Category Archives: guest posts

Western History Redux

Photographers shooting pictures from the Civil War memorial statue in front of the Capitol Building. Courtesy Denver Public Library Western History Collection:

The last time I wrote here it was just before the election and I was preparing for a book talk scheduled to take place just afterward. I imagined focussing on the incendiary nature of the campaign, its similarities to 1850s America, and that I would try and introduce a note of reconciliation.

I couldn’t do it.

That night in Lyons there were protests on the tv screens in the restaurant where the talk was held. It was a sizable audience, and I could feel a mix of anger, shock, and exhaustion among them. At the last moment I changed my mind and decided to simply talk about the history such as we understand it, and let people draw their own conclusions. Tones of reconciliation just didn’t feel right that night. They still don’t to me, to be honest.

Since then, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to write a guest blog post at the Denver Public Library’s Western History site. Here, I decided to write about that division in American society, the importance of civil discourse, but also the importance of civil disobedience in the face of injustice.

Really, this is what my novels are all about: when do we speak out? When do we reconcile? Is violence ever the answer?

My emphathy for those living in Territorial Kansas only grows as this decade marches on. I hope we find a way to understand our history so we can learn from it, but it certainly feels like we are repeating much of it just now.

Magic In History

bloghop button 2014I didn’t learn how to read until college. Not literally (in the sense of phonemes and word recognition), but literally (admittedly misusing the word here, but in the sense of learning how to greater appreciate great texts). I learned to read with purpose, with a deep appreciation that can only come through reading mindfully, almost meditatively. This sort of reading, I learned, uncovers a more meaningful, transcendent text that somehow manages to exist above, below, and in the spaces among the words on the page. I wish we had a word for this sort of reading in English, similar to the distinction between “hearing” and “listening.” I may have learned to read in grammar school, but it wasn’t until college that I really learned how to–really–read.

And yet, by the end of my degree I found some aspects of studying literature weren’t for me. Despite it opening volumes of subtext to me, once opened, I felt we were murdering to dissect, as it were. Welcomed into this new imaginary garden, I felt I was trampling the real toads in them, to borrow Marianne Moore’s famous phrase. Categorizations and genre studies put unnecessary boundaries around works of art (a great irony now that I am a librarian). And so, the first time I heard “magic realism,” I probably rolled my eyes and guffawed. After some threshold, studying literature began to ruin literature for me, and it took years cure myself of it.

But the first time I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this passage opened up yet another world to me:

“A short time later, when the carpenter was taking measurements for the coffin, through the window they saw a light rain of tiny yellow flowers falling. They fell on the town all through the night in a silent storm, and they covered the roofs and blocked the doors and smothered the animals who slept outdoors. So many flowers fell from the sky that in the morning the streets were carpeted with a compact cushion and they had to clear them away with shovels and rakes so that the funeral procession could pass by.”

Ah, so that is what they mean by “magic realism!” I thought. Those flowers did fall. They must have. The genre now had a pulse, and I tend to agree with Zoe Brooks that “magic realism is not a genre, but a way of approaching writing fiction.” In some ways its also an way of approaching many things. In fact, I experience almost all art in this way: it calls into being the magic of reality, the magic that is already and always there, just under the surface, just above our heads, disappearing as soon as we focus on it, like the faintest of stars. Magic is the ineffable.

In many respects, that is also how I perceive history, and why I write the sort of historical fiction (“touched by magic realism,” I am told) that I do.

Song of the Jayhawk is definitely an historical novel. I’ve taken great pains over several years to portray historical characters, and the events that forged their fame, as accurately as possible.The major exception would be that a giant bird runs about my novel, twisting the story in dark directions. Kansas in the 1850s, I believe, had no giant mythical bird running about.

Or did it?

It did, like every time and every place, have a myth. A past. Subconscious motivations. Hidden agendas. A removed people, the Kanza, who told tales of Mialueka–monsters with giant beaks who led warriors into dark woods, or to rivers, and they never returned. In other words, the past had a past. One that influences the present like the moon does the ocean; like any unseen force of nature acts upon the world. As I write in the introduction, I have long delighted in wondering if the Mialueka were the inspiration for the infamous Kansas “jayhawk.” The librarian and historian in me believe not, but the writer knows it is so. It simply must be.

To me, this is what is magic about history, and reality. The reality that transcends our understanding of reality. And in the Second Song, I plan on opening the gates to this garden a bit more, and hopefully I’ll find a few more real toads in there.


This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. Twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (6th – 8th August) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the links below to visit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.


1. Resources for Magic Realism Fiction – Magic Realism Books Blog
2. Magic Realism Keeping It Real – Latimer’s Library
3. Free Magic Realism Short Stories and Books – Magic Realism Books
4. Is it or isn’t it magic realism? – News and Musings From Violet Hills Productions
5. A Death by Whispers Released by Joel Seath
6. They Come At Night – by Joel D Hirst
7. Shadowy Realistic Fantasy: Magical Realism, Mythic Fiction and Myth Punk – by Marsha Moore
8. Ivy Dreams – Teagan Kearney’s Writing My Novel blog
9. What Magic Realism Means to Me – Zoe Brooks Books & Things
10. Magic Realism -How I See It. by Feather Stone
11. Allonym Books – Evie Woolmore On The Six Senses
12. Synasthesia and the Spectral Locomotive – Eilis Phillips blog
13. I Believe It’s Magic on Kathy Bryson’s blog
14. Accepting the Magic in Magic Realism on Confessions of a Fan Girl blog
15. Voices in the Canyon; Magic or Real on Dennis Vickers’ Blog
16. Magic Realism and Me on Yvonne Hertzberger’s Blog
17. Solitude on C E Medford’s blog
18. Fractures in the Sky, Lines in the Dirt on Karen Wyld’s blog
19. Magic in History – Song of the Jay Hawk
20. Master and Margarita by Bulgakov – Magic Realism Books
21. Cadell Blackstock responds to Leigh Podgorski – Allonym Books
22. We Were All Lost Things – The Ends Don’t Tie with Bunny Rabbits
23. Labelling Magic Realism Discussion Continues – Magic Realism Books
24. Ode to Magic Realism on Rhymes with Camera Blog
25. Murielle Cyr’s blog