Two new books of historical fiction that just arrived this week take different and intriguing looks at the turn of the century in western America, the costs of conquest and the struggles to create the American dream.
The Bones of Paradise by Jonis Agee takes us to the Nebraska Sand Hills at the beginning of the 20th century, ten years after the massacre at Wounded Knee. Two people, a white man named J.B. Bennett and a Lakota woman named Star, are found murdered in a meadow belonging to J. B. What is the connection between the two of them? Who killed them and why? As J. B.’s broken family comes together to investigate and to figure out their futures in the aftermath of the violence, so Star’s sister, Rose, also comes to the land to come to terms with her loss, and to avenge her sister’s death after all the other deaths and dislocations she and her people have suffered in recent years. Shadowed by the violence and lawlessness of the frontier and a strong sense of place, The Bones of Paradise makes us look again at where we are and how we got here, and at what cost the west was “won.”
Traveling north, To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey, is set just after the acquisition of Alaska by the United States, in 1885. Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester leaves his pregnant wife behind when he is ordered to explore the area of the Wolverine River in Alaska, mapping the interior of the country and finding out about the native wildlife and the inhabitants of the area. He and his men soon discover that there is much they don’t know about Alaska, about the people and the animals living there, and their mysterious Eyak guide and the native woman who joins the expedition change their perspective, not only on what is dangerous and what isn’t, but on what is real and what isn’t. Ivey is the author of The Snow Child, a gorgeous book in its own right, also set in the wild places of Alaska, so this book is likely to be another immersive experience taking us to places and mindsets we won’t find anywhere else (if you haven’t already read The Snow Child, what are you waiting for? Go and get your hands on a copy! It’s especially good reading in the hottest parts of summer).
One of the coolest things about memoirs is that you get to experience a whole different kind of life, vicariously living through something you might never come close to in your normal life, or exposing you to the other side of something you would otherwise take for granted. An excellent example of this is A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back, by Kevin Hazzard, about the author’s experiences as first an Emergency Medical Technician and then as a paramedic in the city of Atlanta. I’m pretty sure at this point in my life that I will never be an EMT or a paramedic, but the author’s fascinating and vivid description of what it’s like riding the ambulance as one of the professionals on the inside instead of one of the sick or injured people strapped to the gurney.
Hazzard isn’t one of those people who always aspired to be a doctor or a paramedic. The way he tells it, he more or less fell into the profession after 9/11 as a way of trying to do good and make a difference with his life. When he discovered that the necessary course for becoming an EMT was only 8 months and didn’t cost too much, he gave it a try and by so doing, brought himself into a world few of us see (if we’re lucky).
If you’re expecting a lot of gross stories, involving body parts and fluids of various sorts, you will certainly find some of those here, but the author doesn’t treat his job as a freak show, or his experiences as a way of grossing people out. He tells stories of the people he encounters and treats — the shooting victims, the people involved in terrible accidents, the dog who swallowed a T bone sidewards (not their usual kind of case, as you can imagine) — with sympathy for the human beings involved in the disasters, and also with the kind of sense of humor you’d have to develop in order to survive doing this kind of work day in, day out. He also demonstrates how much the work affects the people doing it, what the responsibility for life and death feels like, how hard it is to avoid turning into a burnout or a “tourist” and remain engaged and focused on helping people. Reading this book convinced me there is no way I would have the guts to be able to handle this job even for a month, and it gave me more respect for the EMT’s and paramedics I know, and I’m sure you’ll have the same reaction. It’s a quick read, but un-put-down-able, funny and gripping and vivid. For a ride you’ll never forget, try A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back.