Bone Fire: A Novel by Mark Spragg

Bone Fire: A Novel

byMark Spragg

Paperback | April 19, 2011

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At eighty, Einar Gilkyson has lost his share of loved ones, but still finds his house full. His granddaughter, Griff, has dropped out of college to look after him, and his long-absent sister has returned home from Chicago. But Ishawooa, Wyoming is far from bucolic, and troubles begin to boil when the sheriff finds a man murdered in a meth lab. In this gripping story from the author of An Unfinished Life, harsh truths and difficult consolation come alongside moments of hilarity, surprise and beauty.

About The Author

Mark Spragg is the author of Where Rivers Change Direction, a memoir that won the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, and the novels The Fruit of Stone and An Unfinished Life, which was chosen by the Rocky Mountain News as the Best Book of 2004. All three were top-ten Book Sense selections and have been translated into fifteen lang...
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Details & Specs

Title:Bone Fire: A NovelFormat:PaperbackDimensions:256 pages, 8 × 5.15 × 0.75 inPublished:April 19, 2011Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307474356

ISBN - 13:9780307474353

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OneShe lunged the horse forward because that was all that was left to them, the slope too sheer to turn him, the shale his hooves struck loose skidding away, wheeling downward. She felt him slip from under her, struggling to regain his feet, the air snapping with the sound of stones colliding, echoes rebounding against the headwall of the cirque. It was the second time he’d come close to falling, and now he stood bunched and quivering, his ears flattened against his skull. They were both breathing hard.She glanced back over her shoulder. Below her the ridgeline rose up sharp-edged, spangling in the sunlight, seeming to beckon as madness is sometimes said to. The bands of muscle in her back and shoulders burned, and her mouth had gone dry.She inched higher against the long run of his neck, careful not to unbalance them, whispering “Just this” to urge him forward again. She felt him gather his weight in his hindquarters, heard him groan. He still trembled. “Just this,” she whispered again, and there was the chopping of his iron shoes against the broken rim and they were over all at once, unexpectedly, the horse staggering, standing finally with his legs splayed, his head hung low, braced up against the suck of his own breathing.She slipped to the ground, tried to walk and couldn’t, then squatted with her arms thrown over her knees. She smelled like the horse: salty, souring, indelicate. Her hands shook when she held them in front of her face. She’d acted like a goddamn tourist bringing them straight up out of the head of Owl Creek, ignoring the game trails. Sweat ran into her eyes, down the beaded course of her spine.She shaded her eyes, looking southeast over Clear Creek, Crazy Woman Creek, across the Powder River Basin toward the Black Hills, the horizon a hundred miles away, faintly edging the dome of blue sky. This was the secret she’d kept from her East Coast classmates, the exhilaration of this perfect air, filtered clear—as she has believed since childhood—by the rising souls of the dead. In her early teens, she even imagined she could feel the press of them in their passing, those assemblages of spirits retracing the very same watercourses that flow east and west from this divide, much as salmon would climb them, single-minded in their desire for homecoming, lifting themselves toward the advantage of heaven.She straightened her legs. The insides of her thighs prickled from the chafing of the climb. Her belly hummed and she pressed a hand against her abdomen, turning to check the horse where he stepped carefully through the lichen-covered stones bearing the imprints of Cretaceous fishes. His name is Royal, and except for days like this when they’re at work, she rides him bareback. Always. She trusts him that much. He nickered softly and she watched her reflections in the dark globes of his eyes. She smiled and her reflections smiled, and she thought there’s joy in a horse, laughter in its movement, even at this point of exhaustion. She stood, stomping her legs until they were just shaky.Her grandfather had asked her only to check the new grasses before they pasture the cattle on these Forest Service leases, but she was concerned—as she has always been—not to disappoint him, not to waste his time with her carelessness. So she and Royal have weaved among the cows where they’ve found them collected in the timbered undergrowth, alert for signs of illness or accident. They’ve walked the fences where they could, and lastly, when