Day 813: Dry Bones

Cover for Dry BonesCraig Johnson explains that his latest Walt Longmire mystery is inspired by the Dinosaur Wars, which took place in the 80’s between a rancher, his tribe, and the FBI over dinosaur bones discovered on the rancher’s land. The dinosaur in this story is named Jen, and she is a T. rex found on Danny Lone Elk’s ranch.

But first, Walt is called by Omar Rhoades, who has found a body in a fishing hole on Lone Elk’s ranch. It is Danny Lone Elk’s body, and it appears the old man has drowned. Still, Walt isn’t prepared to rule the death an accident, because Danny Lone Elk was a good swimmer.

With Danny Lone Elk’s body in his truck, Walt is driving back to town when he hears shooting. The Lone Elks, it turns out, are trying to drive out Dave Bauman of the High Plains Dinosaur Museum, who has been excavating the T. rex. Dave insists that he has permission from Danny and says he will verify it. Jennifer Watt, the discoverer and namesake of Jen, says she has proof of the agreement, which she videotaped. Randy Lone Elk has been actually trying to dig up the valuable skeleton with a back hoe.

Walt is not happy to return to town to find Skip Trost, an ambitious acting deputy U.S. attorney, who is determined to assert a federal claim to the dinosaur bones. In the meantime, Walt is supposed to be preparing for his daughter Cady’s arrival from Philadelphia with her five-month-old daughter Lola.

Cady has no sooner arrived than she receives a call from the Philadelphia Police Department. Her husband, Michael Moretti, was killed on active duty. Cady and her baby are soon rushing back with Vic, Walt’s undersheriff and Michael’s sister. Walt and his friend Henry Standing Bear are worried that Michael’s death is related to a previous case involving a Mexican hired killer.

As usual, this novel includes a lot of action and is peopled by the recurring characters we grow to like more and more. And there is another pinch of the supernatural. The spirit of Danny Lone Elk has appeared to Walt in dreams and is trying to tell him something.

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Day 812: Shirley

Cover for ShirleyShirley is both an homage to Shirley Jackson, dealing with some of her own themes and preoccupations, and a novel about her. It works well on both counts. Don’t be mislead by how it is being marketed, though. It is not a thriller, even though its main character becomes obsessed with a disappearance that may be a crime.

Young, pregnant Rose Nemser and her husband Fred travel to Bennington, Vermont, in the fall of 1964. Fred is a graduate student working on his dissertation who has taken a position as teaching assistant with Shirley Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. The Hymans welcome the  young couple and offer them a place to stay in their spare bedroom.

Rose is a shy and unconfident 19. Because of her poverty-stricken upbringing and meager education, she feels inferior to her husband and his family. Surprised at this invitation, she is delighted to stay. She is a fan of Jackson’s work and hopes to become her friend.

Soon Rose believes she has made a friend of Shirley, but Rose is naive and can’t begin to understand the demons that haunt her hostess. Shirley’s husband is a professor at Bennington who is known for having affairs with his students. Shirley, too, is jealous of male colleagues whose work has received more recognition than hers.

Rose begins delving into Shirley’s books on witchcraft and also becomes fascinated by stories of Paula Welden, a Bennington student who disappeared years ago while on a hike in the mountains. She begins having fancies about the house, similar to the ones held by Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House.

So, the novel develops that mixture of the mundane and the off-kilter that characterizes much of Jackson’s fiction. Shirley is a deeply interesting and atmospheric novel that causes you to sympathize with the fictional Rose while feeling that you learn something about the actual Shirley Jackson. Like some other recent fiction I have read (Miss Emily comes to mind), it combines a completely made-up plot, aggravated by Rose’s fantasies, with biographical details of Shirley’s life.

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Day 811: Linnet

Cover for LinnetLinnet is another sprightly Sally Watson novel for tweens and younger teens set in the Elizabethan era. We first meet Linnet Seymour on the road to London. She has run away from her aunt’s house because she never has any adventure, planning to visit some cousins in London whom she doesn’t really know.

Unfortunately, she meets a rascal on the road, calling himself Sir Colin Collyngewood. He offers her a ride to her cousin’s house. A naive girl, she accepts. Instead of taking her to the Seymours, though, he delivers her to a filthy thieving ken to live with a bunch of child pickpockets and cutpurses.

