I never set out to write a novel touching on racism—but the story found its author, its time and its place, as it were. Wyoming, where I live, is ninety percent Caucasian, eight percent Hispanic or Latino, and three percent of what is listed as “other,” in galling assertion, signifying Blacks and indigenous peoples, or “First Nations,” as our neighbor Canada prefers. White supremacy—two words I cringe to pair—rears its shameless head in my story, but so too, the remedial antidotes of friendship, courage, moral indignation, and finally, love. These qualities, among others, have imbued the Black Hills region with a particular sacredness to many peoples, including the Lakota, Cheyenne, Omaha, Arapaho, Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache. We who dwell here today may soak up sacrament through a sort of osmosis, despite the occasionally alkaline water, the bland color of a toad’s belly. Peely wally, say the Scots, refers to a pale skin color, and actually means, to appear sickly, but I digress.
In 2015, at sixty-two, I set out on my literary journey, hero or not. The entire previous year I had sat out—reading, resting, and consuming words, “like tiny tranquilizers,” as creative Julia Cameron once warned. Having had a collection of short essays published in 2006, I wanted to write the story that had percolated for years. During my so-called sabbatical, I studied the way tales are woven together, the warp and woof of the myriad possible decisions and choices. To do my level best would be my aim and I blocked out mornings for writing. Determination is a powerful thing. Within a year, after revisions and cutting 16,000 words, I completed The Riven Country of Senga Munro with welcomed assistance from my editor. “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it,” Goethe said.
Two more novels in the Riven Country series followed: Starwallow and The Simpler. After querying and much deliberation, I chose to publish on KDP Amazon, taking the recommendation of two friends, given that I am nearing seventy. Mostly pleased with my decision (a wider audience and readership would be a fine thing), I never expected the cataclysm of events that have since upended our lives. Travel restrictions and health precautions squelched travel to see loved ones, and normal book release activities, like book tours, readings, and signings were postponed. I carried on with my efforts, however, and I am glad I did so. “Write your book—it will change your life,” is not a facile suggestion, at least it doesn’t have to be. I might substitute “save” for “change.”
The work of writing and its attendant tasks have eased long absences from my family and friends. It has delivered a quiet sense of joy and agency—if solely personal—and indeed my life has been enriched for the dogged doing of it. Forgive the overwrought reference, but it’s as if I made a pact with my soul. (Nay, I did.) Set mostly in the Black Hills region, and at times featuring Paris, Denmark, Italy, and Ireland, the series centers around Senga Munro, a middle-aged wounded healer who is nudged by the universe after the tragic loss of her young daughter.
The second protagonist, Gabe Belizaire, confronts racism for being “other.” Senga is also other, for seeing what others can’t, in the series’ thread of magic realism. The notion to include a former bull rider/Tulane-educated M.A. from southwest Louisiana, who simply wants to write while working on a Wyoming ranch, might not have raised eyebrows (at least in this part of the country), but Gabe’s skin color is rare in Wyoming. I describe an incident at a regional rodeo (unnamed, as it could have occurred anywhere, sadly), which leads to Gabe’s acquaintance of an irascible old ranch couple and their neighbor Senga. To set the matter straight, similar incidents as Gabe endured have been reported in first-hand accounts. From one of these I took my cue, but no spoilers from me.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2020. I could not have known that late spring and summer would erupt in protest marches following the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minnesota at the hands of a policeman. “Black Lives Matter,” coined in 2013 after the Trayvon Martin killing, becomes a rallying cry tacitly including all races. The holographic principle declares, “The whole is inherent in the part.” That we are all one race is a given. No room for blind men trying to identify an elephant here. The BLM phrase could be interpreted with more subtlety, nuance, delicacy and truth by detractors. But what is understood is left out. Black Lives actually do Matter. The oft-used rebuttal, “All Lives Matter” weakens the argument of those who utter the retort. I hear it as sarcasm. It dismisses those who insist on simply being seen, acknowledged, and understood.
Since the inception of these United States, ever the hope and aspiration of our founders, people of color and destitute immigrants of all races have often been poorly received in this country. In blinding understatement. We fall short of our ideals—morally, democratically, and ethically. That there is always room for improvement must be accepted, moment to moment. If I sound painfully obvious, I mean to state an obvious fact. My literary series casts a wide net, but addressing respect and regard between people answered the questions my soul posed as I wrote. Daniel J. Levitin suggests in Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives that creative writing lends itself well to the aging brain. Late in life I set myself a challenge, and as the old poet wrote, it has made all the difference.
The much greater and more significant national challenge awaits.