The Cunning Man by D.J. Butler & Aaron Michael Ritchey
Hiram Woolley, 44 years old, is a slightly melancholy widower who farms beets in Utah during the Great Depression. He and his adopted son, Michael, spend their free time taking food and supplies to people who are suffering more than they are. This includes the citizens, mostly immigrants, of a mining town where the mine has been closed due to a squabble between the members of the Kimball family who own it. The miners aren’t getting paid and they’re starving. They can’t get out of the situation because they rent their homes from the mining company. Some of the workers are scared because they think the mine is haunted. Hiram thinks the Kimballs are keeping a secret about the mine.
Hiram and Michael realize that it would be best for everyone if, rather than continuing to deliver food, they could help get the mine re-opened. That means someone needs to figure out what the workers are scared of and, if needed, take care of the problem. Thus, they get drawn into the drama, as does a woman named Mary who has come from out of town to help the workers unionize.
Hiram has some assets that will help him solve the mystery. One of these is Michael, an extremely bright young man who knows a lot and is a quick learner. But Hiram’s greatest asset is the mysterious magic which he keeps hidden, even from Michael, because the Mormon church forbids it. Hiram prefers not to think of it as magic. He calls himself a cunning man who happens to have learned some folk wisdom from his ancestors. He also has an arcane object that acts as a lie detector. Unfortunately, there’s another cunning man in the area and he doesn’t necessarily have good intentions.
The Cunning Man (2019) is a pleasant story that blends the genres of fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, and horror. Utah during the Great Depression is a unique setting, as is the focus on Mormonism (though not for D.J. Butler) and labor issues. The cast is diverse with its immigrants and Michael, who is Navajo. Michael and Hiram regularly have to deal with prejudice against Michael.
My favorite part of The Cunning Man is the heart-warming relationship between father and son. They are not biologically related and they are very different people in pretty much every way imaginable, but they have a bond that’s beautiful. Michael doesn’t believe in Hiram’s religion or his magic, but the two have meaningful and respectful conversations about these things. I loved these parts of the story.
There’s a sequel to The Cunning Man called The Jupiter Knife which I look forward to reading soon. I’d be happy to spend more time with Hiram and Michael.
I’m listening to the audio versions produced by Tantor Audio and read by Stephen Bel Davies. I didn’t think that Davies had the best voice for Hiram’s character, but he did a good job with Michael and he gave a nice performance. The Cunning Man is 11 hours long in this format.