Bayou time travel adventure.
Time travel fiction encompasses many subcategories, and Them Bones by Howard Waldrop fits into a couple. The novel has an anthropological survival angle and an archaeological subplot, but also falls into the hail-Mary-backward-pass-last-ditch attempt to fix an untenable present.
The author presents three story threads; the most fleshed out relays the tale of Madison Yazoo Leake who hails from a “bombed-out time in which everybody would eventually die from radiation, from disease, from chemicals.”
As the point man for an expedition, he’s flung alone into the past by an untested time machine. Leake ends up stranded in backwoods Louisiana about 500 years earlier than expected. Fortunately, he’s a Gulf Coast native with Choctaw and Chickasaw blood, is on familiar ground. But the army’s dropped him into another apocalypse, the epidemics following European contact.
Regardless, Leake finds adventure and belonging among the Native American mound builders. The minor details of life in which people “Hunt. Fish. Raise crops… Bury folks, raise kids” are fascinating, and the portrayal of Leake’s friendship with the village pipe-maker is highly affecting.
The remaining threads detail the fate of Leake’s army comrades from the future, through the diary of Adjuvant Smith and through the eyes of Bessie, an early 20th century archaeologist, who races spring floods to excavate a 14th century mound full of anomalous artefacts, like horse bones and bullets.
The author suffuses each tale with a certain pointlessness and poses the question: Can we “…find a world that [i]s alive, not threatened, not falling apart, not on the way to ruin?” Is that world out there?