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Thirteen Bones

Thirteen Bones, A Novel

by Tom King, 2009

Bones cover 

In 1940 British Colonial Service officer Gerald “Irish” Gallagher discovered the partial skeleton of a castaway on Nikumaroro, the recently-colonized Pacific atoll he had been sent to administer. The bones were probably those of Amelia Earhart. In twenty years of research, TIGHAR has assembled a number of documented facts about that event, the context in which it occurred, and its aftermath – but like Irish, we have only a few pieces of the puzzle.

TIGHAR’s senior archaeologist Thomas F. King, Ph.D., has boldly fleshed out in fiction what is missing in fact. Thirteen Bones is not a story of Amelia Earhart. She has only a brief, if excruciatingly memorable, cameo in the opening chapter. Nor is Thirteen Bones a novel of His Majesty’s Western Pacific High Commission and its failure to recognize the significance of Gallagher’s discovery. The sahibs of the empire are there but distant. Thirteen Bones is a story of the people who lived on Nikumaroro and how the thirteen bones of a forgotten castaway touched their lives.

Tom King spins his tale through the eyes of a Gilbertese boy whose family is among the handful of colonists brought to Nikumaroro in 1939 to carve out a new life on the wild and previously uninhabited atoll. Tom has extensive experience as a scholar of Pacific island cultures and his genuine affection for the people of Oceania is apparent on every page. He also has an intimate familiarity with Nikumaroro, having supervised archaeological operations in four TIGHAR expeditions to the island.

Thirteen Bones presents plausible motivations for actions and events that we know happened but don’t know why. The novel weaves imagined events into the factual framework so skillfully that it’s easy to forget that this is a work of fiction. To help keep the boundaries clear the author provides an end chapter of factual notes that some will find as much fun as the novel itself.

Cultural fidelity, however, comes at a price. The names of the characters, most of whom are drawn from the historical record, present something of a challenge for we “I-Matang” (westerners). The novel’s main character Keaki is the son of Ieiara and Boikabane who come from Arorae. Got that? Don’t worry. There’s a handy Guide to Key Actors, Place Names and Terms to help you keep things straight. Sometimes the names even get away from the author. The southern lagoon passage is consistently misspelled Baureke. It’s Bauareke. (When in doubt, add a vowel.) The name of the island carpenter is sometimes rendered as Temou and sometimes Tumuo. He appears in the guide as Tumuo. The man’s name was Temou. It’s a small complaint. Keeping track of names in Thirteen Bones is easy compared to most Russian novels. Also, the popularity of scatological insults among the island youth, although accurate, may seem needlessly crude to readers whose sense of humor is not lower than octopus poop.

Thirteen Bones is a good read that brings Nikumaroro’s colonial period to life in ways that a straight historical narrative never could. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it highly.

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