Guest Book Review
Motel Sepia by Dale Kueter
review by Dale Jones, correspondent
reprinted with permission from The Gazette
Many former journalists dream of doing it. Dale Kueter has done it. And he’s done it successfully. Kueter was a newspaper reporter for 41 years and spent 35 of those writing for The Gazette. He’s now written a well-researched novel that transports readers back to Cedar Rapids in the 1950s and explores the state of race relations at that time.
“Motel Sepia” (AuthorHouse, $20.99 softcover, 353 pages) is based on an actual Cedar Rapids business and the back couple who ran it. Cecil and Evelyn Reed opened the motel on the Lincoln Highway just east of Cedar Rapids and marketed it as a safe haven for black travelers. Kueter’s protagonists are Roy and Lillian Sanders. Roy, already a successful businessman, dreams of bringing traveling races together at a roadside group of cabins and drags a reluctant wife along in his quest for improved race relations.
That theme is underscored deftly throughout a narrative that’s largely focused on a murder in Cedar Rapids and a subsequent widespread manhunt for the perpetrator, who happened to be an overnight guest at Motel Sepia.
After a slow start in setting the literary table, Kueter’s thought-provoking novel finds its pace nicely. He displays an engaging prose style and an exquisite sense of time and place — punctuated by thorough research that will delight longtime Cedar Rapidians and Midwesterners. Kueter plays nicely with words and tickles the reader with the occasional elegant turn of phrase (“… there was ample access for the transient, ne’er-do-well or anyone to import devious intentions.”) He shows a deft touch with similes (“George and Viola McDowell were like two peas in a grenade”) and a real flair for vivid description (“Just inside the front door large glass bottles with side-skewed lids lined up on shelves like plump recruits on a parade ground.”)
The book is not without flaws. Kueter’s dialog hits the ear more like people write than talk, and he juggles so many characters it takes a while to get them squared away without checking the list of main characters at the front of the book.
But those minor quibbles don’t get in the way of an enjoyable literary experience. The storytelling is solid, and the underlying message is profound. I’ll let Kueter have the last word: “No matter race, creed or culture, our blood and human nature are the same.”
Synopsis: . . . Roy picked up a pebble and casually tossed it into a part of the stream where water had pooled. He watched the widening ripple. Every action we take, he pondered, produces some form of reaction. Parts of the ripple bumped into the surrounding bank and were repelled, while other parts filtered through reeds, engulfing them gently. Another section of the growing undulation was quickly swallowed by the force of moving water.
. . . Just a few hours ago this man was enjoying life. How can this be? Byrne fought off the impulse to consider that killing was part of man’s nature, an inherited trait that was not discarded after the Stone Age. Do we exit our mother’s womb with an intrinsic proclivity to harm others? Is the belief of most religions that man is basically good – is that wrong?
. . . The two people, entangled in the rigors of bad decisions, traveled through one of the most bountiful regions on Earth, but were bound in the poverty of mutual anxiety. The marrow of their existence was soured by servitude. It was a tragedy in which a crime was consummated, and the usual joyous condition of a honeymoon reduced to contrivance.