[Book Review]: Erin Kimmerle’s We Carry Their Bones
When history won’t stay silent.
I have, admittedly, not read as much true crime as I’ve watched. I tend to take great care in choosing the things I read and for whatever reason, true crime books feel much more intimate than other forms of media to an almost intimidating degree. Nonetheless, Erin Kimmerle’s journey to bring justice and peace to the lives of those affected by the tragic — and horrific — happenings of Florida’s Dozier School for Boys hits the sweet spot of my ideal true crime read: a centering of victims and relentless pursuit for justice despite all obstacles to the contrary, with supplementary perspectives provided from both victims who lived through the tragedy who are in search of healing and bystanders who heard or saw the unbelievable and stand in support of the pursuit of peace for those lost no matter the cost to social image.
There was, naturally, also the confrontational force of people in power who wish to keep those tragic events buried and those who take an almost fanatical pride in the image they believe their town must maintain despite any of it’s history. Florida is a contentious place now for all manner of insane reasons, and while I am not from that specific state, I am from the south, and am more than a little familiar with the judgement that comes along with not aligning with socially accepted beliefs and ideas in an area that would prefer to spend its time holding onto structural ideals of the past rather than progress to a more open-minded and accepting future. Even when the things we must be open-minded and accepting of are as simple as the fact that people look differently from one another. Erin Kimmerle’s We Carry Their Bones carries this tension at its heart, making it an equal part frustrating and heart-wrenching read.
I find one of the most important things a work of true crime can do is bring light to a subject that either is or feels largely unknown. Before We Carry Their Bones I had never even heard of Dozier School for Boys or its violent history built from wildly intense systemic racism. After finishing the book all I want to do is tell people about the survivors’ efforts to never let themselves or their friends be forgotten amid a culture that would prefer to pretend that racism and violent physical, emotional, and sexual abuse either does not happen or was somehow beneficial for the predominantly Black victims. It takes an incalculable amount of strength to stand up to your abusers, and even moreso to stand up to an entire town and state who want to protect them over you, and these men did it despite taking a stand meaning they would have to once again confront demons of their past that have had a chokehold on them for years.
The Dozier School for Boys was a state-run establishment that fashioned itself a kind of reform school for troubled kids but was in reality little more than a house of horrors for its young residents, who were routinely abused or sold to local farmers in a form of indentured servitude. With mounting allegations of both the abuse and rumored “mysterious deaths and disappearances”, the school shut down in 2011 and forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle set out to discover the true number of victims who had been buried there either in unmarked graves or elsewhere on grounds. As she discovered twice the number of officially recorded bodies on the site, she and her team were routinely harasser by townsfolk and law enforcement alike, revealing a gut-wrenching story of the lengths people with power will go to protect themselves and their secrets, and the complicity of a town with violently outdated ideas.
Kimmerle’s work both in her day-to-day life and in her efforts to write this book are inspirational beyond words, to me. Every step of the way she makes it clear that her purpose here is to speak for and help the deceased victims be reunited with family who had been searching for them without knowledge of their fate sometimes for decades. When they would come to her with their stories and their rage she listened with an open mind and heart and promised them her best efforts. Forensic anthropology — and any criminal justice related field, for that matter — requires an extraordinary amount of empathy to be practiced effectively, and Kimmerle has made it her life’s work to be a shining example of the impact we can have when we help those we can get the platform they need to speak to justice in their own ways, no matter the obstacles we might face.
We Carry Their Bones is a constantly disturbing account of one city’s best-kept open secret, allowed somehow to run for over a century with little effective intervention thanks to a series of well-placed roadblocks built on the backs of Jim Crow style ideals. But it is also a story of hope. Kimmerle’s book is careful to name each of the known victims and provide their stories, so that everyone who fell to this place, or who left it with irrevocable scars, is known as a person instead of just a set of bones tossed into a shallow grave or a criminal sent somewhere to whip them back into socially acceptable shape. It is careful to give survivors and family members alike a space to let their voices be heard, and to platform the importance of reuniting them with their lost loved ones. The Dozier School investigation is still ongoing, as is the discovery and identification of bodies, an arduous but important task.
We Carry Their Bones is true crime used for its best purposes: offering hope through the darkness of some of mankind’s most heinous acts while honoring those who fell victim to it.
I would like to thank NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. We Carry Their Bones comes to shelves June 14, 2022 from William Morrow Publishing.