In "The Deaths of Sybil Bolton," Baltimore resident Dennis McAuliffe Jr. probes the 1925 death of his maternal grandmother in order to learn more about his country, his family, and himself. His book attempts to make sense of an upsetting family discovery: His grandmother died not of illness, as had been thought, but of a gunshot wound. The author locates some evidence that Sybil Bolton committed suicide, but, unsatisfied with this version of events, he pursues the story further. He is haunted by a third explanation for her death at 22: He thinks she was murdered.
The suspicion of murder stems from Sybil Bolton's blood ties to the Osage people, a wealthy sub-group of the Sioux. Before the encroachment of whites, the Osages dominated a vast oil-logged region that ran through parts of today's Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Mr. McAuliffe tells us they had held that territory since the Ice Age.
Because of the mineral wealth of their land, the Osages sustained considerable negotiating power in their dealings with successive U.S. governments. They maintained a dwindling status through the lifetime of Sybil Bolton; her death coincided with a vicious campaign on the part of white interests to wipe out their remaining influence.
The author recounts his efforts to find out if his grandmother died due to foul play linked to her family's complex involvement in the struggles between the Osages and whites. He follows a trail of paperwork, reads up on Osage history, conducts interviews and even moves temporarily to his grandmother's hometown, Pawhuska, Okla.
He wants not only to solve the mystery of Sybil Bolton's death, but also to come to terms with his own makeup, to figure out what his indigenous blood means to him. A central figure in these investigations is his mother, who, like him, is alienated from her partially native roots.
Mr. McAuliffe sees his grandmother's untimely death and the mystery surrounding it as symbolic of the legacy of violence and misunderstanding between whites and Indians ("Indians" is the term he uses). He links this conflict to tensions in his family and to confusion in himself. His historical investigation therefore carries the weight of family saga and personal crisis.
But while its scope is ambitious and its subject compelling, "The Deaths of Sybil Bolton" is difficult and disappointing to read. A disturbing incoherence undermines its different components. The author presents his various themes in large slabs, and his discussions sometimes take the form of seemingly unreworked notes. Many of his passages seem not to have been written so much as dictated and then abandoned:
"Jesse's death made Harry long for a daughter, and for granddaughters. Perhaps he married my grandmother because she looked like Jesse. Perhaps Carolyn reminded him of her, which would explain why he was so attached to my sister. Jesse died eight years after her mother, Laura, and a year before Harry graduated from high school and left Alta Vista for college, and for good. Even before he met and married my grandmother, he must have feared that every woman in his life was cursed to die young and that he was cursed to bury them. He must have been sick of burying them all -- Olive, his mother, Jesse."
Mr. McAuliffe's haphazard style clashes dramatically with his serious subject and somberly intense tone. He downplays his slap-- approach with a strident emphasis on the significance of his story and the sincerity of his personal involvement. His expressions of emotional investment constantly overwhelm his book. For example, his potentially moving conclusion, a rumination on his troubles with alcohol, is unbalanced by his reminders of all he went through in order to tell us his tale.
It seems important to appreciate Mr. McAuliffe's willingness to share disquieting elements in his own and his family's history. But, strangely, there is something cynical about his deeply felt book. He expresses little, if any, confidence in his readers. His tendency is either to scold or to ignore us.
When his tone grows menacing (he starts to lecture us in his prologue), he seems to implicate us fully in white America's collective guilt. When he reverts to self-absorption, we feel we are out of his sight.
It is a shame that he did not imagine a more sensitive and demanding audience when he took up the subject of his grandmother and her death. If he had written for the many readers who will sympathize with his grief over Native America, he might have created a more illuminating book.
Ms. Mackay is a writer who lives in Baltimore.
Title: "The Deaths of Sybil Bolton"
Author: Dennis McAuliffe Jr.
Publisher: Random House
Length, price: 337 pages, $23