Subtitled “A Historical Novel of Puget Sound,” Michael Schein’s Bones Beneath Our Feet tells us the story of two men, Isaac Stevens, Mexican-American War veteran and first governor of Washington Territory, and Leschi, Chief of the Nisqually tribe. Published by Bennett & Hastings, a Seattle-based independent publisher, the novel, at first glance, appears like yet another retelling of a White Man-vs.-Native American conflict told with the subtlety of an afternoon special. “Remember kids, the white man is a pure embodiment of evil while the Native Americans are innocent, Nature-loving gentlefolk.” This is the simplistic moralizing found in everything from Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, and, of all things, Avatar. Luckily, Schein’s novel lacks the simplistic moralizing and White Guilt-infused condescension of those tales.
The novel takes place in antebellum Washington Territory, formerly run by the British until 1846 following the Treaty of Oregon. Schein excels at describing the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Their societies differ radically from the stereotypical Native American (read: Plains Indian). He shows the religious cosmology infusing their world around them. When the inevitable war occurs, Chief Leschi fights for the land surrounding the Nisqually River that the tribe had settled from time immemorial. The depiction of Native American religion is done with delicacy and care with neither multicultural condescension nor New Agey platitudes. However, the Nisqually tribe is not all salmon fishing, communing with nature, and rainbows. The tribe practices both polygamy and slavery. In the latter, the lowborn slaves perform the menial tasks unbecoming to the family of the chief. (An ironic situation since the United States practices slavery at the time of the novel.)
Isaac Stevens is the other polestar in this epic conflict. While depicted as duplicitous, avaricious, and a whoremongering drunk, he cares deeply for the safety of his family and the orderly administration of his territory. Like Leschi, he is a man of his convictions, working hard to keep the constellation of individuals under his command in order. Like the majority of Americans at the time, he subscribes to Manifest Destiny. This involves the conquest of territory in order to make America white, Christian, and specifically Protestant. All other factions and races will be subjugated, domesticated, and normalized. (When the extremist fringes yammer on about “taking America back” and “traditional values”, these are the things they are too afraid to verbalize, since that would involve calling them out as archaic, religiously bigoted, racist digbats.)
The events leading up to and following the war occur in epic proportions. Bones Beneath Our Feet is a complex, nuanced, revisionist epic with a massive cast of characters, pitched battles, reversals, small acts of human tenderness, and a climactic court scene. Characters seem both larger-than-life and humanely familiar. Schein excels at returning the Historical – and by turns Hagiographic – to the human. While Bennett & Hastings has put out a story of regional importance to Washington State, this novel seems ready for a small screen adaptation. (It deserves a multi-season treatment on par with Deadwood or Boardwalk Empire.) While this review has avoided the specificities of plot, this reviewer highly recommends this novel with the reader discovering the twists and turns of the narrative.