“Barry Siegel is an award-winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times and is the author of three other books,” relates the author narrative on the inside back cover of this very excellent book by Mr. Siegel.
I have never read such a compelling true-crime book as A Death in White Bear Lake and never one so well-written. The research and documentation of the book’s tale of a young child murdered by his adoptive mother in a small Minnesota town—recipient of an “America’s Best Town” award—is flawless. To think I’d bypassed this book many times in the true crime section of the library because the cover blurb mentioned a true crime that I’d never heard of, and such as famous true crimes tend to catch my eye. Big mistake, that kind of thinking.
Dennis Jurgens was a happy, healthy one year old when he was adopted by Lois and Harold Jurgens. By age three he was dead, his body emaciated, under-nourished and covered with bruises and cuts. For reasons many, varied and inscrutable, the town of White Bear Lake did absolutely nothing about the death. The coroner wrote “deferred” as the cause of death. Little Dennis was buried and forgotten for over twenty years.
Meanwhile, Lois and Harold Jurgens were allowed to keep their other adopted child even after exhaustive hearings on the matter, and more appallingly, allowed to adopt four more children! It was when Dennis’ real mother, then assured the child was of the age of consent, attempted to contact her son, only to discover he’d died many years ago, that the manner and method of Dennis’ death became the focus of a new crop of White Bear Lake prosecutors and investigators.
I can’t remember any other book of any genre I’ve ever read in which the author so successfully managed to avoid inserting himself into the story. This is especially amazing in this non-fiction genre. An addendum to the book did provide details of the author’s journeys, trials and tribulations in researching and writing this book, to my endless would-be author’s amazement. He actually lived in White Bear Lake for three months, poured through endless documentation from the sixties to the eighties, interviewed hundreds of witnesses, family, prosecutors and police personnel, then flexed his fingers and wrote the story.
What a fine and memorable job he did. Siegel doesn’t hit the reader over the head with the many events and circumstances that caused this child’s death to be so obviously overlooked. The reader “gets” it, though. Police lieutenant brothers of Dennis’ mother, towns that receive “greatest city” awards and would just as soon not have the unpleasant publicity of a child’s murder monkeying up the chances of receiving the coveted prize, and a society unaware and ill-informed about child abuse, are not advanced preachily as causes.
The writer “shows” but does not “tell” the reader what to conclude. This book is the definitive tome on child abuse, the change in social tone, the methodology of investigating and prosecuting child abuse charges—then and now. Get this book and read it now, even if not a fan of true crime. The good writing will enthrall and mesmerize.
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