The Nebraska sandhills are a land forever uncivilized. Even the plains to the south seem populated with farmlands and rows of crops. But in the sandy soils where nothing grows save wild grass, feelings of loneliness and desolation are difficult to fight off. This land is the setting for Bones of Paradise, and the opening chapters quickly relate the grim aspect of the place. A shallow, sandy grave holds the fresh body of a Native girl. A local ranch boss who stumbles upon her is quickly slain by a hand he knows. Another man soon comes along and is also shot down by a young stranger, but lives to help uncover the mystery. Who is responsible for these crimes? Why were they committed? And even more mysterious, why did the young girl’s corpse appear fresher than the men’s?
These three bodies begin the stories of their families and their quests to make sense of the violence that brought them to their end. Part Western, part mystery, The Bones of Paradise weaves together the tales of those effected by the cruel land and its cruel inhabitants.
J.B. Bennett is the man who discovered the buried girl and was struck down by someone he is familiar with, yet is left unrevealed to the reader. His foreman on the ranch, Frank Higgs, takes it upon himself to care for his body, as J.B.’s wife, Dulcinea, has been away for years teaching in cities and on reservations and his hardened and violent father, Drum, can’t bother to leave his work. J.B.’s two sons, Hayward and Cullen, are caught in the middle between Drum, who wants the ranch now that J.B. is dead, and Higgs, who wants to give it to them as indicated in J.B.’s will.
Rosebud, sister of Star, the native girl found dead yet miraculously still warm and shedding tears, hears the story of her sister’s spirit tell of her witnessing her mother’s death at Wounded Knee ten years earlier, and her attempt at vengeance at the man who killed her and her mother.
Ry Graver, the man who survived after finding J.B., is familiar with the hardships of the prairie life, having lost his wife and children to illness. Along with Higgs, he takes it upon himself to find out what happened that night at the windmill, knowing only that the man who shot him was young. What is most perplexing is the fact that he was left alive at all.
Dulcinea Bennett receives word of her husband’s death from Rose, who also works at the Tribal school. She was sent there by Drum after he took care of Cullen to make a man of him. The distance between her and her family created tension in their lives, and now she is finally able to return to the ranch that is now hers to deal with, though she is not sure she wants it. In her mind the land is in some way responsible for J.B.’s death, just as it is the cause of all hardship her and other families have gone through. Accompanied by Rose, they begin to think about vengeance of their own, if only they can discover who is to blame.
Like many Nebraska authors, Agee writes of the nature of the plains, focusing on the differences the white settlers and Natives view the land. For the ranchers, the wind is a constant nuisance that creates dust storms that wreak havoc on the farmland and the mind, while the Natives listen to it and learn life lessons in its whisperings. The hard land that is good for nothing except grazing cattle creates a hardness in those who work on it, especially Drum, whose father was violent towards him, and who in turn is violent towards his son and grandsons, hoping to teach them the harsh realities of life.
The old ways of life are captured on page – from the activities of ranchers on the open range where hard work makes hard people, to the practices of a teacher and Native students in a cloistered Tribal school where students are punished for using their Native tongue and customs. As the story unfolds, family intrigue mixes with historical events to tell the tales of those brave enough to try to conquer the untamable land of Western Nebraska.
The Bones of Paradise is available at Bellevue University Library, located in the general collection. All books can be borrowed for 21 days with the option of renewal.