Book Review: A Strange Piece of Paradise


In "A Strange Piece of Paradise", author Terri Jentz tells the story of her long quest to make sense of a vicious crime that occurred nearly three decades ago. In 1977, fresh off her sophomore year at Yale University, Jentz and a college friend set out on a cross-country bicycle trip, starting from Astoria, Oregon. They got as far as Central Oregon when they became the victims of an unprovoked, brutal attack. As they slept in their tent at Cline Falls State Park, a stranger ran over them with his truck. He then got out and attacked them with a hatchet.

Jentz and her friend were gravely injured. Terri's head was gashed, her shoulder and several ribs were crushed and her left arm was nearly severed. Her friend was in even worse shape. Despite her terrible injuries, adrenalin took over and gave Terri the strength to flag down a passing truck. The young women were taken first to the Redmond hospital and then to the new hospital in Bend where, over the next couple of weeks, both would recover enough to go home, though far from intact. The perpetrator was not identified. After three years, the statute of limitations for attempted murder expired and he was home free.

For fifteen years, Jentz attempted to put the attack behind her. She eventually decided to confront it head on. She spent more than a decade doing painstaking research and investigation into the crime and the community in which it occurred. This investigation brought her back to Oregon many times.

Jentz crossed paths with Bob and Dee Dee Kouns, co-founders of Crime Victims United of Oregon. The Kouns helped Terri in her investigation, gave her the benefit of their wisdom, and helped her obtain access to Oregon's criminal justice agencies. Together, they successfully lobbied the Oregon Legislature to abolish the statute of limitations for attempted murder, but this was not retroactive and would not affect Terri's case.

During their travels together, Terri learned of the 1980 abduction and murder of Valerie McDonald, Bob and Dee Dee's 26-year-old daughter. In a chapter entitled "Allies", Terri tells the story of this unspeakably horrendous crime and Bob and Dee Dee's long quest to solve it when the criminal justice system failed them. Although they identified the perpetrators - criminals with a long history of violence - no one was ever charged with Valerie's murder.

Terri's investigation eventually identified the perpetrator of the 1977 Cline Falls attack. As she investigates his background, we see that this is one of many vicious attacks that he perpetrated and got away with, thanks to a highly-evolved ability to con people and to slither out of consequences. We also see the complicity of friends, family, the community and the criminal justice system in this impunity.

Since its May, 2006 release, "A Strange Piece of Paradise" has received well-deserved accolades, including one from Mary Roach who compared Terri's book to "In Cold Blood" in the May 14th New York Times:

"Imagine that it had been Truman Capote himself who'd been savaged in Holcomb, Kan., and that he had survived to describe his ordeal. That is the level of command and sinew at work in the writing."

"A Strange Piece of Paradise" starts off as a travelogue and morphs into a compelling true crime story, psychological journey, and an insightful analysis of violence in our society. Terri's investigation was tenacious and her chronicling is painstaking. Through sheer determination, she scratched a small slice of justice out of the Central Oregon desert dirt. I was left with a deep admiration for her lucid writing, for her intellectual acuity, for her stamina, and for her dogged pursuit of the truth.

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