Today I’m happy to welcome back author Smoky Trudeau Zeidel (On the Choptank Shores, The Cabin). Her new novel, The Storyteller’s Bracelet (out this month from Vanilla Heart Publishing) is a historical romance set in the late 1800s during the period when the U. S. Government forced Indian youths into boarding schools where they would learn the “American way of life.” (See my preview of the book here.)
Malcolm: What is a storyteller’s bracelet, and what gave you the idea of using one as the centerpiece in your story about two young Indians from the southwest?
Smoky: A storyteller’s bracelet is a silver bracelet engraved with pictographs that tell some sort of story. My sister Bonnie gave me one as a gift about five years ago. I knew immediately I wanted to create a story about such a bracelet.
Malcolm: While the culture of Otter and Sun Song appears to influenced by the ways of the Tewa and Diné, your protagonists’ tribe isn’t identified in the novel. What led to your decision not to use a specific Indian nation for their background?
Smoky: You’re right about the Tewa and Diné/Navajo, but there also are Hopi influences in the story. I decided not to identify a specific tribe because I’m not Indian, and I didn’t want readers to presume that I am. I did not want to presume to know how a member of a specific tribe would act in any particular situation. Plus, I wanted to be able to pull aspects of different tribal lore into my story, especially when it came to telling the creation stories, because the different stories are beautiful. Also, by not identifying a particular tribe, I was able to bend the stories just a bit to fit the novel. I wouldn’t have felt right doing that if I had identified a particular tribe.
Malcolm: Like many young Indians, Otter and Sun Song were sent away to a white-run Indian school where the intent was to remove the students’ Indian language, beliefs, and culture and replace English, Christianity, and white clothing styles and laborer skills. Most of us didn’t hear about this in our high school history classes. It must have been difficult to place your characters into such an environment. How did you cope with this during the writing process?
Smoky: No, we didn’t hear about the Indian Schools in our history classes, just as we didn’t hear about the Japanese Interment camps. History often has overlooked the ugly things our culture has done, and these are just two examples of that. It was hard to place Sun Song and Otter in the school, but it was crucial to the plot. I also wanted to bring some awareness of what our government did to all the Indian Nations by ripping children and young people away from their tribes, their families, their culture. It was a shameful thing to do. Most of the time, when I was writing particularly tense scenes at the school, I raged at my computer. I felt really angry, even ashamed to have white skin. I guess, in a way, The Storyteller’s Bracelet is an apology to indigenous people everywhere for the way my birth tribe–white people of European descent–treated them.
Malcolm: The Storyteller’s Bracelet has a touch of magical realism in it, as does your earlier novel The Cabin. In both novels, the magic is a natural outgrowth of the places and the characters’ beliefs. Do you often wonder if such magic exists in “real life,” or do you approach it more as a viable storytelling technique?
Smoky: It is, of course, a viable storytelling technique, and is an integral part of the plot of The Storyteller’s Bracelet, as it was in my earlier novel, The Cabin. But yes, I do believe such magic exists in real life, at least for those of us who know how to tap into it. I’ve experienced it firsthand on several occasions. Does my body physically move from one plane to another in a different place and time, like in my books? No–at least, I don’t think so. But I have traveled to a cave in a faraway mountain range to converse with a Spirit Bear, and I have found myself transported to an island on a raft that is pushed by a great gray whale, with whom I also converse. Is it magic? Or is it imagination? I’m not sure there’s a difference.
Malcolm: Otter and Sun Song are in touch with their environment and treat wild creatures and special places there with respect. This reminded me of your own approach to nature as you wrote about it in Observations of an Earth Mage. Did your own view of the natural world help you tell Otter’s and Sun Song’s story or did you have to “step away” from your own views to allow your characters’ views to be truly their own?
Smoky: No, I didn’t have to step away. Sun Song and Otter are like my own children–I created them, gave birth to them. It was critical to me that they shared my belief that we are all one with nature, neither above nor below every living creature, whether it be the smallest of insects or the powerful mountain lion or brown bear. We are nature. All of us. Intentionally harming any living thing is like harming a family member, for we are all the same, we are all one, to Mother Nature.
Malcolm: As a historical romance, The Storyteller’s Bracelet focuses on the feelings between Otter and Sun Song as well as the forbidden and dangerous feelings between Otter and the white girl Wendy whom he meets in the town where the Indian school is located. However, since these relationships unfold on a much broader canvas than the classic love triangle, were the two women a planned part of the plot from the outset or were you simply “following your characters” as you wrote when Wendy appeared on the scene?
Smoky: The two women were always in the planned plot, but they ended up being much feistier that I ever imagined. Sun Song, for example, in my initial story idea had a much smaller role than she ended up with. I ended up following her, because she made it clear this was to be her story as much as Otter’s. My planned original ending is nothing like how the actual novel turned out. Following Sun Song’s lead, I was able to work my way to these characters’ true story. And both I and the publisher, Kimberlee Williams of Vanilla Heart Publishing, think this story is much, much better than the one I originally planned.
Malcolm: Thank you, Smoky.
Where to find Smoky on the Internet