From the time Europeans landed in North America, the People were forced out of the land they had known for generations. By the nineteenth century, the United States had pushed them into the remote and undeveloped area known as Indian Territory and promised them food and protection that never came. Plagued by the loss of their ability to farm and hunt, the lack of food and shelter, the disease brought by the White Man, every tribe suffered losses so great only the memories of the survivors could document the dead. This story, taking place among the Cherokee after the Trail of Tears, is a story for all the People.
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To begin, was there a particular inspiration that set your writing in motion?
For this book yes there was. I am an avid reader of Native American historical fiction genre. My other projects were not in that genre, I had never tried to write historical fiction. It was in October and I was invited to participate in the National Novel Writers Month challenge for November. It happens every year and I had never tried it. The object is to write a book at least 50,000 words long within the month of November. There are local and national groups that keep track of how many words you have written each day and various groups have different incentives. I just wanted to see if I could do it.
What genre do you prefer to write in?
I wrote for years in literary fiction even though I preferred to read historical fiction. After writing Wheezer And The Painted Frog, I have found a new energy and excitement in writing, a feeling I have not experienced before. So now I prefer historical fiction mysteries in Native American sub-genre.
What led you to write about this particular time in history?
One day I was doing some researching into our Cherokee heritage and I was wondering what had happened to the Cherokee people when the soldiers left them in that barren land. I was not interested in the political struggles of which I had read much. I wanted to know about the common 'every day' Cherokee family who walked the Trail of Tears. What happened to them on a daily basis. Well, I looked hard for anything, even non-fiction that might answer that question and came up empty. That was when I dove into heavily researching it.
How difficult was the research for your book?
It was daunting to say the least. Every place I turned only documented the political fights and physical fights between the various governing parties, over who would get what and who would be chief. I even called the Cherokee Nation and was directed to one of their historians. At first he was a little ambivalent about it. He was sure that the information I sought was easy to find. The next day he called me back and had to admit that he had only found a very small mention in his history books.
Next, I took a trip down to visit the old fort at
. That post was responsible for keeping-the-peace in Fort Smith, Arkansas Indian Territory and they have myriads of documents from that time. The facts were still slim but enough to build a story around. However, they explained why I was not finding much in the published accounts of the time. They said that there had been a huge public outcry over the deaths on the trail and the suffering of the Cherokee people. The newspapers of that era were worried that their coverage would result in canceled subscriptions. So they pulled all their news men out of the Territory when the last group was dropped off. The only reports available to me of what happened next were found in memoirs written many years later.
What events in your book are historical?
Well, the months after the last group were left in
Indian Territory proved devastating to the Cherokee. Their U.S. Government allotments of food and other supplies to help them through as agreed to by treaty, were systematically being stolen right from the get go. That winter, over 1,000 more Cherokees died of starvation because the food they were being given was rotten or full of worms or bugs. It was a great shameful episode in American history. It was the War Department's responsibility to oversee it and they failed in their duty. Not only that, but some of them participated in the crimes.
Why did you choose the Jack Russell Terrier as the breed for Wheezer?
Several reasons. First, I knew Jack Russells are known to be the most intelligent dog there is, and the time frame would have been correct for when Rev. John Russell in
had succeeded in breeding a terrier that could think for itself, especially when it went down a fox hole among other special attributes. There is no documented evidence when the first Jack came to England so I made Wheezer the first of his breed to be shipped over as a gift from the Reverend himself. And lastly, I own three. I know what they are capable of and how their brains work. Oh, and I forgot, Wheezer is a real dog. He lives here with me and oversees every word I write about him. America
Introduce us to the main characters.
Of course, Wheezer the Jack Russell Terrier. Sasa (Swan) is a thirteen year old Cherokee girl who watches her mother and father grow sick and die in the camps after their arrival. Usti Yansa (Little Buffalo) is Sasa's five year old brother who is healthy when he arrives but dies for no apparent reason. Jackson Halley, who is the original owner of Wheezer, and his father Andrew Halley, who owns a financial house that has loaned money to many Cherokee enterprises and therefore both father and son are friends of the Cherokee. Arch, a full blood Cherokee and Jackson's friend and business partner. And Samuel Edwards is the Indian Agent and his daughter Anna. I cannot give you the name of the villain/s or it would spoil the book for you.
For those of us who have Native American ancestry, and in particular Cherokee, why should this book be important for us to read?
How can you learn from the mistakes of the past if you have no clue what happened? If the information was hard for me to find now, think of how much harder it would be to find even a generation down the line. I never thought I would run smack dab into a story that no one has ever told. Especially with all of the books we have on the Trail of Tears and what led up to the removal, you would think that there would be clear documentation of its aftermath. At the time, the mindset of the nation was in spreading what they considered civilization across the continent. They weren't thinking then that a good portion of the population would later have ties with Native Americans. True this is fiction, but sometimes historical fiction can be the best representation of a time and place than a history book, as in the case of Charles Dickens. Historians have learned much from his writings.
What lessons did you in particular learn while researching and writing Wheezer And The Painted Frog?
I learned to never say never. I thought that after I no longer had my show in Branson as a veteran entertainer, my creative days were over. Now I am finding a whole new vista of possibilities. I have also learned that there is much in history that has been swept away and can never be retrieved, and how important it is to those who come after.
We understand this is the first in a series called 'Mysteries From The Trail of Tears'. Can you give us a hint about the next book in this series?
Very happy to. It is called Wheezer And The Shy Coyote. It takes place in 1840, one year after the Cherokees walked the trail and mostly happens in Indian Territory (Now Oklahoma), Van Buren and Fort Smith, Arkansas. The historical part of this book will cover the Whiskey Wars which very few people know anything about, but is another shameful episode in what the settlers were willing to do to gain Indian land. Of course Wheezer will be front and center with Sasa, Jackson Halley and Anna Edwards. And there will be many new characters both good and bad.
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