Review: “Them Bones,” Howard Waldrop

Pros: Fantastically original
Cons: Meanders weirdly
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Howard Waldrop’s Them Bones is a bizarre and mystifying read. At a 1929 archaeological site in Louisiana, Dr. Kincaid and Bessie Level discover a thirteenth-century burial mound… with horses’ bones and brass rifle cartridges in it. They can’t find any evidence that it’s a hoax, and they keep finding more oddities. Meanwhile, we read about Leake, a military man who has been sent through a time portal from 2002–a time in which everyone is dying as a result of WWIII–to scout things out as the rest of his group comes through the portal. Only, not only do the others never come, but he’s stuck in a much different time or world than the one he expected to arrive in. Instead of the early 1900s, he finds himself in a time where the natives are still in charge, his horse is the only one on the continent, and traders speak Greek. In another thread, the hundred-plus people following Leake through the portal find themselves similarly stuck in a world that isn’t what they were expecting. They find only natives. When the natives start to die of disease brought with the time-travelers, they start attacking the time travelers.

This is a totally bizarre little story. My favorite part of it is Leake’s journey through his new world. He meets up with some natives, one of whom speaks Greek (which Leake also knows), and ends up settling down with them. He makes friends with Took-His-Time and Sunflower, and learns pipe-making from Took. The narrative totally breaks the stereotypical image we have of Native Americans, which is delightful. For example, no stilted, unnatural speech. Took in particular is deadpan hilarious, but the others are interesting as well.

‘Every man for himself!’ yelled Sun Man. ‘This is death stuff!’

The real oddity lies in trying to figure out when and where Leake and the other folks from the future have found themselves, and how those threads wrap into the archaeological dig. But much of the book follows Leake’s acceptance into the village of natives, adventures looking for pipe stone, wars with the neighboring tribes, and evenings spent feasting with traders (who are finally able to tell Leake of the rest of the world). It’s… odd, and kind of meanders a bit, but in interesting ways. I think it just depends on your preferences as a reader as to whether you’ll enjoy it or not. It wasn’t long enough to start bugging me, and while the tale of the group of time travelers didn’t interest me as much as did Leake’s tale, it was still worth reading. I wanted things a little more explicit with respect to when and where everyone was, but the ending was pleasing. Alternate history tales aren’t usually my thing, but this one concentrated enough on the entertaining aspects of it that it didn’t lose me.

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