunatic; he kills with precision. The pistol he carries, a .454 Casull, is the most powerful handgun in the U.S. One shot from this pistol can disable an armored SUV. It is symbolic of who he is as a person: deadly, but not frequently. Nate is not the person to kill for fun, he is the person who kills those he deems evil or threatens Joe. Nate has a strong sense of justice and patriotism especially since he is former Special Forces. Not much is said about why he left the Special Forces other than a “disagreement” with his superiors. Turns out that “disagreement” is an understatement because Nate mentions the government is hunting for him. Since Joe proved Nate’s innocence, Nate has been strongly devoted and protective of Joe. Since Joe encounters many evil people in his misadventures, Nate has many targets to kill--though Joe stops Nate from killing criminals.

An exception to Joe’s “don’t brutally torture/kill criminals” rule is his final encounter with Melinda Strickland. After an incident with the Sovereigns, Melinda was promoted and is now the head manager of Forest Service in Saddlestring. Joe hated the idea that someone like Melinda is now in office and wanted to get rid of her. Nate suggested that Joe needs “leverage” in order to force Melinda’s resignation so Nate kidnapped her dog and threatened to shoot it with his Casull unless Melinda signed her resignation letter. This is where Nate’s sense of justice dictates his morality. He is threatening an innocent dog just to force a resignation. When Melinda refused to sign, Nate kills her and covers up the scene to appear like Melinda killed herself. When Nate has his eyes on a target, he will kill it no matter what the costs. When dealing with criminals or Joe’s enemies, the nicest thing Nate could do is rip their ears off. In the later books, Nate tortures and executes people much to Joe’s chagrin. While Joe fundamentally disagrees with Nate’s tactics, Joe accepts Nate as a brother-in-arms. Overall, Nate has his moments in which he appears as an out-of-control vigilante, but he does, at times, show his soft side which leads to the next point. Nate makes Joe a better person.

I mentioned many times before that Joe is a young and somewhat naïve game warden. Like Nate, Joe has a strong sense of justice and would like to see all criminals in jail. However, Joe wants to do things by the book and legally convict a criminal rather than execute criminals like Nate does. However, in Winterkill Joe’s idealism starts to fade as he deals with FBI Agents and government officials who abuse the system for their own personal gain. Melinda Strickland and Dick Munker want to assault the Sovereigns’s compound in order to get promotions and pay raises. During the standoff, Munker (equipped with a sniper rifle) reports a hostage situation inside the Sovereign camp. Seeing the opportunity to end the standoff, Stickland orders Munker to fire a “warning shot.” However, Munker shoots a propane tank and causes explosions across the compound, starting a shootout. As Joe takes cover, Nate fires on police, buying time for the Sovereigns and Joe to escape. Munker, seeing Nate, tries to pursue Nate but crashes his snow mobile. Joe confronts the mortally wounded Munker and contemplates executing him. Before Joe raises his gun, Nate stops him.

“You don’t murder people in cold blood.” [Nate]

“I do now,” Joe said. God, his head hurt,

“If you shoot this guy, who will take care of Marybeth? What about Sheridan? And Lucy?” […] “Who will take care of them? They need their dad.”

“Goddamn you Nate.”

(Box. p.348)

Nate understands why Joe would want to kill Munker. If the roles were reversed, Nate would have executed the guy with no hesitation, but Nate convinces Joe to spare him by appealing to Joe’s role as a father. Nate respects him not only because Joe is a genuine “good” guy, but also because Joe is the father of a loving family. Protecting Joe’s family is the same as protecting Joe. In this scene, Nate proves to Joe he understands Joe. Nate goes above and beyond not by arguing that Joe should not kill Munker because it is “illegal” and Joe would go to jail. Instead, Nate argues that if Joe kills Munker in cold blood, then he will lose more than just his job; Joe will lose the love and respect of his family. If Marybeth and Sheridan knew that Joe murdered a man out of spite, then Joe would break his good guy image and consequently lose Sheridan’s admiration of him and Marybeth’s love. When Nate swore to protect Joe, he did not mean just Joe. Nate meant everything Joe holds dear.

Overall, I really like Nate Romanowski as a character not only because he complements Joe’s strength but also because he is a strong character by himself. He is a vigilante, a protector and most importantly a very loyal friend. Nate knows who Joe is and what is most precious to Joe. No matter the costs, Nate will always be there for Joe. A friend that is there for you no matter the problem or situation is family.

What if…. (Major Spoilers)

“He [Joe] failed her, and as a result, she was gone. It tore his heart out” (Box, p. 350).

Joe changes a lot in this book. His idealism, naivety, and faith in the system are all shattered. It turns out doing the right thing does not bring happiness or respect in some circumstances. Joe was a pawn in Munker and Strickland’s game. He was used to gather information on those responsible for killing Lamar Gardiner. His report on Gardiner’s death caused a cascade of events that almost lead to the downfall of Joe. Strickland and Munker took advantage of Gardiner’s death to generate a narrative that Saddlestring is harboring anti-government criminals. It is that constructed narrative that got Joe’s daughter April killed.

The first major event was losing April. When April was taken suddenly from them, Joe and Marybeth were in disarray. Both were upset that they never had the chance to say goodbye or explain the situation to April. She was just taken to the Sovereigns’s compound without them even knowing. What made matters worse is the impending police raid. As mentioned earlier, in order to stop that assault and save April, Joe has to find the real murderers. He promised Sheridan and his wife he would come back with April safe and sound. But that is not the case. Joe tried so hard: he drove for hours, navigated through knee deep snow, suffered multiple injuries on the way only to fail. Even with Nate’s help, Joe still failed to stop the assault from happening. The “warning shot” Munker fired lit a propane tank powering April’s RV. She died in the fire along with Jeanne Keeley and her boyfriend. At the end of the assault, Joe sunk into deep depression wondering what more he could have done to save April. For furthermore analysis click here.

Final Word: Anyways, that’s enough medical philosophy for one review. If you have any questions or concerns, then feel free to email me or talk to me in person. Or you can talk to/email Dr. Davis since he is definitely more experienced in ethics, morality, and philosophy than I am. The next book I will review is called Trophy Hunt which will follow Joe and Nate’s adventures as they investigate cows that are missing their… utters.

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