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Some Thoughts on Recent Events in Historical Context

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Black Lives Movement and its relationship to history. It’s somewhat unavoidable to see correlatives between 2016 and 1856.

It’s easy to blame on a “bad” few police officers or district attorneys. But as the Songs attempt to convey, the truth is we live in a deeply divided and inequitable society. Our divisions reach back centuries, and though we continue to progress, these divisions are exposed when we are under stress as a nation. 400 years of brutal enslavement has consequences. (And so does an obsession with firearms and another generation of negligent lawmakers.)

Now is a time for us to be humble and courageous. To face our faults. As we have before. And as we will again. And again. A long road lays before us.  I think it’s worth noting that few societies in history have faced such huge challenges in part because so few have been, at the same time, so open. And even fewer have faced them as bravely as we have. As we must. This is the the unique irony of America.

There is good research on this where I work at the University of Colorado. Officers must make split second decisions under incredible stress.  Training informs them. But also fear and the fact they have been socialized by a divided society. As we all have. They must be prosecuted swiftly and harshly. But demonizing them excuses the rest of us.  There’s more we can do.

I, for example, want my son, as a white man, to understand this, and to be mindful of our values of universal love, forgiveness, and non-violence when he makes decisions. To recognize the racism and sexism he is indoctrinated into, so they do not make decisions for him. We are proud of our ancestry–Irish, German, Scots, Greeks–fleeing poverty, war, starvation, and oppression. Working hard and building a better life for me and him. But at the cost of others. Indirectly perhaps. Unintentionally perhaps. But we must recognize it, and be humble enough to see: he and I, we are privileged.

And that he, and I, are also blessed with a unique opportunity to change this, one white guy, one moment, at a time. We don’t want to see our black brothers and sisters, or our civil servants, die this way. It shames us. We grieve for them.

I try and convey this in my book talks, and I think it’s really what the jayhawk and its later manifestations in these novels–indeed, the novels themselves–suggest: to be aware of the beasts in the darkness, so we don’t blindly follow them.

We have another moment to do that right now in this country. To peer into the deep fault lines running across our society, and in seeing them, continue bridging them. As long as we keep doing that, we’re fine. But I shudder to think of what happens when we don’t.

Long of the Earth

I have been on a family road/camping trip through the American Southwest the last couple

Rock art near Moab, UT.

Rock art near Moab, UT.

weeks. Throughout I have been consistently amazed at the un-ignorable evidence of those who came before. Ruins and rock art are not hard to find—and not only because contemporary land management in these states makes every effort to preserve and share them with the public—it is because there are literally thousands of them, sprinkled throughout the Colorado Plateau.

Millennia-old wall near New River, AZ.

Millennia-old wall near New River, AZ.

One simply cannot live in these lands and be totally ignorant of the peoples who preceded them.

This is not so much the situation in my native Denver, Colorado, nor of the region where the Songs take place, in eastern Kansas. The pre-historic and pre-European colonization peoples in these short- and tall-grass prairies produced different dwellings and art, which did not survive the tests of time as well. The Kanza, Pawnee, Arapahoe, Ute, and Cheyenne (to name a few) lived in dwellings of hide, wood, mud, and other materials that decay in decades, and their textile, bead, and painted art shared that fate. But the rock dwellings and art of the ancestral Puebloans, Hohokam, Yavapai, Navajo and Hopi has weathered many centuries. Obviously, these societies were using the most sensible resources, and despite vast trade networks and relative settled versus more nomadic tendencies I believe we underestimate and of which we have limited understanding of to this day, conspicuous evidence of their existence varies.

And yet, I believe all these peoples had lasting, if not semi-permanent effects on the lands they once inhabited. (As far as “permanent” goes, for nothing truly is—I was reminded of this last night watching an old family wedding video with my aunt, in which the youth of my grandparents and of those we’ve since lost was painfully clear—we are not long of this earth). Still, something of our lives seems to poke through the barriers of time and mortality. To me, this is part of what magical realism attempts to express; all art, really, including the art of the ancients.

Rock art in Arizona.

Rock art in Arizona.

