"Old Bones" by Preston & Child

Updated: Jun 27, 2020

" Nora Kelly, a young but successful curator at the Santa Fe Archaeological Institute, is approached by a historian, Clive Benton, with the opportunity to lead an expedition unlike any other. It begins with the story of the ill-fated Donner Party, who became permanently lodged in the American consciousness in the winter of 1847, when the first skeletonized survivors of the party stumbled out of the California mountains, replete with tales of courage, resourcefulness, bad luck, murder, and barbarism. Benton has uncovered the long-lost diary of one of the camp's victims, an account which may break new ground in the truth of what happened in the wilderness all those years ago and point to an additional camp previously lost to history. Nora agrees to lead the expedition, and along with a team of talented explorers and archaeologists, Kelly and Benton venture into the Sierra Nevada in search of the camp. Soon, they learn that the discovery of the camp is just the tip of the iceberg. The truth behind those long-dead pioneers is far more complex and surprising than they could have imagined. And these centuries-old crimes may have modern-day repercussions that place the expedition in the sights of a junior FBI agent, Corrie Swanson, about to embark on her first active case as lead investigator. "

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Authors Preston and Child did such a great job on 'Old Bones' that once you start reading, you won't be able to put it down.

'Old Bones' follows two women, Nora Kelly and Corrie Swanson, with a small segment following a man named Clive Benton, all of who end up being intertwined within this one novel. The entire story revolves around the dark history of the cannibalistic Donner Party, while bringing in fictitious elements to give the readers a well-rounded adventure.

The story gets rolling after Benton visits Kelly with a historical diary that belonged to a member of the Donner Party- - - Kelly is a well-known archaeologist, while Benton is an accredited historian - - - Benton tells Kelly that the journal revealed a lost camp which had never been discovered by anyone, and that this camp could be one of the biggest archaeological finds of the century. While Kelly has to convince the director of the Archaeology Institute to fund the expedition, Benton springs on her and the director that there is a possibility of twenty million dollars worth of gold coins that belonged to a member of the Donner Party could still be located at this lost camp, and, of course, the director quickly agrees to fund the expedition.

Before this, I have never read a book by Preston and Child, but after reading 'Old Bones,' I am anxious to read their other works. The writing is fluid, and keeps the pace going quite well, and the transition between the two main characters is done flawlessly without any confusion as to whose view point you are viewing. The fictitious take on the historical Donner Party is done masterfully enough that even I had to go back to actual historic documents to see what was true and what was not. In one book, readers get dark history, paranormal elements, archaeology, thriller moments, mystery and suspense.

Although the story is a well-written one, there is one scene that could have had great potential, but nothing ever came of it: "Taking a few more steps, she passed through a particularly dense stand of trees and suddenly emerged into a roughly circular clearing. Odd: there was no reason for a break like this in such thick forest. She shone her light around, but there was nothing: just a soft bed of green moss, undisturbed by tracks, and a few scattered boulders." The way this scene is written leaves readers to believe that this may be important later on, but the area is unfortunately never mentioned again.

The story brings FBI agent Swanson into the lives of Benton and Kelly after a string of grave robberies and one presumed murder takes place; the former and latter have one thing in common: they are descendants of a member belonging to the Donner Party.

" 'So where do we fit into this?' asked Nora.

'The commonality I referred to. All four individuals were descended from a single person: a man named Parkin.'

Nora saw Clive start in surprise. 'Albert Parkin?' he asked. 'Of the Donner Party?'

'Exactly. And I've been led to understand he's one of the individuals in the camp you're excavating.' " Agent Swanson isn't exactly welcomed with open arms at the expedition.

The amount of archaeological understanding that was put into this novel is astounding. Preston and Child relay a lot of terms and devices used in the career field such as when Benton uses a bamboo pick to loosen the surface of a quad area and a whisk to gently work dirt away from findings. But this story isn't all archaeological terms, there's also a lot of great development among the characters.

These characters are written differently just enough that the reader should be able to tell them apart easily. Kelly is a leading archaeologist, who has led many different expeditions, but she is also still dealing with the grief of losing her husband years before. Benton is a historian that is a descendant of a member belonging to the Donner Party,and Swanson is a junior FBI agent that is eager to work on her first active case. Even minor characters are distinct among themselves.

Yet, the story is not flawless, there are quite a few inconsistencies, but the major problem I have found with the novel is the changing of characters' names in which they are addressed by. One scene, Nora would be referred to as Kelly - her last name - then more than usually the next paragraph, she would be called Nora. This happens with the main characters too often than it should, that it can confuse the reader and upset the flow of the story itself.

And unfortunately, the paranormal and horror elements are few and far between. We get an amazing retelling of the Donner Party tragedy not once, but throughout the story, reliving the cannibalism that took place, as well as the fictional element of gold leading to murder:

" 'Then you'll recall that when Wolfinger's wagon became stuck while crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert, two men - - - Reinhardt and Spitzer- - - volunteered to go back and help dig it out. Those two men returned, claiming Indians had killed Wolfinger.'

' Yes, yes, ' Dr. Fugit said, concealing a growing impatience.

'Well, that was a lie. Even at the time the members of the party were suspicious that something untoward had happened to Wolfinger. Reinhardt and Spitzer were viewed with a great deal if suspicion, and the two men afterwards kept to themselves and were somewhat ostracized by the rest. When Reinhardt was dying of starvation in the Lost Camp, he made a deathbed confession: Wolfinger had not been killed by Indians. Reinhardt and Spitzer had gone back, murdered Wolfinger, and taken his gold.' He paused. ' This information has been known to historians for over a century, but nobody, incredibly enough, thought to ask the next question: what happened to the gold? ' "

I highly recommend this book to fans of Thomas Harris; the writing is very similar and the character Swanson reminds me a lot of Harris' character Clarice Starling (refer to 'Silence of the Lambs' and 'Hannibal'). I also recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history, especially that of dark history, such as the Donner Party tale.

- Hadley

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