The Bone Lady by Mary H. Manhein
(Penguin, $11.95, V) ISBN 0-14-029192-X
****
The Bone Lady is a little gem of a book, gripping and entertaining at the same time. Mary H. Manheim is a forensic anthropologist at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, and her experiences in helping various law enforcement agencies identify human remains (mostly skeletal) make up the core of this book.

Told in anecdotal form, readers will first learn how a forensic anthropologist is trained, then will journey with Manheim to some of her more memorable excavation sites. Using her knowledge of bones, Manheim demonstrates how she can tell the age, sex, general health, some illnesses and injuries, and sometimes the cause of death for the bones she's asked to examine. Most are human. Some, as a couple of her odder stories will show, are not.

The locale, southern Louisiana, is almost a character in the book. Due to the extreme humidity and the high water table, bodies decompose quickly and burials were often held above ground, or in shallow graves. One particularly fascinating aspect is that of the coffin styles used in such a climate. Here, they were often cast-iron, with a glass plate fitted in the lid for viewing the deceased. Manheim's stories of identifying lost graves are intriguing for their glimpse into this world.

The 26 short tales here give readers a fascinating glimpse into the world of bone identification. In nearly twenty years on duty, Manheim has located bones and bodies under porches, in corn cribs, in industrial plants after accidents, even in a rose garden and on the grounds of the Louisiana State Capitol. Civil War soldiers are finally laid to rest in marked graves. Children and adults are identified. Lost people are finally found. Manheim's knack for spinning a good tale makes them come alive again.

If you, like me, have a bent for the scientific and a curiosity as to how things work, you'll be absorbed by this glimpse into the work of a forensic expert. My only complaint about The Bone Lady is that I wish it had been three times longer.

--Cathy Sova


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