the job was done, made this break for the toplands.She knelt in the soggy cress that bordered a seep and bent to the water and drank. Then she peeled her shirt and bra over her head, splashing the water against her neck, shoulders and breasts, finally sitting back on her heels to stare at a contrail that halved the sky above her.Her mother had asked, “Are you still stringing that Indian boy along?”They were seated across from each other in the new café in Ishawooa. Salads, meatless soups, herbal teas. A sandwich board on the sidewalk out front, its legs sandbagged against the wind. It’s their habit to eat together once a week, as testimony that they truly are mother and daughter.Griff scooted forward on her chair, against the table’s edge. “I get really sick of you pretending to be a racist.”“Saying he’s an Indian is just a fact.”“So is his name.”Her mother cleared her throat. “Are you still fucking Paul Woodenlegs?” Louder this time, a woman turning at another table rearing back to stare through the bottom half of her bifocals.The blood rose in Griff’s cheeks, her mother nodding conclusively, the gesture women commit in church in lieu of speaking amen.“When your dad and I were your age,” Jean said, and smiled, unconsciously reaching inside the open throat of her blouse, straightening a bra strap, “it meant something then.”“I love him.” She knew the statement was heard as excuse, and therefore feeble.“Love must be different now.”And there it was, just a hint of the sour, woody smell on her mother’s breath, and Griff wondered when she’d taken her first bourbon this morning.“Your dad and I never wanted to be apart. Not for a single day.”“I’m not like you.”She watched her mother’s hands pick up a menu, holding it open. She hung her own weather-roughened hands out of sight, finding it impossible to admit that when she and Paul are making love it’s the grinding of their bones she hears, the clamor of one animal moving against another. Not always, but often enough to convince her that nothing remains unbroken forever.“Is he the reason you’re not going back to school?”“He won’t even be here this fall. He’s finishing graduate school in Chicago.”“In what?” Jean held up her empty glass, trying to catch the waitress’s attention.“Didn’t we already have this conversation?”“Tell me again.”“Public health.”“Isn’t that something?” Her mother’s eyes remained calm. “Just think of the career opportunities he’ll have for scrubbing bathrooms in some reservation casino.”“Yeah, Mom, I’m sure that’s what he’s shooting for.”“I remember that we’ve talked about this now.” She dabbed at her mouth with a napkin, though they hadn’t yet ordered any food. She folded the white linen over the berry-colored smear of lip gloss, leaning forward on her elbows. “You know it’s what drop?outs always say. ‘Just this fall.’ ” She rested her chin on the heel of a hand. “But it always turns out to be for the rest of their lives.”She spent the afternoon wandering through an acre of chert and obsidian chippings, in places half a foot thick, imagining the ancients squatting here so near the sun, raised above the worst of the summer heat and flies, fashioning their spear points and arrowheads. Twice she scooped up handfuls of the glittering spall, tossing it upward, watching it plume in bursts of refraction as crude fireworks would, then rattle back to earth.In the late afternoon she found the butt of a broken Clovis point and, later, the skull of a bighorn ram. This she lifted out of the scatter of bones strewn by predators, wind and snowmelt, and carried it to where Royal grazed, securing it behind the cantle with the saddle strings.She caught up the reins, and led the horse onto a trail that descended through a thick copse of aspen, weaving him down through the slender white trunks and stopping in the last throw of shade. She leaned against his shoulder, staring along the curve of his neck into the evergreens crowded before them.The spring stayed wet through the front part of June, and now, in this heat at the end of the month, the firs had shrugged their mustard-yellow pollen in a day, staining the air as a ground fog would, luteous, and in the late and slanting light seeming to glow from within. She extended her arms over her head, walking forward, the horse following.At dusk they were out on the open foothills, winding down through the cows and calves scattered and grazing in the cooler air. And far below them—along the creek, arranged among the old homestead cottonwoods—the house, the barn and outbuildings.She breathed in deeply, contentedly, pressing her tongue against the roof of her mouth to better taste the perfumed air flavored by fertility, by promise, by this country she has lived in for the best half of her life.From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

