Skip to Main Content

Lightning Strike

A Novel

The author of the instant New York Times bestseller This Tender Land returns with a powerful prequel to his acclaimed Cork O’Connor series—a book about fathers and sons, long-simmering conflicts in a small Minnesota town, and the events that echo through youth and shape our lives forever.

Aurora is a small town nestled in the ancient forest alongside the shores of Minnesota’s Iron Lake. In the summer of 1963, it is the whole world to twelve-year-old Cork O’Connor, its rhythms as familiar as his own heartbeat. But when Cork stumbles upon the body of a man he revered hanging from a tree in an abandoned logging camp, it is the first in a series of events that will cause him to question everything he took for granted about his hometown, his family, and himself.

Cork’s father, Liam O’Connor, is Aurora’s sheriff and it is his job to confirm that the man’s death was the result of suicide, as all the evidence suggests. In the shadow of his father’s official investigation, Cork begins to look for answers on his own. Together, father and son face the ultimate test of choosing between what their heads tell them is true and what their hearts know is right.

In this masterful story of a young man and a town on the cusp of change, beloved novelist William Kent Krueger shows that some mysteries can be solved even as others surpass our understanding.

Prologue PROLOGUE
JANUARY 1989

On his first day as the newly sworn-in sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota, Cork O’Connor seated himself behind the desk that came with the badge. The desk, clear at the moment of all but a morning paper, a ceramic mug that held pens rather than coffee, and a framed family photograph, was a mosaic of scars and cigarette burns, the legacy of his father and the other men who’d sat behind that desk before Cork. He wore the khaki uniform he’d ironed himself for the swearing-in ceremony, which had been held that morning in the county courthouse a block away. His wife, Jo, had been there, along with his three young children and his sister-in-law, Rose. Sam Winter Moon had come, and Cork had been especially pleased to see Henry Meloux at the back of the courtroom. The old Mide had sat erect and expressionless, but his presence—and Sam’s—in that place where the Anishinaabeg had sought but seldom received justice spoke to the hope they now held.

Cork felt the solemnity of the moment. It came to him with a sense of satisfaction but also with a profound sense of burden. Wearing the badge his father had worn, he felt the heavy responsibility of measuring up to a man who’d given his life in the line of duty and, in doing so, had left his son with a hard road map to follow into his own manhood.

Deputy Ed Larson appeared in the doorway. He was tall, laconic, and nearly a decade Cork’s senior. They’d worked alongside one another for years.

“Care to take a victory lap around town?” the deputy said, then added with a grin, “Sheriff.”

It was January, and there was a bracing chill in the air outside the Tamarack County Sheriff’s Department. The sun was a melt of yellow in an aster blue sky. On the streets of Aurora, which were banked with plowed snow, folks greeted him in a neighborly way. Despite the badge and the nature of all that came with it, he was still one of them and had been his entire life. They ate alongside him and his family at the Friday night fish fry in Johnny’s Pinewood Broiler. On fall evenings, they cheered with him among the local fans at the high school football games and sat next to him in the bleachers of the school gymnasium during basketball season. They took communion with him on Sundays at St. Agnes. Yes, he was one of them. And yet, not quite. Because there was something different about Corcoran Liam O’Connor that didn’t show in his face but ran in his blood. And he was reminded of it on that first day he wore the new badge.

As he and Deputy Ed Larson made the rounds of the small business district, an old man stepped from the Crooked Pine, and with him came the musty odor of stale beer. He jammed a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, cupped his hands around a match flame, and blew smoke toward the sky. Then he caught sight of the two officers and gave a drunken grunt.

“Never thought I’d see the day when a Redskin was sheriff here,” he said.

“I take it you didn’t vote for me, Lyle,” Cork said.

“Hell, didn’t vote period.”

“Not much cause to complain then,” Larson said. “And I’ve got a question for you, Lyle. How do you intend to get home? Because it’s clear you’re too drunk to drive.”

The old man swung his eyes to a mud-spattered pickup parked at the curb. “Guess I’ll have a cup of coffee at the Broiler first.”

“Better make it three or four,” Larson said. “And I’ll be watching.”

The two officers walked on, a rough circle that brought them to the courthouse, where they stood looking at the structure, which had been built of red sandstone in the days when the wealth from the mines had fed the county’s economy and ornate public buildings were de rigueur on Minnesota’s Iron Range.

“You promised lots of changes in your campaign speeches. Going to change that?” Larson said, nodding toward the courthouse.