In the Songs I deal with this in part through characters—both human and inhuman. I think they somehow embody the land and its past, including peoples who have since moved on, either in place or in time. The Kanza, who populated eastern Kansas in the centuries before the novels take place, did indeed leave physical evidence in the form of mounds and some other structures, but they’ve largely faded into memory (often at the hands of amateur “archaeologists” in the 19th century). But their more lasting impact on us is in their stories, creation myths, and contemporary Americans’ stories about them in turn, and the myths we tell ourselves of the West and American history in turn. Any American knows this, feels it—we are somehow the inheritors, at least in part, and certainly not by the free will of our benefactors, of the magic of Native peoples. Without question we destroyed much of what we may have learned, and we pay the price every day. But I believe we imbibed some wisdom, and it is never too late to learn more. The direct ancestors of these tribes, of course, are still with us. Reparations and greater inclusiveness of their cultures would do America well.

But rock walls and just public policy are not what I mean. I mean that when you sit, quietly, mindfully, in the woods or mountains, by rivers or streams, you can feel it—the magic of those who came before. People and animals, the earth itself. its wisdom, teeming within you, within all of us and within all things.

And in this mortality is breached, and we are somehow actually long of the earth.

This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2015) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the button 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.

San Patricios

I had a wonderful Center for the Book Logotime on Saturday at BookBar in Denver with fellow finalists for the Colorado Book Awards. Many thanks to Wooden Stake Press, BookBar, and the Colorado Humanities Center for the Book for all you do for literature in Colorado.

In March I wrote about the suffering of Irish immigrants in the 19th century as a bit of a backstory for the Dugans in the Songs. I think it’s remarkable how that story has parallels throughout history, including the wave of Hispanic immigration of the last decade or so to the United States, but also to the recent tragedies African immigrants have experienced in the Mediterranean as they attempt to find relief in Europe. In the face of desperation, people show amazing courage and risk their lives for the chance of a better life.

But the similarities between Irish and Mexican peoples in American history don’t stop there. Though Mexico is now a great allay to the United States, in the decade before the Songs open we were at war. Much of the West was ceded by Mexico in 1848 in the treaty that ended this conflict, including part of my home state of Colorado. And, in a little-known but fascinating turn of events, an Irish brigade in the US Army defected to Mexico during the war. In Mexico they would come to be known as San Patricios, the Saint Patricks.

Joseph James Hawkins mentions them in the First Song, as he would have faced thsan-patricio2em in the Battle of Buena Vista during his service in the Missouri Volunteers before the novel begins. He calls them “a bunch a traitors,” and the US Army, of course, tended to agree. In perhaps the larges mass execution in US History, thirty were hanged with little documented court proceedings. The Mexicans viewed, and continue to view them as heroes.

Why did the defect?

There are a number of explanations, all of which probably played a role, but I tend to agree with Joseph James’s very simple, human explanation in the First Song: “You San Patricios traitors just as soon fight with the Mexicans, damn Catholics, than anyone else.” Catholicism, not just its doctrine but its cultural underpinnings, and the impoverished state of Catolicos in Mexico, I think explains it. In Mexico the Irish saw closely knit Catholic communities and families suffering from an invading army and chronic impoverishment. The Irish were second class citizens in the US and its army–sometimes forced to attend Protestant services, an act they would have abhorred, it being so reminiscent of their persecution in Britain. In Mexico they saw a Catholic nation, and wanted to be a part of it.

irishmexicanflagAnd so they are. No less than a half million Mexicans of Irish descent live in metropolitan Mexico City, and while it’s not nearly as common as it is in the US, Irish ancestry is celebrated in Mexico.

And in this I see great irony. American culture once reviled the Irish, and in just a few decades this was completely undone. Irish Americans are now a huge part of our society, its governance, and our overall culture. Seven million of us. But there are eleven million Americans from Mexico.

One day they will be just as big a part of America, and still, today, we erect walls to keep them out. Only history can show us the true folly of such policy.

The US didn’t simply welcome the Irish with open arms, by any means–but in time, our arms became nearly indistinguishable from one another. I think in time the same will happen with the Hispanic diaspora in America. The values we share–centered around liberty, family, and a New World ethos–will triumph.




Happy St. Pat’s

So many Americans can claim significant Irish ancestry it sometimes seems to lose its uniqueness as an identity or shared heritage. Estimates are that over seven million souls emigrated to America from Ireland over the last three centuries, over a million making the journey from 1846 to 1851, during the Great Famine, where another million perished (Laxton, 1997). Today, perhaps upward of forty million Americans have Irish ancestry.

I am at least one-third Irish. The Dugans in the Songs were inspired by my maternal grandfather’s Irish family, primarily through his father, though his mother’s family shared a very similar experience (the Farrells, Bayeses, and Calahans are in her ancestral tree). Through this man I receive one-quarter of my DNA, and it is all Irish.