Linnet has a tendency not to learn from experience, so when Colley tells her he wants to use her to trap some Papists in a plot against the Queen, she believes him. In the meantime, Linnet’s cousin Giles is the only person who believes she is missing. His parents think she returned home. Giles goes to London to look for her.

Like some other of Watson’s books, this one is a bit far-fetched and also has some lessons for Linnet about treatment of the poor. Still, it is an enjoyable romp.

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Day 810: The Round House

Cover for The Round HouseThe Round House looks back to 1988, to traumatic events in the life of 13-year-old Joe Coutts and his family. Joe has had a comfortable life for a kid living on the reservation. His father is a tribal judge, and his mother is a social worker. They live in a homey, not fancy house, and his mother keeps a beautiful flower and vegetable garden.

Joe is enjoying the summer as any 13-year-old might, sometimes running around with his friends, sometimes helping out at home. One Sunday he is digging out saplings that have worked their way into the foundation of their house. His mother has run out to the office to pick up a file. She is usually very punctual, but he and his father realize she has not returned at her usual time. The two decide to go get her.

They pass her coming home, but it is not until they arrive home that they discover something horrible has happened. Joe’s mother has been raped and brutally beaten. They rush her to the hospital.

When the police come, she will not talk about what happened except for the broadest outlines. She was kidnapped from the old ceremonial Round House and taken somewhere else to be assaulted. She escaped after her attacker doused her with gasoline and went for matches. After she returns from the hospital, she retreats to her room.

Because of complicated laws related to who has jurisdiction over what type of crimes and where they are committed, Joe’s father begins trying to sort out how a prosecution could be pursued when they find the rapist. This task is made more difficult by the insistence of Joe’s mother that she doesn’t know where she was when she was raped. Joe himself starts looking for evidence of who could have committed the crime.

Like most of Erdrich’s novels set on the reservation, this novel is as much about heartbreaking experiences as anything else. Erdrich points out in the Afterword that up to 1/3 of Native American women are raped on the reservation, mostly by men who are not Native American. She says that this number is almost certainly an understatement, because Native American women don’t want to report rape. Many of these incidents cannot be prosecuted because of jurisdictional problems.

There were a few things that bothered me about this story, particularly that Joe doesn’t connect some money he finds near the scene of the crime with the crime or that he and his friends drink some beer they find even though they think it is connected with the crime and could be a clue. Even at 13 and in 1988, they had to have watched more crime shows than that.

In general, though, this is compelling reading, about the change in Joe’s family, about how fast he is forced to grow up, about the limitations of justice on the reservation.

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Day 809: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

Cover for The Warmth of Other SunsBest Book of the Week!
The Warmth of Other Suns is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s remarkable book about the migration of nearly 6 million rural African-American southerners to northern and western cities from 1915 to 1970. Wilkerson began her research because of her perceptions that the migration was largely unrecognized and that when recognized was misunderstood.

What makes this book so remarkable is how she manages to humanize it. Although she presents us with facts and figures and results of studies as well as examples of experiences taken from newspapers and the like, the bulk of the book is taken up with three representative case histories. She identified and interviewed three people who ended up in three of the cities usually targeted for migration. Their stories are both representative and extraordinarily interesting.

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney was the wife of George Gladney, a sharecropper in Mississippi. The state of sharecroppers was deplorable. After a solid year of work, the sharecropper would hand over half the crop to his landlord and then settle up accounts, the plantation owner subtracting the cost of the seed and supplies from the sharecropper’s share. The records were the landlord’s, and even if the sharecropper kept his own books, he didn’t dare oppose his landlord. Many of the plantation owners routinely added extra goods onto their tenants’ accounts and otherwise cheated them. George’s plantation owner was considered a good one simply because George ended up with a couple of bucks for the year instead of breaking even or ending up in the red.

Still, it was not because of the unrewarding grind of sharecropping that George decided to leave but because his cousin was beaten nearly to death for stealing turkeys that had just gone to roost some way away. Though George felt safe enough to tell the plantation owner he was leaving, he and Ida Mae still had to sneak away from home, taking the train to Chicago in 1937.

