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Book Review: ‘Death, Unchartered’

by Joe Martin | Real Change Newspaper, October 17th, 2018

Seattle author and social worker Dorothy Van Soest’s latest novel is a charter-school murder mystery

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — Donald Trumpʼs wealthy education czarina — just loves charter schools. Ostensibly, charter schools are an effort to improve opportunities and enhance choices for students of all ethnicities and economic brackets, but they have hardly lived up to the hype. In DeVosʼ home state of Michigan, the charter movement has proven disastrous for Detroit and its student population, mostly all children of color. In the course of dumping millions into the coffers of that stateʼs Republican Party, DeVos and her allies have attempted to wrest schools out of public hands and into the labyrinthine clutches of for-profit businesses.

The controversy over charter schools forms a backdrop for the intriguing new mystery by local author Dorothy Van Soest. In “Death Unchartered” she reprises her two engaging protagonists—Sylvia Jensen and J.B. Harrell — first featured in 2015ʼs “At the Center.” Sylvia is a retired social worker animated by an enduring passion for justice. The younger J.B. is an investigative reporter, who with his good looks and stylish suits, could model on the side for GQ magazine. Initially, their relationship got off to a rocky start. Now friends, they become gradually embroiled in an unexpected case that traverses the decades.

Throughout the plot, years ebb and flow between 1968 and 2006. In the late 1960s, the youthful Sylvia is an idealist married to a decent man named Frank Waters, who is a seminarian doing an internship under the auspices of a Black pastor in the Bronx. From the Midwest, Sylvia and her husband stand out, visible White residents in an impoverished Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. With her requirements met successfully, Sylvia is about to enter the halls of P.S. 457, where she will take on the duties of third-grade teacher. She has concluded “that there was nothing romantic about poverty, and nothing honorable about living in its midst when you had a choice.” Soon the novice teacher finds herself confronted with exigent challenges for which her privileged life has left her unprepared. A citywide teacher strike erupts pitting mostly White rank-and-file staff against communities of color and their children. Sylvia is smacked with complex and tumultuous urban realities of the time.

Pan to 2006: In the Midwest city of Monrow, there is contention over charter schools. Some in the Native American community are promulgating the charter idea as offering a way out of the public school system in which Native kids perennially underperform. A demonstration is underway in opposition to the concept, especially since the mayor plans to turn over all the municipalityʼs schools to a private corporation with a national reach known as CSCH. Sylvia is present, wearing a button declaring “Save Our Public Schools” and carrying a sign urging “Stop Corporate Greed.” Reporter J.B. is covering the event. To Sylvia he says, “Some charter schools involve people with good intentions who want to address the identified racial inequities.” She rejoins, “And some involve people who are more than willing to exploit the situation.”

They repair to a coffee shop. Sylvia comes across an article in The New York Times about a childʼs decomposed body discovered on site of an old elementary school in the Bronx that is being demolished. That was her school. A new facility will be erected —a charter school — sponsored by CSCH. The same outfit slated to make inroads into Monrow. Sylviaʼs mind is flooded by the image of a lovable 8-year-old Black boy, her student Markus LeMeur. He disappeared in the fall of 1968. She is visibly shaken. After scanning the article J.B. says: “Sylvia, you know who the dead boy is, donʼt you?”

The duo decides to travel to New York. J.B. will dig into the venal veiled workings of CSCH. Sylvia desires a renewed connection with Markusʼ older sister. She is driven to find out if Markus might be alive, and that the discovered remains are those of some other forgotten child. Sylvia has cherished memories of this boy, his sister and their devoted grandmother since she and her then-husband left the Bronx years ago. Desperate to rekindle their relationship, she tracks down the sister and will hopefully learn the truth about the fate of Markus.

Van Soest is a former dean of the UW School of Social Work. She remains immersed in the ongoing struggle for peace and justice. In a recent interview, Van Soest discusses the resonance current social and political issues have with 1968ʼs Poor Peopleʼs Campaign, organized by Martin Luther King Jr., which carried on for a time after his assassination. Today, a New Poor Peopleʼs Campaign has been initiated to inspire citizens to embrace a “Moral Revival.” As an avid participant in this new movement, Van Soest states there are five deep pathologies infecting our nation: “systemic racism, systemic poverty and inequality, ecological devastation, war economy and militarism, and a distorted nationalist narrative and agenda.” True to her 50 years of activism, Van Soest urges fellow Americans to become involved in this fresh campaign for sorely needed progressive change.

“Death, Unchartered” is an intense tale. It will draw in readers, be they mystery hounds or not.


Most murder stories focus on investigative processes. The best provide a side dish of social inspection. But Death, Unchartered takes an additional leap into complexity by providing the subplot of an inner city teacher’s efforts to help disadvantaged children at all costs – even possibly sacrificing her career to make a stand on their behalf – and this adds an extra dimension to the story of a child’s death, creating a riveting production pairing a murder mystery with ethical and moral conundrums.

