All the Blood We Share

by Camilla Bruce
Berkley, November 2022, $27

Fans of bloodstained historical fiction and serial killer lit alike will fall prey to Camilla Bruce’s confidently crafted All the Blood We Share. Subtitled A Novel of the Bloody Benders of Kansas, this is a reimagining of the prairie sojourn of one of 19th-century America’s strangest clans. Immigrants, the Benders, lived near the small town of Cherryvale, Kansas, from about 1871 to mid-1873, during which time a dozen or more travelers met their end. Some of the bodies were later found buried in the family orchard.

Bruce’s account opens with the arrival of “Ma” Elvira and daughter Kate, as their train pulls into the train station where “Pa” William and son John are waiting. Without fanfare, the men take the women by wagon to a roughshod home near the Osage Trail. Anticipating a more desolate location, Elvira asks, “Have you forgotten what we’re running from?” The men are hoping the place will serve as an inn—for travelers needing a meal, or to stay the night—to which Kate says to John, who we’ve learned is her stepbrother, “I thought we were done with bloodletting.”

Told largely through the first-person accounts of Kate and Elvira, and the observations of a local boy named Hanson, All the Blood We Share excels at building tension via its foreshadowing. With each reveal, past experiences and familial ties materialize. Vivid descriptions of settings and dialogue utilizing the day’s vernacular give the book a sepia tone that feels authentic.

Bruce, whose last title, 2021’s In the Garden of Spite, was a fictional take on the Victorian-era female serial killer Belle Gunness, is interested in women with dark desires who defiantly chafe at the constraints imposed by the times in which they live. Thus, the fiery Kate—with her red hair, ebullient ways, and fondness for whiskey—is the focal point of this story. The only member of her German family who excels at English, she imagines herself on the stage. To get there, she’s passing herself off as a spiritualist. In the post-Civil War period (when everyone had lost someone they’d like to reach out to) it was a lucrative profession and a means of attaining fame. But Kate has other obsessions as well. Which is why Elvira sometimes expects to see “a cloven hoof” beneath the hem of her daughter’s skirt. Kate is not to be trifled with. But Ma is no picnic, either.

To this day, no one knows what became of the real-life Benders. In Bruce’s depiction, the Kansas tenure leads to the unraveling of the family’s unity, despite Ma’s long-held insistence that, “We take care of our own; the rest can fend for themselves.”

Are monsters born or created? All the Blood We Share will leave readers pondering the making of the Benders, long after they’ve ridden out of view.

Pat H. Broeske
Teri Duerr
November 2022