This is a book about a family of murderers, but also about the entire context of life in the in middle 19th century. Maybe it’s because I’ve got dysfunctional politics on the brain right now (gee, I wonder why?) but a chapter I found most interesting felt very out of context in a book about a serial killing family. Instead, this chapter detailed a political fight in Kansas 150 years ago – and would you believe that it involved allegations of sexual impropriety on the part of a seriously corrupt Republican known for buying votes*? The more things change, right?
Jonusas provides a thorough look at what life in the middle of the 19th century looked like in Kansas. I think it’s easy to think that the United States has always just existed as we know it, because it’s all we’ve known for our entire lives (and our system of educating children about the history of our country has been rather shoddy, because telling the whole story involves a whole lot of things we don’t like to talk about). While this book is far from political in nature, it does explain how the recent Civil War, and the pro and anti-slavery factions, left behind a nation utterly rocked by violence in so many ways. Kansas, so close to the West, bordered by what was known as Indian Country, was full of travelers, many moving about the country in search of a place to settle.
It was in the midst of the tumult after the Civil War that the Benders found their tragic piece of land. They established a sort of bed and breakfast – a combination of country store (never well stocked), a place for people moving through town to stop to eat or spend the night on their way to somewhere else. When enough travelers start to disappear from the Osage Trail near their home, the community becomes suspicious. What they discover will become infamous.
This is a well written and researched book. Jonusas is very measured in her discussion of the crimes – she does not tell salacious details. She mixes what we know as fact, and the vast amount of conjecture about these criminals (who were never actually caught). She assembles an interesting cast of characters, and treats them with empathy. Ultimately, while I enjoyed the writing, I think the latter half of the book was not very satisfying for me. I found some of the chapters describing the search for the Benders to be a bit tedious – the worst parts of watching a Western (which my husband is, unfortunately for me, insisting on more and more often right now). This is a book with a gripping premise and I appreciated the glimpse at life in Kanasas in the 1870s. I’m not upset that I read it, but it felt a bit like a chore to return to reading it, which is generally not a sign of a book that is just right for me right now.
* I want to acknowledge that political corruption surely runs both ways, and I in no way want to suggest that a single label or party affiliation is indicative of character. Now, adherence to discriminatory, dangerous and bigoted policies on the other hand – that’s enough to define character.