Bone Fire

Bone Fire

4.1 7
by Mark Spragg
     
 

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Ishawooa, Wyoming, is far from bucolic nowadays. The sheriff, Crane Carlson, needs no reminder of this but gets one anyway when he finds a kid not yet twenty murdered in a meth lab. His other troubles include a wife who’s going off the rails with bourbon and pot, and his own symptoms of the disease that killed his grandfather.

Einar Gilkyson, taking stock… See more details below

Overview

Ishawooa, Wyoming, is far from bucolic nowadays. The sheriff, Crane Carlson, needs no reminder of this but gets one anyway when he finds a kid not yet twenty murdered in a meth lab. His other troubles include a wife who’s going off the rails with bourbon and pot, and his own symptoms of the disease that killed his grandfather.

Einar Gilkyson, taking stock at eighty, counts among his dead a lifelong friend, a wife and—far too young—their only child; and his long-absent sister has lately returned home from Chicago after watching her soul mate die. His granddaughter, Griff, has dropped out of college to look after him, though Einar would rather she continue with her studies and her boyfriend, Paul. Completing this extended family are Barnum McEban and his ward, Kenneth, a ten-year-old whose mother—Paul’s sister—is off marketing spiritual enlightenment.

What these characters have to contend with on a daily basis is bracing enough, involving car accidents, runaway children, strokes and Lou Gehrig’s disease, not to mention the motorcycle rallies and rodeos that flood the tiny local jail. But as their lives become even more strained, hardship foments exceptional compassion and generosity, and those caught in their own sorrow alleviate the same in others, changing themselves as they do so. In this gripping story, along with harsh truths and difficult consolation come moments of hilarity and surprise and beauty. No one writes more compellingly about the modern West than Mark Spragg, and in Bone Fire he is at the very height of his powers.


From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

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.
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

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307593245
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/09/2010
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
208,039
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

One

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.


From the Hardcover edition.

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