Did you see the Oscar nominated House of Sand and Fog when it came to movie theaters? Shawn Lawrence Otto was its award-winning screenwriter. He’s also an award-winning non-fiction author who’s just written a debut thriller, Sins of Our Fathers. It deals with the uneasy relationship between Native American reservations and the communities around them, a predatory banking industry, and one man’s rapid descent into a hell of his own making. It’s a complex story that may find Mr. Otto racking up even more awards before all is said and done. This is our first review for a non-profit publishing house that specializes in transformative literature, and Sins of Our Fathers certainly qualifies for that moniker. We’re excited to be hosting a giveaway for a copy that one of you will win.
Meet John “JW” White. He is by all accounts a very successful man, the manager of the North Lake Bank in North Lake, Minnesota. He’s the apple of his ambitious boss’ eye because he’s developed a method for legally turning down loans to Native American applicants from the nearby reservation, while still being the banker that same reservation uses for its valuable casino accounts. In fact, his method has proven so successful that he’s training other small-town bankers in how to do the same thing…and it’s all perfectly legal without a hint of the dreaded phrase “racial profiling.”
“He stood silently, watching them. Sipped his coffee. ‘Do they sound like deadbeats?’ He paused and looked at the pudgy playboy, who shrugged. ‘Please avoid all the old chestnuts about race. I’m not interested in grinding whatever prejudices or opinions people may have about Native Americans, however valid or invalid they may be. This is about business. I’m strictly looking at banking risk, specific to lending to Native Americans living on a reservation.’…’The risk is the reservation itself…’”
But that’s JW’s professional persona. His private life is something else altogether – a mess. His son died a year ago in an accident and he’s been depressed ever since. He and his wife are separated. JW has another big problem, a gambling addiction. His problems are so big in fact that he has made loans to himself out of bank funds to feed his addiction, something that is anything but legal. Legally I believe that is called embezzlement. JW has already paid a huge personal price for this addiction but, like a lot of addicts, he believes it will all still work out. He’ll get his wife back and he’ll get the loans paid off, and everything will go back the way it was – perfect.
“The Many Lakes Casino lot was awash in color and buzzing with sound. A charter bus disgorged senior citizens under the massive front portico…JW turned off his car…’Okay,’ he said, closing his eyes. ‘If I open my eyes and see a man and a woman holding hands, I’ll go in. Just for five minutes. Just send me a sign.’ Carol would have dinner in the oven by now. It would be out in half an hour. He needed to patch things up with her and Julie [his daughter], to heal the rifts that had formed since the accident. He hadn’t handled it well; he knew that.”
There’s only one (or at least one) major problem with JW’s plan. His ruthless boss, Frank Jorgenson, knows he’s embezzling and is not about to let JW take his career down with him. He also knows JW still can’t resist gambling and can’t stop when he’s ahead even if he’s winning. In other words, Frank has JW over a huge barrel with major jail time at the bottom of it and he decides to use that leverage to get something he badly wants and needs for his own career’s upward trajectory while teaching JW a huge lesson.
The bank will say JW is on leave to handle his gambling problem, although he’ll still be working for Frank. In return for making the embezzlement problem go away, and to stay out of jail, JW must: 1), move into a run-down trailer on the reservation; 2), befriend Johnny Eagle, a local Ojibwa who Frank suspects may be planning to build a bank on the reservation; and 3), sabotage any plans for an on-site reservation bank because it will endanger North Lake Bank’s casino cash-cow account. Frank doesn’t care what methods he uses; however, if he is not successful then Frank will turn the embezzlement evidence over to the Feds and life as JW has known it is over. Talk about a rock and a hard place…JW believes he only has one choice and he makes it.
He moves into a run-down, okay – honestly a derelict – trailer right across the street from Johnny’s house and goes in search of a bugging device he can use to get info. As he watches the goings and comings around the house he realizes a lot of people come there, drop off huge bags of something in the early evening and then leave. Could Johnny be operating a drug ring, maybe of marijuana growers? That would certainly be an easy thing to sabotage him with.
The other thing he notices is that Johnny’s surly teenage son is mistreating the horse he’s supposed to be training and taking care of. JW grew up around horses and was an accomplished trainer before he got married and needed a higher paying career. He can’t bear to see an animal mistreated by someone who is clueless about horses so he begins to show the kid how to work with the horse instead of trying to browbeat him into performing. It’s like magic because not only does it help the horse, and the kid’s attitude toward it, but it gives him a door into Johnny’s family and life…and an opportunity to gain enough trust to hopefully get the inside scoop.
“The horse screamed with a high frightened sound and tried to spin away, but the boy had leverage with the lead rope, so it reared and pulled him right back into the range of its hooves. This time the boy couldn’t find his feet.
Before he knew it, JW was out the trailer door and running. The horse twisted and landed and galloped off across the lawn, dragging the boy close to its thundering hooves.”
One thing JW quickly learns is that Johnny is not a drug czar but the kingpin of a wild rice co-op, growing wild rice to sell to local restaurants. It’s a backbreaking operation at every step but it provides much needed cash for reservation families to buy necessities. Soon Johnny has JW working alongside the others to earn some extra money, and they become even closer. JW realizes that Johnny actually cares deeply about raising the standard of living for those living on the reservation but he still can’t understand Johnny’s angle since he had been a successful big-city banker before returning to the rez.
There has to be an angle and JW has to find it and destroy it before it bears fruit or he’s going to jail. There are only a few problems: 1), he’s grown to realize the Native Americans on the reservation aren’t all like the ones he’d always been told about; 2), he has grown to like Johnny and his son, and even some of the other people he’s met on the reservation; and 3), how far is he willing to go to destroy Johnny’s dream just to appease Frank, who he already knows has proven to be a snake in the grass.
When this secret game begins to become increasingly dangerous, JW needs to ask himself a few important questions. Can he even begin to trust Frank to keep his word when this is all over or will Frank throw him to the wolves no matter what happens? And, if successful, will this secret operation really solve JW’s personal problems or will it instead only add more mountains to the guilt and shame he carries around with him?
What should he do? How can he possibly win at a game with the odds stacked so high against him?
I’ll be honest. I didn’t like JW much at first and I detested Frank. So why would I read a novel about someone who I didn’t like? The author provides enough of JW’s background that I could see he had strong roots and I wanted him to find those again. He had gotten way off course because he believed he had to be something he wasn’t deep in his soul. I was curious about whether he could find his way back to that place. I was also fascinated by the train wreck in front of me in that kind of “can’t look away even though you want to” way. And I’m really glad I couldn’t.
Race, money, the American Dream; Sins of Our Fathers is an up close and personal look at institutionalized racism, predatory banking practices, and life in one of society’s most marginalized groups. And it’s all very personal because it’s seen through the eyes of a man tortured by the choices he feels he has to make. I found it impossible to believe this was Shawn Lawrence Otto’s first novel because it was masterfully written. It flows so beautifully that you don’t realize you’re in the middle of reading’s version of rocky river rapids until it’s too late to escape, and you wouldn’t want to anyway because you have to find out how it ends! Yep, this was another “can’t put it down” psychological thriller. And one of you will win a copy!
Can’t wait to read it?
Sins of Our Fathers was published on November 25, 2014, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). Please note: This one is not available as an e-book.
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One lucky reader will win an ARC (advance readers copy) of Sins of Our Fathers by Shawn Lawrence Otto!
1) The deadline for entries is Saturday night, 1/17/2015, at 11:59pm EDST. No entries after that date/time will be eligible.
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