Last St. Patrick’s Day Vice President Joe Biden said, ”So my mom . . . Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden, used to say . . . to be Irish is about family, it’s about faith, but most of all, it’s about courage, for without courage, you cannot love with abandon.” And I see all this in my grandfather’s family. In fact, this is much of what the Songs are about.

Year: 1851; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 095; Line: 2; List Number: 80

Year: 1851; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 095; Line: 2; List Number: 80

This, for example, is the ship’s manifest for the Mullins family, where my great-great grandfather is listed as fifteen years old. Along with him are brothers Michael and David, little Roddie, mother Mary, and sister Margaret. They arrived in January of 1851 on the Colonist, one of five thousands ships to make the crossing during those six years. But it wasn’t until these latter years that autumn and winter crossings became the norm, for obvious reasons. A single mother facing the Atlantic in winter, having suffered starvation for months if not years, now living off a pound of food a day in crammed quarters rife with illness. One word comes to mind: desperation.

But a few others, also: Faith, love, family, and courage.

But their hardships were far from over. Where we might consider them simply “white” on every day except St. Patrick’s Day in today’s America, the Irish in 1850s northeastern cities were vilified, demonized, and considered one step above slaves in the social hierarchy of the times. Referred to as “bog-trotters,” “Paddys,” and “white niggers,” they were considered a scourge in New England cities.

Which is why so many of them came to Kansas in the 1850s, 60s, and beyond. Patrick moved to Kansas in 1857 with his new wife, Maria, and in their neighborhood were the Kelleys, Finnegans, Colgans…the list goes on, and it was known as “Irish Point.”

Patrick Mullins didn’t get there easily, as I’ve written before. In fact, he didn’t own land until 1866, having arrived in 1857. What did he do in the meantime?

Atchison Globe, March 1917.

Atchison Globe, March 1917.

He trudged to California and back. This article evidences so, as does this 1860 census record, which lists him as a “teamster.” Starving as a boy, crossing a frozen ocean as a teenager, half the continent as a young husband, and now and an entire wilderness behind a team of oxen as a new father.

1865 Kansas State Census. Microfilm reels K-1 – K-8. Kansas State Historical Society.

1865 Kansas State Census. Microfilm reels K-1 – K-8. Kansas State Historical Society.








For faith, love, family, and courage.

I find this inspiring enough to base large parts of several novels on it, but the truth is that the story of the Mullinses, and the Dugans, is a very common one in America. And we actually needn’t look to history to understand it. All we have to do is look at what is the current giant wave of American immigration: the Latin Americans. In 2010 there were over twenty-one million souls currently residing in America who were born in Latin American or the Caribbean. And over eleven million of them were born in one nation: Mexico (U.S. Census, 2010).

Indeed, one can see the current wave of Mexican national immigration as very similar to the Irish wave of the 19th century. Fleeing economic depression, violence, underemployment and corruption, they risk everything for their families. This is courage, and love, just as Biden says.

More on that next time.

 Laxton, Edward (1997). The famine ships: The Irish exodus to America. Holt: New York.

She’ll pull it all together

Sometimes you have to finish a draft of a book to figure out what’s missing, and what may pull it all together. In the last couple weeks, since finishing the Second Song (working title is now Cover Thy Sun, O Lord), I’ve discovered Clarina Nichols. Like a flash of lightning, I realized she is what what missing in the last three years I’ve been working on this novel.


Clarina Irene Howard Nichols

I’ve read about her before and saw an exhibit that included her at the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka; but the mountains of information I sift through to write these books are sometimes such that I miss important events or characters. Clarina was one of them, I’m almost ashamed to admit.

Clarina was a Free State reformer, but she brought to Kansas another issue: women’s suffrage. She labored to give Kansan women the right to vote, having emigrated from her native Vermont with the wise approach that a new state’s constitution would prove an easier political battleground than an established one. Her upstanding reputation, sharp logic, and wit were all tools she used to build public support for her cause. She is a fascinating character, and one that until recently was the “forgotten feminist.” I’m glad that is no longer the case.

And, every once in a while in historical research you come across a book so well written, one that brings its subject to life so well, you feel compelled to follow suit and do your best put the story into fiction. This book is a great example. Blackwell and Oertel had me in the first few pages. It’s certainly one of the more riveting tales of a territorial Kansans I have come across.

So, watch out for Clarina in Cover Thy Sun, but perhaps more importantly, her more inconspicuous daughter, Birsha.