Teacher Sylvia Jensen is the last person who should be a candidate to become an investigator: she’s already fully vested in her students, and has been for many years. This is exactly why she suspects the mysterious little skeleton unearthed during excavation for a new charter school site is one of her students, and why she’s so readily able to connect the dots to link the outstanding mystery of his disappearance with these remains.

Even with this certainty and evidence, there are still many unanswered questions, which Sylvia pursues with a gusto the police could never match on a ‘cold case’ like this. Why was Markus murdered? Investigative reporter J.B. Harrell also wants to know the truth, and the duo join forces to probe the past events leading to a child’s death and their possible present-day threat to others.

Under another’s hand this story could have become a P.I. probe; but underlying insights on corporate greed, manipulation, deadly deals, and motives that would lead one to kill a child involve “Ms. Sylvia” in a story that directly dovetails with her passion for defending the schoolchildren under her care.

There are also astute insights on Sylvia’s personal life and choices, which are nicely woven into the scheme of things: “There was another truth, too, which I never admitted to anyone but myself. I was afraid that if I had children of my own, they would eat me alive. I’d offer myself to them on a plate like I did with my students, and because they were my progeny, they’d feel entitled to demand seconds and even thirds.” How much will she give of herself, to serve her students? When will her efforts be enough?

Her changing viewpoint about activism on her own turf and how she changes in response to it is also an intrinsic part of an evolving story that draws readers not just into a murder mystery, but issues of educational challenges, union activism, and forces of social inspection and change: “I crossed my arms over my chest and watched in horror as Teresa grabbed the hands of two children, pulled them from the middle of a crowd of picketers, dragged them to the front entrance and deposited them in the door. With long, angry strides, she went back and threw her body between one of the picketers and the mother of the children. As I listened to the picketers’ vile language and watched the ugly scene unfold, a seismic shift took place inside me. Any residual ambivalence I had about the union drained away and was replaced by a combative defiance that infused every fiber of my being. The union had crossed a line. It had proven itself unworthy of its association with the union movement. Something had to be done. The violence had to be stopped.”

Political activism, forces of corruption that affect public education funding and pursuits, and issues reaching from the 1960s tumult to modern-day graft create a story that is filled with many possibilities and much insight. Teachers, particularly, will find many of these scenarios and concerns true to life, linking classroom and socialization objectives with bigger pictures of societal and political forces overseeing teaching choices and approaches to education.

It’s this broader perspective that makes Death, Unchartered more than just another murder ‘whodunnit’ but an unrelenting probe into the impact of greed and special interests on the educational system. Readers who turn to Death, Unchartered for a murder mystery genre read will find the story compelling, complex, and injected with the protagonist’s personal reflections and transformations, which keep the plot moving quickly and crafts a gripping read with a surprising outcome.



When my novel, At the Center, was published last year, five bookstores in four different cities helped launch it by hosting book events. Thanks to the forging of strong author-bookstore partnerships, the events were like parties in packed houses with enthusiastic audiences, strong sales, lots of energy, and sometimes even food. Each event was magical. The four cities were selected because of the number of people I know there—friends, family, colleagues, and other contacts—and because they represented different parts of the country. The bookstores were selected because of their popularity, community spirit, and support of writers.




Thank you to Wendy and Kalani at Third Place Books-Lake Forest Park for the first party and to Michael and Alex at Third Place Books-Ravenna the University of Minnesota Alumni Association who joined forces for a second event in the Pub.



minn The next party was in the state of my birth, the place I will always consider to be home. A huge shout-out to Ann Mayhew and this wonderful bookstore in the heart of the popular Uptown neighborhood for being so generous with her time and so welcoming to all my friends and family who filled every seat and more.



Ed Berlin, owner of this the popular and wonderfully community-centered bookstore, couldn’t have been more thoughtful during the planning phase or more gracious and encouraging during the event, even when he had to keep bringing in more and more chairs until there were no more.


Kudos and deep gratitude to owner Susan Post of this premiere feminist bookstore that has a rich forty-year herstory of providing books to change women’s lives and the world. Thanks to her, the last launch event of the tour was filled with the joy and laughter of reuniting with friends and meeting new people and discovering new fans.




Fostering a Mystery

Fostering a Mystery
by Joe Martin | September 23rd, 2015
Book Review – At The Center by Dorothy Van Soest

Sixty-year-old Sylvia Jensen is a veteran social worker and supervisor of a crucial program responsible for the placement of vulnerable children in safe and appropriate foster homes. A white single woman, Sylvia has long had a deep interest in Native American life and culture. Though an outsider, she participated in the early days of the American Indian Movement “cooking and doing the dishes while the protesters planned their strategy, sleeping with a couple of them.” Her office is decorated with Indian art and artifacts along with a print by the famous photographer Edward Curtis titled “Mohave Water Carrier.”

In June of 2005, Sylvia is plunged into a heartrending case of a foster child’s death.

