Book Review: Boy of Bone, K. R. Sands (2012)

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Her Dark Materials *

five out of five stars

If a collection of short stories “inspired by the mütter museum” strikes you as something that would lean inexorably toward the morbid and gory – the stuff of campfire ghost stories and Halloween horror tales – you’d be half right. While the twelve tales found in Boy of Bone are at turns gruesome and macabre (at times intimately so), author K.R. Sands exhibits great empathy and compassion for her subjects, despite having only conversed with them in her imagination. The result is a collection of fictional stories, inspired by real people and events, that manages to imbue “mere” museum displays – objects and artifacts – with a touching dose of humanity.

Through Sands, some of the “dead voices” who inhabit the Mütter Museum are given the means to speak, to tell us their stories, filled as they are with pain, grief, sadness, suffering – and, joy, peace, and divinity as well. From a man mourning the loss of his conjoined twin (“The Pump Twin”) to a scientist who has fallen “in love” with one of his own medical devices (“The Face Phantom”), the characters you meet within these pages will not soon be forgotten.

While it’s difficult to pick and choose favorites, I especially enjoyed:

* “Madame Sunday’s Horn” (a woman comes to accept and even embrace the unicorn horn growing from her forehead as a sign of god’s grace);

* “What Is Written, Sweet Sister?” (a young Union nurse requests the skin of her deceased soldier brother, so that it might be used to bind a prized family volume – not a Bible, but a book of Poe!); and

* “Boy of Bone” (the sister of a boy – long dead, suffocated by his skeleton’s skeleton – finds solace in the exhibition of his remains at the Mütter Museum).

Set in the antebellum south, “Black Bodies” is particularly raw and devastating. Here we meet an aging, paternalistic doctor who literally builds his career on the backs of black bodies. Though he fancies himself a “savior” of sorts to the poor African Americans he “serves” (dubiously so), he finds his narcissistic self-view challenged when he accepts an interview request by an out-of-town journalist. (A woman, at that!)

I must confess that I was unable to finish one piece – “Do Not Feed.” Inspired “by exhibit on lead poisoning and dog skulls,” the story – or what I could gather of it, anyway – centers on the moral crisis of a technician at an animal research facility. There in the soft comfort of my bed, surrounded by my own pack of seven rescue dogs, “Do Not Feed” (the title of which refers to the practice of starving vivisected animals prior to “euthanizing” [read: killing] them, so that they’ll leave less of a mess for the humans to mop up) proved just too much to bear. No doubt influenced by Sands’s experiences as an animal laboratory technician, I can only hope that the story’s ending reflects her own changing attitudes toward the necessity and humanity of animal research.

Boy of Bone is a gorgeously written, gorgeously illustrated tome – a work of art. Jon Lezinsky’s illustrations complement Sands’s words beautifully. Although … I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed to find that Boy of Bone doesn’t contain a single photo from the Mütter Museum. While I understand that the museum is fiercely protective of its exhibits (see, e.g., its strict photography policy), are a few pictures in a book that arguably helps to promote the museum too much to ask? One “inspiration” photo per story, perhaps? Especially considering that Sands is married to the director of the museum!

My only other complaint is that the author doesn’t go into much detail about the exhibits behind the stories; the only information we get about Sands’s inspirations amount to not-quite-one sentence blurbs sandwiched in the table of contents (e.g., “…by old photographs of medical subjects” [“Black Bodies”] or “…by the exhibit of a giant colon” [“Freddy Chang’s Live-Die Museum Restaurant”]). Coupled with the lack of information on the museum website, and you’re left to fill in the blanks with your own imagination.

Strong trigger warnings for violence, rape (including incest), racism, sexism, speciesism, and cruelty to animals.

* Also, how can I help but love an anthology whose forward shares a name with my favorite trilogy?

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