Thursday, April 9, 2009
Birth of a novel
Because of a hawk and a white oak and my need to get away from big cities, in 1986 I purchased a farm in rolling horse country in the upper Hudson Valley of New York. I had no idea how completely this move would change my life. But there were clues from the very beginning, in the irruption of the dream-logic of a deeper reality into my ordinary world. The first weekend my wife and I saw the farm - much of it still primal woodlands where the deer drifted in great droves - I knew in my gut this was a place I needed to be. I sat under an old white oak behind the derelict farmhouse, feeling the rightness of the place but also that I needed a further sign if we were to make the move to a new landscape far removed from the people we knew and the fast-track life I had been leading as a bestselling thriller-writer.
A red-tailed hawk circled overhead, a female (to judge by the size), her belly-feathers glinting silver-bright in the sunlight. She proceeded to drop a wing feather between my legs. Sometimes you can't escape the sense that something from a deeper world is poking through the veil of consensual reality, like the finger of an unseen hand. Or a wingtip.
An early snowstorm in October the following year, soon after we had finished the renovations and moved into the farm, isolated us from the modern world behind downed maple limbs and huge snowdrifts. With power gone for three days, well water was no longer available and we heated snow in buckets over the fire in the great hearth of the family room in order to flush the toilets. We read stories by candlelight, and made them up, and joked about living like the first settlers on that land, the Dutch pioneers who had used my study as their "borning room" and whose pre-Revolutionary bodies were buried in a simple graveyard on the hill on the northern side of the house.
I had impressions of presences from earlier times as I walked that land. When I sat with the white oak, I felt I could see the passage of those who had come before, indigenous and immigrant, across seasons and centuries. I saw a strapping native warrior with a great tattoo like a sunburst on his chest. In my dreams, I observed and then sometimes seemed to become a powerful man who sometimes wore the red coat of an English general of an earlier time, but at other times appeared in a great feathered head-dress, like a native chief.
I decided to take an interest in local history and played with the idea of writing an historical novel set in my new neighborhood. I frequented used bookstores, and in one of them - the old Bryn Mawr bookshop in Albany - that benign shelf elf that Arthur Koestler called the Library Angel came into play. In the local history section, my hand fell on a thick blue-bound volume, one of a collection titled Sir William Johnson Papers. Sir William Johnson? Never heard of him. I opened the book at random and found myself reading a letter from this Johnson, involving Indian affairs. His prose flowed in rolling cadences. I heard the voice behind the text, and felt sure that I knew that voice.
Intrigued, I took the book home. I was soon deeply immersed in researching the life and times of an extraordinary Anglo-Irishman who came from County Meath to the American colonies in the 1730s in hopes of making his fortune on the New York frontier. Leaders of the Mohawk people, who were no slouches at diplomacy and war, recognized in Johnson a plausible, capable young man with a magnetic personality and set out to recruit him as their agent and interpreter to the British and the colonial whites after he started farming in the Mohawk Valley. Though Johnson rose to fame as King's Superintendent of Indians and one of the architects of the English victory over France in the French and Indian War - whose outcome ushered in the American Revolution - he started out more Mohawk (and of course more Irish) than English.
It was understandable that I had never heard of him. I grew up in Australia, and American history was almost completed ignored in my school education. I now discovered that Johnson is virtually unknown in the United States today, perhaps because the world he shared with the Mohawks is quite foreign to the post-Revolutionary experience. This story has nothing to do with the triumphalist "Whig" view of Anerican history, in which events are portrayed as moving in a steady forward progression through the Revolution to the creation and expansion of democratic institutions, or with the old chauvinist "manifest destiny" theory according to which European settlers were "meant" to claim the continent from sea to shining sea.
I acquired all fourteen volumes of the Sir William Johnson Papers, and later the 73 volumes of the Jesuit Relations, the extraordinary compilation of reports from the blackrobe missionaries of New France on the woodland Indians they were assigned to convert. I flew to Ireland to walk the scenes of Johnson’s childhood. He was born four miles from the holy hill of Tara, and raised in a stone house in Smithtown, County Meath. The mound of Newgange, containing a temple-tomb older than the pyramids of Egypt, is just up the road and was discovered by a farmer digging stones for a wall when Johnson was a boy. When I explored the site, the image of a double spiral incised on one of the guardian stones struck me forcibly.