“At the Center” is the second novel by Seattle resident Dorothy Van Soest. A prolific author of books and nonfiction articles, Van Soest is the former dean of the UW School of Social Work. In this current mystery she explores the personal and systemic vicissitudes inherent in the network of foster care. Problems that permeate contemporary society bring psychological misery and physical danger to unfortunate children exposed to the egregious carelessness and violence of parents and other adults. The foster care system is a necessity but one that sometimes manifests deep and regrettable flaws. Supreme among such flaws are traumatic injuries sustained by innocent kids, or worse, the death of a child placed in what is supposed to be a protective environment.

A native boy, Anthony Little Eagle, was seven years of age. Anthony had been removed from his hard drinking parents after police found them passed out and an uncle “screaming and waving a gun around.” Young social worker Lynn Winters, under Sylvia’s supervision, had been responsible for placing the child in the licensed foster home of Paul and Linda Mellon. Usually efforts are made to place Indian children with Native American families, but it was late on a Friday afternoon. The Mellons, a white couple, were available. The alternative was to put the little guy in the juvenile detention system where mostly tough teenagers bided their time. Lynn wanted to avoid that.

Anthony had been in foster care for only three days when he fell through a railing to his death, an apparent accident. Lynn and Sylvia are devastated. Sylvia pondered: “The boy had died under my watch. That made me responsible. What happened was my fault. I had failed to protect him.” The strain and uncertain ramifications of this tragedy has shaken Sylvia’s hard-won sobriety. In her younger days she had become immersed in a world of ample booze and random sex. With onerous guilt and the haunting image of a little child dead she could easily relapse. There was oblivion in alcohol. While driving she spotted a bar: “It would be so easy to go inside, erase everything from my mind, obliterate my loneliness by sharing intimacies with people I didn’t know, have drunken sex with whoever I wanted or whoever was available. But then I remembered what it was like to wake up in the arms of a stranger, my loneliness worse and smothered with shame.” She drove on.

In the immediate wake of the tragedy, Sylvia is visited by no-nonsense investigative reporter J.B. Harrell. He has proven his mettle with penetrating exposés about the illegal drug trade and fraud in the banking industry. Harrell is of Native American stock but sports no romantic attachment to his Indian roots. “In his perfectly tailored three-piece gray suit with a blue and maroon striped tie, and his chiseled cheekbones set off by an expensive salon hairstyle, he looked more like a corporate business executive than a journalist.” He sits and gives a quick survey of the items that festoon Sylvia’s office. She senses that Harrell thinks she must be a typical bleeding heart: “Someone not to be trusted.”

He begins grilling Sylvia about the boy’s death. She had been admonished by her organization’s attorney “not to say anything that could be misinterpreted or that might reflect negatively on our agency.” Harrell is relentless and suggests that Anthony may have been murdered. He stuns Sylvia by revealing information unknown to her that a little girl had been injured five years earlier in the Mellon home. At that time Sylvia was in rehab for alcoholism. Their meeting ends and Sylvia is determined to research Anthony’s case. Her own suspicions are stoked when she is told that she will not be able to access the contents of the case file. This initiates an unlikely alliance with Harrell as they work together to reveal the truth. As they unravel a skein of alarming facts, they come face-to-face with something truly monstrous.

Van Soest limns a convincing portrait of the vagaries of large bureaucracies and the individuals in those systems given the responsibility to address society’s ills. Sometimes lamentable incidents of malfeasance and neglect occur. The sheer size of bureaucratic systems can obscure regrettable realities that only persistent and courageous investigation can bring to light. Weaving throughout the sad tale of Anthony Little Eagle is a parallel story set in the 1970s involving another Indian boy.

“At the Center” is a taut mystery that should have the reader cheering for the unlikely pairing of Sylvia and J.B. in their determined search for justice.


Ethics Of The Death Penalty In Washington State

Last Rights: Ethics Of The Death Penalty In Washington State
By John O’Brien • Sep 3, 2015

Click to listen audio file

Since 1976, 1,413 people have been executed in the United States. That number rose steadily through 1999, when 98 people were executed. Last year, 35 people were put to death.

Can there be justice in the imposition of capital punishment? Humanities Washington hosted a deeper discussion of issues surrounding the death penalty at The Royal Room in Columbia City on May 27, 2015.

In a study published in 2014, University of Washington professor Katherine Beckett found that “jurors in Washington are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case.”

Soon after the study was published, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced that he would not carry out any death penalty sentence, but instead issue a reprieve in all capital cases brought before him. Inslee justified his decision this way:

“Equal justice under the law is the state’s primary responsibility. And in death penalty cases, I’m not convinced equal justice is being served. The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred.”

Inslee also referred to doubts that the death penalty was a deterrent and to his hope that his decision would prompt a deeper discussion of capital punishment in the state.

The Humanities Washington Think & Drink event was moderated by KUOW’s Ross Reynolds. Featured guests were Dorothy Van Soest, a writer and former dean at the University of Washington, and David E. Smith, professor of philosophy at the University of Washington.

Thanks to Anna Tatistcheff for our recording and to TVW for the audio from Gov. Inslee.


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