I have a few rules about reading. If a book doesn’t hook you within 50 pages, stop reading it. Dog earring and writing in a book is okay, but only if it’s yours. And, if I finish a book before going to bed, I have to immediately start a new one. While I might bend on the first of these rules, books like Paul Howarth’s Dust Off the Bones remind me why I made the third rule in the first place. The ending of this book had my pulse pounding so hard that I needed the start of a new book to wind myself back down so that I could sleep. Howarth takes us into the outback of Australia, before and after the turn of the twentieth century, to give us a harrowing story about violence, racism, guilt, and the ties that bind.
The violence starts early in Dust Off the Bones. The book opens with a brief prologue set in Queensland in 1885, in which an itinerant minister stumbles across the scene of a massacre of an entire tribe of Aboriginal Australians. The minister rushes to the nearest town to report it to the magistrate, only to be strongly “encouraged” to let it go. The next chapters jump ahead five years and to new narrators. As the pages tick by, we learn a little more about what happened in 1885. Our new narrators, Billy and Tommy McBride, are the surviving members of their family, who were violently killed in 1885. The official story has it that the family’s Aboriginal servant killed the McBrides while the boys were off fishing. A unit of Native Police—a horrific paramilitary group who killed an untold number of Aboriginal people as white settlers moved further and further into Aboriginal territory—go off after the servant and, ostensibly, kill him, his companions, and also a lot of members of the Kurrong*.
The man in charge of the unit of police is absolutely terrifying. Edmund Noone is a virulent racist who thinks nothing of torturing, raping, or killing people. Noone haunts the McBride brothers. He pushed Billy into doing terrible things, then holds the knowledge over the man, adds threats against everyone he loves, to get Noone a little further along his career path. The mere thought of Noone—and an accidental killing plus a whopping dose of post-traumatic stress disorder—send Tommy running from Queensland to Victoria. Dust Off the Bones jumps ahead from 1890 to 1897 to 1906 and beyond, dropping in on the characters as they try to build lives in the shadow of what they did. And, as if this wasn’t complicated enough, a crusading, anti-racist lawyer from Brisbane is trying to uncover the truth of what happened and finally nail Noone to the wall as he deserves.
All the blood and betrayal in the dusty Australian Outback gave me strong Western genre vibes. This is one of the best of the genre I’ve read because the women are complex, strong characters and the racism of the white characters doesn’t extend to the characterization or actions of the Aboriginal people. The plot is also absolutely fantastic; reading it was like the literary equivalent of being a frog in heating water. The longer I read, the faster I went. I just had to know what would happen. Who would survive to the end? Would the truth come out? Would there be justice? Could there be justice?
Dust Off the Bones is an extraordinary read and I would recommend it to any fan of historical fiction who also has a strong stomach.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.
*As far as I can tell, the Kurrong are fictional, but what happened to them was not uncommon before, during, and after the years that the Native Police were active.