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Barry Siegel’s A Death at White Bear Lake Book Review

The reading life affords few pleasures greater than becoming accidentally drawn into a book – a book that initially seems to promise little but that unexpectedly seduces you to drop everything else in your life while you rush to complete it.


Such was my experience with Barry Siegel’s A Death at White Bear Lake: The True Chronicle of An All-American Town -though to say that this book “seduces” its reader is like saying that a train wreck “seduces” its spectators. The book recounts a true tale of child abuse and murder that unfolded over a generation starting in 1960, and the trial 25 years later that brought eventual but imperfect closure to the multiple surviving victims. The actual events are so full of improbable twists, corrupt actors and venal enablers that they seem straight out of a screenplay: this story could tell itself. Fortunately, Siegel is an expert narrator who elevates his sometimes-lurid material by pointing out provocative connections between the events he describes and the dark side of the burgeoning postwar culture they played out against. And his narrative thankfully resists the temptation, all too common in lesser true crime literature, to devolve into a dry and boring courtroom procedural. Reading about these 1960s events and their 1980s prosecution – all from the view of my 2020s sensibilities – was a compelling education in the forces that have driven the shifting relationships among children, parents and the state over my lifetime. The unassuming appearance of my reading copy (a decommissioned library hardcover without dustjacket) moreover lent me the additional thrill of believing, as the story unfolded, that I might have unearthed a hidden literary masterpiece. Unfortunately, though, this last was not to be. I was both pleased and disappointed to find later that this book is recognized as a classic of crime journalism. A finalist for the 1990 Edgar Award, it’s still in print 30 years after its first publication. -S.M.

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