I’d been reading a lot of stories about post-traumatic stress disorder, which has been around even longer than Homer, though our understanding of it is only a recent development. Josey goes to war with the kind of noble intentions that only a young man can bring to that endeavor. He’s appalled at what he sees and horrified to discover that he’s good at killing people. We are accustomed to making heroes of men with a skill for killing when it’s justified. I wanted to explore what happens to a character when that book or movie ends. The war has made Josey something of a legend, but he’s not equipped psychologically to cope with his celebrity. I think of him as Achilles, cursed with a sensitive soul.
Belle is the readers’ surrogate. We see the world through her eyes, from the challenges of discreetly relieving oneself on a treeless plain to the wonder of the beauty she encounters at places like Scotts Bluff and the Yellowstone River. If you read the journals of women who went west, the experience of feeling liberated from the expectations of the east’s mannered society is rather common. I see Annabelle as someone who felt she always had to appear strong; in the West she can be strong.
I enjoyed researching and writing authentic history and thrilling action, but from the outset I knew this would be a character-driven story. Too often, critics of what we broadly call “genre fiction” act if we must choose: Do we want a great story or memorable characters? I want both! When I set out to write Trail Angel, I had in mind my favorite uncle who loves histories and thrillers and my aunt who prefers character-driven love stories. I wanted to write a book that would appeal to both of them.
Yes, they did. And my cousins, too. At the time, I told my wife, “Now we just have to see if people who aren’t related to me like it.”
On a simple level, this is the story of a road trip — one that lasts months and never gets going at more than a walking pace. The journey, of course, provides plenty of obstacles for the characters to overcome, but as the landscape changes, so do they. Annabelle, in particular, leaves behind the relative luxury of the Herndon House in Omaha for a rough world where even wearing the fashionably wide skirts of the time posed a mortal threat when cooking over an open flame. She has to adapt to survive, and the experience changes her. It’s a world where anything seems possible to her, and she finds that it suits her.
“Economic use of details.” I like that. It’s important that readers “see” the changing landscape in Trail Angel. The transition from rolling prairie to mountain streams marks the passage of time as much as the wagon train’s progress. Yet even if I imagined I had the skill to write pages of description on the sight of grass waving in the breeze or the pungency of a corral of oxen, I’m not confident most modern readers have the patience for that. I’ve been a journalist too long not to keep my audience in mind. I would love if readers come away from Trail Angel feeling they’ve learned something about the history and geography of the setting while being thoroughly entertained, but I’m not here to try to impress anyone with my literary aspirations.
One hundred and fifty years seems like a long time, but people’s nature hasn’t changed so much. Reading all the journals and contemporary literature I did really reinforced that for me. Annabelle’s reaction to her miscarriage is an example. Here’s this beautiful, intelligent young woman questioning her worth to society because she can’t have children. In that way, she reminds me of career women who feel they have to defend their choice to be childless or working mothers who fear they can’t live up to an expectation of perfection while balancing work and a satisfying home life.
Exactly. The idea that the wealthiest 1 percent have rigged the rules of society to benefit themselves is nothing new. If anything, the circumstances that have inspired all this debate about class warfare today are more in keeping with most of history. Though uneducated, Caleb is wise enough to see that the new world order emerging out of the war and the freeing of the slaves will be much the same for his lot as the old world order. His resentment motivates him to actions he probably wouldn’t have considered before the war.
It was important to me that Josey be relatable to a broad audience despite his prowess on the battlefield. In an era when just about everyone was using rifled muskets, a sixteen-shot repeating rifle provided a technological advantage that’s almost unmatched in history. Josey’s skills in battle extend beyond his use of the rifle, as we see, but the edge it gives him helps create this dichotomy between his lethal reputation and his thoughtful manner and mild appearance. I didn’t want a superhero; I wanted an average man with a superlative skill that fills him with regret.
While many freed slaves adopted new surnames after the war, I’m not aware of any who took up the names of English Romantic poets. In my mind, Lord Byron’s choice spoke to a great pride he maintained despite all that he’d been through, and to the closeness and comfort he felt with Josey and the Colonel. I wanted to convey all of that with just a few words instead of a hundred pages of backstory. One of the frustrations of writing a novel is that there are limits, at least in the expectations of readers, to how much detail you can fill in. Some writers reject those limits by producing 700-page novels. As a reader I enjoy imagining details of characters’ lives that aren’t spelled out on a page. In that way, readers can take ownership of a character as not just someone they’ve read about, but someone they know.
The Colonel is the literary workhorse of Trail Angel. He provides much of the exposition that’s necessary to any historic fiction; he’s the loquacious foil to Josey’s taciturnity who reveals character; as confidante to Josey and Annabelle, he’s the bridge that helps foster their romance. With so much responsibility for furthering the story, his character could have been tedious, but he felt anything but every time I started to write him. I’ve heard authors describe characters coming to life off the page, but I wasn’t sure I understood what that meant until I met the Colonel.
Some of my favorite chapters were those when we see the banter among the Colonel, Josey and Lord Byron. I wanted to hang out with these guys. Look, some will label Trail Angel as an adventure. Others might deem it foremost a love story. No one’s going to call Trail Angel a comic novel, but humor is a part of life. Humor is the grease that keeps all of the cogs turning in any workplace or family setting, and a wagon train is both of those things on some level. The publishing world can be so segregated about its genres that I think some authors feel prodded until they are relentlessly serious or grim. That’s just not a world I enjoy spending a lot of time in.
By 1866, the tribes along the Platte River road had been decimated by diseases introduced by the passage of the white settlers through their lands. The Fort Laramie treaty of 1851 had provided for safe passage for the whites along the Oregon Trail in exchange for an annuity of $50,000 — food and goods that didn’t always find their way to the Indians, which added to their suffering. Many settlers were disappointed by the Indians they encountered along the way, like seeing an underfed and mangy lion in a zoo (and the settlers very much would have equated Indians with a zoo display). Those who ranged into the Powder River region of present-day Wyoming confronted a different sort of Indian altogether.
The captain of the road agents is a bad guy — he’s greedy and selfish in a way that suggests a life of easy entitlement. But his act of betraying the Confederate cause during the war is justified in his mind by his rejection of slavery. It’s an accident of geography, he tells Josey at one point, that compelled him to fight for a side despite his reservations about their cause. While he clearly benefited financially from the institution of slavery, he strikes me as the type who would have been willing to negotiate a compromise if even that suggestion hadn’t been viewed as treasonous to his home state.
Yes, don’t do that!
Some readers — my wife included — didn’t care for that, but I felt I had no choice. Part of what makes Annabelle and Josey so interesting is that they carry these deep emotional wounds. While the romantic in me wants to believe love heals all wounds, I don’t believe that happens simply or quickly. Because Josey was coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, I feared it would be a betrayal to suggest that falling in love is all it takes to overcome those unseen wounds.
Falling in love was the easy part. Making it work — especially in a world where the Lakota nation is stirred up and determined to drive the army from their sacred hunting grounds — that’s the real challenge.