It may seem curious that as a native Coloradan, a state with its own rich history, I have become so intrigued by my neighboring state. It all began with my mother, a Kansas girl who moved to Denver in the 1970s but whose heart never left her hometown of Atchison. Every year when we were young she would drive us across the plains and we’d spend weeks, sometimes months, reliving her childhood. Fishing the Missouri, hiking its steep banks, roaming about the town and its environs, Kansas is as much a part of me as my beloved Colorado. Atchison always seemed a bit haunted to me. Her rolling, bumpy, brick-paved streets; Victorian mansions; creaky old railway bridge; and famous train depot seemed harbingers of a past that never gave way to the present. It didn’t seem to be a town trapped in history, but certainly one heavily influenced by its origins. But what were those origins?
Conversations with my grandparents gave me insight into much of the twentieth century, but this town was certainly older. I soon discovered that this town was founded by Missourians intent on making Kansas a Slave State in the 1850s, that it was a violent beginning, that Atchison is indeed known for its hauntings, and that my maternal great-great grandparents, Patrick and Maria Mullins, settled just outside town sometime in the late 1850s or early 1860s. Like most Irish-Americans, they had fled the famine and oppression of their homeland, risked everything, and found a way to survive. For families such as mine, Kansas was probably seen as their last, best hope, and her violent beginnings were something to be outlasted. And outlast it they did. My mother’s family is the beneficiary of their optimism, resourcefulness, and willingness to leave everything familiar behind. I know very little else about them. Their lives in this novel are primarily fictional.
I have taken even greater liberties with my maternal grandmother’s side, a Swiss-German family who had lived in Missouri prior to Kansas, and my paternal lineage, the Manesses. James Jackson Maness and his progeny were probably Scots-Irish from the Appalachian region, and I have no record of them having lived in Kansas until the 1880s, and briefly at that. By 1900 they were in Oklahoma, taking the same risks and yielding the same rewards over several generations. I see the same strength of character in them as I do the Mullinses. Family stories about all these parts of my ancestry are the inspiration for the Dugan and Hawkins families, in this and future novels. But they inspire me beyond my writing: they also guide me as I live my life and strive to honor their heritage. Ultimately, Song of the Jayhawk is not a story about Kansas or my family. It is a story that many Americans share.