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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Old Bones by Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child

June 1, 2020

Grand Central Publishing:  New York
2019 (HC)

Back in 1999, the prolific thriller-writing duo of Preston and Child introduced archaeologist Nora Kelly as the protagonist in the novel Thunderhead.  Now, some twenty years later Nora returns as the heroine in what will be the first of a series of exploits featuring the strong-willed adventurer.

Clive Benton, an independent historian, breaks into the dilapidated and decaying house which once belonged to the daughter of Jacob Donner of the infamous Donner Party, a group of pioneers who set out in a wagon train from the Midwest to California in the early spring of 1846.  Tragedy beset the migrant band when they bypassed more established routes for an alternate that took them across the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake.  The short-cut that proved to be anything but resulted in their becoming trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California in a deadly November blizzard.  Of the original 87 members of the party, only 48 survived as it took almost four months for the first rescuers to reach the survivors.  Some members of the misbegotten company that sought refuge from the elements in two hastily constructed camps resorted to cannibalizing the bodies of those who had died from starvation and sickness.  The saga of the Donner party has been viewed as one of the most horrific tragedies in 19th pioneer history.

Benton, who was the distant descendant of a survivor of the Donner party, succeeded in discovering the journal of Tamzene Donner, the wife of George Donner, who led the ill-fated wagon train in 1846.  The journal not only gave a first-person account of the disaster-prone journey, but also the location of a rumored but never discovered third or Lost Camp.  Not only would this camp yield information about the inhabitants, none of whom survived, but Clive Benton believed, based on his extensive research, that a cache of gold coins, valued at more than $20 million in today’s currency, were hidden in or around the Lost Camp.  He brings the proposition for an excavation to Jill Fugit, president of the Santa Fe Archaeological Institute, who in turn assigns Nora Kelly and her crew to the task.

As Nora and her colleagues prepare for their expedition into the Sierra Nevada range, rookie FBI special agent Corrie Swanson of the Albuquerque  field office is given her first assignment:  to investigate the murder of a victim who may have been desecrating a grave in a federally-owned portion of the Glorietta Pass Civil War battlefield.  Her careful investigations lead her to believe there is a linkage between the grave desecration, similar desecrations in Paris and New Hampshire, and the disappearance of a young lawyer in Scottsdale, Arizona.  The link:  all concerned victims were descendants of Albert Parkin, an unaccounted-for member of the 1840s Donner party.

Nora and Corrie’s trails (and destinies) converge in the high Sierras as the former seeks, with her crew, the archaeological secrets of the Lost Camp and Corrie seeks the answers to her contemporary mystery.  It soon becomes clear that the tragic deaths that haunted the Donner site more than 170 years earlier were not to be the last, as two members of Nora’s party die under mysterious circumstances and very sinister and very contemporary forces are still at work.

Old Bones is a compelling thriller featuring forceful protagonists.  There are enough plot twists and turns and red herrings to delight any mystery enthusiast; and the portrayal of an archaeological excavation—especially one conducted under trying environmental conditions—is extremely well-done, even as Nora’s textbook dig turns into a veritable nightmare.

Four enthusiastic trowels for this first—of many, one hopes—Nora Kelly adventures!