★★★★★ The Carnival, the Cross, and the Burning Desert is the sixth entry in Gary George’s Smoke Tree Series, a lush look at life in the Southern Californian wilderness between the 1950s and 1970s. The town of Smoke Tree has never been more crowded with visitors: a traveling carnival, a boisterous religious revival, and a large contingent of military grunts and officers have all managed to arrive at the exact same time. Captain Carlos Caballo has his work cut out for him keeping the peace, as the new arrivals stir up trouble—some intentionally and some just by virtue of being there—in the sleepy desert town. Yet all of the chaos is mere chatter in comparison to a larger scheme taking place in the shadows, involving a gun trade between a disgruntled sergeant and the Italian mafia. If Caballo can’t crack the case, then Smoke Tree is due for a whole heap of trouble.
The story primarily follows the lives of three characters: Danny Dubois, who works as a maintenance man in the Happy Funfest Show; Jedidiah Shanks, the leader of the religious revival; and Captain Caballo, who has appeared before in George’s novels. Danny and Jedidiah are both at a crossroads in their lives, and their budding friendship forms much of the heart of this story. While Danny is trying to figure out how to tell his boss he wants to leave the carnival and settle down in Smoke Tree, Jedidiah is on a much longer—and much more arduous—spiritual journey. A once prominent preacher with a loyal congregation, Jedidiah shed all faith in a higher power after losing his wife and unborn child in a car crash involving a drunk driver. Years after the accident, he still talks to his wife and is struggling with the burden of living without her. It is clear the author is writing from personal experience here, as the preacher’s grief is palpably felt on the page. Beyond the emotional beauty of George’s writing is his knack for describing the ever-present power of the desert landscape surrounding his characters. Sometimes haunting, sometimes a respite from busy social lives, this shifting world of sand and brush is always there, lending a strong backdrop to each character’s struggles and giving them an opportunity to find new knowledge deep within themselves.