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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review: The Bone Lady by Mary Manhein

The first ever Livingston Parish Book Festival is due to be held on Saturday, November 16th. Tons of local authors will be in attendance and there will be presentations by Julie Cantrell, Cyril Vetter, and Mary Manhein. I am so excited about this event. The folks behind the scenes at the Livingston Parish library are working to build the literary presence throughout the parish and we couldn’t be happier about that here at CHB.

One thing that I may be almost as excited about though is the opportunity to meet Mary Manhein. I first heard of Manhein and her FACES lab when they helped the Louisiana Art and Science Museum to uncover the mysteries surrounding the museum’s mummy (AKA my favorite thing ever). I have always been drawn to this mummy. Indeed, as morbid as it sounds, I think death and the dead are our most prominent connection to history. Viewing this mummy that has been an unchanging presence for my entire life has become something close to a religious experience for me, so the opportunity to meet one of the people responsible for the recent anthropological study of my mummy is beyond thrilling.

I decided to pick up Mary Manhein’s 1999 book, The Bone Lady: Life as a ForensicAnthropologist in preparation of meeting her. I am so glad that I did. Manhein’s book is a great read for those with an interest forensic anthology. For those who do not yet have that interest, I will explain that forensic anthropology is essentially the study and analysis of human remains to be used (typically) in the legal setting. Basically, Manhein’s job is to help solve crimes in which the body of the deceased has reached a great state of decay. As I stated earlier, I believe that there is a lot to the shell we leave behind after death so the life of someone who makes a study of that is definitely one I would be interested in.

Each chapter of The Bone Lady is the story of one of the cases Manhein has worked. There is very little glamour here. The first case she describes is that of a hunt for a body that had been unceremoniously buried on the banks of the Mississippi River. Amongst the mud, reptiles, and bugs Manhein and co. do eventually find the body…then the real work begins as the FACES lab (Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services) attempts to discover the identity of the deceased. Over the course of her book Manhein explains many of the techniques used in order to identify the bodies that come into FACES. She ends the book by her passion project, a database of missing people created by the FACES lab. Profiles and dental records are loaded into the database in the hopes that they can solve the mystery of “those who wait.”

The Bone Lady was written with a lay audience in mind. The reader never feels that they are being spoken down to and the jargon is always very clearly explained. The main focus of the book is on individual human history. Manhein interest and enthusiasm in her cases translates exceptionally well to the reader, especially when she rounds her stories of strangers out with those from her own life. Manhein’s book is about forensic anthropology and hard science, but it is also about human connection. It is just what I was hoping for and I cannot wait to hear her speak about her writings and work on the 16th.

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