Crimes against man and nature collide in Waiting for the Night Song, a vivid and compelling environmental thriller by Julie Carrick Dalton. Dalton is a journalist, writer, and frequent speaker on the topic of writing fiction in the age of climate crisis, an area of expertise that shines through in her debut novel.
Cadie Kessler is a scientist trying to protect her beloved New England woodlands from the devastation of wildfire when she receives an unexpected message from Daniela, her estranged childhood friend whose family, although having lived in the U.S. for decades, is undocumented. They found him. With this cryptic note and the memory of a single gunshot echoing in her mind, Cadie Kessler returns to her hometown to face secrets she’d long buried.
The narrative flows in a dual timeline throughout the book, following Cadie both in present day and during the summer she and Daniela formed a brief and intense friendship. Both timelines are anchored by a New Hampshire woods setting so vividly drawn the reader can practically smell, taste, and hear it. In the present-day storyline, when the discovery of a body in the woods threatens to expose Cadie’s secrets, she hears the accusations of the birds calling in the trees—Cady did. In the past, the same woods come alive with the magic of childhood discovery:
“They were the first explorers to enter the hidden cove, Cadie felt certain. Theirs were the first eyes to behold the giant pines draped in sinewy vines. She peeled her slicker off her sweaty arms and dragged one hand through the warm lake water. The rain had tapered off and shafts of morning sunlight sifted through the parting clouds. Everything sparkled—even her skin.”
Cadie’s lifelong connection to nature sets the story apart. In a typical thriller, the protagonist relies on relationships with secondary characters or their own moral convictions to brave their journey, but Cadie draws her strength from the natural world, the granite mountains and glacial lakes, rocks that can become weapons and leaf dust scattered like a blessing on the wind. Cadie’s life provides a visceral and compelling case for humans living in harmony, rather than in combat, with nature.
Dalton also gives readers a fascinating glimpse of the science and politics of studying wildfires. As a forest researcher and entomologist, Cadie tracks the mountain pine beetle, an invasive species that kills off trees and leaves dangerous swaths of dead wood that can easily burn and conflate a wildfire. The beetles lead her to lands where, although public, data collection for academic research has been banned. Cadie’s defiance of the ban puts her squarely in the middle of the controversy pitting science against government.
Throughout the book, the danger of the wildfires is omnipresent, but it sometimes takes a backseat to the competing narrative—what Cadie knows about the body buried in the woods, and how that knowledge could impact her friend’s immigration status. When the fires finally close in on Cadie’s hometown, she realizes she’d been “stopping fires that needed to rage. Swallowing words that needed to be spoken.” Cadie’s secrets can’t be concealed any more than a fire can be held back. And when they’re unleashed, both the forest and Cadie will rise stronger.
Waiting for the Night Song is excellent environmental suspense, perfect for providing mystery and thriller readers a gateway to ecofiction.