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Worth reading 😎

A good contemporary read with strong characters, a brash narrative, and exposure of the racism that still poignantly exists in the Midwest.

Jerkwater by Jamie Zerndt is a short, contemporary read that feels as if it has much more to say. The story centers on a small town in northern Wisconsin, where turmoil exists between the native Ojibwa (Chippewa) and white citizens. The atmosphere is a mix of toxicity and camaraderie, with some of the local "color" acting as a strong reminder that racism still heavily exists in the Midwest.

Zerndt's characters are well-written with strong personalities. The story pivots through several points of view, giving a well-rounded picture of the setting and each of the protagonist's lives. Though not feeling fully developed, the character of Peyton Crane exists more as an evil shadow, a non-traditional but still effective approach to the creation of an antagonist.

The narrative can be a bit choppy, moving from one story to the next with occasionally hazy transitions. This tends to slow the read a bit. However, the bones of the story are very solid and the crux of the story is one that is very powerful and important.

This is a definite adult novel with situations and language that can easily prove uncomfortable for some readers. It is humanity stripped bare. Zerndt does not shy away from painting a clear picture of the racism present in his fictional presentation of the community, including some very brash language. This can feel (rightly so) a bit like a gut punch upon reading, but keeps the realism of the narrative plain.

Overall, I enjoyed the story and found myself both comfortable and appropriately uncomfortable with Zerndt's writing. What originally drew me to this story was the presentation of the Ojibwa culture. Native perspectives are not often presented in contemporary novels, though they certainly have a place in today's literature. The development of Shawna as a primary character is well executed and the presentation of Ojibwa traditions and beliefs is fairly well handled. Though the book does work okay as a short standalone, I was left wanting. This may be a good thing, as it has prompted me to continue to consider the characters and the narrative, but I feel as though this serves as more of a snippet of the potential that this story contains. I hope to see more of Zerndt's exploration of these characters in the future.

Jerkwater is a good piece of contemporary criticism, examining the ugly truth that is racial tension. It's a strong commentary on the long way we have to go in understanding one another.

Reviewed by

I am a reader, mother, & farmsteader. I live in rural Minnesota on a small farm where we raise beef cattle & hogs. I am a lifelong bibliophile & enjoy finding new books & authors to love. I can be found at my blog (Erratic Project Junkie) or on most social media under the handle @ErraticElle.


About the author

Jamie Zerndt is the author of The Cloud Seeders, The Korean Word For Butterfly, and The Roadrunner Café. His short story "This Jerkwater Life" was recently chosen as an Editor's Pick in Amazon's Kindle Singles store. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his son. view profile

Published on July 17, 2019

50000 words

Contains mild explicit content ⚠️

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Literary Fiction

Reviewed by