Author blends Native culture with mysteries

By Richard Harris

“Winter’s Child” is the latest in the author’s engrossing series of Wind River Mysteries, set on the Wind River Indian reservation in central Wyoming. Author Margaret Coel is an historian by training and is an expert on the Arapahoe culture which is the context for these books, all of whom feature the amateur detective Father John O’Malley, a Boston transplant, and local native lawyer Vicky Holden.

There are three parallel mysteries which only come together near the end. All of the stories involve white children raised by Arapahoe families. As Coel often does in her books, she begins here with some actual historical event and adds a fictional modern twist.

In 1865 a white infant Elizabeth Fletcher was taken in a raid by Cheyennes after her family had left their wagon train. Unbeknownst to her surviving family members, she was subsequently raised by Arapahoes. Although, after many years of searching, her sister did finally find her, Elizabeth was then happily married to John Brokenhorn and had several children and knew only reservation Arapahoe life, not even speaking any English. Thus she declined to leave the only life she had ever known.

In this book Father John‘s niece Shannon O’Malley arrives from Chicago to interview the (fictional) descendants of Lizzie Brokenhorn for her dissertation. There are several grandchildren and great-grandchildren still in the area, and Shannon finds more than she bargained for on both the historical and personal front.

A second parallel story began five years before the book begins when Eldon and Myra Little Shields, an Arapahoe couple who had recently lost their own infant, find a baby white girl mysteriously left on their doorstep in the middle of winter. Still grieving their own recent infant loss and seeing no one come forward to claim the baby, the couple raise her as their own.

Vicky is contacted by their lawyer for her help on their appeal seeking full adoption five years later; apparently a complication has arisen. Before Vicky can learn what the problem is, that lawyer is run over by a hit-and-run driver in an act Vicky witnesses and is convinced was murder.

Finally, Vicky is also working on another case of Vincent White Hawk, a young man whose alcoholism has gotten him into serious legal problems. His mother is pleading for help and leniency but her son’s actions do not make this easy.

He is a man ruled by his addictions with a possible conscience buried deep inside. It is eventually up to Vicky and Father John to convince him to accept a plea bargain with mandatory commitment to rehab.

As Vicky probes into the history of the baby raised by the Little Shields, all sorts of old skeletons are rattled. The three stories eventually converge in surprising, but convincing, ways.

The vitality of the life of the historical Lizzie Brokenhorn in the present day Wind River deeply illustrates the central role of history in the lives of the Arapahoes. Many long-ago events have important contemporary reverberations.

There are some issues left unresolved at the end of the book. Shannon has decided to move to the mission with her uncle and write her dissertation there, in large part due to a developing relationship with a young Arapahoe man, James, she has met. Father John had been hoping James would enter the priesthood, but that is looking less and less likely. Also, there is some suggestion that the hierarchy might close Father John’s mission due to budget problems.

Loyal readers will desperately hope this is not Margaret Coel’s way of setting up the end of the series. As always in this series, Coel presents the Arapahoe culture sympathetically, though not uncritically, with the reader feeling immersed in its life, including sensitive glimpses of its interaction with the broader culture. For those of us with no experience with native American life, this is a wonderful readable introduction to that world, as well as a most compelling, page-turning whodunit crafted by a gifted writer.

Richard Harris is an emeritus professor of psychological sciences at KSU and a Manhattan resident.

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