Category Archives: readings

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.

Election Day and Book Talks

lyonsIt’s sort of odd talking about historical novels set in the 1850s so close to the 2016 election. Unfortunately, the similarities in the tone of political discourse are all too obvious. Which is concerning, to put it midlly. Americans in the 1850s accused one another of having hatred in the hearts, being un-American, and being deplorable sub-human rapists and monsters. And I think the people of the 1860s would say this to us: “Don’t go down that road.”

I don’t mean to say the persistence of slavery would have been preferable to the war. It would not have been. I only mean to say that I believe there is always a non-violent solution to conflict. Perhaps if Americans engaged one another in a more constructive way in the 1850s–indeed, before that as well–John Brown would have been wrong in saying the only way our sins could be purged was with blood. Perhaps he was yet, in fact.

Whatever happens today, it’s imperative we begin to change the way we speak about and to one another. We must re-learn how to engage as human beings first, Americans second, and members of political parties third, if at all.

I spoke about this on Saturday at the Denver Public Library, and will do so again tomorrow night in Lyons.

I hope you’ll join me. 

Book Talks

Heart of Denver Romance Writers

I had a great time last week speaking to the CU Friends of the Libraries! Looking forward to Saturday with the Heart of Denver Romance Writers.

I’ve really started to enjoy these talks, both book talks and speaking to writers in a more workshop-like format. I’ve gotten to do a few book clubs too.

If you’re interested in having me speak, whether at a library or bookstore about my books, with your book club, or with your writers group about my research and writing process, please contact me.

 

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers

I had a great time earlier this month doing a workshop for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers on historical fiction. I bared all, admitting I’m not afraid to be sued! Though I kinda am…Capture

There was at least one Broncos shirt in the audience. Being the day before the SuperBowl, that made me really happy. The day of the game, of course, I was elated.

In any event, there were so many wonderful questions we didn’t get to the group exercise I had planned. Which is fine, of course. It’s been a while since I was able to engage with so many writers. I learned more from them than they did from me, I’m quite certain.

Looking forward to doing more of this in the future!

Arno Book Club

Had a great time this weekend speaking to the Arno Book Club at the Denver Country Club–an honor to speak to such an historic organization!

Loveland Public Library

Looking forward to Thursday at 7pm, where I’ll be at the Loveland Public Library reading from the First and Second Songs. 

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I’ll talk some about my family’s historic relationship to the land in Kansas…

 

And since it’s Halloween weekend, I might 05380032share a Kansas ghost story or two as well.

Rocky Mountain Writer Podcast

Hrmfw-bannerad a great time chatting the other day with Mark Stevens about Song, writing, and family. It’s quite flattering to be interviewed by such an accomplished author!

We also spoke about myths in history, and how they relate to current events, such as the recent massacre in South Carolina. A wealth of writers have approached this issue far better than I ever could, one excellent editorial concluding, “A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren’t quite sure why.” I’m afraid this does seem true to me; I remember teaching a high school class some years ago, and somehow a conversation led to the Civil War, and somehow I learned the students not only had no idea in what century it was fought, but didn’t even know the combatants, much less the underlying causes. For a nation that was supposedly forged by this war to do such a poor job of educating its children about it in a few generations means something is rotten in the state(s).

Another editorial puts it best: we are confused about the Civil War and meaning of the Confederate Flag “not because the history is unclear, but because neo-Confederates still wielded considerable influence in our culture and our Congress…” The history is indeed very clear: Lincoln’s platform to stop the expansion of slavery and intimations that slavery must someday end altogether (think “a house divided”) was all it took for South Carolina to succeed. The war was about slavery. And indeed, inheritors of Confederate power structures remain in power today, and we have since engaged in 150 years of apologist history that has obfuscated the causes for which so many died.  And that only serves to undermine our own culture and its future.

But the myths don’t stop there. Even when we do get the history right–and say that slavery was the root of the Civil War–we simplify it to extents that make it impossible for us to empathize, and thereby, impossible to see ignorance in ourselves. The narrative I grew up with, as a Westerner, portrayed Northers as somehow enlightened, compassionate beings wiling to sacrifice their lives for the good of fellow humans; and Southerners as horrible monsters. In some cases these reputations are certainly deserved. But the truth is most white Americans in the 19th century were very racist, and there comparatively few actual slave-holders. Even fewer believed in the equality of races, or of genders–and most were willing to fight because they felt their homes, families, property, and other interests were somehow threatened. Yes, many fought and died because they could not longer stand for a system so brutal, and they should be lauded for this. But they were also, oftentimes, in it for themselves; not so much for actual equality under the eyes of the law.

I do not intend that as a criticism, necessarily. Selfishness is human. Humans are selfish. I believe it is in this that history, and historical fiction, can help make the world a better place–in helping us empathize with previous generations and historical figures so we may attain greater understanding of our own motivations. To say to ourselves, “it wasn’t about slavery, it was about state’s rights,” blinds us to the fact that slavery was a huge part of American society and it still has enormous impacts on us. But it is also blind to say to ourselves, “the South were slave-holding racists, the North were enlightened liberators.” It localizes the blame. It fails to recognize that all white Americans bear the inheritance of that horrible past. Maybe not in equal measure, but certainly, it is something of an original sin for which must all seek absolution.

If we can get this part of history right, then, I believe, we can take that next step and empathize. How did American slavery come into being in the first place? How and why did it exist for so long after much of the rest of the world had long since decided it was detestable? Why was it only abolished through war, and, could there have been more peaceful ways of eliminating it? What political structures, economic incentives, or enlightened leaders, would have been needed for a diplomatic solution? When we ask ourselves those questions, and see 19th century Americans as human beings, we are able to uncover greater realities about them, and about us. We see how their views on race, gender, religion, honor, power, and justice–how their base feeling of fear and love and sacrifice–all worked intricately together to create a strong rationalization of something terrible.

And then we can ask ourselves: are we too rationalizing any injustices? Are we telling ourselves any myths so we can justify something we shouldn’t? Do our notions of ourselves, and one another; of God and Justice and Truth, Good and Evil; of wealth and patriotism, globalization and the environment; inhibit our ability to find love and compassion?

Myths and symbols can be strong conveyors of universal truths. But they can also delude and blind us not only from historical fact, but present-day fact, and hamper our ability to build a just future.

Because the real horror lies in the fact that evil people do not do these things. People do these things. Just…people.