Twenty-five-year-old Arapaho Kiki Wallowingbull has led a troubled life. Raised by his grandparents, Kiki has been involved with drugs and crime for years. After his release from prison for a drug conviction, he is determined to turn his life around, reconnect with his roots, and make his grandfather proud. In order to do this, Kiki embarks on a journey to find out what happened to Charlie Wallowingbull, his great-grandfather.
In 1923, Charlie was one of hundreds of Arapahos who left the Wind River Reservation to live on the Utah-Nevada border in order to appear as an extra during filming of the silent movie The Covered Wagon. During the shooting, Hollywood movie star Tim McCoy served as an interpreter and advocate for the Native Americans on the set, making sure they were taken care of and treated with respect. But when a stunningly beautiful actress caused friction on the set, Charlie found himself in the middle of the trouble.
Back in the present, Jesuit priest Father John O’Malley is a recovering alcoholic who has returned from a six-month sabbatical in Rome to minister to Native Americans at St. Francis Mission in Colorado. Understaffed and overworked, Father John burns the midnight oil and consumes coffee --- cups and mugs and pots of it --- as he struggles with his inner demons while trying to shepherd his new flock.
Shortly after Kiki returns from California, he is murdered. His frozen body is found on a river bank by Father John. Word on the reservation (spread by the “moccasin telegraph”) is that his death is drug-related. Because of Kiki’s past involvement with drugs and the location of the body, authorities believe he has been murdered as a result of a drug deal gone wrong. But Andrew Wallowingbull, Kiki’s grandfather and an Arapaho elder, knows Kiki was drug-free and trying to turn his life around. Andrew pleads with Father John to find out who murdered Kiki and prove that he was off drugs.
Vicky Holden, a lawyer and member of the Arapaho tribe, and her Lakota partner Adam Lone Eagle work to protect tribal interests. Vicky became a lawyer “to help people with no reason to trust the authorities and no reason to hope.” One night, she receives calls from a mysterious voice pleading with her for help. He claims to have killed Kiki in self-defense, and is desperate to prove his innocence before he is sent to prison and loses his son. Father John and Vicky, who have feelings for one another but fight their attraction, are brought together to help solve Kiki’s murder and clear his name. To do so, they must also uncover the mystery of Kiki’s great-grandfather.
Margaret Coel has created a compelling mystery, using narratives from the past and present to link the lives of generations of Arapahos with the early history of Hollywood filmmaking and the treatment of Native Americans through the decades. In the bleak and remote landscape of a bitter Colorado winter, her richly drawn yet flawed characters seek redemption while struggling to overcome their sordid pasts. Readers who enjoy mysteries with a Native American or an early Hollywood slant should drink up THE SILENT SPIRIT.
Reviewed by Donna Volkenannt on April 27, 2011