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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Light Shines from the West: Lifting the Veil of History


When Bob Baron, who founded Fulcrum Publishing more than thirty years ago, asked me to write a chapter on the rural American West for Fulcrum’s new book, The Light Shines from the West, I knew that I wanted to start with the New Madrid Earthquakes.

In the winter of 1811, a series of terrifying quakes struck the low-lying country between Missouri and Arkansas. The Mississippi River thrust her waters upward, left her banks, rose twenty feet into the air, hung suspended, then plunged to the earth. For a few terrifying moments, her roaring waters flowed backwards.

“The earth was horribly torn to pieces,” wrote eyewitness Eliza Bryan. “The inhabitants fled in every direction to the country… the earth was in continual agitation, visibly waving as a gentle sea.”

I felt an intimate connection with the New Madrid Earthquakes not just because of family history, but because of novel-writing history. What cultural upheaval, I had wondered, would cause my protagonist’s Cherokee ancestors to leave their village near the canebrake swampland of the Mississippi River? What made them head west into the setting sun, and into the heartland of the novel I was writing? 

The New Madrid quake that struck on December 16, 1811, was the answer. This cataclysmic disaster seemed to fulfill an apocalyptic prophecy, solidifying the Cherokee alliance with the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh, and thrusting them (and the characters in my novel) toward an ever-changing destiny. The earthquake would soon be known as Tecumseh’s Great Sign, a vision of the future.

Tecumseh, Indian Country Today
When Bob Baron shared his vision for Fulcrum’s new book with me, he said, “The American story could be told in two sections: 1607 to 1829, and 1820 to 2018. The first part is eastern centered. We all know that story. The western story we don’t know as well. I want you to write a chapter about the rural land, and the rural people. Tell the story of how that affects the character of the West.”

This is what I love about writing, and research. For a novelist, the chasm between what really happened and what we imagine could have happened narrows until the chasm is no wider than a rivulet, and we jump our characters across it without a backward glance. For the memoirist, like piecing a quilt, we patch together what we know to be true, using conjecture as our needle and thread.

I know that I will return to this book often when researching both fiction and family history. I will refer to Daniel Wildcat’s chapter on Native Americans, and Elizabeth Darby’s chapter on the women of the West. I will look to Bob and others for overviews on wars and transportation, art and photography, movies and politics.

“I’m not a historian,” I told Bob when he asked me if I would write the chapter on the rural West.

“I know,” he said, “but you will bring the people to life.”

For me, the joy IS about bringing to life, through our writing, the people and the land that sustains us. It is about the intertwining of our histories, and the way in which our destinies are interwoven. It is lifting the veil between the past and the future, and peering into each other's hearts. *** 
NOTES: To purchase The Light Shines from the West from Fulcrum, click here. To purchase Page Lambert's memoir In Search of Kinship, click here. To read "The Day Tecumseh's Prophecy Rocked the World" in Indian Country Today, click here.