Book Review: Where They Bury You

Where They Bury You is a novel by Steven W. Kohlhagen, whose background is economics, not history. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for Freddie Mac and is an Advisory Board member for the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. From 1973 to 1983 he served as professor of International Economics and Finance at U.C. Berkeley. He’s held senior management positions with several major financial institutions in both the private and public sectors. As an author, Kohlhagen has written several books on economics and now a historical fiction novel

I didn’t read the author’s biography before starting the book or I might have wondered how Kohlhagen came to write historical fiction. His only connection to the West seems to be living in the San Juan Mountains. Reading the book, however, you would assume his PhD would have been in history and not economics. Kohlhagen captures the history, color, and flavor of the Old West and weaves a compelling story around historical events. Although there are a few stories running simultaneously, they are seamlessly woven together. The individual stories more than hold their own and could be be considered complete by themselves. Even with my background in history, I didn’t feel the need to fact check or nit-pick historical events. Unlike many historical fiction novels, I was caught up in the story and not the historical details. This presented a unique and enjoyable experience.

Before the book begins, each character is introduced and listed in their order of appearance, and further separated into historical and fictional players. There is a simple but adequate map covering all the important locations and events, and the preface sets the background for the historical mystery. Major Cummings was found dead with what would with about $1 million in today’s money. Kit Carson believed Cummings was killed by a “hidden Indian” but does history support that explanation? And what was an Army major doing carrying around that much money in battle?

The novel takes place in the New Mexico Territory beginning in 1861. Kohlhagen includes readily recognizable characters in the story, including Geronimo, Kit Carson and Cochise. Cochise is introduced as a peaceful Indian in the territory until a freshly-minted West Point lieutenant changes all that and begins over ten years of violence between the Indians and settlers. Thrown into the Indian troubles is the start of the Civil War and the friction between Union and Confederate settlers. Complicating matters are General Sibley’s and Colonel Baylor’s Texas Volunteer forces that move into the New Mexico territory to claim it for the Confederacy.

Finally, intermixed into both historical events is the main story. This provides the bulk of the fiction in the novel and serves to solve the mystery surrounding Major Cummings. The cast of charters here is mix of fictional and historical characters and a scam they run against the army, the territory, and the Catholic Church in New Mexico.

Where They Bury You is a very readable and enjoyable Western novel. The character development is very well done and the fictional characters play an integral part of the story, written as though they belong in the actual history. Personal lives and histories of the fictional characters add to the realism of the story. The characters have human wants and needs, from wanting retirement, to buying a ranch, to their own “private interests.” The writing is clear and easily draws the reader into the story. I will admit Westerns and Civil War books are hardly my favorite books to read; I count only three on my shelf, but Kohlhagen avoids all the traps and clichés of typical Westerns and keeps true to his story. All in all, Where They Bury You is a very impressive novel for fans of Westerns and even for those who are not fans of Westerns. It has a universal appeal. Definitely a quality read. 4.5 stars.

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