Murder, mayhem, and deception stain the Kansas prairie in this historical novel of the Old West.
In his latest novel, Nicastro (Circumference, 2015) fictionalizes the story of the Bender family, a gang of real-life serial killers who preyed on unsuspecting travelers in Kansas in the late 19th century. The narrative, told mostly from the perspectives of Kate Bender and Leroy Dick, one of her most upstanding neighbors, switches regularly between the family’s murder spree and its aftermath and also addresses the childhood experiences that made the main characters who they are. Everyone has a secret to hide, and no one is quite what they seem on the surface. For the bloodthirsty, demon-worshipping Kate, murder is just a means to find her long-lost father, and she longs to give up such crime so that she can be with Leroy, whom she secretly loves. But the honest, compassionate Leroy has done his own share of killing in the past as a guerrilla fighter in Kansas, and when his neighbors’ crimes are brought to light, he decides that it’s his responsibility to track them down. The Benders aren’t an ordinary family, but they do develop their own kinds of affection for one another, even as they make their livings by killing and robbing. Through his characters, Nicastro explores the very human desires that can turn people into monsters and the lies even ordinary people tell themselves and others to bury their guilt. By the time Kate asks, “have you seen what I’ve seen? Do you know what suffering is?…Until you know the answer to those questions, who are you to judge me?,” it feels like a question to readers as much as to another character. This meticulously researched, vividly told story marries an almost biblical poetry to the rough action of a Western. Readers who can stomach its violence will find a bleak beauty in this portrayal of one of the American prairie’s ugliest stories.
A heavenly retelling of a hellish tale.