US1. The novel begins with Griff and her horse, and ends with Kenneth and Einar. Who would you say is the protagonist of Bone Fire?2. Page 6 describes Griff “finding it impossible to admit that when she and Paul are making love it’s the grinding of their bones she hears, the clamor of one animal moving against another.” Why does Griff think of sex with Paul this way? How would you characterize Griff and Paul’s relationship?3. Spragg often begins a chapter without making it clear which character is being discussed, preferring to use pronouns at first and reveal the character in question a few paragraphs into the chapter. Could you always tell which character was which? What purpose might this initial ambiguity serve in Spragg’s narrative?4. At the scene of the murder, on page 20, Crane thinks nothing of taking a beer out of the victim’s fridge and drinking it. Later in the novel, he also smokes marijuana. How does the sheriff approach his job? Is he more concerned with justice than with the strict letter of the law? Is this an outdated mind-set?5. On page 29, Paul tells Griff that he prefers Chicago to Wyoming because he can “go out for a beer and not have the rest of the bar waiting for Tonto to get drunk and piss his pants, or pull a knife and go to scalping, and you know goddamn well that’s how it can feel for me here.” Were you surprised by Paul’s frank description of racism in the West?6. When Crane starts to suspect there is something wrong with his health, he doesn’t tell his wife. He even lies to her about his neurologist’s visit—on page 37, we learn that “he told Jean he had to escort a prisoner to Billings and drove by himself to the clinic.” In fact, Jean doesn’t find out about Crane’s ALS until Helen tells her on page 201. Why does Crane keep his diagnosis from his wife? What does it tell us about their relationship?7. Why, on pages 67–69, does Einar decide to dig a hole and burn “all the letters he’d written Ella from Korea, most of the family photographs, wedding rings, birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, everything he could put his hands on that authenticated his eighty years of using up a body”? Does his justification—that he doesn’t want Griff “to have to deal with anything but the disposal of his body”—ring true to you? Is the act really one of concern for Griff, or is it a sign of dementia?8. On page 77, Marin tells Einar she thought maybe they had fallen out of touch because Einar didn’t like the fact that she lived with a woman—to which he responds, “I wouldn’t know anything about that.” Later, on page 159, Kenneth debates his own sexuality, and McEban tells him, “You’re just fine either way.” How does Bone Fire deal with the topic of homosexuality? Did you find it to be sensitive? Realistic?9. One of the most striking aspects of Bone Fire is the way in which it juxtaposes old-fashioned Western scenes, like horseback riding and tending to the ranch, with contemporary technology and culture—for example, the iPod Kenneth receives from Claire (page 111), the text-messaging slang Starla uses with Crane (page 114), or the TV shows Jean watches (page 118). How fluidly do Spragg’s characters move between their old-world sensibilities and their new-world lives? Do you think Spragg is making a statement about American culture? What might it be?10. When Kenneth is about to run away from Rodney and Claire’s house, he remembers that “his mother had told him once that it wasn’t lying if you told people what they wanted to hear” (page 145). What does this tell the reader about Kenneth’s mother? Why is it so easy for her to manipulate Rodney and McEban? Later in the same paragraph, Kenneth tries to anticipate the questions that might come up, but “didn’t kid himself about them not being lies.” Is Kenneth more mature than his mother? If so, how did he come to be that way?11. Why does Kenneth choose to leave? What does his life with McEban offer that Rodney and Claire can’t?12. Bone Fire might seem at first like a traditional mystery novel—Crane discovers someone murdered just twenty pages in, and spends much of the novel on the case. However, the novel doesn’t function as a whodunit: McEban doesn’t gather clues, the murderer doesn’t turn out to be any of the characters we get to know, and it would be impossible for the reader to guess what had happened. In fact, on pages 151–157, Janey Schilling offers a full confession that explains all the circumstances of the murder. If Bone Fire is not a mystery, what role does JC Tylerson’s death play in the story?13. One connecting thread between many of the characters in the story is a person the reader never meets: Griffin, who is Einar’s son, Griff’s father, and Jean’s ex. How does the memory of Griffin influence the narrative?14. Why does Griff kick Paul out of her clay firing on page 189?15. On page 221, McEban comes across a car accident. Were you surprised that it turned out to be Jean’s accident? Did Jean need to be fatally wounded in order to realize that she actually loved Crane? Do you believe they truly loved each other?16. Does Paul make the right choice in deciding not to go to Uganda after all? Will he and Griff be happy together in Chicago? Will Einar and Marin be happy in Wyoming?17. What did you make of Brady and Crane’s final confrontation on pages 230–232? When Brady pleads, “Can’t you just fucking do this? Pretend I’m on fire,” what does he mean? Is justice served?18. Spragg describes Griff’s bone sculptures to some extent, but also leaves them open to interpretation—what did you imagine they looked like? Why does Griff choose to leave them with Einar?19. There are many fires throughout the novel; what is the significance of the last fire that McEban, Einar and Kenneth build in the final chapter?(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center e-newsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

