Father Marquette’s Trail of Bones: A Sheriff Joseph Francois LaVake Mystery by Mike Cronan

Review by Tyler R. Tichelaar

I recently reviewed Jennifer S. McGraw’s nonfiction history book The Unsolved Mysteries of Father Marquette’s Many Graves. That book and this one may both have been inspired by the recent repatriation and reburial of Father Marquette’s (alleged) bones at St. Ignace in 2022. While McGraw chose to document the journey of and controversy over the bones, Mike Cronan has chosen in Father Marquette’s Trail of Bones to create a mystery novel featuring Sheriff Joseph Francois LaVake as its primary detective with the stolen bones at the center.

Readers who have issues with historical inaccuracies should stay away from this book since Cronan plays fast and loose with history, though basing the story on historical facts. But readers who enjoy a good adventure novel and humor and are familiar with the Straits of Mackinac area will find much to appreciate in these pages. In fact, the exaggerated depictions of Father Marquette and his legacy in this novel really are not so different from what might easily have been.

A statue of a man in a park.The novel begins with a pageant that recreates Father Marquette’s arrival at St. Ignace in a canoe paddled by Native Americans. This pageant rather mocks several Hiawatha pageants that were held in the Upper Peninsula in past decades, usually based on The Song of Hiawatha rather than local history, that, thankfully, have now seen their day. For fifty years, Father Marquette has been played in the annual pageant by Father Kaczynski, who is now eighty-plus. This pageant scene recalls paintings of Father Marquette standing up in a canoe, including one in the Marquette City Post Office. Of course, had he really stood in the canoe, he would have toppled it over. And Father Kaczynski topples over himself in the novel when he is shot from a distance. Soon Sheriff LaVake has a murder investigation on his hands.

But was the murder committed just to distract people from a greater crime? During the pageant, the Father Marquette Museum is broken into and Father Marquette’s bones stolen. Another dead body is also found at the scene of the crime.

Why would someone shoot an elderly priest, and why would someone steal Father Marquette’s bones?

The answer to the first question appears to be that Father Kaczynski has long been a known molester of altar boys, and one of them may have wanted revenge. The second question takes some deeper investigating.

No one in the novel seems too upset over Father Kaczynski’s death, although I found it a bit surprising that everyone in town has known for decades that he’s a child molester and no one has spoken out. The novel appears to take place in the early 2020s, but sometimes it felt like it should be set a few decades earlier before the widespread knowledge of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal. However, since Father Kaczynski primarily liked to molest Native American boys, it seems more believable his victims would not seek legal recourse.

The ultimate reason the bones are stolen is also a tad far-fetched and connects to New Age spirituality, but given the strange religious interests of some people, I wouldn’t say it is impossible. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it is understood early on in the novel that Father Marquette’s bones are valuable as sacred relics. Furthermore, in the novel, Father Marquette’s cause for canonization is underway. In reality, I don’t believe Father Marquette has ever been up for sainthood, but the founder of the Marquette Diocese, Bishop Frederic Baraga, is, so it’s not implausible a similar canonization effort would be made for Father Marquette. Furthermore, the relics of saints are valuable—a perhaps little-known fact is that all Catholic altars have in them a bone or other saintly relic—so Father Marquette’s bones could command a fair price.

Of interest to a wider audience, the bones contain DNA, which can reveal some surprising facts. Some readers might be a bit irritated that in this novel, the DNA comparisons between the bones and local residents reveals that Father Marquette was not chaste, which could affect his cause for sainthood. He has many Native American descendants in the area, including the sheriff.

For me, the most amusing aspect of the book was how Father Marquette’s possible sainthood was going to boost the popular fudge trade. The fudge trade has long brought in significant revenue for St. Ignace and Mackinac Island. In fact, fudge has become so popular in the area that one character in the novel claims Father Marquette didn’t come to St. Ignace to convert the Natives. Rather, he came to trade them fudge for their land. I question Father Marquette’s sainthood would help fudge revenues that much, but it is a fun twist on the local culture.

Another enjoyable aspect of the novel is the backwoods justice that takes place. Because St. Ignace is a small town of about 2,000 people, Sheriff LaVake knows everyone. Even when he finds out who killed Father Kaczynski, rather than prosecute him, he uses him to get at those who hired him and catch the bigger criminals who plan to make a lot of money off Father Marquette’s bones. The sheriff also has a colorful cast of supporting characters helping him with his investigation, including two retired lesbian schoolteachers and the narrator, who is a reporter for the local paper.

Father Marquette’s Trail of Bones offers plenty of amusement for those who enjoy spoofing local history and culture. I enjoyed all the descriptions of St. Ignace, Friday night fish fries, gossip about the locals, and the playing with Native American culture and religious history. While the plot may seem a bit over the top, it is based in local history. Since Father Marquette’s bones have recently been repatriated from where they were kept at Marquette University for over a century to be reburied in St. Ignace, I think the novel helps to raise serious questions in a lighthearted manner about the true legacy of Catholic missionaries, the Catholic Church, and white-Native relations, and how they all continue to affect and define the local area today. Readers who might not otherwise think of these issues will be introduced to the discussion in a lighthearted way through this novel.

Finally, I would recommend not to judge the book by its cover. Actually, the cover is fine but the interior layout leaves much to be desired with large gaps between paragraphs and misnumbered chapters. Those factors, however, should not affect anyone’s enjoyment of this book. I may not be exaggerating in saying Father Marquette’s Trail of Bones can be considered an important contribution to UP literature and Yooper cultural studies.

Father Marquette’s Trail of Bones: A Sheriff Joseph Francois LaVake Mystery
By Mike Cronan
ISBN 979-8-865-85858-8
Sailing Close to the Winds Press
2023, paperback

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