You handle the Shawnee culture with a great deal of respect, helping bring it alive so that we glimpse a culture that was still vital in this period. In fact, the second half of the book takes place almost entirely among the Shawnee. How did you come to this structure for the book?
Writing this book took many drafts and a lot of muddling, but I always pictured it in two halves, with the murder of Daniel’s son James as the break between them. The Shawnee half was more difficult, partly because there are a lot of captivity narratives from that time and afterwards, there are virtually no first-person accounts from the Indigenous side. So I was coming at the culture as a white writer, through white settler accounts, a problem of which I was very aware. I had to invent personalities based on slight hints (Black Fish being seen as a commanding speaker, for instance). But it began to take its own shape. The sense of family really helped here; Daniel’s adoption gave me a mirror, a foil, for his white family in part one. It’s the foundation in both sections.
Nothing in this book went the way I expected it to, and I think it’s one of the great strengths of the book. You could have used a more traditional heroic narrative, but you gave Boone an element of tragedy. Is this more a story of disillusionment or perhaps reorientation of perspective?
Most of the accounts even since he was alive made him into a capital-H hero. I suppose you could look at him alternatively as the classical tragic hero, a powerful man whose flaws bring him down, but instead, I wanted to know what it felt like to be *seen* as that hero. What does that do to you as a human? That’s the perspective I’m always interested in.
The land plays an important role in this book, especially when Boone initially goes into Kentucky and thinks it is heaven. How did you approach writing about the land?
With a little trepidation, given that I never made it to Kentucky! (I was too pregnant to get travel insurance when I was initially researching.) I loved looking at paintings and photographs, though. In a way, I think not seeing the real place helped. It couldn’t be the same as it was in the eighteenth century, of course. That let me have my own vision (and I apologize if I have a few tree varieties wrong . . . I did look them up!). And the fact that the historical record has so many gaps and differing versions gave me the freedom to do that.
I’m reminded that my copy-editor informed me there were no magpies in eastern North America at that time, but I fought to keep a reference to one, as it seemed an important image. It’s easy in fiction, historical fiction especially, to get pinned down in seeking extreme accuracy, but if your own drive and story-shaping aren’t present, the book has no engine.
Ghosts play a big role in this story. Boone is haunted by his brother and his son. The Shawnee culture struggles to overcome the loss of sons through the adoption of Boone and his men. Are the ghosts empowering or debilitating or something else?
Daniel’s ghosts are a pull on him, sometimes physically, but they’re also reminders of his past and the fact that he exists at all. And though they bring enormous guilt, he doesn’t want to let go; they form his private story, apart from the tales his friends and others are always telling about him. The Shawnee adoption makes him into the ghost of a lost son, which is a kind of empowerment for both sides. I think I also just like ghost stories.
The relationship between Boone and Rebecca is both tender and distant. How did you try to get inside a relationship that was marked by so much separation and loss?
I had to imagine myself into that situation, which was really hard. Daniel and Rebecca react differently to their loss, and I could see both sides–the desire to forget and carry on, and the opposite desire to never let the lost person go.
Of course we are seeing her through his eyes, given the first-person narration. I tried to portray her as a realistic person, with all the attendant frustrations and mixed feelings, when she’s present, and to make her into part of Daniel’s dreaming tendencies when he’s not with her. There’s more about their relationship in the sequel, which I’m working on now. Rebecca’s voice comes out there too.
I think of your book as adding a lot of texture back to an old, worn bit of Americana. What is the virtue of complicating old stories or re-wilding old landscapes for contemporary people?
I hope it’s a reminder that life is complicated. Like landscape, stories aren’t static. There’s always another way in.