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The Nebraska Sand Hills are 22,000 square miles of grass-covered sand dunes in the northwestern part of the state. Unsettled until the 1880’s because it was considered desert wasteland, in fact it sits on top of one of the greatest underground fresh water sea in the world. The Ogallala Aquifer supplies water all the way to Mexico, and is very near the surface in the Sand Hills. Despite the pioneers’ misconceptions, the Sand Hills have abundant water in lakes and marshes, free flowing artesian wells that bubble to the surface. It’s part of the great flightway that tens of thousands of migrating cranes, geese, ducks, even pelicans use each spring. The grass and water attracted ranchers to the Hills and it remains today a fragile place that can’t be broken with the plow, yet a place that sustains ranches of cattle, sheep, horses, much as it did from the 1880’s on. The Native Americans knew about the wildlife and plentiful water in the Hills and hunted and sometimes lived there before the white settlers and military drove them North to the Reservations of the Dakotas. Both of the major Lakota (Sioux) reservations sit above the Sand Hills that act almost as an invisible border to both the whites who avoid the Reservations and the Natives who aren’t welcome in the white towns.
For years I have traveled the Sand Hills and Reservations, set two novels out there already, bought and sold land in the Hills, thought of relocating but haven’t…I’m still an outsider, always will be. The Hills are a place unto themselves. Law enforcement is still local. State troopers don’t like to go there unless they live locally. People are friendly, but they want to know your business. They want to make sure you aren’t making trouble. They protect each other.
It was a cool Sunday morning in June when I first visited the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 on Pine Ridge Reservation. Navigating my SUV down the bumpy dirt road, trying to avoid the ruts and holes and save my suspension, I was struck by how modest the place was. As soon as I climbed down from the truck, I noticed the bare ground, the grass struggling in the cracked earth, the spare concrete marker commemorating the estimated 300 men, women, children, sick and elderly who were killed by the Seventh Cavalry. I looked carefully underfoot to make sure I wasn’t standing on the filled mass grave of the stripped bodies the army buried the next day. Around the apron of the monument lay unsmoked cigarettes and bags of tobacco, an ongoing tribute to the fallen spirits. Overhead the cry of a redtailed hawk made me raise my eyes. He was keeping watch. I can never forget that day or what happened there.
I was finishing my last novel, The River Wife, when my sister called to tell me an extraordinary story of a ranching family she knew. It seemed that for generations there had been a tradition of the oldest son being taken as a four- or five-year child by the grandfather to be raised without pity or comfort, in an effort to toughen him enough to take over the tens of thousands of acres in the family name. The results were devastating, the last embittered son hating his parents, especially his mother, for the rest of his life and doing everything in his power to destroy himself. These two stories found each other and came to live inside me until the day I sat down to write The Bones of Paradise where two families led by Dulcinea Bennett and Rose Some Horses come together to solve the murders of their loved ones.
Dulcinea Bennett’s first son is part of the bargain her husband makes with his father and results in her father-in-law finally driving her from her ranch, her husband and her children. Ten years later when her husband is murdered alongside a young Native girl, Dulcinea returns with her friend Rose Some Horses, whose dead sister survived Wounded Knee only to be murdered on Bennett land.
The novel chronicles the final frontier of the West, where injustice can’t sleep and must finally be rectified. As the story progresses we return to 1890 and Wounded Knee, seeing the events through several perspectives. And we meet J.B. Bennett, Dulcinea’s husband who is locked in his love for his wife, despite her leaving him and their young son.
Cullen, the boy taken by his grandfather, Drum Bennett, grows as hard as Drum wants, but even his grandfather doesn’t see who he really is.
Drum Bennett is as tough as they come, hiding the worst secrets and ultimately broken by his own belief that he can’t be wrong.
Rose Some Horses lost her mother at Wounded Knee and now her sister. In seeking justice for the deaths of her mother and sister, her fate is twined with Dulcinea’s and neither will stop even at the risk of their own lives.
Then there’s Ry Graver, a man who lost his family and arrives as a murder suspect to work at the Bennett Ranch.
Against the beauty and rawness of the Sand Hills, both Native American and white families struggle to survive, and through those struggles they are broken and mended again and again by the very human belief in love and the land.
The Bones of Paradise is a saga about the American West, a story of fortitude, loss, revenge and recovery, and finally, a story of reconciliation. I’m very excited to announce that William Morrow is publishing the book, which will be officially out on August 2, 2016. I hope you like it.