Day 1020: One Thousand White Women

Cover for One Thousand White WomenWhen I first began reading One Thousand White Women, I didn’t think I was going to like it. I was unconvinced, under the circumstances, by its narrator’s facetious tone, and I felt that the way some characters told her their deepest secrets on first meeting was unrealistic. I was also afraid that most of the characters would turn out to be caricatures of real women. However, I eventually changed my mind from my first impressions.

This novel is a completely fictional imagining of what would have happened if an actual event had taken place. During an 1854 peace conference, a Cheyenne chief suggested that the United States trade 1000 white women for horses, reasoning that this assimilation of cultures would ultimately result in understanding between the two. This suggestion was indignantly received, but Fergus’s novel imagines what would have happened if the experiment were tried.

In 1874, May Dodd is one of those women. She has decided to participate to escape from a mental institution to which her family committed her after she had children outside of marriage with a man they found socially inferior. With her on the train west is a colorful group of women, some of them fleeing ruined lives and others hoping for a family.

On the way out, May falls in love with Captain John Bourke, in charge of their escort from Fort Laramie. Unfortunately, Captain Bourke is engaged to be married, and May feels herself pledged to the mission, which has been presented to the women as a patriotic one.

May is chosen as the bride for Little Wolf, a respected chief of the Northern Cheyenne. He is an older man with two current wives, but he is a man May can respect.

Fergus is strongest in his descriptions of the western landscape and life among the Cheyenne. As I mentioned, at first all the women seem like types, but eventually I came to care for most of the major characters, from the timid Martha to the African-American Amazon, Phemie. And the major Cheyenne characters are sympathetically depicted.

Of course, we know what kinds of things were going on in the West at this time (and if you don’t, I recommend Dee Brown’s excellent and affecting Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee). This novel is a sensitive and powerful depiction of the native American life and struggles of the time.

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Day 992: An Obvious Fact

Cover for An Obvious FactI think I’m arriving at the end of my interest in series mysteries, even though I still enjoyed the latest Walt Longmire. This novel takes Walt and his friend Henry Standing Bear to Hulett, Wyoming. Walt is there to help with the investigation of a traffic accident and Henry to participate in the Sturgis motorcycle rally just across the border in South Dakota.

When Walt examines the accident scene and the victim’s motorcycle, he sees that the motorcycle has been sideswiped by a gold vehicle. A crime scene expert says that either another person was also on the bike or it was carrying something heavier than just the victim. The victim, Bodaway Torres, is in a coma in the hospital.

Henry becomes involved with the appearance of Lola, the woman whom his convertible is named after. Lola is Bodaway’s mother, and she wants Henry to help find who sent her son off the road. She also insists that Bodaway is Henry’s son. And she drives a gold car.

link to NetgalleyThe situation becomes more complicated when an undercover ATF agent is found murdered. He was investigating Bodaway for smuggling arms, but since the town is crammed with motorcycle gangs, the murder could be about something else.

This novel has the trademark humor, intricate plotting, and action. I enjoyed it, but I seem to be developing a taste for more challenging reading.

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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 615: The Rural Life

Cover for The Rural LifeThe Rural Life is a collection of essays, more like musings by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a writer of the editorial board for the New York Times. Most of the essays were previously published in the Times and are related to his rural life, whether through his family history on an Iowa farm, his own farm in upstate New York, his father’s ranch in the Sierras, or travels to various western states.

I thought this would be an interesting and perhaps informative book, as I plan to be leading the rural life within a couple of years. Certainly many of Klinkenborg’s essays struck a chord with me. I liked best the pieces that do not go far from nature, whether he is discussing the care of bees, the lushness of his farm in the summer, or the beauty of a snow fall. Occasionally, he gets a little more philosophical than I am interested in.

The book is beautifully written. It occasionally confused me because it is ordered in chapters by month, and in the summer months he seems to be hopping back and forth between his farm and Wyoming. It wasn’t until a paragraph at the end that I discovered the book combines essays written over several years.

