Old Bones by Doug Preston and Lincoln Child have another winner with their new series. Within a fictional story they bring to life the ill-fated Donner Party, while blending archeology, history, murder, and suspense.
In 1846 while taking a shortcut through the Sierra Mountains a group of pioneers, who ended up known as the Donner Party, were stranded during a snow storm. Within the camp the starving desperate survivors turned to murder and cannibalism.
The story begins with historian Clive Benton approaching curator Nora Kelly at the Santa Fe Institute of Archaeology, for help. Rumors have it that there were not just two camps of the Donner Party, but actually three. He wants the Institute, with Kelly in charge, to help excavate the skeletons. He adds a caveat to make sure they are all in by telling them besides the old bones they expect to find, which will have important historical significance, there is also a good possibility of a gold treasure worth $20 million hidden near the camp.
At the same time, FBI Agent Corinne Swanson is investigating some grave robberies, all descendants of the Donner disaster. She is trying to connect it to the dig after finding out some ancient horrors are leading to present-day violence. Eventually Nora and Corinne work together to uncover the truth behind the murders.
Readers familiar with Preston/Child might remember both these characters from previous books. Adding depth to their personalities in this book, the first in a new series, shows the women as strong, tough-minded, and independent, which makes for an interesting dynamic duo.
The plot is clever, riveting, and very interesting. It brings to the forefront a horrific historical event.
Elise Cooper: How did you come up with the idea?
Doug Preston/Lincoln Child: We came up with the idea in twenty minutes. Knowing there were two Donner camps we decided to add a third camp that would be excavated by Nora Kelly. What transpires is that they find something even more horrific than the cannibalism.
EC: Were you fascinated by the Donner Party?
P/C: Anyone who studied American history in grade school or high school will have experienced disgust and sorrow. Those in the Donner Party braved a terrible trip in want of a better life in California, where they were headed. Unfortunately, they decided to take a short cut. They were fathers, mothers, and children, and not desperadoes. The tragedy and the will to survive was unimaginable.
EC: Is the gold part true?
P/C: The story has it that Jacob Wolfinger carried gold, was murdered for it, and the murderer confessed as he was dying of starvation in the snowed in camp. Yet, no one seems to know what happened to the gold. We have yet to find a historian who addressed that question. Although some of the rescuers did steal off of the dead people. We wanted to weave real history into our story to peak the reader’s interest.
EC: Describe Clive Benton?
P/C: We used his presence to lead to realism throughout the novel. In the early part of the book the story is told through his point of view. Readers learn through Clive what it is like to go on an expedition on horseback and on foot. He is awkward, serious, a scholar, has personal ties to the Donner Party, and is egotistical.
EC: Describe the two women characters?
P/C: They are previous characters that were in the Special Agent Pendergast series. They are both tough minded and strong willed who end up clashing a lot. They both have an adventurous spirit.
EC: Why the archeology angle?
DP: Nora is a lot like my aunt. She is smart, tough, intelligent, and sensitive with a lot of heart. Nora had real tragedies in her life, especially the murder of her husband. Now she has immersed herself in her work, and has cut off her social life. She is not happy when an FBI agent shows up. Because she looks unfavorably on Corinne the fireworks start.
LC: When I was in high school I visited my grandmother who excavated everything from Camelot to Masada. I was visiting her in New Hampshire and was incredibly bored. Reluctantly, she took me along on this dig where they were uncovering a 150-year-old farm. Within fifteen minutes I found this important iron door lock to the house. I was getting the stink eye from every graduate student who was jealous.
EC: How would you describe Corinne?
P/C: She was an outcast, misfit, and a goth. She was someone who never fit it in because she was more intelligent, ambitious, and imitative than all the other children. In an earlier book, she helped Agent Pendergast solve a murder and then decided to follow in his footsteps after seeing him in action.
EC: How are Nora and Corinne different?
P/C: Nora is older, more mature and had to work through a tragedy. She has lived in more places and is more patient. She is a rule follower and is more sure of herself. Corinne has a problem with authority figures and is more rebellious.
EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?
P/C: All the books will involve archeology and murder. Just as Pendergast made a cameo in this one he will make an important cameo in the next one. The plot involves a skeleton found that is eighty years old. Corinne is the FBI investigator and calls on Nora for help. In the winter, there will be a Pendergast book. A body is found on a beach in Florida. He will once again partner with FBI agent Coldmoon as they continue to have a prickly relationship.
Old Bones (Nora Kelly) by Douglas Preston (Author), Lincoln Child (Author)
Nora Kelly, a young curator at the Santa Fe Institute of Archaeology, is approached by historian Clive Benton with a once-in-a-lifetime proposal: to lead a team in search of the so-called “Lost Camp” of the tragic Donner Party. This was a group of pioneers who earned a terrible place in American history when they became snow-bound in the California mountains in 1847, their fate unknown until the first skeletonized survivors stumbled out of the wilderness, raving about starvation, murder-and cannibalism.
Benton tells Kelly he has stumbled upon an amazing find: the long-sought diary of one of the victims, which has an enigmatic description of the Lost Camp. Nora agrees to lead an expedition to locate and excavate it-to reveal its long-buried secrets.
Once in the mountains, however, they learn that discovering the camp is only the first step in a mounting journey of fear. For as they uncover old bones, they expose the real truth of what happened, one that is far more shocking and bizarre than mere cannibalism. And when those ancient horrors lead to present-day violence on a grand scale, rookie FBI agent Corrie Swanson is assigned the case…only to find that her first investigation might very well be her last.
If you liked this, do check out my review of another book which tackles the Donner Party…
The Hunger by author Alma Katsu
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I found this story idea to be quite exciting, which is why I have it on my list to read. Ever since I heard the Donner Party mentioned in Stephen King’s THE SHINNING – I have searched out books which bring this terrible historical tale back to life in many different, cool and dramatic ways.
Luv Sassy x