As a teacher of history and expert in the past of the Seattle area, Michael Schein is eminently qualified to write about the “pacification” and settling of Washington Territory. “Bones Beneath Our Feet” proves this.
As in any ambitious historical novel, “Bones Beneath Our Feet” is set just as epochal changes occur, in this case, in the Puget Sound area of Washington state. We get sketchy biographical data on the principal players (who are also historical figures), like the rapacious and indomitable first governor of the territory, Isaac Stevens, and his main antagonist, Leschi of the Nisqually. Detail abounds in this straight-line narrative, as the author uses the omniscient viewpoint to unfold the series of skirmishes, murders, arson, aggressive criminality, and treachery that marked the conflict. Certain features of this history are quite predictable: aboriginal natives who chronically underestimate the threat, and who behave in such a way as to inadvertently maximize it; prejudiced white settlers, who unfailingly believe God is on their side, and are quite comfortable with the idea of annihilating the natives; unbounded greed and ambition of early settlers and politicians.
The book, while not overly long, nevertheless seems ponderous. It bends and groans under the weight of the detail, unfortunately, and Mr. Schein could comfortably have glossed over perhaps a third of what he presents, in favor of a little more depth in the characters. I grant that this was not his design; I have no doubt that readers can rely very confidently on this book to present the facts of the matter, but I don’t think it succeeds as a real historical fiction.
It does, however, succeed in capturing the natural grandeur of the unspoiled Puget Sound – the climate is represented vividly – and the author wrings out the inexorable sinking despair that overcomes the defeated Leschi, quite effectively.
Mr. Schein attempts a historical novel, but what emerges are loosely-connected historical tableaux set to dialog. Many battles and skirmishes are effectively and graphically done, but the whole does not hang together very well. I sense clearly the author’s intense commitment to the history, but not his craft for drawing out a true fiction from it.