Bone Fire

Bone Fire

4.1 7
by Mark Spragg

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At eighty, Einar Gilkyson has lost his share of loved ones, but still finds his house full. His granddaughter, Griff, has dropped out of college to look after him, and his long-absent sister has returned home from Chicago. But Ishawooa, Wyoming is far from bucolic, and troubles begin to boil when the sheriff finds a man murdered in a meth lab. In this gripping


At eighty, Einar Gilkyson has lost his share of loved ones, but still finds his house full. His granddaughter, Griff, has dropped out of college to look after him, and his long-absent sister has returned home from Chicago. But Ishawooa, Wyoming is far from bucolic, and troubles begin to boil when the sheriff finds a man murdered in a meth lab. In this gripping story from the author of An Unfinished Life, harsh truths and difficult consolation come alongside moments of hilarity, surprise and beauty.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[Bone Fire] once again lands us on the prairie-grass-covered ranchlands of Ishawooa, Wyoming, where locals know the roaming livestock, winding creeks and meandering constellations better than they know each other. . . . A wonder to experience.” —The Seattle Times

“A tale teeming with loss, redemption and personal crisis. . . . Spragg’s novel throbs with honest accounts of a Mountain West town . . . caught between past and present. . . . Bone Fire establishes as compelling a sense of time and place as any in contemporary fiction.” —The Denver Post

“Spragg conjures the West with style and gravity. He can burrow into the tightest chambers of the heart, and his belief in family is palpable and moving.” —The Boston Globe
“Beautiful. . . . Reading Bone Fire is probably a lot like spending some time with the folks in Wyoming: A serious pleasure.” —The Oregonian
“[Spragg] captures the unruly West, wrangles it onto the page somehow and holds it down with just the words.” —Los Angeles Times

Bone Fire is that rare thing, a novel with all the literary virtues of skill and style and pitch that you hope for but also a book that makes you turn pages far into the night to find out what happens.” —Kent Haruf
“[A] big-sky slice of life. . . . As slow and shambling as a run-down pickup, but that allows the fine-tuned characters wide-open space to breathe and their grief to become palpable.” —Entertainment Weekly
“The strength of Bone Fire rests in Spragg’s ability to render lives in the contemporary American West with a keen eye for physical and emotional detail. Spragg understands how the landscape shapes the lives of the characters, as well as the way the modern world encroaches on the landscape. This is still the West of rodeos and pickup trucks, but it’s also the West of Google, Netflix, and GPS navigation.” —Kansas City Star
“It’s the author’s endearingly biting characters, not the slowly unpacking whodunit, that drives [Bone Fire]. You root for these people no matter how much dysfunction they leave in their wake, mostly because they’re always saying things you’d never have the guts to utter out loud.” —Outside
“[A] poignant modern Western. . . . Each member of [Spragg’s] cast is vibrant on the page, not because they resemble people one might know, but because they become intensely familiar and stay that way long after the book has been shelved.” —The Anniston Star
“Spragg is so spot on when it comes to describing small town life in the American West, his prose seems to leap off the printed page. . . . Spragg is a gifted writer.” —The Tucson Citizen
“A starkly beautiful portrait of the modern West.  Spragg is an author with a keen eye for both the poetic splendors and ugly realities of this much-romanticized country.” —The Globe and Mail (Canada)
“As Spragg’s story slowly unfolds and gradually picks up speed, his Wyoming is as tangible as his characters’ yearning for connection.” —Curled Up With A Good Book
“Spragg writes . . . with the smoothness of a river stone as he weaves a tale of loss and compassion, loyalty and family, and ultimately, love. . . . Sure to bring a lump to the throat.” —Las Vegas Review-Journal
“Mark Spragg writes about ordinary people extraordinarily well. . . . Emotionally charged and well-written, Bone Fire is truly an exceptional story, with a main character everyone can relate to.” —Sacramento News & Review

