Discovering ‘Spirit of Steamboat’
Ashley Jo Will
Many people are familiar with Craig Johnson and his Walt Longmire mystery novels, which take place in Wyoming. If not familiar with the books, some people may recognize the name “Longmire” because of the television show on A&E which is based on Craig Johnson’s characters. Whether or not you know Walt Longmire, “Spirit of Steamboat” may have been under your radar. Unlike Craig Johnson’s other stories about Sheriff Longmire, this tale is a lot shorter and only a total of 146 pages. There is no need to read any other Walt Longmire books before considering this story. I have never read any story concerning this character besides “Spirit of Steamboat” and I was not confused at all because many characters are introduced to the reader as they appear. Released to read on Oct. 17, 2013, “Spirit of Steamboat” is a fitting book to read on a snowy wintry day because the story takes place during a blizzard around Christmas. “Spirit of Steamboat” begins when a strange girl appears in front of Sheriff Walt Longmire while he is reading Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, an annual tradition of his.
Like a scene from the book Walt is reading, the girl seems to be a ghost from a past Christmas because she claims to know Walt although he doesn’t recognize her. The mysterious young woman is hesitant about revealing her identity and laments, “You don’t remember me.” Walt believes the girl is vaguely familiar but he isn’t able to identify why. The girl is very inquisitive and asks about the previous sheriff. Walt shows the girl a framed picture of his predecessor, Lucian A. Connally. The girl questions Lucian’s whereabouts and she is adamant about returning something to him. Walt takes the young woman to the assisted living facility where Lucian lives. The old man is introduced as a troublemaker with an affinity for alcohol. Lucian has broken another television set and he only has bourbon to offer Walt and the mysterious girl. Like Walt, Lucian also doesn’t recognize the strange girl. Lucian is rude and makes a racist mark in front of the girl who is Asian. Yet the girl is still interested in talking to Lucian and starts her tale from the past with one word: Steamboat.
Now the majority of the book takes place in the past as the reader discovers the events leading up to this mysterious visit as well as exactly who this girl is. The date is Christmas Eve of 1988 and Walt has recently won the November election to become the new sheriff. Walt is at an airport waiting for a helicopter transport for a little girl. There has been a tragic accident with only one survivor. The sole survivor is a young girl with severe burns and inhalation injuries. Walt discovers from the girl’s grandmother that the survivor’s name is Amaterasu which means shining over heaven. Walt hopes the young girl’s name is more than a name and that it is indeed good luck. Despite her name, time is not on Amaterasu’s side. If Amaterasu doesn’t reach the children’s hospital in Denver within hours, she will die. Unfortunately, a strong storm is brewing and pilots are being grounded. There may not be an available mode of transportation to save the little girl in time after all. In the airport, Walt notices an old VB-25J aircraft, a transport version of B-25s used in World War II. Walt suddenly has an idea because he knows one person with the capability to fly this aged aircraft.
As fast as humanly possible, Walt finds Lucian at a downtown bar. Lucian is a World War II veteran who piloted a bomber during a mission over Japan. Despite three glasses of bourbon and no recent history of flying the aircraft named Steamboat, Lucian is the only chance Amaterasu has to survive. Soon Steamboat is loaded with Lucian as the pilot, a woman named Julie as co-pilot whom Lucian unabashedly flirts with, Walt, a doctor named Isaac, and Amaterasu as well as her grandmother by her side. Walt feels obligated to travel with Amaterasu so that he can do anything possible to help her. He thinks of his own daughter and tells his wife over the phone, “Martha, what if it was our daughter?” Many readers can surely understand Walt’s willingness to help out a young girl about the same age as his own daughter.
Inevitably everything that can go wrong occurs during the flight from a fuel shortage to Amaterasu’s condition becoming worse. In addition to the aircraft, Steamboat is the name of the horse on the iconic Wyoming license plate. Like the legendary strong-willed horse, the reader hopes the aircraft’s spirit will be as strong and carry the crew to safety with no lives lost. Walt and his comrades are often found improvising and finding a way to fix a problem with whatever means necessary. The sheriff calls the ability to quickly rig something up “getting western” and Steamboat’s crew performs multiple feats in this fashion in order to just have a chance to save Amaterasu’s life. The entire situation is ironic because a former World War II pilot, who once destroyed the lives of people in Japan, is now doing everything in his power to save one Japanese girl.
The fateful flight during Christmas time affects each crew member’s life much more than they may realize at the time. Walt’s father had told him, “It was not what you did in this life that you regretted, but the opportunities you allowed to pass you by.” Every reader can probably think of something they regret not doing and this tale emphasizes the importance of taking chances even if they are risky. The story of the young girl is quite emotional and readers shouldn’t shy away from shedding a few tears. The Sweetwater County Library System, along with other libraries in Wyoming, is participating in the One Book Wyoming program where everyone is encouraged to read the same book and have a conversation about it. Stop by Rock Springs Library, White Mountain Library or Sweetwater County Library and pick up a copy of “Spirit of Steamboat” even without checking it out at the front counter. Read the book and pass it along to someone else. Join the discussion online and mark your calendar for July 1 and 2 because Craig Johnson will be visiting Sweetwater County. Even if you are not usually a person who reads mystery or western novels, discover the spirit of Steamboat by reading “Spirit of Steamboat: A Walt Longmire Story”, a short story that is near guaranteed to leave you feeling sentimental afterward.