The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

In praise of bold travelers

First of all, Happy Thanksgiving. I never fail to think of my father on Thanksgiving: He loved pumpkin pie, and he had a pilgrim story from Bangkok, Thailand.

Part of Dad's Korean War was spent in Bangkok, back when a lot of us called Thailand, Siam. He was part of a squadron of Navy airedales who took a carrier-load of planes to Thailand. Essentially, they began the Thai Air Force. At the time, Dad was a chief, which meant he knew everything about his job and could do anything. He was always that way, though. (If you sense some daughterly admiration, you're on the money.)

In that hot and moist climate, Thanksgiving was still coming anyway. One of the Thai workers who spoke English asked Dad about Thanksgiving, so Dad gave a lengthy explanation about pilgrims and a first hard winter in a tough place for beginnings (New England), and the Thanksgiving feast the following year, when the toehold had turned into survival and there was food.

After Dad's explanation, the man just shook his head sadly. "We can't have Thanksgiving here."

Dad asked him why not, and the Thai said, "No pilgrims ever came to Bangkok."

Thanksgiving came anyway, of course, as it does anywhere Americans gather. We're grateful for that toehold in a new world, for subsequent survival, and eventually, our nation. It's as meaningful to me as the Fourth of July, as I praise bold travelers.

The extreme isolation of such people in a new land came home to me 12 or so years ago. It was early December, and I had gone to Charleston, South Carolina for Jeremy's graduation from the Border Patrol. The newly minted agents flew out that same day, so I had a few days to kill in South Carolina. What I did was point my rental car south.

First stop was St. Augustine, Florida, for a spot of research at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. It's a wonderful, well-nigh indestructible fort built by Spanish engineers (they were good), to maintain power in their toehold of Florida. Eventually, the English came into possession, then the Spanish again, and finally the Americans. During our Indian Wars, it housed some Plains Indians, sent there to be reprimanded for objecting to folks taking their land.

After that, I drove back to St. Simons Island, Georgia, where I used to live as a kid. Superb area. I also visited Fort Frederica National Historic Site. It was a fort built by Georgia's colonizer, James Oglethorpe, between 1736-1748, essentially as a buffer zone between those Spaniards I had "visited" earlier in the day, and the prosperity of the English colonies in the Carolinas.

It's another great historic site, with a moat (now a gentle swale), and buildings made of tabby (stone mixed with shells). Nothing is restored, but the stabilized ruins are impressive. I walked through the town, and past the fort, and stood looking at the water. It was a cold day, for Georgia, and no other visitors were in sight. I watched the water quite a while, as the soldiers most certainly would have done.

It came home quite forcefully to me that these little toeholds on the edge of an amazing continent had to be a bit frightening, in that if trouble came, there was no help in sight. You were it; do your best.

And so I praise bold travelers. Without them, we wouldn't be gathering families and friends today and gorging on turkey and cranberries and three or four kinds of pie (or more), and the "inside of the turkey," as my daughter Sarah called stuffing, when she was a little girl. I always take a moment to remember what it felt like to stand alone, gaze across a portion of the Atlantic Ocean, empty too, that day, and honor that kind of courage.

Thanks, you men, women and children. I praise you today.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

One reason we write: the readers

I participated in a booksigning for The Double Cross at the Costco in Lehi last Friday. The whole thing was to have happened two weeks ago. Everyone knew about it, apparently, except that Costco in Lehi. So it goes. No harm, no foul.

The one yesterday was that mix of busy and downtime that booksignings often are. My niece Amy dropped by on her lunch break, and so did her mom an hour later. Other friends, readers and fellow writers dropped by, bought books and chatted. Then there were those stretches when I had to work at convincing folks they really really needed to read this story about Paloma and Marco Mondragon, and care about New Mexico colony at the time of Comanches and Spanish. Must've convinced enough folks, because the books all got sold.

In the course of sitting at Costco, I did my usual informal-survey-keep-your-mind-busy tactic. According to my survey, most people are in Costco to buy 30 rolls of toilet paper at a time (I did the same), milk, and birthday/party cakes. Oh, and lots of disposable diapers, which went along with the numerous women I saw with little kids in the cart, and another on the way. It was totally Utah country.