Publishers Weekly
Spragg’s disappointing third novel (after An Unfinished Life), a dry and unsatisfying contemporary western, lacks narrative momentum and a sense of purpose. Griff drops out of college to care for her ailing grandfather, Einar, on his Wyoming ranch. Einar, suffering from a mysterious illness, is unhappy with Griff throwing aside her life for his sake, so he summons home his estranged lesbian sister, Marin, to watch over him. Griff, a gifted sculptor whose works involve clay bones wired into exotic and fantastical skeletons, is also at odds with her alcoholic mother and faces the possibility of a long separation from her boyfriend, a graduate student about to leave to volunteer in Uganda. In a parallel plot, Griff’s stepfather, sheriff Crane Carlson, finds a dead body in a meth lab and receives a dreaded medical diagnosis that inspires him to reconnect with his first wife. Although there are some touching moments, most of the novel is humorless to the point of parody, and the attempt at tying together everything at the end feels forced. Despite all the issues it touches on, the overall effect of this modern western is oddly inconsequential. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Spragg's latest novel (after An Unfinished Life) is a gleaming tale about a ranch family in Ishawooa, WY. Not one word is out of place, and each and every character is well drawn and intensely believable. Though ostensibly about a local murder—a teenager is found dead in a meth lab—the book is told from shifting perspectives and succeeds on many levels, with mystery an added attraction. The central character is perhaps Griff, the hub anchoring the spokes that are the other characters, including her 80-year-old grandfather Einar, whom she's dropped out of college to care for. Griff is an artist—the title refers to a piece she has created—and her struggle is the central theme of the book. This "bone fire" is in fact the burning we call life, symbolizing our shared pain as human beings. VERDICT A tribute to the human state and an outstanding work highly recommended for anyone who appreciates a well-crafted novel.—Henry Bankhead, Los Gatos P.L., CA\
Kirkus Reviews
Spragg (An Unfinished Life, 2004, etc.) never ventures quite far enough from standard mythopoeia in this contemporary Western set in Wyoming. Crane Carlson, the stoic, rough-hewn sheriff of tiny Ishawooa, finds a murdered teen in the ruins of a meth lab. Crane is coming to grips with his own disastrously failing health, and after he gets the grim diagnosis he's been avoiding, he tries to rekindle things with his long-gone and now remarried ex. Meanwhile his current wife, a brittle, truculent drunk, lashes out at him for straying and tries, in a poignantly public, desperate way, to trade on her fading erotic charms. Her daughter Griff, who's left college and the urban East to come back home and sing paeans to the range in the form of imposing outdoor sculptures made from clay and animal skeletons, is living with octogenarian grandfather Einar. This gritty rancher, in failing health, doesn't want Griff saddled with responsibility for him. So that she can pursue some combination of her studies, her art and her boyfriend Paul, a grad student who's about to leave to volunteer in Uganda, Einar summons back his estranged lesbian sister, who's just watched her true love sicken and die. Perhaps the most compelling character, though another archetype, is the noble innocent Kenneth, a ten-year-old whose mother, Paul's sister, has essentially abandoned him so she can rove and hawk her New Age nostrums. Kenneth, who can abide no life but a simple one, is lovingly attended by stalwart rancher Barnum McEban, and the scenes between them, albeit familiar in tone and content, have great tenderness. But the plot never coalesces, though several characters are well-drawn, and at the end Spragg strains tobraid together the disparate strands. Sometimes subtle and affecting, but there's too little about the characters and too much about the noble landscapes and mindscapes of the vanishing West.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.04(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.76(d)

Read an Excerpt


She lunged the horse forward because that was all that was left to them, the slope too sheer to turn him, the shale his hooves struck loose skidding away, wheeling downward. She felt him slip from under her, struggling to regain his feet, the air snapping with the sound of stones colliding, echoes rebounding against the headwall of the cirque. It was the second time he’d come close to falling, and now he stood bunched and quivering, his ears flattened against his skull. They were both breathing hard.

She glanced back over her shoulder. Below her the ridgeline rose up sharp-edged, spangling in the sunlight, seeming to beckon as madness is sometimes said to. The bands of muscle in her back and shoulders burned, and her mouth had gone dry.

She inched higher against the long run of his neck, careful not to unbalance them, whispering “Just this” to urge him forward again. She felt him gather his weight in his hindquarters, heard him groan. He still trembled. “Just this,” she whispered again, and there was the chopping of his iron shoes against the broken rim and they were over all at once, unexpectedly, the horse staggering, standing finally with his legs splayed, his head hung low, braced up against the suck of his own breathing.

She slipped to the ground, tried to walk and couldn’t, then squatted with her arms thrown over her knees. She smelled like the horse: salty, souring, indelicate. Her hands shook when she held them in front of her face. She’d acted like a goddamn tourist bringing them straight up out of the head of Owl Creek, ignoring the game trails. Sweat ran into her eyes, down the beaded course of her spine.

She shaded her eyes, looking southeast over Clear Creek, Crazy Woman Creek, across the Powder River Basin toward the Black Hills, the horizon a hundred miles away, faintly edging the dome of blue sky. This was the secret she’d kept from her East Coast classmates, the exhilaration of this perfect air, filtered clear—as she has believed since childhood—by the rising souls of the dead. In her early teens, she even imagined she could feel the press of them in their passing, those assemblages of spirits retracing the very same watercourses that flow east and west from this divide, much as salmon would climb them, single-minded in their desire for homecoming, lifting themselves toward the advantage of heaven.

She straightened her legs. The insides of her thighs prickled from the chafing of the climb. Her belly hummed and she pressed a hand against her abdomen, turning to check the horse where he stepped carefully through the lichen-covered stones bearing the imprints of Cretaceous fishes. His name is Royal, and except for days like this when they’re at work, she rides him bareback. Always. She trusts him that much. He nickered softly and she watched her reflections in the dark globes of his eyes. She smiled and her reflections smiled, and she thought there’s joy in a horse, laughter in its movement, even at this point of exhaustion. She stood, stomping her legs until they were just shaky.

Her grandfather had asked her only to check the new grasses before they pasture the cattle on these Forest Service leases, but she was concerned—as she has always been—not to disappoint him, not to waste his time with her carelessness. So she and Royal have weaved among the cows where they’ve found them collected in the timbered undergrowth, alert for signs of illness or accident. They’ve walked the fences where they could, and lastly, when the job was done, made this break for the toplands.

She knelt in the soggy cress that bordered a seep and bent to the water and drank. Then she peeled her shirt and bra over her head, splashing the water against her neck, shoulders and breasts, finally sitting back on her heels to stare at a contrail that halved the sky above her.

Her mother had asked, “Are you still stringing that Indian boy along?”

They were seated across from each other in the new café in Ishawooa. Salads, meatless soups, herbal teas. A sandwich board on the sidewalk out front, its legs sandbagged against the wind. It’s their habit to eat together once a week, as testimony that they truly are mother and daughter.

Griff scooted forward on her chair, against the table’s edge. “I get really sick of you pretending to be a racist.”

“Saying he’s an Indian is just a fact.”

“So is his name.”

Her mother cleared her throat. “Are you still fucking Paul Woodenlegs?” Louder this time, a woman turning at another table rearing back to stare through the bottom half of her bifocals.

The blood rose in Griff’s cheeks, her mother nodding conclusively, the gesture women commit in church in lieu of speaking amen.

“When your dad and I were your age,” Jean said, and smiled, unconsciously reaching inside the open throat of her blouse, straightening a bra strap, “it meant something then.”

“I love him.” She knew the statement was heard as excuse, and therefore feeble.

“Love must be different now.”

And there it was, just a hint of the sour, woody smell on her mother’s breath, and Griff wondered when she’d taken her first bourbon this morning.

“Your dad and I never wanted to be apart. Not for a single day.”

“I’m not like you.”

She watched her mother’s hands pick up a menu, holding it open. She hung her own weather-roughened hands out of sight, finding it impossible to admit that when she and Paul are making love it’s the grinding of their bones she hears, the clamor of one animal moving against another. Not always, but often enough to convince her that nothing remains unbroken forever.

“Is he the reason you’re not going back to school?”

“He won’t even be here this fall. He’s finishing graduate school in Chicago.”

“In what?” Jean held up her empty glass, trying to catch the waitress’s attention.

“Didn’t we already have this conversation?”

“Tell me again.”

“Public health.”

“Isn’t that something?” Her mother’s eyes remained calm. “Just think of the career opportunities he’ll have for scrubbing bathrooms in some reservation casino.”

“Yeah, Mom, I’m sure that’s what he’s shooting for.”

“I remember that we’ve talked about this now.” She dabbed at her mouth with a napkin, though they hadn’t yet ordered any food. She folded the white linen over the berry-colored smear of lip gloss, leaning forward on her elbows. “You know it’s what drop-outs always say. ‘Just this fall.’ ” She rested her chin on the heel of a hand. “But it always turns out to be for the rest of their lives.”

She spent the afternoon wandering through an acre of chert and obsidian chippings, in places half a foot thick, imagining the ancients squatting here so near the sun, raised above the worst of the summer heat and flies, fashioning their spear points and arrowheads. Twice she scooped up handfuls of the glittering spall, tossing it upward, watching it plume in bursts of refraction as crude fireworks would, then rattle back to earth.

In the late afternoon she found the butt of a broken Clovis point and, later, the skull of a bighorn ram. This she lifted out of the scatter of bones strewn by predators, wind and snowmelt, and carried it to where Royal grazed, securing it behind the cantle with the saddle strings.

She caught up the reins, and led the horse onto a trail that descended through a thick copse of aspen, weaving him down through the slender white trunks and stopping in the last throw of shade. She leaned against his shoulder, staring along the curve of his neck into the evergreens crowded before them.

The spring stayed wet through the front part of June, and now, in this heat at the end of the month, the firs had shrugged their mustard-yellow pollen in a day, staining the air as a ground fog would, luteous, and in the late and slanting light seeming to glow from within. She extended her arms over her head, walking forward, the horse following.

