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Book Review: The Saga of the Bloody Benders by Rick Geary

Image of a book cover. A white woman stands in the foreground of a prairie holding a knife. Behind her is a white man holding a hammer. to his right is a white man with a beard holding a shovel. In the far background is an old white woman holding a cooking pot next to a small cabin. The title of the book - The Saga of the Bloody Benders is in red and orange across the top.

A true crime graphic novel telling of a family of serial killers in the 1870s.

Summary:
Out on a deserted stretch of Kansas road linking newly forming towns, a mysterious family stakes a claim and builds an inn for weary visitors. Soon, reports multiply of disappearances around that area. Generally, those who disappear have plenty of cash on them. A delicious tale of a gruesome family fronted by a beguiling lass who led their victims on…

Review:
I first heard about the Bloody Benders in an American Indians in Children’s Literature blog post about what Laura Ingalls Wilder left out of the Little House books. Essentially, Laura said she left out some aspects of her childhood because she didn’t think they belonged in a book written for children,…one of which is how Pa probably participated in mob justice against the Benders. American Indians in Children’s Literature does a great job breaking down how problematic it is that depicting white serial killers in her books wasn’t ok but depicting the horrifying treatment of Indigenous peoples was. In any case, I got curious about the Bloody Benders, and the internet said this was one of the better books written about the topic, so I picked it up from my public library.

The artwork is nice. I particularly enjoyed this depicted of the Bender family’s one-room grocery and inn to demonstrate how they pulled off the serial killings.

Image of a photograph of a page of a print book. There is a drawing of a one-room cabin with the roof pulled aside to see inside. A man sits at a table in front of a curtain with a woman serving him food. Another man lurks behind the curtain with a hammer.

The content is factual and is careful to steer clear of using quotes in the panels when we don’t actually know what anyone said.

What made me dislike the book, though, was how it treated both Indigenous peoples and women. I understand that sometimes in historic nonfiction if a quote is being used or documents from the time period that it will use offensive language. However, this book used offensive language in parts that were narration written by the modern day author. It was published in 2007, and I truly feel someone on this book team should have been more thoughtful. A near-victim of the Benders was a Catholic missionary to the Osage people. Instead of saying it this way, though, the book says he, “dedicated his life to converting the savages.” This is the use of both a dehumanizing term and a glossing over of how missionary work was used as a weapon against Indigenous peoples in the Americas. This is a book about serial killers – I think whoever is reading it should be able to handle at least a footnote illuminating the complexities of this person’s missionary work.

With regards to the treatment of women, this is mostly in regards to how Kate Bender is discussed in the book. She is one of the four Bloody Benders, so I certainly don’t expect her to be discussed kindly, however while most of the book strives to stick closely to the truth as far as we know it, there is one part of the book that breaks down how folks determined the Benders pulled off their killings, based on the layout of the room, the trap door found, and reports of survivors. Most of this sticks to the facts, but then it gets to the part where Kate feeds the person sitting down at the guest table and says, “Does Kate also offer sexual favors as part of the package? No certain answer will ever be known.” What an unnecessarily and misogynistic supposition. Nothing that we know about Kate from survivors and those who knew her suggests she was promiscuous at all. In fact, earlier in the book it mentions she entertained suitors who ran errands for her but the suitors were never successful with her. Later when the book discusses possible endings for the various Benders that the rumor mills supposed, one proposed for Kate is as “a whore in Montana.” I trust that this was a true rumor, but it could have very easily said prostitute or sex worker.

True crime writing has the opportunity to analyze a crime and the society that surrounded it through a current lens. It can highlight both the good and the bad of that society and look at how this crime managed to occur, and, in the case of some crimes, go unstopped for so long. This book doesn’t do that, making it a beautifully illustrated reporting of what happened, lacking any analytical meat.

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2 out of 5 stars

Length: 76 pages – short nonfiction

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)