Editorial Reviews

“[Bone Fire] once again lands us on the prairie-grass-covered ranchlands of Ishawooa, Wyoming, where locals know the roaming livestock, winding creeks and meandering constellations better than they know each other. . . . A wonder to experience.” —The Seattle Times “A tale teeming with loss, redemption and personal crisis. . . . Spragg’s novel throbs with honest accounts of a Mountain West town . . . caught between past and present. . . . Bone Fire establishes as compelling a sense of time and place as any in contemporary fiction.” —The Denver Post “Spragg conjures the West with style and gravity. He can burrow into the tightest chambers of the heart, and his belief in family is palpable and moving.” —The Boston Globe  “Beautiful. . . . Reading Bone Fire is probably a lot like spending some time with the folks in Wyoming: A serious pleasure.” —The Oregonian  “[Spragg] captures the unruly West, wrangles it onto the page somehow and holds it down with just the words.” —Los Angeles Times “Bone Fire is that rare thing, a novel with all the literary virtues of skill and style and pitch that you hope for but also a book that makes you turn pages far into the night to find out what happens.” —Kent Haruf  “[A] big-sky slice of life. . . . As slow and shambling as a run-down pickup, but that allows the fine-tuned characters wide-open space to breathe and their grief to become palpable.” —Entertainment Weekly  “The strength of Bone Fire rests in Spragg’s ability to render lives in the contemporary American West with a keen eye for physical and emotional detail. Spragg understands how the landscape shapes the lives of the characters, as well as the way the modern world encroaches on the landscape. This is still the West of rodeos and pickup trucks, but it’s also the West of Google, Netflix, and GPS navigation.” —Kansas City Star  “It’s the author’s endearingly biting characters, not the slowly unpacking whodunit, that drives [Bone Fire]. You root for these people no matter how much dysfunction they leave in their wake, mostly because they’re always saying things you’d never have the guts to utter out loud.” —Outside  “[A] poignant modern Western. . . . Each member of [Spragg’s] cast is vibrant on the page, not because they resemble people one might know, but because they become intensely familiar and stay that way long after the book has been shelved.” —The Anniston Star  “Spragg is so spot on when it comes to describing small town life in the American West, his prose seems to leap off the printed page. . . . Spragg is a gifted writer.” —The Tucson Citizen  “A starkly beautiful portrait of the modern West.  Spragg is an author with a keen eye for both the poetic splendors and ugly realities of this much-romanticized country.” —The Globe and Mail (Canada) “As Spragg’s story slowly unfolds and gradually picks up speed, his Wyoming is as tangible as his characters’ yearning for connection.” —Curled Up With A Good Book “Spragg writes . . . with the smoothness of a river stone as he weaves a tale of loss and compassion, loyalty and family, and ultimately, love. . . . Sure to bring a lump to the throat.” —Las Vegas Review-Journal “Mark Spragg writes about ordinary people extraordinarily well. . . . Emotionally charged and well-written, Bone Fire is truly an exceptional story, with a main character everyone can relate to.” —Sacramento News & Review