Like a fast-moving thunderstorm across the Great Plains, The Bones of Paradise wastes little time establishing plot: Two people are found dead in the opening chapter. A white cattle rancher happens upon the fresh grave of a young Native-American woman. J.B. Bennett quickly determines that the woman, Star, has been murdered. But Bennett looks up to see someone he knows pointing a rifle, and feels a bullet pierce his chest.
A gifted writer, Agee returns here to historical fiction, the genre that served her so well in her award-winning The River Wife. The Bones of Paradise is set in late 19th-century Nebraska in the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre, where some 200 Lakota men, women and children were shot and killed by U.S. cavalry. The tension between the white settlers and the remaining tribal members, who often face discrimination, places a strain on the friendship between Dulcinea Bennett, J.B.’s widow, and Rose, Star’s sister. But the two women are united in their quest to find the killer . . . or killers.
Agee’s fast-paced narrative resembles the expansive prose of Larry McMurtry. Her lyrical writing and attention to detail evoke comparisons to Annie Proulx. There are biblical and Shakespearean echoes here as well: Dulcinea’s two sons recall Cain and Abel, and could somehow be involved in the murder; Dulcinea’s father-in-law, Drum, conjures images of a crazed King Lear. The Bones of Paradise is also a romance, with sparks between Dulcinea and a new hired hand—and of course, there’s that murder mystery. Agee deftly weaves all these plot lines together into a captivating tale of life—and death—in the old American West.