Day 536: Any Other Name

Cover for Any Other NameSheriff Walt Longmire is supposed to be on his way to Philadelphia for the birth of his first grandchild, but he’s been sidetracked. Old Lucian, the former sheriff, has asked his help for a friend. The two travel to a neighboring county to call on Phyllis Holman, whose husband Gerald has been deemed a suicide. Phyllis does not believe he committed suicide and thinks the local police are covering something up. Connie Holman, the couple’s daughter, wants Walt to drop the investigation.

It seems from the investigation photos that Holman must have shot himself. But Walt would like to find out why, and why he shot himself twice. Holman was on the Cold Case squad investigating the disappearance of an exotic dancer named Jone Urrecha. But Walt learns there have been three disappearances of local women within the last three months.

Despite his daughter Cady’s repeated summonses, Walt finds himself caught up in the case. Soon he’s involved in several shoot-outs, a close encounter with a herd of buffalo in a snowstorm, a chase through an abandoned lodge, a short visit with his dead friend Virgil White Buffalo, a bar fight, and the pursuit of a coal train. He also finds out someone has hired a hit man to kill him.

http://www.netgalley.comAssisted by his best friend Henry Standing Bear and his deputy and lover Vic Moretti, Walt tries to wrap up the complicated case and make his plane flight. As usual with Johnson’s mysteries, the characters are interesting, the writing is excellent and the dialogue witty, and there is plenty of action.

Day 446: Holiday Story! Spirit of Steamboat

Cover for Spirit of SteamboatWhen Craig Johnson was asked to write a Walt Longmire story for Christmas, he got a little carried away and wrote a novella, Spirit of Steamboat.

A strange oriental woman shows up at the Sheriff’s Office in Durant on Christmas Eve and asks to speak to the sheriff. When Walt comes out to see her, she asks if he recognizes her and also wants to meet the previous sheriff. A mystified Walt takes her to see old Lucian Connelly at the rest home, to whom she says one word, “Steamboat.”

The story returns 25 years to another Christmas Eve. Walt has just become sheriff, and he receives a call that a helicopter is bringing in a child who has been injured and burned in a car accident. If she can’t be flown to Denver immediately for burn treatment, she will die. Unfortunately, Wyoming is in the midst of a violent blizzard, and the airport doesn’t have a plane big enough to fly in the storm.

Well, it has one, but no one to fly the old B-25 bomber named Steamboat, which is in questionable condition. Walt rousts out Lucius, a former World War II pilot who took part in the Doolittle Raid. Because Lucius only has one leg, he needs a copilot, so Julie Leurman comes along, a pilot certainly, but not one certified to fly that class of planes. When the helicopter arrives with the girl and her grandmother, the EMT refuses to come, so Walt enlists the terrified Dr. Isaac Bloomfield to care for the girl during the flight. Although everyone at the airport thinks they are insane, soon the six of them are aloft.

This novella is not a mystery but a straight adventure story. Although the outcome is never in question given the beginning of the book, it is still quite exciting, with medical emergencies, equipment problems, and horrible weather conditions. The novella also contains nuggets of information about WW II era planes and about Steamboat, the emblem of Wyoming, a famous rodeo bronc for which the plane is named. This is a quick, enjoyable read containing a bit of sentiment for the holidays.

Day 417: Annals of the Former World: Rising from the Plains

Cover for Annals of the Former WorldRising from the Plains was my favorite book of Annals of the Former World. In this third book of the series (or third section of the complete book), John McPhee examines the geology of Wyoming along I-80 and makes a side trip to Jackson Hole.

McPhee travels with geologist David Love, and he enlivens the geological discussion with a discursion on the settling of Wyoming, particularly with the history of Love’s own family. He begins with Love’s mother, Ethel Waxham, a Wellesley graduate who arrived in the wintery landscape by stage to take up work as a schoolteacher. Waxham kept absorbing journals that describe the harsh conditions as well as the striking characters she encountered. Waxham was courted and won by a rancher, John Love, a nephew of John Muir, the great writer and naturalist. McPhee has tales to tell of Love’s adventures, including his acquaintance with Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).

This book continues to explore questions raised by too comprehensive an application of the theory of plate tectonics. It introduces the concepts of hot spots and plumes and their involvement in the formation of structures.

The book delves deeper into the story of the discovery of oil shales and uranium in the area. It touches on issues of ecology and preservation of natural areas.

