Jack Nevelsen is the sheriff of a small county that is tucked into northeastern Montana--isolated from the larger world and very sparsely populated. Jack lives in the tiny town of Bentrock and is always very nervous on the night of the town's high school graduation. The new graduates are often tempted to drink and drive, which is always a dangerous combination, but especially so on a night like this in a county where the roads are not all that great to begin with.
Up to now, Jack's always been pretty lucky, but it's graduation night, 1957, and his luck has just run out. Jack is called to the scene of a fatal accident and is shocked to find that the victims are June Moss, a young woman who just graduated from high school that night, and Leo Bauer, the high school principal. Bauer is a married man, a pillar of the community, and his son, Rick, just graduated in the same class as June.
There are three suitcases in the trunk and it's clear that Bauer and the young woman were running away together--a scandal that would devastate the small town. Jack believes that his principal duty as sheriff is to protect the town and the citizens who elected him. Accordingly, he begins to devise an alternative explanation for why Moss and Bauer might have been killed together.
Oh, the tangled webs we weave (to coin a phrase). Once Jack starts down this path, there will be no turning back. Inevitably, the situation will get increasingly complicated as time goes on, and Jack's story will quickly get away from him and turn in directions he never anticipated, with very serious consequences for the county, for the people that Jack was trying to protect and, most of all, for Jack himself.
This is a very engaging book that offers deep insights into the human condition and which also illustrates how actions taken with the best of intentions can sometimes go dramatically wrong. Larry Watson expertly describes the time and place in which this story takes place and has created solid, believable characters to populate it. One might strongly disagree with some of the decisions that Jack Nevelsen makes through the course of the story, but the book poses some very interesting questions and will leave readers thinking for a long time after the story has ended.