No one is any more skillful at intertwining the past and present in a crime novel as Margaret Coel. And, The Silent Spirit, the fourteenth book in the Wind River mystery series shows Coel at her best. She vividly portrays life on the Wyoming reservation, while mixing in episodes from the history of the Arapaho tribe.
In 1922, 500 Arapahos and Shoshones accompanied cowboy Tim McCoy to Utah and Nevada, where they appeared in the first western epic, The Covered Wagon. The Silent Spirit tells of the filming of that movie, focusing on three young Indians who appeared in the film. Fifty of the Indians went to Hollywood, camped in Cahuenga Pass, and appeared in Indian shows to promote the movie. One of those young men, Charlie Wallowingbull, never returned to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. He left behind a widow and young son, Andrew.
When The Silent Spirit opens, Father John O'Malley picks up a hitchhiker, Kiki Wallowingbull. Kiki is recently out of prison where he was incarcerated for drugs. He tells Father John that he's clean, but he's determined to find the answers about his great-grandfather's disappearance, so he's on his way to Hollywood. But, after Kiki returns, it's Father John who finds his body, dumped in the river where a local drug dealer is reputed to punish those who get on his wrong side.
Father John has only been back from his sabbatical in Rome for a short time, and he's already caught up in the troubles on the reservation. Arapaho lawyer Vicky Holden has tried to bury herself in large tribal issues in her law firm, but she's still the attorney the Arapahos seek when they're in trouble. When she's followed, and then receives a strange call from a man who claims he didn't mean to kill anyone, she's convinced she's talking to Kiki's killer. Once again, Vicky and Father John find themselves working together to find the truth.
Father John realizes that Kiki's story, as well as his own, is about redemption. The Silent Spirit reminds readers that Father John has been looking for redemption for ten years. He's the recovering alcoholic priest, trying to make amends, and help the people on the reservation. Vicky Holden is still seeking approval from her children. She's the woman who left their abusive father, left her children in the care of their grandparents while she went to law school. She's still trying to help the Arapahos, individually, one by one, despite her partner's dream of something bigger. Vicky can't leave her past behind. And, Kiki Wallowingbull's search is an attempt to find answers, and make amends to his grandfather. His search, ironically, leads to his own death.
The Silent Spirit is a story of fear and redemption. Throughout the filming of The Covered Wagon, the Indians feared they would be sent back to the reservation if anything went wrong. Charlie's interest in a white movie star was frowned on by the other Arapahos. They needed the money to send home to their families, and they planned to take food back as well. Charlie's actions in Hollywood threatened all of them, and his friends tried to restrain him. They knew how powerful the studios were in the 1920s. When Charlie disappeared, Tim McCoy might have pushed for an investigation, but the studios were too powerful at the time. And, the Arapahos had no power. They were afraid to lose the money from the film, so there was no further investigation.
Coel skillfully works back and forth from 1922 and 1923 to present day. The story of the Arapahos in Hollywood is as fascinating as the search for Kiki's killer. Coel's story of three young men in a movie world unfamiliar to them make be fiction, but Tim McCoy, and the story of the filming and promotion of The Covered Wagon is fact. The Arapahos and Shoshones did take part in the movie, and the promotion.
It took years, an angry young man, and a murder, to find an answer to Charlie Wallowingbull's disappearance. It takes a priest who respects the stories of the Arapahos, and a lawyer willing to follow Charlie's trail back to Hollywood, to find answers. And, it takes Margaret Coel, a gifted storyteller, to bring it all to life in The Silent Spirit.
Margaret Coel's website is www.margaretcoel.com
The Silent Spirit by Margaret Coel. Berkley Prime Crime, ©2009. ISBN 9780425229767 (hardcover), 336p.