Way back yonder, in 2005, I was sitting at a corner desk in my children’s play room, shoveling together the first piles of words and ideas that would eventually become the 100 Cupboards trilogy. Soon after giving that manuscript a break, Leepike Ridge came pouring out in a rush. Leepike was published in 2007, and 100 Cupboards a few months after (right before the New Year). Over the last decade, I have hopscotched my settings all around this country, trying to tap various unique facets of the marvelous whole I refer to as Mythic Americana. Leepike puts the treasure of an ancient Asian explorer in the new world. 100 Cupboards, Dandelion Fire, and The Chestnut King use Kansas (and a touch of Oz mythology) as a launching point. The Dragon’s Tooth, The Drowned Vault, and Empire of Bones do a bit more continental roaming, but Oconomowoc, Wisconsin and Lake Michigan serve as origin and hub. Boys of Blur wades through the Florida swamps and races old-world monsters through the thick muck of the sugar cane fields.
Ten years and eight novels took me all over the place, but I had never set my narrative feet firmly in the Southwest—one of the most striking regions on this continent. And my other stories hadn’t drawn much on two of the most distinctively American mythic genres—the western (tall tale), and the modern superhero story. The time had clearly come…
Fourteen years ago, my California bride loaded me up with our young son and took us down to Arizona to visit her grandparents, Margaret and Martin Garaway. They were both Jews (despite the Ellis Island imposed, Irish-sounding surname), and they had both lost family members in the Holocaust. The two of them made a life together in Brooklyn, but as WWII drifted further into the rearview mirror, they packed up and headed to LA, just ahead of the Dodgers. But they weren’t done. In their 50s, the two of them wanted to do something that mattered. They moved again, this time to Arizona to become teachers on the Navajo reservation.
As an Idahoan, I had grown up between the Nez Perce and Coeur D’Alene reservations. The heroic, Chief Joseph and I Will Fight No More Forever had been part of my education from elementary school, but all that I knew of the Navajo tribe was from a distance. But as a little girl, my wife had gone to stay with her grandparents on the reservation every year, starting in the 1970s, and the reservation was still so cut off from the rest of the world, that (in a very cliché way) her “corn silk” hair was a much-touched novelty to the kids she played with.
After retiring, Marge focused on trying to write and publish stories relevant to the kids she had spent so much time teaching (The Old Hogan, Dezbah and the Dancing Tumbleweeds, Ashkii and His Grandfather). But Marty, teacher and journalist, was more of an oral storyteller when I met him. It was on my first trip to their house full of kachina dolls and hanging rugs, listening to and reading stories, that I realized that while the southwestern nations were incredibly unique culturally, different in so many ways from the nations of the Northwest, they had also experienced almost identical tragedies, and at the hands of some of the same men. Years before U.S. Cavalry pursued Chief Joseph for almost 1200 miles, successfully preventing him from reaching Sitting Bull in Canada, Kit Carson (implementing General Sherman’s total war approach) had done the same (and worse) to Manuelito and the Navajo in the southwest. Manuelito is not as well known as Chief Joseph, but he has every right to be. When U.S. forces usurped grazing lands, he fought back. When virtually every other tribal leader surrendered, he and his people remained unbroken. In a very real way, Manuelito was the last free leader of the Navajo people. He did not surrender until Kit Carson’s forces had exterminated so much game (and livestock) from the land, that Manuelito’s people were on (and beyond) the brink of starvation. And then, as was almost always the case, the U.S. broke her word, and forced the Navajo into “The Long Walk” (a death march, really) to a reservation on distant and barren land. No longer a freedom fighter with weapons, Manuelito still didn’t stop fighting. He became a diplomat, travelling to D.C. to intercede for his people with Gen. Sherman (and others) to restore their ancestral lands. When he was successful, and the Navajo were finally able to return to (a part of) their land, he was involved in the first tribal police, established to defend the reservation. And later, still a hero and leader of his people, he became an advocate for Navajo education.
As I set out to write a superhero origin story—a genre with deep Jewish roots in the Old Testament judges and prophets, the same roots that power classic “lonely lawdog” westerns—I knew this wouldn’t be a story on the prairie (I’ve done Kansas, after all). I wanted to introduce the atmosphere of a mythical and legendary Southwest to the imaginations of contemporary kids around the world. Trains and outlaws and San Fran and Tombstone and Earps and Navajo and empty cliff cities to remind us all of civilizations and histories that predate the white faces.
Manuelito is one of the reasons why I have written my tall tale, Outlaws of Time, at all, and I hope the side character I have named after him sparks curiosity in young readers to learn more about the real man and his very real people. No, this story isn’t historical fiction. No, it isn’t making any attempt to be historically accurate. (Time travel! Snake arms!) But there are inspirations here beyond the workings of my own imagination. The Arizona desert and the tall Navajo leader—even taller in his top hat—planted two of the seeds of inspiration that grew up into this story.
But why am I saying any of this? Because in all of my books, I have tried to bring global history and mythology to America. And teachers tend to recognize the (almost entirely white) allusions—Gilgamesh, Captain John Smith, Robespierre, Ponce De Leon, etc. But with this series, I wanted do more than steal from old stories from around the globe. I wanted to acknowledge that America has mythologies as old as the Norse, and characters whose roots run deeper in this continent than we can possibly measure. Sadly, I don’t think a hat-tip to a real southwestern hero will be recognized by nearly as many readers.
There’s a lot more to say about the other inspirations behind Outlaws of Time, and maybe someday I’ll even say it all. For now, when this series has ended, I hope the real (and legendary) Southwest (with its heroes and villains and tragedies) becomes a more influential flavor in the minds of young daydreamers everywhere.
Here are two links about the man: