When Craig Johnson was asked to do a short Christmas story with his Wyoming sheriff, Walt Longmire, for his publisher, the story got a little out of hand and became longer than he intended. The result is the recently published novella, Spirit Of Steamboat. While under two hundred pages, it has the richness many long novels lack.
The story takes place on a Christmas Eve. Walt is in his office with only a copy of A Christmas Carol for company. A woman comes in looking for the sheriff. When he introduces himself, she says he’s not the one. He figures out she’s looking for his irascible predecessor, Lucian Connolly.
As Walt takes the woman to Lucian, we’re taken back to the ’80s and Walt’s first Christmas Eve as sheriff when a car wreck caused the death of a married couple. Their daughter is badly burned and could die too if she doesn’t get to a Denver hospital in time. With the roads down and an ugly blizzard, the only hope is a decommissioned WWII era B-25 bomber, The Spirit Of Steamboat. The only person who can fly it is former Dooolittle Raider, Lucian. Walt grabs him at the bar on his third bourbon and the two, along with the daughter, her Japanese grandmother, Dr. Isaac Bloomfield, and a professional female pilot Lucian insists on calling “Toots”, take the flight of their lives.
Johnson has created a white knuckle adventure. A rattling plane in dangerous weather combined with jury rigged medical equipment (two things at which Walt is a novice) provide hair raising passages.
Yet even in a story as tight as this one, it’s Johnson’s use of emotion that permeates. Since Walt’s wife Martha is still alive this Christmas Eve of memory, we get to hear her voice in a couple of phone calls, but Johnson keeps her out of physical range, remaining a bittersweet spectre who hangs over the series. It is through these conversations we see Walt start down the road of duty that conflicts with his focus on his family. Johnson even uses an ironic ending to create a moving turn.
For a small book, The Spirit Of Steamboat gives us a full experience. Along with the flight we get WWII and Wyoming history woven throughout the tale. Johnson has created a Christmas adventure for all seasons.
Copies of Spirit of Steamboat are available on our shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com.