"The Bones of Paradise" by Jonis Agee

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Jonis Agee packs several types of books into her 2016 novel, The Bones of Paradise. She combines a fairly violent, rough-and-tumble American Frontier piece with a murder mystery, a very subtle romance, and a saga that captures the flow and change of  American history at an epochal moment as it affects the lives of its citizen-actors. The whole is an outstanding effort, succeeding at nearly all genres and historical epochs.

At the novel’s outset, J. B. Bennett has made a monentous decision and is in a grim, pensive mood as he rides from his ranch to his father’s adjoining spread. Something his estranged wife, Dulcinea, has written has convinced him to try to get closure on a grievous wrong he did her years ago. He pauses in his way when he discovers a young Lakota woman dead and half buried on his land. He dismounts to investigate and is shot and killed by a nearby mystery man with a rifle.

All the principal characters take it upon themselves to establish who did the deed; the one thing they all agree on is that the dentist-undertaker the town has elected sheriff is not equal to the task. And the principal characters are perhaps the main asset of this novel. They include Drum, J. B.’s choleric, embittered, thoroughly unsocial father, who has a past littered with dead bodies. The main protagonist is Dulcinea, who has returned to her (now dead) husband’s ranch with an olive leaf of sorts, to find that it’s a matter of days too late. There are Dulcinea’s two brutish, near-adult sons, who  promise no good, and Rose, a Lakota woman whose sister was the original murder victim.

But even the highly vivid and diverting cast of characters takes a back seat to Agee’s style. Simple, direct to the point of laconicism, it reflects the time and place and characters perfectly. The Sand Hills of Nebraska in 1900 are not the place for  sophisticated speech. The dialogue and indeed, the expository passages, fit perfectly into the social and cultural milieu. People hard-pressed to wring a living out of bad ground, bad weather, and a murderous government (refer to the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee), stick doggedly to the issues at hand. You can always tell where you stand with this cast of characters.

The plotting of this story isn’t as accomplished. Events fit, at least, but I don’t think I’d be alone in my lingering befuddlement over the murders of Star, the Lakota woman, and J. B. (I suspect this is because I’ve always been slow on the uptake of key clues in mysteries, even after all is revealed.) Particularly frightening characters turn out to be innocent, at least of the main crime, but we learn this only after one such character has met a sudden and untimely end himself. Another, whom we are led to suspect though most of the book, has a series of nefarious acts attributed to him, but even when we get partial enlightenment on his motivation, I for one had a hard time accepting it.

On balance I’m recommending this book. It’s a vivid tome, full of human striving and moments of success in the sea of failure, and realistic depictions of Frontier culture and prejudices. The retrospective narrative of the massacre at Wounded Knee, carried on at different times in the book in the points of view of different characters, is exceptional, and in itself constitutes a principal reason to read the novel. Another grand reward: the technical mastery displayed by this ambitious author as she weaves together her multiple motifs, or genres, which all contribute to the highly accomplished whole. They work very nearly seamlessly together, and give the reader a very memorable ride.




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