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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Sunken Dreams by Steven Kuehn

April 1, 2016

Five Star Publishing:  New York
2016 (pb)

Academic politics can be murder!  Or at least many college and university faculty have probably metaphorically come to that conclusion!  But in the life of Jacob Caine, associate professor of archaeology at “Wisconsin State University,” it may be literally true.

The engaging young scholar, knee deep in his own political struggles to gain tenure, is introduced to the reader as he and his two grad assistants prepare for a summer field school for both undergrad and graduate students at the Waconah Site on the shores of Lake Taylor in east central Wisconsin.  Initial excavation of the Oneota Site was undertaken by WSU archaeologist Jacklyn Wardell and her field school some twelve years earlier, but with the tragic drowning death of Jaclyn in Lake Taylor, the site lay unexplored for more than a decade.   In search of documentation of that earlier excavation, Jake is visited by Jacklyn’s mother, who presents him with a box of papers, files, photographs, site maps and journals pertaining to the ill-fated project that she had kept at home since her daughter’s death.  In addition to the valuable documents, Linda Wardell leaves Jake with the stunning assertion that her daughter’s death was no accident—that it had to be deliberate murder!

During the course of the field school, Jake tries mightily to put Mrs. Wardell’s ominous observation out of his mind—there is more than enough on his plate what with directing the excavation, riding herd on his high energy, hormone-driven student crew, and struggling with a long-distance romantic relationship (his girlfriend Amanda works as a curator at the Mississippi Valley Historical Center in La Crosse)—but circumstances seem to bring vestiges of the tragic episode into the present.  The site and the on-site lab are vandalized, Jake’s life is put in jeopardy twice by a homicidal motorist, and the photographer of the Jaclyn Wardell field school excavation dies under mysterious circumstances after meeting with Jake and his grad students.  And while the local authorities have long laid Jacklyn Wardell’s drowning death to rest as a tragic boating accident, the now-retired sheriff who investigated the death still has doubts about its accidental nature.  In fact, the list of potential suspects he had drawn up at the time of the incident included G. Clark Kelly, senior North American archaeologist at Wisconsin State University and Jake’s bete noir in the department and Jacklyn’s supervisor back in the day; Maggie Devlin, who had been a supervisor at a neighboring dig that fateful summer, a rival for the position at WSU that Jacklyn earned, and now a DOT environmental management officer; and Mark Winters, Jacklyn’s grad assistant, who had mysteriously “dropped off the grid” for years after her death, and who was rumored to have had amorous intentions toward Jacklyn—intentions that may not have been welcome.  And recently all three of these individuals had been showing up at Jake’s site!

For years I have hoped for an archaeological mystery set in Wisconsin and Steven Kuehn’s initial Jake Caine novel fills the bill admirably.  It is a well-written, well-plotted tale, stocked with believable characters—particularly the very human and sometimes vulnerable protagonist, Jake Caine.  But I was particularly delighted with the author’s skill at portraying the realities of archaeological excavation and conveying his knowledge and command of the late pre-history of Wisconsin.  But perhaps this was to be expected as the author is a product of the anthropology programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, and did his student field school under the auspices of the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the Tremaine and Swennes Sites!

Four enthusiastic trowels for Sunken Dreams!