Sunday, October 06, 2013

Poe Ballantine puts Chadron on the map, and some are not too happy about it

I don't often attend a literary event that has its own security detail.

Face it -- it's not often that writers get death threats. There was that Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie, a threat that forced him into hiding for a decade. It had expired by the time I heard him talk in Laramie a few years ago.

A well-armed deputy sheriff was on hand at the Literary Connection on Saturday at LCCC in Cheyenne. I asked him if there had been a threat. He replied that the college was only interested in being prepared for all eventualities.

At the podium were author Poe Ballantine of Chadron, Nebraska, and filmmaker Dave Jannetta of Philadelphia. They spoke in turn about a the mysterious case of a Chadron State College professor, a neighbor to Ballantine. His body was found out on the prairie. It was bound and horribly burned. Local law enforcement ruled it a suicide. Ballantine originally agreed. After investigating the case, he eventually decided that it was a murder. He wrote a book about his six-year saga of discovery, and Janetta is working on a documentary about it.

The book is "Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere." I began reading my signed copy yesterday evening and can't stop. Not only is Ballantine a fine writer. But wind-whipped Chadron and its residents are interesting characters on par with Savannah and the people portrayed in John Berendt's best-seller "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." Who knew Chadron (pop. 5,844 -- a bit smaller than Torrington, WY, a two-hour drive across the border) could be so damn interesting?

Leave it to a writer.

And then there's the murder. In 2006, CSC math professor Steven Haataja disappeared. More than three months later, the man was found burned to death and tied to a tree in the hills behind the campus. Police were stumped. They finally ruled it a suicide. Ballantine, a novelist and essayist, was not particularly interested in writing a true crime book. But, during his short time in Chadron, he got to know most of the people involved -- so he jumped right in.

The first part of "Love and Terror" is devoted to Ballantine's itinerant life. The writer had spent his adulthood knocking about the country, working odd jobs and trying to establish a writing career. He'd been pretty good at the first two. The third? Not so much.

Until recently. With five books to his credit with the upstart Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts in Portland, Ballantine's career is on the move. Although he and his family are staying put in Chadron, despite the death threats.

Haataja's family wants the dead to stay buried (see Ballantine's posts on the Hawthorne Books blog and read the comments). The police want the case off of their to-do list. The town fathers and mothers don't think that murders are the proper promotional schemes for tourism (although they may be wrong about that). Its motto invites to come to town and "Learn The History. Explore The Bounty. Firsthand." And the college? It may have a harder time drawing math professors to campus.

I'm not sure why I'm blogging instead of reading Ballantine's fine book. So I'm going to remedy that right now.

One more thing: Jannetta played us two clips from the film on Saturday. He's raised $33,000 on Kickstarter to do post-production work. He hopes to get it into some film festivals. Let's hope there's a screening in Chadron. The town's kooky population deserves to see itself up on the big screen. Find out more at "Love and Terror the Movie."

1 comment:

Sharon said...

The Haataja family wants their son/brother to rest in peace. Poe making money off of his death is disgusting. We are not uncaring people. Would you want your family member in a book with speculation, most of it not true? No one knew him in Chadron because he wasn't there long enough to get to know. He could have invented a book on his own and leave my brother out of it. Chadron is a nice little town. We know the truth so he didn't write it for us and we felt in Steve's memory to stay out of it. We have compassion!