This is a stunning book that I couldn’t stop reading, even though it included historical accounts of terrible evil and I didn’t like many of the protagonists, some of whom committed the most repugnant acts imaginable. But through alternating narrators, the author shows us the forces that drove these characters, and brings us to an understanding of the needs for either revenge or redemption that haunted them.
It takes place in 1900 in the Nebraska Sandhills (measuring almost 20,000 miles, it is the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere). The Sandhills then required constant management by cattle ranchers to ensure plants took root in the shifting sand to feed the herds. Starvation, disease, and death were all too common. (Today, three Sandhills counties are the top three beef cow counties in the U.S.)
The story begins with the murder of J.B. Bennett, owner of a large ranch near the South Dakota border, and of Star, a young Lakota woman from the Pine Ridge Reservation, their bodies found together by the remote windmill on J.B.’s property. Their deaths bring a number of people to the Bennett farm to find out who murdered them and what they were doing together. Foremost among them are Dulcinea, J.B.’s estranged wife; Rose, Star’s sister; Drum, J.B.’s father and owner of the adjacent farm; J.B. and Dulcinea’s sons, Cullen and Hayward; and Ryland Graver, shot by someone unknown when he went to investigate the bodies.
Their secrets unfold gradually, as the characters – both living and dead, circle each other and the truth. The writing is exceptional, as this example, when Dulcinea returns to the ranch and enters her old bedroom, and we get a hint of the relationship between J.B. and Dulcinea:
“‘My God, how we are destroyed,’ she whispered, a line from some forgotten drama, or maybe she had written it in her head as she entered the room where she had slept with J.B. all those years ago. She had carried on an internal dialogue with her husband for so long that his death did not alter the conversation. It merely expanded across time and space.”
Rose too communes with a ghost, in her case her dead sister,. Rose promises her she will find her killer and avenge her death, as well as the death of their mother, who was slaughtered in the Massacre at Wounded Knee ten years earlier.
The Wounded Knee Massacre occurred near Wounded Knee Creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Soldiers – a detachment of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment, surrounded the peaceful encampment. The Lakota made the soldiers nervous by their performance of the “Ghost Dance,” a religious ceremony. In any event, the Seventh Cavalry wanted retribution for their defeat at Little Bighorn. As J.B. mused:
“And when the Indians were finally blotted out, the Black Hills and all the reservation lands would be open for white settlement. … There was money to be made here.”
On the morning of December 29, 1890, the young Lakota men once again began to dance. The elderly and sick were lying on the ground encouraging them, women were preparing food from meager provisions, and children were running and playing. The dancing gave the impoverished natives hope, but the soldiers thought it was a “scalp dance” and a provocation. The soldiers had spent the previous night drinking heavily, and that next morning, as a battery of four Hotchkiss mountain guns moved into position, the troops, some of whom were still drinking, attacked the Lakota encampment. More than 200 men, women, and children of the Lakota were killed and 51 were wounded (4 men and 47 women and children, some of whom died later). As the wounded fled, the soldiers pursued them to finish them off. Many of the women were raped before they were killed, and many of soldiers hacked off body parts to take as souvenirs. (At least twenty of the soldiers were later awarded the Medal of Honor.)
When the carnage was over, surviving Lakota were “allowed” either to join Buffalo Bill’s show, go to prison, or go to Oklahoma where the tribes hated them.
Almost all of the characters in this book were either involved in or impacted by what happened that day at Wounded Knee. But J.B., who was there and had been horrified, felt that serving as a witness would make no difference: “The true story was unthinkable, unheroic, so it was changed by the newspapers, the military, and the government.” Yet he knew what happened, and for the rest of his life it preyed upon him. His unexpected end, next to a Lakota girl who managed to hide during the attack only to be killed later, is only one of the network of tragedies and ironies of this book.
This network is constructed in part by some excellent characterization, with the author adding surprising shades to characters that I never would have expected, and yet these switches from cruelty to compassion, or puissance to pathos, were done in such a way as to seem totally convincing.
The breathtaking ending comes in a series of tragic waves that nevertheless eventually smooth out into a note of hope for the future.
Discussion: This novel takes us back to a shameful and profoundly sad historic moment and provides richly-drawn characters to provide details of what happened. That story of the removal and genocide of native peoples, and of the internecine conflicts of greed among the conquerers, is yet woven today into the social and political landscape of the country. And in this book, it plays out not only in the characters’ pasts, but in their present and futures as well.
Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote that “There is in all men a demand for the superlative,” but this book reminds us of our equally important potential for cruelty toward one another.
Evaluation: I was unaware that this book would include details of the massacre at Wounded Knee because, chicken that I am, had I known I wouldn’t have read it. It hurts my heart to think about it, and it will hurt your heart to read this book. Nevertheless, this riveting and poignant story of settlement in the West by a gifted and award-winning author is well worth the journey. It would also make an excellent choice for book clubs.
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2016