‘Omaha Reads’ Author to Discuss New Novel Tonight
September 14th, 2017
Photo courtesy of Jonis Agee
Omaha, NE—Author Jonis Agee, born in Omaha, raised in Nebraska and Missouri, has written 12 books—six novels as a well as short fiction and poetry. She’s won numerous awards for her work and currently teaches creative writing and 20th century fiction at the University of Nebraska , Lincoln. Her latest novel, Bones of Paradise, was published last year, and tonight she will be at the Milton R. Abrahams library for a book signing and Q&A.
Bones of Paradise is the end of a trilogy set in the Sandhills of Nebraska in the 1890s, a prequel or origin story for the characters of Strange Angels and The Weight of Dreams. The paths of two families cross when one of each of them is murdered—one family white, and estranged, the other Native American, still affected by the Wounded Knee Massacre. It is up to the families’ matriarchs to solve the case.
Agee has immersed herself in the Sandhills and their history, basing her characters on a mixture of personal experience, research, and inventiveness.
“I heard a story about a ranch family and this terrible tradition,” Agee said. “It was a tradition that the grandfather would take the oldest son of his son’s family and that he would raise that child in the harshest possible way so that the child would be stern enough and tough enough to manage these enormous ranches that would be his legacy. In the Sandhills, a small ranch or a medium sized one is about 8,000 acres, and the larger ones of course are much larger. So obviously, there’s a terrible cost to that kind of treatment of a child, and I was really interested in [that] because I did know the man that was done to. And I realized as his mother was dying, in his 60s, he was still furious with his mother—not his father, who gave him away or his grandfather—I mean he didn’t like them, but it was his mother that he could never forgive, and that just stuck with me. I’m very interested in the kind of family dynamics and family relationships and what we do to each other in response to the outside pressures of living a life and building, for some people, a great fortune or great family name.”
Agee explores complex family relationships, love, vengeance, and brutality in this expansive novel, and also racial tension in frontier life.
“The reason I’m so interested in Wounded Knee is because it’s really an example of—it was simply white fear that drove this massacre, and the people weren’t doing anything. The native people, they were dancing, and they weren’t weaponizing. There were very few warriors involved. Most of the dead were women and children and old people, so it’s just a stunning event, and it was perpetrated by whites who were terrified.”
Agee’s work also draws influence from the environment, with vivid descriptions life on the prairie. Characters, their qualities and biases, are inseparable from the land she writes about.
“I’ve kind of thought about this for a number of years, and all of my novels are set in places that are on the border. It’s always on the border of [some] place, and the Sandhills are on the border of South Dakota and the issues of the racial injustice between the Native Americans whites there is very profound. When I was up in the Sandhills and I’d visit people in town, there were white people who had never—reservations of Rosebud and Pine Ridge are twenty miles or less from those towns along the border, and they had never been there. They didn’t want to know about that world. They didn’t want to know about those Native people.”
Jonis Agee’s book signing and Q&A is tonight at 7:00 the Milton R. Abrahams Branch of the Omaha Public Library. For more information, visit OmahaLibrary.org.
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