Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Publication date: 2008
Country/culture: Native American
For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)
Two stories are told in parallel – of a young Blackfoot man and a government Indian Agent from a century before – and, as the novel progresses, these stories become increasingly intertwined. Decisions made in the past are seen to have long-lasting repercussions; we see the possible redemption of a soul and discover the value of one life.
- Read more information on Goodreads.
- Find the book in a library near you (worldwide).
- Support local bookshops (UK): buy the book from Hive.
What did I find out?
My discovery this week merged, as often happens, with the next question: ‘What do I now see differently?’ The book relates an anecdote of tourists in a Blackfoot gift shop, picking up supposedly authentic artefacts that have ‘CHINA’ stamped on them. As I read, I realised that the bookmark I was using came from our American road trip last year: specifically, a gift shop in Canada selling various First Nations-themed products. The bookmark is made of wood and has a carved wolf at the top of it. However, when I turned it over – just out of curiosity – I noticed a sticker on the back reading ‘Made in the Philippines’.
This, coupled with the scene in the book, was a sharp reminder of how the tales of ancient civilisations can be gradually co-opted into nothing more than a backdrop for a fun holiday experience. We like to imagine we are immersing ourselves in the environment of those who have lived before us, but we are really only pulling out the safe bits – the pretty pictures, the interesting souvenirs – and we remain ignorant of the suffering that has run alongside and within this culture.
I still love my wolf bookmark, but in future I’ll try to be more aware of the stories behind the souvenirs.
What do I now see differently?
Speaking of stories, this book was a fascinating exploration of the nature of truth, stories and history. Many questions were raised which are probably impossible to answer but intriguing to ponder on. Is there a single truth that will always come out, or does the ‘truth’ of something depend on who is speaking (and listening)? Is history a non-negotiable series of facts, or is it interpreted and written by many different parties? Can we select the stories we tell about our own past, and, by doing so, can we rewrite our future?
The novel is told in a non-linear series of anecdotes, mixing up past and present until we are not quite certain what has happened, what never happened and what is yet to happen. As different narrators speak, we gain multiple perspectives on events, so that we ultimately realise our first impression of a scene is not the whole story. The tale gradually unfolds, layer upon layer, truth upon truth – truth simultaneously supporting and contradicting other truths – until, finally, we have to accept that everything – and nothing – is exactly as we perceive it.
If that sounds difficult to fathom, it is intentionally so. I’m struggling to find the words to accurately convey the depth and complexity of this novel, and all I can really do is to urge you to go and read it for yourself.
How will this inspire my writing?
It feels wrong that a work of such incredible beauty and intricacy should lead to a relatively prosaic intention on my part; but the aim of the Book Diaries this year is to find practical inspiration for my own writing, and this week, I can at least claim success in that respect; two successes, in fact.
The first piece of inspiration relates to the presentation of back story. In my novel, set in a supernatural world and a human world that resembles – mostly – the world we know, I refer to events that have happened in the past and given rise to the current situation. The whole of Ledfeather is concerned with the intertwining of past and present, with the past playing a far more integral role in the narrative than mere back story. As the fantasy genre is notorious for tempting authors into tedious info-dumps of unnecessary background, I’m going to try to ensure that any history of my world that I include in my novel is utterly intrinsic to the story and gripping in its own right.
The second piece of inspiration doesn’t relate to the novel at all, but to a short story idea I had some time ago. This features a community living in a wintry Northern wilderness, where the old, sick and dying take themselves off into the snowy wastes to end their days, so as not to place a burden on those that remain. Strange events then ensue… As one of the passages in Ledfeather reveals a similar encampment of the dead, out in the frozen wilds, I found myself making reams of mental notes for my own story. Facts to consider (what would really happen in such a situation?); myths and legends to draw on (marsh gas and the lights of the dead); and the murky confusion of the veil separating this world from the next.
Plenty of food for thought – and for future writing!
A musical interlude
I will freely admit that this track is about completely the wrong part of the United States for the tale of Ledfeather: the book is set among the Blackfoot Indians of Montana, and the song is about the Cuyahoga river in Ohio. However, the lyrics have a great affinity for many of the themes in the book, in particular the refrain ‘Take a picture here, Take a souvenir’. If you read the story, I hope you’ll see what I mean.