BONE FIRE by Mark Spragg

Book Quote:

“Crane knocked on the door again and waited. To the east a weedy lot, the sage grubbed out around a swing set, the pipe-metal uprights peeling and rusted, a plastic seat hanging by a single chain, paddling in the wind, the slide broken loose from its base and twisted Mobius-wise, and beyond a sagging barbed wire fence and an overgrazed stretch of prairie. He wondered briefly if he would have been good at any trade that didn’t require a uniform and confrontation.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (MAR 8, 2010)

Author Mark Spragg has written about Wyoming before—in his latest novel, Bone Fire, he revisits the fictional town of Ishawooa. Even as much as the town retains many of its tough Wyoming characteristics, change is sweeping in slowly. For example, there’s new café in town, which serves plenty of salads, meatless soups, herbal teas. It is here that one of the novel’s primary protagonists, Griff, gets together with her mother, Jean, once in a while for lunch or a cup of tea.

Griff has suspended her college studies so she can care for her aging grandfather, Einar, who in turn is increasingly uncomfortable at the prospect of his granddaughter putting her life on hold to attend to him. Griff’s father has been dead a while now and mother Jean, is now married to the town sheriff, Crane Carlson.

Crane for his part works at a job that he doesn’t necessarily love—rather it’s one he seems to have fallen into because of the lack of real employment choices around. Towards the beginning of the novel, there is a meth-related murder that takes place leading one to believe that it will provide the necessary backbone for the story that unfolds. Like Einar, Crane too must make peace with the fact that he is facing death soon—he is handed a diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease and struggles to come to terms with it.

Other assorted characters in Bone Fire include Paul, Griff’s Native-American boyfriend who is toying with the idea of pursuing a graduate school project in far-away Uganda, ten-year-old Kenneth and his stepfather, Barnum McEban.

In an interview Mark Spragg has said that he decided to write this book because he wanted to imagine how characters from some of his previous books would be, years later. For example, in his last book set in Ishawooa, An Unfinished Life, Griff is just ten. Here she is older and interacting with Paul, another character from one of Spragg’s earlier works. While this motivation to see them realized as adults, is a good one, Spragg doesn’t seem to do much with the characters beyond merely placing them against a new set of circumstances.

Much of Bone Fire unfolds like a documentary—a day in the town of Ishawooa—as opposed to having a central narrative that drives the plot. Fortunately, the setting itself is so interesting and beautiful that it is often enough to have the reader overlook this languid pace.

Griff nurtures a creative aspect of her personality—she crafts giant sculptures with animal bones found in the woods. When her grand-aunt, Marin, once chances upon these in the woods, she remarks that they looked “as though the earth had thrown up an accumulation of its dead, regathering the parts into this resurrection of creatures.” As Griff finds an outlet through this creative endeavor, she must eventually decide whether to use this talent as a vehicle to take her beyond the narrow confines of Ishawooa.

Bone Fire is not to be read for its story or any reveal in the plot detail. Even if a murder does occur within its pages, Spragg is in no hurry to solve it. He chooses instead to let the characters’ daily interactions dominate the page. Above all it is the setting—the wide-open country, the majestic but bleak harshness of Wyoming that is the prime player in Bone Fire. The big country landscape leaves its bold imprint on the characters’ lives. In describing how Einar feels about his granddaughter, Griff, Spragg writes, “He doesn’t want her history to limit her, as he believes his history has limited him.” It is the interaction between the characters and their surrounding landscape that really stands out. As they embrace and try to rise above their collective history, the countryside leaves a lasting impression. Bone Fire is to be read for its strong and fantastic sense of place. The story unfolds ever so slowly, but thankfully, the beauty and harshness of Wyoming is a constant and arresting presence. Bone Fire captures Wyoming wonderfully—not just as a romantic concept but as a state that is slowly seeing change reshape even its most stolid and permanent features.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 6 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (March 9, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wyoming Authors on Mark Spragg
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another contemporary western set in Wyoming:

The Split Estate by Charlotte Bacon



March 17, 2010 · Judi Clark · 2 Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Wild West

2 Responses

  1. Judi Clark - March 17, 2010

    Poornima — this is such an unusual title… what does it refer to?

  2. poornima - March 17, 2010

    It is, isn’t it? Mark Spragg has said that it was an image that he had of Einar (Griff’s grandfather) in front of a huge fire fed with bones and antlers that formed the backdrop for the book. It was meant to show a man at the end of his life satisfied with where he has been and what he has become. This name seemed to have essentially come from Spragg’s earlier book (which I did not read).

    At the end of this book, however, Griff and her boyfriend Paul, together work a fire (a kiln) and bake her sculptures made out of bone in it. At the end of this shared event, they each come to a realization about which direction they want to take their lives. So in a sense I interpreted the “Bone Fire” as the slow-burning yet somehow cathartic event that eventually molds the characters’ lives.

    I expect readers to interpret it differently. Quite an unusual title — a sly take on “bonfire.”

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