Jim Thomsen's Reviews > Salt of the Earth

Salt of the Earth by Jack Olsen
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Aug 22, 10

Read in November, 1996

The late Jack Olsen had a long career of sustained excellence, but it was not until he was well into his eight and final decade that he emerged with his masterpiece in "Salt Of The Earth" — a rich character study and profound exploration of loss wrapped up seamlessly in a first-rate crime story rendered in exquisite and tender prose.

It is a daring achievement, a deeply personal odyssey, that cuts not just across but over the top of the grain of the true-crime genre. One suspects that Olsen used every ounce of his considerable clout to persuade his publisher to take on a book that in no way fit the genre's format; the murder didn't even take place until some 200 pages in, and everything leading up to that contained no hint of serious crime.

That's because Olsen manages something as amazing as it is rare — he manages to make the perfectly ordinary story of how Elaine and Joe Gere met and formed and raised their family into rich Americana, an engrossing tale of Everyman and Everywoman and Everyfamily and their struggles and their fierce love.

That such love could be destroyed in an instant by a chance encounter is like the rarest coin flip of the American Dream — some win it, some don't, and a very few see the coin land on its edge and wobble there before falling off the table. It doesn't happen, except when once in a rare while it does. And when it does, it is too much to take for all but the most indomitable of spirits. And, as it turns out, one half of the Gere couple is made of the toughest stuff ... and one is not.

Olsen's decision to focus on the survivor as she struggles through months of searching, months of judicial proceedings, a resolution that brings empty closure at best ... and the harbinger of an even worse tragedy to come is a courageous one. And, absolutely the correct one. Because he chose absolutely the right subject, one who absolutely saw the value in sharing her pain — and perseverance — with the world.

"Salt Of The Earth" is not a true-crime book in any way readers have usually been led to expect. There's not a lot of space given to the mechanics of the crime or the character of the criminal, a monochromatic figure whose malignancy and motives to this day remain a bit shadowy. I can well imagine the publisher's frustration in trying to decide how to market it: Literary narrative non-fiction? But it's not a memoir! And, as you might guess, it was not one of Olsen's biggest sellers.

It is, though, Olsen's biggest-hearted book. Despite a gruff exterior and a taste for terse, even tough prose, Olsen spent decades using his natural empathy to draw out the deepest secrets of killers, victims and those caught uncomfortably and emotionally between the two. You can't get that out of people — especially a tough cookie like Elaine Gere — unless you really, really care. And Jack Olsen cared.

It's a quality we don't much see in nonfiction crime writing these days, and the world is poorer for it. But it's also richer for Olsen's prolific backlist, which the world needs to explore. Elaine Gere's story, and Jack Olsen's storytelling, is timeless beyond dispute.
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Marc Allen this is, in my opinion, the best written true crime book ever written. It has the logical coherence and dramatic inevitably of great fiction.


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