Then something touching happened, which even now is making me tear up a bit. An older lady stopped by to tell me that her daughter owns and has read nearly all my books. I told her that I bet she didn't have this one. She agreed, and had me sign it for her daughter.

Nothing unusual there, eh? Then she said, so serious: "My daughter is far from home and going through a nasty divorce. She tells me that when she feels low and down, she reads your books over and over until she feels better."

Wow. I'm going to be thinking about that mother and her beleaguered daughter for a long, long time - maybe every time I sit down to work on another chapter. Yeah, it's historical fiction with usually a bit of romance - fluff. Yeah, when I start each book my mantra is, "This isn't Hamlet and you're not Shakespeare." But now and then, I am reminded that what I do matters to more than just me.

You other writers know exactly what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Books and covers

Yes, yes, I'm well aware that I'm the worst blogger in the history of, well, blog. I also run into people who want to know when my next book is coming out, and why can't I write faster. Plus I sometimes have to do booksignings, which are sometimes quite fun, and other times are a bit frustrating, as I try to convince people that they really ought to try my books. And I take trips and visit friends - you know who you are - and just generally have a life. Blog comes about last, and I do apologize.

And I do enjoy reading other's books. Case in point: I was a huge Tony Hillerman fan, from the beginning to almost the end. Tony died a few years back, and I, like many, mourned his passing. He was a great journalist, pretty good writer, but the best guy at taking a subject few knew about - the Navajo Tribal Police - and giving them, and their nation, the credit they deserve. His name will long be honored among crime fiction readers, and people who love The People.

I'll admit to a tad bit of skepticism when I read that his daughter Anne Hillerman decided to carry on Tony's tales about the Navajo Tribal Police, specifically, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, plus a great addition, Officer Bernie Manuelito, Jim's new wife. Anne's father had introduced Bernie a few books back, but by then, I must say that his novelist's powers were greatly diminished. His last three books had none of the power of the first dozen.

I am a skeptic no more. I read Anne Hillerman's Leaphorn/Chee book, called The Spider Woman's Daughter, and I am hooked. I want to contact Anne and tell her to writer faster, because I want more of Jim and Joe and Bernie. If you enjoyed Tony Hillerman's work, give Anne Hillerman a try. I doubt you'll be disappointed.

I especially enjoyed this latest entry because this summer I took one of those trips to Navajo Country with my daughter, Mary Ruth, and her dear friend, Renee, who is now my friend, too. We went down to Gallup for the Intertribal dancing and drumming, held annually. After a brief overnighter in Santa Fe (do eat at The Shed if you go), we spent a few days in Gallup. Renee raised her family there, and Mary Ruth taught there for a few years, so it was fun just to drive the streets and listen to the two of them remember good and bad times. We visited the flea market and bought jewelry and I bought a lovely skirt, a twirly skirt. I'm in heaven.

Driving home north through the great Navajo reservation was also wonderful, a chance to see the great outcropping and rocks (Shiprock being one) that define the borders of the land of the Dineh. All this made Anne Hillerman's book extra special.

But to books and covers: I'm writing Book Two of the Spanish Brand Series, and reading for research, too. I came across a novel called The Staked Plain. It takes place in the area of West Texas called Llano Estacado, because it is so trackless that supposedly early Spanish explorers drove stakes in the ground at intervals so they wouldn't get lost. I found the old paperback via Amazon with that title, by Frank X. Tolbird. First published by Harper & Brothers in 1958, I have a 1962 paperback edition with a positively lurid cover - tall white man standing with a rifle over a winsome Comanche (I suppose) woman. There's an obnoxious blurb on the front cover that reads, "Peyton Place on Horseback - or a Kinsey Report on the Comanches of West Texas in the 1860's and 70's."

Absolutely nothing could be farther from the truth. The Staked Plain is based on a true story about an interesting fellow named Llano Estacado (Staked Plain) Nabors, who actually lived the life written about. It's a wonderful story and I am learning so much about the people and the area. Unfortunately, the print is so tiny, and the pages so yellowed that I can barely read it.

So I ordered a larger copy this morning. This one is published by a university press, with forwards and afterwards by distinguished writers and historians, giving the book its due. But oh, that original cover! That's what writers have to put up with, at times. But we love to write, so we get over it.