As was often the case with county courthouses, at least in Cork’s experience, a cupola crowned the structure and a large clock face was set within it. The hands had not moved in twenty-five years. The clock had been hit during the exchange of gunfire in which Cork’s father was killed. Periodically, the county commissioners would entertain a motion to have the clock repaired, but so far that motion had never passed. In its way, that frozen clock face was considered a memorial to Sheriff Liam O’Connor.

“Not up to me,” Cork said.

“I didn’t know him,” Larson said. “But he sure left a mark on this town.”

“Tell you what, Ed. Why don’t you go on back to the office? I’d like to spend a few minutes here alone.”

“Sure thing, Sheriff.” Larson gave him a little salute and crossed the street.

As Cork stared up at the frozen clock face, a cool breeze passed over him, which felt to him like the visitation of his father’s spirit. His father would have scowled and said something like “That’s your heart talking. If you’re going to be a good lawman, you need to listen to your head.”

It was a piece of advice in keeping with the kind of man his father had been. Or at least as Cork remembered him. In Cork’s memories, Liam O’Connor had been a lion, powerfully built, with hands like huge paws and a thick mane of red-gold hair. Although not typically given to displays of emotion, when the situation demanded, he was a ferocious, towering figure. Yet these days, whenever he studied the family photographs of his father, Cork saw a man much smaller than he remembered and with a much gentler face, different from the father Cork remembered, a stranger in so many ways.

There was a bench on the sidewalk, and he sat and allowed himself the indulgence of reverie. Beneath a blue sky and a butter yellow sun, with a cool breeze on his face, the weight of a new badge on his chest, and the responsibilities that came with it resting on his shoulders, he considered a summer long ago when he’d first begun to try to unravel the mystery that had been his father.
This reading group guide for Lightning Strike includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book

Introduction

Aurora is a small town nestled in the ancient forest alongside the shores of Minnesota’s Iron Lake. In the summer of 1963, it is the whole world to twelve-year-old Cork O’Connor, its rhythms as familiar as his own heartbeat. But when Cork stumbles upon the body of a man he revered hanging from a tree in an abandoned logging camp, it is the first in a series of events that will cause him to question everything he took for granted about his hometown, his family, and himself.

Cork’s father, Liam O’Connor, is Aurora’s sheriff and it is his job to confirm that the man’s death was the result of suicide, as all the evidence suggests. In the shadow of his father’s official investigation, Cork begins to look for answers on his own. Together, father and son face the ultimate test of choosing between what their heads tell them is true and what their hearts know is right.

In this masterful story of a young man and a town on the cusp of change, beloved novelist William Kent Krueger shows that some mysteries can be solved even as others surpass our understanding.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The book begins with an older Cork O’Connor looking back on a childhood summer that changed his life. Do you have any similar experience of a pivotal moment when you were growing up that changed you, or an event that made you suddenly feel like more of an adult?

2. When Cork first sees Big John’s body hanging from the tree, he begins to cry and says, “I’m sorry, Big John. I’m sorry.” Why do you think he says that?

3. Why don’t the people on the reservation trust Liam’s conclusion that Big John’s death is a suicide? What is the history between the people who live on the reservation and those in law enforcement in Aurora? How does Dilsey, Liam’s mother-in-law, try to help connect Liam and the people on the reservation, and why does she get so frustrated with Liam?

4. What is Duncan MacDermid’s standing in the town? Where do his power and influence come from? Do you have ideas about what might have caused his deep-seated hatred of Native Americans?

5. At the funeral for Big John, Cork has some of his first interactions with Henry Meloux. What advice does Henry give him? Do you think it’s helpful? How does this establish their friendship and the kind of relationship that Cork will maintain with Henry as an adult and throughout the Cork O’Connor series?

6. Liam is used to relying solely on evidence and logic to do his job as sheriff. In this case, people around him are often telling him to approach the case in a different way. What do they want him to consider? Why is it so hard for Liam to open his mind to other possibilities, and yet seemingly so easy for Cork?

7. At Lightning Strike, Cork and his friends sense a powerful spirit they believe to be Big John. Do you think this is a trick of the mind or something more? Do you think there’s a connection between this experience and Jorge and Cork’s fascination with Hollywood monster movies? Have you ever had a similar almost supernatural experience or coincidence happen to you?