George Starling also had to sneak away from his job picking oranges in Florida but because he was in peril for his life. During World War II, oranges were at a premium and so many laborers had gone north already that the growers had difficulty finding pickers. Still, they wanted to pay the pre-war wage of 10 cents a basket to the pickers. George and two of his friends who had worked briefly in Detroit talked the pickers into letting him bargain for them and got their pay more than doubled. But some of the pickers were terrified and informed the growers what was going on. George heard that he and his friends were going to be lynched, so he had to smuggle himself out of his home county before he could take the train to Harlem in 1945.

Robert Foster was a surgeon from Louisiana in 1953 with a need to succeed. He had married Alice Clement, the daughter of a prominent African-American family in Atlanta. The Clements made it clear that they thought Foster was inferior and did their best to control Alice during the early years of their marriage. After serving as a surgeon in the army, Foster found he couldn’t get admitting privileges to any southern hospitals unless he accepted his father-in-law’s help and settled in Atlanta. Knowing that his family would always be under Clement’s domination, he decided to go to California, where he had always wanted to live. He set off for Los Angeles in 1953, driving in his car.

Wilkinson’s contention is that the causes and the results of the migration have been misunderstood. For example, some studies posited that mechanization in the cotton industry was a major cause. But Wilkinson shows that the industry was forced to mechanize as a result of losing the bulk of its laborers, not the other way around.

Similarly, she shows that contrary to belief, the families who migrated were in general better educated than white emigrants, less likely to divorce, and more likely to have a work ethic than African Americans born in the north, putting to shame the idea that the migrating families ruined their host cities. In fact, many of those who failed did so because of the conditions that already existed in their new home cities.

This history is an amazing book that will keep your interest from beginning until end. I became totally involved in the stories of these three people and wanted to know if they would succeed.

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Day 808: The Fatal Flame

Cover for The Fatal FlameI was sad to learn that The Fatal Flame would be the last book in Lyndsay Faye’s Timothy Wilde series. On the other hand, it is better to wrap up a series than let it go on until it becomes perfunctory. Still, I could have spent a lot more time with Timothy, his erratic brother Val, and his friends.

The novels are set in a gritty 1840’s New York City. This one deals with several issues that were controversial at the time: slavery—particularly whether Oregon would join the union as a free or slave state; the development of feminism; and the treatment of the mentally ill.

Timothy Wilde is one of New York’s newly formed Copper Stars, the police force, now two years on the job. At the beginning of the novel, he encounters a few of his colleagues at a wharf, where they are watching Ronan McGlynn. McGlynn is known to offer factory jobs to young, naive Irish women straight off the boats only to forcibly imprison them in brothels. When the men follow McGlynn and his latest victim to the Queen Mab, a brothel, they find there a Tammany Hall boss, Robert Symmes.

Timothy finds Symmes despicable, so he is not happy to be assigned to a case involving him later that day. Symmes is receiving threats from someone. He believes that person to be Sally Woods, a woman who used to work in his textile factory and led a strike against it for higher pay for the women. The threats Symmes is receiving are printed flyers promising to burn down the buildings that Symmes owns.

Although Timothy is disturbed by Sally Woods, he is still looking for evidence when one of Symmes’ buildings burns down, thankfully with no one in it. Why? Because the inhabitants were warned by another woman, Ellie Abell, who used to be Sally Woods’ best friend. A burning building is a great horror to Timothy, because two years earlier he was severely burned in the great New York fire of 1845.

Timothy soon becomes preoccupied by another matter. His great love Mercy Underhill has returned from London (much to my dismay). He is concerned to find that not everything she says makes sense.

The fire investigation gets more complicated, but that’s not confusing enough. Something Timothy tells his brother Val about Symmes causes Val to decide to run against Symmes in the upcoming election for alderman. Symmes is a dangerous man who enjoys inflicting pain. Timothy knows that there is danger for all Val’s intimates.

This novel is complex, exciting, and interesting. I am waiting to see what Faye will do next. But meanwhile, I’ll miss the Wildes, Bird, Jim, and other characters from this series.

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