Why Margaret Coel's books are not as well known as Tony Hillerman's is a mystery to me. She brings to life the culture and history of the Arapaho Indian Tribe of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Her latest mystery, The Girl with Braided Hair, is one of her masterpieces. She skillfully ties together a cold case, American Indian history, and the repercussions that still reverberate through the reservation, thirty-four years later.

In 1973, the American Indian Movement (AIM) tore apart the community on the Wind River Reservation. After Wounded Knee, Lakotas and other Indians fled to the reservation, and hid out, trying to escape federal prosecution. Liz Plenty Horse was a single mother who went to Washington with AIM, saw her daughter's father killed by a member of AIM, and still stayed with the movement. However, when she was labeled a snitch after an AIM leader was killed by police, she fled with her baby in the car.

Decades later, Father John O'Malley is called to the site when a skeleton is uncovered on the reservation. The Arapaho elders want to know who the woman with the braided hair is, and what happened to her. The women of the tribe are even more insistent. They turn to Vicky Holden, an Arapaho lawyer, and insist that she find out the woman's story. Many of them share Vicky's history, women beaten by their men, with no recourse in the community. Each of those women know that body could have been theirs. The girl with braided hair had been beaten and shot, murdered and left with no identity.

When forensics determine that the girl died in 1973, the results are silence on the reservation. The 1970s were violent times when Indians from all over showed up on the reservation. The fear that gripped the reservation thirty years earlier, still hangs over it. Even the elders are afraid. When Vicky receives warnings to "Stop," and is shot at, she and Father John realize the danger is still there. Someone wants to keep the secrets of the past, stories that could be revealed if the girl with braided hair is identified.

Coel's latest book is a story of connections and repercussions. Vicky's son remembers his mother as a beaten wife. When they witness a woman being attacked in an alley, he and his mother rush to aid her. They end up as witnesses to an event that haunts Vicky. That could have been her, or her daughter. And, she's even more determined to find the identity of the skeleton. She can't prevent the murder, but she can seek justice.

Father John is going through his own crisis. He's already been at the Wind River Reservation mission longer than the Jesuits allow. He must decided if he's willing to take a sabbatical, and turn the mission over to someone else. He can't face leaving the Arapaho, or Vicky.

And, then there's the reservation itself. In 1973, the country was torn apart by the Vietnam War. AIM tore the reservation itself apart, pitting the Indians against each other. One of the elders referred to it as "War right here in Indian country." Thirty-four years later, that war is brought home again, as the women fear for their lives, and the men try to shut down the investigation, out of fear.

Margaret Coel has a powerful message about history repeating itself. Violence and fear have the power to tear apart a family, a community, and a country. The Girl with Braided Hair brings to light a part of American Indian History that most of us don't know. It was a time of revolutionary change for the Indians, but in revolution comes death and destruction, and fear as well. And, the repercussions of fear will haunt generations. Vicky Holden, Father John O'Malley, and the Arapahos of the Wind River Reservation will never be the same because of the discovery of one skeleton. The story of The Girl with Braided Hair will haunt everyone involved, including the reader.

Margaret Coel's website is

The Girl with Braided Hair by Margaret Coel. Berkley Prime Crime, ©2007, ISBN 978-0-425-21712-2 (hardcover), 293p.

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Comment by Barbara Fister on September 13, 2007 at 1:51am
I have to read this! It reminds me of the Anna Mae Aquash case. What happened to AIM was really sad, through and through, and it was an ugly chapter in the FBI's history. I did quite a bit of reading about this era as background for my next book and boy, did it bring it back.

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