8. What are the deeply ingrained beliefs that impact Liam’s judgment in the case? He says he only follows the facts of the case, but is it possible to weigh facts without any bias? What motivates him to go back and seek out additional evidence that he might have initially overlooked?

9. How does Cork develop over the course of the novel? What events occur that take him from being an innocent child to an adult? What is lost and what is gained as we leave childhood behind?

10. Mary Margaret is a more complicated character than she seems at first. How does your understanding of her and her motivations change as you learn more about her life and her marriage to Duncan?

11. Why do you think Cork followed in his father’s footsteps and became a police officer? Do you have experience yourself or with a friend who followed in a parent’s profession? Was it a fulfilling choice?

12. In William Kent Krueger’s novels, the Minnesota setting becomes almost another character. What are the key settings in this book, and how to they play an important role in shaping the plot? How would this story be different if it were set somewhere else?

13. At the start of the novel Cork worships his father, but his understanding of him changes over the course of the novel. Does Cork truly “unravel the mystery that had been his father,” as he observes in the prologue?

14. Liam tells Father Cam, “We all stumble in the dark, but that’s why the Great Mystery gave us voices, so that we can call out, seeking others in that dark. . . . Alone, the darkness swallows us. But together, we help each other through.” Can you think of ways that hearing his father say these words might have informed the way Cork lived his own life?

15. After reading the novel, do you agree with the words attributed to Liam in the epilogue: “We don’t choose our lives. Our lives choose us”?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Lightning Strike is described as a place of special power. Are there any places like that nearby in your city or town? What history gives them their unusual significance or mysterious nature?

2. In Lightning Strike, William Kent Krueger uses references to other books as a way to tell us about his characters. For example, Cork reads and loves Treasure Island, The Time Machine, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. His mother, we’re told, will love Gifts from the Sea. Pick another character from the novel and discuss what books (either current or time-appropriate to the novel) they might read and what these choices say about them.

3. Read one of William Kent Krueger’s other novels that deal with coming of age, such as Ordinary Grace or This Tender Land. How are they similar to the Cork O’Connor mysteries? What elements of setting and detail carry over? How does each novel handle the element of mystery differently? How does Krueger make the experience of a young adult so specific to his characters and yet so universal?
Paul Dinndorf

William Kent Krueger is the New York Times bestselling author of This Tender Land, Ordinary Grace (winner of the Edgar Award for best novel), as well as eighteen acclaimed books in the Cork O’Connor mystery series, including Desolation Mountain and Sulfur Springs. He lives in the Twin Cities with his family. Learn more at WilliamKentKrueger.com.

"William Kent Krueger is a master storyteller at the top of his game with Lightning Strike.  A pitch perfect, richly imagined story that is both an edge-of-your-seat thriller and an evocative, emotionally-charged coming of age tale that explores the complex bonds between fathers and sons and the long simmering animosities of the past.  This is a beautifully written novel that packs a powerful punch.  I loved it." —Kristin Hannah, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Four Winds and The Nightingale

Marvelous. I’ve long been a fan of William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series, and this essential novel allows us to witness how young Cork developed and matured. Not just a story of fathers and sons, it’s also a tale of Natives and settlers and how laws such as the Indian Relocation Act influenced both…A gripping, heartbreaking tale with beautiful writing, vividly drawn characters, and a story you won’t be able to put down." —David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Edgar and Anthony Award-nominated author of Winter Counts

"A brilliant achievement, and one every crime reader and writer needs to celebrate." —Louise Penny, #1 New York Times bestselling author of All the Devils Are Here

“There’s a feel that you get from a master craftsman, a saddle that sits right, a fly rod that casts with its own agility, or a series of books written with a grace and precision so stunning that you’d swear the stories were your own.” —Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire series

“Among thoughtful readers, William Kent Krueger holds a very special place in the pantheon. Kent showed the mystery reading world that a protagonist need not be a chain-smoking loner with lots of emotional baggage but he could be an honest and admirable family man doing his best for all the right reasons.” — C.J. Box, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“Pitch-perfect, wonderfully evocative.” —Dennis Lehane, New York Times bestselling author of Live by Night and The Given Day

“Krueger’s gift is to illustrate the dynamics of history and culture through up-close-and-personal stories.” —The New York Journal of Books

“This sensitive, moving prequel introduces and draws readers into the series. Krueger has written another perceptive coming-of-age novel, the poignant story of a father and son trying to understand each other.” —Library Journal (starred review)

More books from this author: William Kent Krueger

More books in this series: Cork O'Connor Mystery Series