At dusk they were out on the open foothills, winding down through the cows and calves scattered and grazing in the cooler air. And far below them—along the creek, arranged among the old homestead cottonwoods—the house, the barn and outbuildings.

She breathed in deeply, contentedly, pressing her tongue against the roof of her mouth to better taste the perfumed air flavored by fertility, by promise, by this country she has lived in for the best half of her life.

Meet the Author

Mark Spragg is the author of Where Rivers Change Direction, a memoir that won the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, and the novels The Fruit of Stone and An Unfinished Life, which was chosen by the Rocky Mountain News as the Best Book of 2004. All three were top-ten Book Sense selections and have been translated into fifteen languages. He lives with his wife, Virginia, in Wyoming.

Brief Biography

Cody, Wyoming
Date of Birth:
March 20, 1952
Place of Birth:
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
B.A. in English, University of Wyoming, 1974

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Bone Fire 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Frisbeesage More than 1 year ago
Mark Spragg's latest book, Bone Fire, continues the story of Griff started in An Unfinished Life. I suggest you start with An Unfinished Life first or the sequel will be confusing. Bone Fire picks up with Griff dropping out of college to take care of her grandfather Einar who has become ill. Griff has become an artist, using pottery as her medium. This was one of my favorite parts of the book. Her art sounds amazing, very unique, and is so thoroughly described I could almost see it. Many characters from An Unfinished Life make appearances and they are as human, gritty, and loving as before. I have a real weakness for Mark Spragg's western characters. The plot is fast-paced and interesting, but sometimes jumbled up a bit. The frantic pace can detract from Spragg's real talent of drawing out his characters and the landscape. I enjoyed Bone Fire. I didn't think it was as good as An Unfinished Life, but it was nice to see where the characters had gone with their lives. If you liked Peace Like a River or Evensong you will appreciate Mark Spragg's books.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In Ishawooa, Wyoming Sheriff Crane Carlson finds the corpse of a teen amidst the wreckage of a meth lab at a time the stoic cowboy has personal issues. He has just learned what he expected about his failing health and wants to reconnect with his first wife who has remarried; not withstanding that Crane is married too. His current spouse Jean is a nasty vulnerable drunken pothead outraged that her husband is reaching out to her predecessor and not her. Her daughter Griff the sculptor dropped out of her eastern college to return to Wyoming to care for her ailing octogenarian grandfather Einar Gilkyson. He loves her especially her devotion, but wants her to live her life as her health care graduate student boyfriend Paul heads to Uganda with or without her. Instead Einar asks his estranged lesbian sister Marin whose long time love just died to come to the ranch to take acre of him as he is dying. Paul's nephew ten years old Kenneth was abandoned by his New Age mom. However, rancher Barnum McEban raises the lad with tender love. This is a well written modern day western drama of life in a small Wyoming town. Griff is the hub of the tale as the ensemble cast is a sort of no more than two degrees from her. The characters are too stereotyped, but they come together in stark environs as life seemingly tosses no hitters at them. Yet with all the desolateness of reality, Griff shines with a powerful caring energy while using the bone remains of animals as the objects of her art; metaphysically displaying life as a Phoenix arising from the Bone Fire of the dead. Harriet Klausner
From-Iowa More than 1 year ago
There are many ways to enjoy Bone Fire: For new readers of Spargg's work, this is a lovely introduction to his rich prose and deeply drawn characters within a plot that runs as quickly as a spring brook. I envy the new reader meeting Einer, McEban, Griff, Jean and Paul for the first time within this story full of Spragg's crystal clear imagery of the modern western landscape. Enjoy! For myself and the many other fans of Spargg's books, (Where Rivers Change Direction, The Fruit of Stone, and An Unfinished Life,) we can settle in and be entranced by this new chapter of characters grown dear to us, and painted in full color with Spragg's lyrical writing. I can get lost in the prose like a spiritual acolyte having their first moment of Being - I just want to linger within the moment of the language, possibly forever. But the unhurried plot begs me to turn page after page to travel with these beautiful, damaged, perfect characters once more. Bone Fire has inspired me to re-read Spragg's other books once again as first chapters to this current story - yet a third way to enjoy the book. I feel fortunate to have them all in my library, and look forward to future books whether we follow these characters or new ones. I highly recommend them all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book. The characters were well drawn and engaging, thoroughly human and dealing with real human conflicts. The writing is simple, understated, and powerful. I've read all of Mr. Spragg's books, and I'm looking forward to the next. Where Rivers Change Direction is one of my favorite all time favorites.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*drags in an elephant* let them wonder.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago