The Donner Party became snow-bound in 1847 as they attempted to cross the great Sierra Nevada mountains into California. Their fate remained unknown until the first skeletonized survivors stumbled out of the wilderness ranting about starvation, murder . . . and cannibalism.
Nora Kelly, a young curator at the Santa Fe Institute of Archaeology, is approached by Clive Benton, a historian, who claims to have stumbled upon the long sought-after diary of one of that infamous group’s victims. He proposes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead an expedition to find the Donner Party’s “Lost Camp,” explaining that the diary describes the Lost Camp and its location. Nora agrees to lead the expedition to locate and excavate it in order 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. As they uncover old bones, they expose the real truth of what happened. And that truth is far more shocking and bizarre than mere cannibalism.
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.
Bestselling authors Preston & Child have written thrillers that “stand head and shoulders above their rivals” according to Publishers Weekly, as well as their devoted fans. Their works include the Pendergast series. The first installment, Relic, was successfully adapted for the screen. Their other novels include Fever Dream, Cold Vengeance, Two Graves, and Gideon’s Corpse. Preston writes about archaeology, history and paleontology for the New Yorker, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Harper’s, and the Atlantic.
In Old Bones, they tackle the myth and legend surrounding the Donner Party, a group of pioneers who set out from Missouri in 1846. They followed the Oregon Trail, bound for California. But the brutal Sierra Nevada winter arrived early that year, trapping them on the high pass (Donner Pass) near Truckee Lake, which would later become known as Donner Lake. They ran out of food, and some members of the party set out on foot to seek help. The first rescuers were unable to reach those who remained behind until February 1847. Many of the party succumbed to starvation and sickness, and some of those who survived did so only by resorting to cannibalism, making their ordeal one of the most notorious and tragic in the history of the settlement of the west. “The Donner catastrophe was one of the greatest calamities of the westward migration. Here was a group of emigrants who set out to civilize an untamed land — California — but in the process ended up reduced to unspeakable barbarity. It was the American Dream turned inside out.”
The story opens with a series of grave robberies. And a seemingly unrelated theft from the Donner House before it is demolished. That house belonged to the daughter of Jacob Donner, a member of the Donner Party. Preservationists lost the battle the save the home, and bulldozers are about to raze it to make way for condominiums and a golf course along the Bear River when a stranger sneaks in and retrieves an old journal.
When Clive Benton claims that the journal is that of Tamzene Donner, the wife of the leader of the Donner Party, Nora Kelly is intrigued. Benton contends that the diary identifies all of the persons who were stranded at the Lost Camp and includes a description of the camp’s location. The Lost Camp has never been discovered and the chance to find valuable archaeological evidence of exactly what transpired there more than a century ago excites Nora once she hears Benton’s underlying thesis. Benton maintains that members of the Donner Party were transporting treasure that has never been found and may well be in the vicinity of the Lost Camp. Nora’s boss, director of the Institute, is persuaded that the Institute should fund the expedition.
History is always one step removed from the real thing — but right here, to be able to see and feel . . . It’s so much more immediate, so real. It’s like touching the past.”
Meanwhile, Corinne Swanson, a neophyte FBI agent, is finally assigned to investigate her first homicide case. But when she finally lands that assignment, she has no idea that she will find herself on horseback in the remote Sierra Nevada mountains, wrapped up in a mystery that is more than a century old. Corinne was a Goth teen with purple hair and attitude, so she is able to relate to a troubled teenage boy that she encounters in the course of investigating his sister’s disappearance. Corinne found her way to the FBI via Pendergast, and is able to relate to the youngster with whom her interactions are authentic and touching.
Preston and Child use real members of the Donner Party and actual aspects of their story to craft a fast-moving thriller. Nora is still grieving her husband, devoted to her work, and determined that the expedition comply with strict protocols. She is compelled by her professionalism and awareness that if the expedition is a success, she will have contributed to extremely important discoveries. She is accompanied by not just Benton, whose credentials — he claims to be a descendant of a member of the Donner party — and motives seem legitimate, but the former lawyer who resides in the areas and puts together a team of wranglers to lead them through the treacherous terrain to the campsite where the excavation will take place. They are an eclectic, mysterious group and it is soon clear that each is a suspect when things start to go horribly wrong.
The subject matter is handled with sensitivity by Preston & Childs, who point out, through several characters, that the expedition has found its way to hallowed ground — grave sites — and the remains they discover must be handled with respect. Nora observes that the dig site “wasn’t a typical site — it was where an unspeakable tragedy had occurred. The place was owed a certain reverence. And dealing with historic human remains, where there might be living descendants — there were living descendants . . . made is an entirely different story.” One character takes that approach to an unfortunate extreme. Before long, bodies are literally piling up — some from the 1800’s, but the recent deaths are alarming as Nora realizes that she is in grave danger and Corinne finds her way to the camp where Preston & Child expertly meld the seemingly disparate mysteries into one cohesive, frightening, and shocking conclusion.
Preston & Child never disappoint, and Old Bones is a promising start to a new series featuring Nora and Corinne who are both featured in prior novels but meet for the first time in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
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