The Bones of Paradise
I was never a huge western fan growing up. Sure, I had some cowboy themed legos, and maybe a sherif badge, but most boys in the 1990s did. It wasn't until I first saw Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars that I took proper notice. No longer did the good guys wear white, while the villains wore black. Over the years, I watched the genre continue to evolve as the lines became even more blurred. Jonis Agee's (The River Wife, Acts of Love on the Indigo Road) The Bones of Paradise is the latest breed.
The evolution that I'm talking about is a kind of Post-Western-Western. These are Westerns set around the turn of the century. A time when the wide open frontier has shrunk to all but nothing. Characters struggle to find a place in the new world. There are big John Wayne types who don’t fit into a civilized world. And then there are those redefining gender stereotypes. Men write love poetry for their wives, and women seek revenge for their murdered family. Although the physical frontier is gone, there is still a wide societal one yet to explore.
The Bones of Paradise takes part in all of this exploration while melding with another of my favourite genres, the “who dun it” - a good old fashioned mystery. In the opening pages, J.B. Bennett is on his horse looking for his son Cullen. While searching, he stumbles upon a young Native American girl half buried in the sand. He dismounts to have a closer look. He’s only able to utter “Oh, It's you” before he's shot and killed.
What a great opening to a novel. Not one, but two suspicious deaths. I'm already hooked.
Yet Agee doesn't take the story in the direction that I expected. The murders become the dark shadow in the corner of the room. They’re always there, but they lurk in the edge of your vision. What takes centre stage is the affect these deaths have on the loved ones who remain.
Spoiler alert: There is a resolution to the murders. But by the time it’s revealed, the who dun it feels like a bonus. It's like getting an extra chicken nugget in your six pack order.
The Bones of Paradise comments strongly on the treatment and characterisation of Native Americans. The Massacre at Wounded Knee is an inciting incident of the novel and Agee does not shy away from the atrocities.
Historically, Native American characters are reduced to stereotypes and tropes. Agee dances a fine line in this although I did feel that her characters felt well rounded. They face internal conflicts like the white characters. In this world, everyone is finding their way in this new frontier, only some have a steeper climb than others.
The Bones of Paradise is more than just “Cowboys and Indians”, it’s a great story. It’s one with flawed characters with edges, trying to make it in a changing world. It got me and it got me good.