Julia Sullivan’s BONE NECKLACE revisits a shameful chapter in US history: the Nez Perce War of 1877. The conflict began after the federal government reneged on its previous agreement with the Nez Perce tribe and tried to displace them from their ancestral lands. The natives’ resistance caused a brief but brutal war. Eventually, the whole tribe embarked on an excruciating journey towards Canada, pursued hundreds of miles by the US Army. The novel recounts this war from the perspective of several characters. Jack Peniel is an artist, a hunter, and a drunk who witnesses the horrifying treatment of the Native Americans by the US military and the civilians. Running Bird is a warrior who inadvertently becomes a leader of Nez Perce. Finally, Nicole Lowsley is a British artist. Captured by the Native Americans, she experiences their plight firsthand.
BONE NECKLACE depicts different ways war consumes both winners and losers. And yet, it is also inspiring, showing the courage, endurance, and resourcefulness of people pushed into an unjust war against their will. As racist as the 19th-century public opinion is, it starts to shift as the Nez Perce repeatedly defeat, evade, and outsmart better-equipped and more numerous army troops. Journalists and generals alike develop respect for the natives. But that doesn’t stop them from taking away their land. This war isn’t an aberration but the logical culmination of the ways settlers treated the natives. Not even the main characters escape corrupting effects of this war. Jack participates in a brutal massacre during the so-called Battle of the Big Hole. Running Bird accidentally murders an innocent. While that doesn’t make them the same, Jack and Running Bird recognize certain kinship. The regret and shame they feel are similar.
While its subject matter is grim, BONE NECKLACE isn’t a difficult read. Sullivan’s prose is clear and heartfelt. She makes readers care for her characters and this forgotten chapter of US history. While depicted events are horrifying, there is a glimmer of hope in the way characters choose to confront evil – both in others and within themselves. Their salvation – such as it is – lies in sacrifice, forgiveness, and acceptance. They try to be better, again and again, even in a cruel world. After all, that is the only thing most of us can do.
With its sympathetic characters and riveting story, Julia Sullivan’s historical novel BONE NECKLACE is a fascinating look into a forgotten chapter of US history whose lessons are today more relevant than ever.
~Danijel Štriga for IndieReader