Of all the parts of Annals, Rising from the Plains is the widest in scope. McPhee has a talent for making his subjects understandable and readable–and very interesting.

Day 364: Hell Is Empty

Cover for Hell Is EmptyThis Walt Longmire novel is more like an adventure story than a mystery.

Walt and his deputy Sancho are transporting prisoners to a rendezvous with other county sheriffs and FBI agents. One of the prisoners, a sociopath named Reynaud Shade, has confessed to murdering a boy and burying him in the Bighorn Mountains. During this trip he is supposed to take the feds to the body.

After Walt drops off his prisoners and leaves the meeting, he learns that the prisoners have escaped with the help of accomplices. Finding one sheriff badly injured and a federal officer dead, Walt sends Sancho off for help and goes alone after the convicts and their two hostages into the Bighorn Mountains during a snowstorm.

This Longmire novel is notable for the mysticism that occasionally appears in the books. In this case, Walt again runs into the troubled Vietnam vet Virgil White Buffalo, who assists him in an unusual way.

The Longmire novels are not just whodunnits, but true ensemble pieces that further develop Longmire and the regular characters with each entry in the series. Wyoming is a character, too, and in this case, the mountains during a massive snowstorm make for a grueling environment.

Day 352: Junkyard Dogs

Cover for Junkyard DogsI read this novel completely out of order with the others, but then I’ve been reviewing them out of order, too, so I guess that’s irrelevant.

First, old George Stewart, who owns the junkyard in Durant, Wyoming, is dragged behind a Toronado by his granddaughter. Then he is attacked by his neighbor. When Walt finds him in an attempt to investigate the first incident, he is dead, but not from these attacks. Someone has shot him.

Perhaps George’s death has to do with a new housing development next to the junkyard. The developer would like to remove the junkyard from the immediate vicinity of the homes he is building.

In the meantime, Walt is using the investigation of a severed thumb to try to keep his deputy, Santiago Saizarbitoria, who is considering quitting after being shot in the last book. Although Walt already knows that someone has claimed the thumb, he wants to keep Saizarbitoria busy and engaged in the hopes that he will stay.

Walt is also dealing with an eye injury and uncomfortable feelings about his daughter’s upcoming marriage to the brother of his other deputy, Victoria Moretti.

As I have said before, I think Craig Johnson is a great storyteller, and I love the setting of these modern-day western novels. To Junkyard Dogs, Johnson adds a touch of an offbeat sense of humor.

Day 332: A Serpent’s Tooth

Cover for A Serpent's ToothHaving caught up with author Craig Johnson in the Walt Longmire series, I was waiting with interest for this next book, which just came out.

Walt is attending a funeral when a batty old lady begins telling him about the angel who lives in her house and does chores for her while she’s out. At first inclined to dismiss what she is saying, Walt stops to listen and decides to go out to her house. There he finds a teenage boy fixing the plumbing. The boy bolts and Walt finds evidence that he has been living in the spring house.

Once Walt is able to locate the boy, he finds out he is Cord Lynear, a fifteen-year-old castoff of a fundamentalist Mormon group called the Apostolic Church of the Lamb of God that has a compound in the county and another one in South Dakota. In his attempts to find Cord’s home, Walt learns that a woman named Sarah Tisdale was looking for the boy at a sheriff’s office in South Dakota and that several men arrived and took the woman away. Walt comes to believe that this woman is one who has been missing for seventeen years, and so his focus changes to finding out what happened to her. The Mormons, however, disclaim all knowledge of her.

The more he looks into it, the more Walt feels that something is going on in their compound, and not anything legal. He is further bemused by the arrival of an old man who states he is Cord’s bodyguard and claims to be Orrin Porter Rockwell, a Mormon hero who would be 200 years old, were he still alive.

Walt is also sensing undercurrents in his relationship with his volatile lover and undersheriff, Vic Moretti. She has stated a desire to go to the homecoming game with him wearing a corsage in the school colors–a request that Walt finds unusual, to say the least. All the activity is preventing him from discussing it with her, however.

This novel is certainly a worthy entry to the series, packed as it is with puzzles, intrigue, and action. My only very slight critique is that some early references in the book made it easy for me to guess what all the skullduggery–that is, the illegal enterprise–was about.