Back at the farm in New York, the double spiral floated before me in the middle of the night in the drifty state between waking and sleep that the French call dorveille. I found myself lifting off the bed, leaving my dozing body behind. Soon I was flying under the night sky, seemingly on the wings of a red-tailed hawk. I felt the exhilaration of flight, the joy of catching a thermal, the discomfort when I brushed the dried-up needles of an old spruce somewhere near Lake George. I searched below me for traces of the battlefield where Johnson, at the head of an amateur militia and a band of Mohawk warriors, defeated a famous career general, Baron Dieskau, and a professional French army in 1755. I realized that modern developments and roads were missing from the landscape below. I was looking down at first-growth forest.
I kept flying north, following a tug of intention that became stronger. It pulled me down into a cabin in the woods somewhere near Montreal. I found myself sitting with an ancient indigenous woman with a face like a wrinkled apple. She spoke to me for a long time in cadenced speech, her words lapping like lake water. As she spoke, she stroked a wampum belt that depicted male and female figures holding hands near a she-wolf. This was not one of those dream visions in which you understand everything at once. The native woman spoke to me in her own language, and all I could retain were a few fragments, including a word that sounded like on-dee-nonk. And the image of the belt with the she-wolf.
Soon after this night visitation, in a serendipitous way, I met an Onondaga scholar who was working for the New York State Archives, which at that time held the wampum archives of the Confederacy of the Six Nations of the Haudenosonee, or Iroquois. When I told him the dream, he unlocked a steel cabinet and produced a wampum belt that depicted a she-wolf and two human figures holding hands. “We believe that these are the ancient wampum credentials of a Mohawk clanmother – the mother of the Wolf Clan. It would be appropriate for a woman of power to display her credentials when she spoke to you.”
Truth comes with goosebumps. My shivers of recognition were telling me that when I sought to reenter Johnson’s world, something of his world came reaching out to me. My encounters with the Wolf Clan woman continued. I sought the guidance of native speakers to help translate her words. One of them told me, “This is Mohawk, but it’s not the way we speak it today. It’s the way Mohawks may have talked three hundred years ago, and there’s some Huron in it.”
My research revealed that the grandmother of Molly Brant, who became Johnson’s Mohawk consort (and whom he called Tsitsa – “Flower” – at home) was taken captive as a child by a Mohawk war party from a Huron village. I decided to develop a character based on her, and my nocturnal visions, in my fictional recreation of Johnson’s world. In my novel The Firekeeper I call her Island Woman. She is a healer and a shaman, one of those truly power-full women who call themselves the “burden straps”, those who carry the burdens of the people. As an atetshents (“one who dreams”) part of her work is to scout across space and time to seek the means of survival for her community.
That strange word that sounded like “on-dee-nonk” is central to her practice. I found its meaning in one of those volumes of the Jesuit Relations, in a report from Father Brebeuf during a harsh winter in Huron country in the 1600s. The ondinnonk, he observed, is the “secret wish of the soul, especially as revealed in dreams”. Among these “savages”, it was believed that it was a prime duty of the community to gather round a dreamer and help him identify and honor the wishes of the soul, as seen in dreams. If this was not done, the soul might become disgusted and withdraw its energy, leaving the dreamer prone to illness and despair.
In my quest for an Irish adventurer, something from the world he inhabited had awakened me to a primal practice of dreaming and healing that was deeper than anything I had learned from mainstream Western culture. Dreaming shows us what the soul wants, and how to bring the vital energy of soul back into the body where it belongs.
While The Firekeeper is full of great men and battles that changed world history, opening the way for the American Revolution, it is also the story of a native people’s struggle for survival, and of how dreaming can bring the soul back home.
A new edition of The Firekeeper will be published by Excelsior Editions, an imprint of SUNY Press, in trade paperback in July 2009.