Books

03.16.14

Death in the Heartland: What Happened to Steven Haataja?

The mysterious death of a quiet, unassuming math professor, and a personal memoir about his own turbulent marriage, makes Poe Ballantine's latest book a gripping read.

The police reports that Poe Ballantine quotes at the beginning of the chapters of Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere are meant to show how hokey life in the small northwestern Nebraskan town of Chadron might be: "7.14pm Caller from Regency Trailer Court advised of a dead bird that caller stated died for no apparent reason."

But the reports have a secondary subversive impact, for this book is part-memoir and also a mystery, involving a possible murder. In 2006, Steven Haataja, a quiet, well-liked math professor from the local state college, disappeared: 95 days later, his body was found bound and burned to death on the outskirts of town. Ballantine's book becomes a who and why-dunit, as well as a fairly unsparing examination of his own fractious and complicated family life.

When Ballantine first moved to Chadron in 1994, he had drifted for years. He was 38, his dream of becoming a novelist had come to naught, he had a terrible break-up, and he had lived in 15 states in the last ten years, "without any measurable results. The road had long lost its savor. I was not in the best state of my mind. It was no coincidence that I was about as far away as I could get from the people I loved."

But this hardscrabble, prairie town, with its population of 5,000 people, cast its charm on Ballantine. He got a job as a cook in a local hotel, which was reportedly haunted, and began tentatively to put down roots. But restlessness struck again. Off Ballantine traveled, ending up in Mexico, where he met his wife-to-be, Cristina. In 1999, they returned to live in Chadron.

Their marriage is squally: Cristina had been a dentist in Mexico, but her qualification means nothing in Nebraska. She cleans the hotel where her husband once worked. "Please, I'm just here to clean the rooms," she would tell the ghosts whose noises plagued her working hours. She doesn't understand English or the way of life in the town. The couple marry, so she can stay in the US, but this only increases tensions, as he is not the husband - a writer with an unpredictable income - she had imagined. In these difficult years, Ballantine writes that it was the birth of, and subsequent care, of their autistic son Tom that kept them together.

When Haataja first disappears, many theories swirl: that he had been gay and fallen victim to a trick gone wrong, that he had had a breakdown of some kind and committed suicide, that he had simply gone to start a new life. There are mysterious sightings of him, a clairvoyant who claims Haataja was knocked over on a one-way street by a disgruntled student, his body then stowed in a basement. In one of the best scenes of the book, Ballantine tracks down the clairvoyant in Iowa, who is charmed by Tom's love of cats, and opens up to Ballantine: "I get these pictures. I don't always see them clearly." Ballantine listens to her without judgment, and she doesn't emerge unsympathetically: it is a clever, counter-intuitively written scene.

"The corpse was facedown, ankles crossed, arms bowed as if embracing a lover or protecting a comrade from a grenade explosion."

The book is gripping, and its stealthy brilliance is in Ballantine's haunting and precise mixture of reportage and personal soul-searching. It does not feel odd to switch from mulling over Haataja's mental state to the state of Ballantine's own marriage, which reaches a nadir when the author suspects Cristina of having an affair with Loren Zimmerman, a former Los Angeles police detective turned criminal justice professor at Chadron State College. The book is thorough in its portrayal of small-town life: Ballantine is an open-hearted but not uncritical observer, and one wonders what some of his friends and neighbors think about the book.

The wide-open Nebraskan landscape is endowed with a raw grace. One of the most disturbing passages in the book describes what one of the police officers who first saw Haataja's "99.9 percent burned" body saw that day. "Burned to bone and black as the end of time…The corpse was facedown, ankles crossed, arms bowed as if embracing a lover or protecting a comrade from a grenade explosion." Haataja's corpse looked like "a war photo, a napalm victim. A grotesque sculpture of perpetual anguish." As the police officer bends down to inspect the body, a mouse "blows out" of its chest.

A fear inevitably grips Chadron that a killer is on the loose, doors that are always left open are suddenly locked. Love and Terror ends with the mystery unsolved: there are those who believe Haataja was murdered, like Ballantine, and others who think he committed suicide. At least Ballantine's family life seems settled.

Ballantine told The New York Times late last year that one of his (unnamed) suspects is a sociopath. The case is still open, he said. "The police are still very much in the mood to move on," he said, but his book, and a subsequent documentary about Haataja's death, are keeping interest stoked in the case. "The people of my town (those who don’t want to punch me in the nose, anyway) are enthusiastic," Ballantine said about the work he and documentary-maker Dave Jannetta have done. Ballantine concluded that he is confident "someone will come forward and the truth will one day be known."