Reading this book made me reflect on the fact that we generally consider serial killers a phenomenon of more recent times, while in reality these deranged individuals must always have been among us, their actions gone mostly unreported due to a lack of the kind of information network we enjoy nowadays. Granted, we all know about Jack the Ripper, but he must be the exception that proves the rule…
Before reading All the Blood We Share I was unaware of the existence of the Bender family and their bloody deeds, so that I went online to seek some more information about them, once I finished the novel, discovering that the author had only filled a few unknown angles with fiction, remaining quite faithful to the macabre reality of the events.
The Bender family arrived in Kansas in the second half of the 19th Century, fleeing from justice after a series of crimes about which the reader will learn as the story develops. The father William and his son John built a house (or rather a shack…) near the town of Cherryvale and were joined at a later date by William’s wife, Elvira, and her daughter Kate. The family had little to no intention of becoming farmers – which given the arid nature of the territory is hardly surprising – and they transformed the homestead into an inn where travelers headed west could buy some basic supplies, enjoy a home-cooked meal and even spend a night under a proper roof.
The family’s goal was to make some money and be able to buy a better farm in a more amenable location, possibly similar to the one they had to leave behind when running from the law, but their earnings as inn-keepers were far below the expectations, and so they decided to kill and rob travelers of their valuables, burying the bodies on the property. In those times and places it was hardly surprising that a few travelers never reached their intended destination, but at some point the Benders chose the wrong victims and that brought the attention of relatives and authorities on their inn, forcing them to flee in the night and leave behind everything – including a number of corpses.
This is, in broad terms, the story told in All the Blood We Share, at least as far as the basic facts are concerned: the focus of the novel, however, is on the dynamics and personalities of this family of killers, a family for which the term ‘dysfunctional’ is indeed a big understatement. The patriarch William seems at first the more grounded one among them, but as time goes by we see the darkness under the surface, a combination of gullibility and greed that becomes even more shocking with the onset of what looks like Alzheimer. His son John is a brooding, introverted person who is easily swayed and manipulated by his step-sister Kate, for whom he harbors possessive and jealous feelings. Mother Elvira is the more complex of the four characters, and the one who intrigued me most: on one side she is bitterly missing the better life she had to leave behind, almost blackmailing Kate into providing the means for a better one, on the other she is the only one voicing her displeasure for the family’s “business” and her fears of discovery.
But it’s Kate the one who enjoys the more intense focus in the story: outwardly sunny and gregarious, she holds a darkness inside that seems like a separate creature and demands to be satisfied, therefore turning Kate into the instigator for the Bender’s murderous activities. The family looks like a group of people bound by necessity rather than affection, and Kate is the one who dreams of getting away and making a life for herself: to accomplish this goal she reinvents herself as a medium, claiming to be in contact with the souls of the departed and planning to make her fortune thanks to this “talent”. What she truly accomplishes is to use her tricks to divert the community’s attention from the disappearances and to lull her step-father into believing that the murders are inspired by some higher beings looking out for the Benders.
The way in which Kate is portrayed here highlights all the markers for a serial killer as we have come to recognize them: she is self-centered and totally lacking in empathy, has a high consideration of herself and her cunning, actually enjoys the act of killing and is indeed the one to murder the hapless victims, cutting their throats after William rendered them unconscious with a blow to the head. There are several passages where we are made privy to Kate’s inner thoughts, and they are exactly what we have come to expect from a serial killer, starting from the sense of power that comes from the very act of murder:
The darkness is like that: heady and strong. […] I was in awe of the power in my hands
and going on with the practice of collecting the unfortunates’ buttons, which she keeps in a box and handles while revisiting the crimes:
I fondled the buttons one by one, as was my habit. All the while, I thought about their deaths: how they had looked; how I had hurt them; the moment when they went
If the Benders’ story proved to be quite harrowing, I appreciated the author’s way of relaying it in an almost detached way that leaves no space to morbid fascination, and I quite enjoyed her depiction of the small community of Cherryvale, a desolate, harsh place with bitterly cold winters and scorching summers, where ignorance and superstition walk hand in hand offering the perfect terrain for con artists like Kate to take advantage of people’s naiveté. Equally enlightening – and quite chilling – is the reaction of those citizens once the Benders’ activities are revealed: toward the end of the novel the author offers a classic example of mob mentality that badly needs a scapegoat and looks for it in the wrong direction – but that hardly matters as long as they get their proverbial “pound of flesh”. I have to admit that this segment of the story had an even harder impact on me than the actual murders perpetrated by the Benders…
This was my first novel by Camilla Bruce, but it will certainly not be the last: I like her incisive, sharp writing and the way she can keep a reader engaged even in the most harrowing of stories, and I look forward to her other books.
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