I’m usually leery of both true crime books and local literature – the first tend to assume an interesting crime automatically makes an interesting story, and the second doesn’t interest me much. (Maybe I’m reading the wrong books?)
Anyway, I’m a hard sell for both genres. But when I came across a fifty-cent copy of A Death in White Bear Lake at a thrift store, I bought it. I kind of hate White Bear Lake and I figured Death would at least serve as validation for my prejudice. (“Of course White Bear Lake sucks, it’s basically a polar bear-fronted den of murderers.”) And it was only fifty cents.
I hid it in the back of my bookcase when I got home and let it sit for a while, which is something you should do with water-warped paperbacks purchased from podunk thrift stores because it gives you time to forget that the weird end-page stains might be the previous owner’s body fluids. It languished there for a couple months. Then I picked it up one afternoon and started reading.
I finished it the night after – all five hundred pages. It’s a good book. A very good book. For reference, Laura’s Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit is my standard for creative nonfiction, and Death ranks right there with it in terms of research quality and the tautness of the writing.
An Unfortunate Accident
It’s a sad book too. The titular death is that of Dennis Jurgens, a three-year-old kid who was adopted by the White Bear Lake couple Louise and Harold Jurgens in 1963. He died in 1965 after falling down some stairs and hitting his head – at least according to Louise.
It wasn’t the most unexpected thing that could have happened. Louise’s reputation as a mother was more Joan Crawford than June Cleaver. She wasn’t the kind to race over and pluck her child from danger in response to a flutter of maternal intuition. And she definitely wasn’t the type to show much emotion, so police weren’t surprised when they arrived at the death scene to find her agitated but dry-eyed. It was all fairly rote – tragic, but rote.
The only odd thing was the body. Dennis looked like he’d died fighting, with his hands pushing up in the air. He was covered in lacerations and bruises. He was so battered, in fact, that the mortician had a difficult time making him presentable for the funeral.
But he managed and Dennis was buried without overt scandal, though not without rumor. White Bear Lake went back to being the picturesque little slice of Americana it aspired to be. Louise was allowed to adopt three more children.
Mother on the Hunt
And then, twenty years later, Dennis’ biological mother came looking for her son. She found nothing but the mortician’s record of his death, complete with all the disturbing details about the state of the body. It didn’t take long for her to conclude that Louise had murdered Dennis. The story of the amateur detective campaign she mounted to convince White Bear Lake of her guilt is as weird and dramatic as Dennis’ death was.
A Story Worth Reading
I’ll stop here to avoid spoilers, but you get the idea. A strange crime, a stranger path to justice. Barry Siegal picks up details in a way that brings Louise and her surrounding players, along with White Bear Lake itself, to vivid life. He knows everything. The sheer number of interviews he did to familiarize himself with the townspeople is exhausting even to think about. But they gave him a deep understanding of the zeitgeist of White Bear Lake – and allowed him to draw connections between the murder that happened there and the social changes that swept America at about the same time. Reading Death, I learned more about the history of American child abuse laws than I thought I ever would – and it was never boring.
The New York Times Book Review describes Death as having “enduring value.” It does – both for the rich narrative and knowledge it offers and for its reminder that stories of all kinds live right beside us. Whether we want them to or not.
Do you have suggestions for local books I should read or true crime stories I need to check out? I’d love to see them in the comments!