Write an historical novel and you start out with what seems to be, to your average ink-stained wretch, a decent creative bonus: you get to do research. (Chair time in libraries, and querying experts, can beat staring at the blinking cursor waiting for inspiration to strike.) But, as fun as fact-collection can be, it exacts a price; when the words finally hit the page you have to be careful that the information knows its place, and doesn't battle to overcome the author's imagination. That's a fight you can feel raging as an undercurrent to Robert F. Jones's "Tie My Bones to Her Back," and the outcome decides the fate of this novel.
There's no doubt Jones can write a taut scene, and the opening of this book -- when Jenny Dousmann, a Wisconsin farmgirl, wakes one morning in 1873 to encounter in quick succession the suicide of both her parents -- has a riveting, laconic tone; a kind of horrible quietness lays over it. That event leads Jenny to join her brother Otto, a Union soldier turned buffalo hunter, on a trek through the great West, "a vast reach of country nibbled at only feebly by the main-chancers and the desperate." There she becomes a part of the awesome annihilation of the American bison (an anything but feeble nibbling), suffers greatly at the hands of some despicable hunters and, along with Otto, is nearly done in by a mammoth winter storm. Surviving it, she and her brother seek refuge with a tribe of Indians and become stalkers of buffalo hunters, barbed-wire salesmen, and anyone else who destroys the wide-open spirit of the plains.
You learn a lot about the American West here. Great gobs of fact come hurtling at you like charging quadrupeds. No gun is fired whose caliber, ammunition, and decoration is not lovingly described, and many other Facts of the Great West are examined in detail. But amid all this veracity, fiction suffers, and the book's characters are given short shrift. Jones seems to hold back from asking Jenny and Otto why they become killers of their own people, and a stance that started out laconic plays out as plain emptiness. You finish this novel feeling like you've encountered the dry, sun-bleached skeleton of one of the slaughtered buffalo: hints of greatness abound, but the magnificent beast is elsewhere.