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Originally published Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 5:30 AM

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‘Bone River’: an anthropological mystery on Willapa Bay

Megan Chance’s new novel “Bone River” combines atmosphere, suspense and an anthropological mystery in a tale set on the shores of Willapa Bay in the 19th century.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“Bone River”

by Megan Chance

Amazon Publishing, 386 pp., $14.95

Northwest author Megan Chance has set her newest historical novel in the 19th century on Shoalwater Bay (now called Willapa Bay) on the southwest Washington coast — a locale that also functions as a powerful and often sinister character in Chance’s narrative.

The bay, home to vast oyster beds and also an Indian burial ground some believe is haunted, is the home of protagonist and narrator Leonie Russell. Leonie was only 17 when she married her ethnologist father’s associate Junius, two decades earlier, fulfilling the dying wish of her father.

Smart, imaginative and capable, Leonie nonetheless subjugates herself to her much older husband, helping Junius in the arduous task of harvesting oysters, as well as cataloging and drawing Native American relics before they are sent off to the Smithsonian Museum.

The plot takes a long time to develop, in an atmosphere of unrelenting rain, storms, floods and vast mud flats where unsuspecting travelers can become mired and drown in the implacable tides. It’s a never-ending struggle against nature to survive, and Leonie must cook and clean and provision the house as well as working as an ethnographer and “wading around in freezing water and mud all day,” as one character described the oystering job.

Things pick up considerably, however, when Junius’ long-ago abandoned 27-year-old son Daniel arrives from San Francisco — bristling with issues and energy and hidden agendas.

Daniel (along with several other interested parties) has heard about a miraculous find Leonie has unearthed in an eroding riverbank: a perfectly preserved mummy of a young Native American woman, wrapped in a saffron cloth and surrounded by a remarkable basket. Could she be the remnant of an earlier civilization?

Leonie feels an immediate link with the mummy, and Junius promises Leonie that she will be the one to measure, dissect and analyze her. But Leonie is troubled by tormenting dreams in which the long-dead mummy speaks to her. She can’t bring herself to perform the invasive procedures necessary for continued research.

Looking for more answers, Leonie consults the decades-old journals kept by her father, in which he speaks of a mysterious “experiment” and of his disdain for the Native American cultures whose artifacts and remains he is documenting.

Her discoveries in the journals, and a last-minute rush to consult an old Indian wise woman, lead Leonie to some stunning discoveries. The last eight chapters fairly whiz by, as Leonie — the novel’s first-person narrator — unearths her own history and decides on the right path forward.

Even though the energy and focus of “Bone River” are somewhat uneven, the last half redeems the slow start, and the characters are richly ambiguous. Nobody’s perfect; all their shortcomings are interesting, and nobody emerges unscathed or unchanged by the journey through this story.

Melinda Bargreen is the former classical-music critic for The Seattle Times. She’s a freelance contributor to The Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM (www.king.org).

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