Today I’m interviewing historian and writer, Dan Strawn about his recent release, The Dead Possum Gang. Stick around at the end of the interview for my review of the book.
Current events suggest that America is facing considerable internal unrest at the moment. As an historian who brings American history to life through fiction, what lessons from history do you hope your fellow Americans might take to heart right now?
Lame Bird saves helpless Isaac Ramsey even though he is the enemy, Martin protects a German soldier’s pregnant French wife from a Parisian mob, Tom, a descendant of a Nez Perce warrior, falls in love with Seesee, the great granddaughter of an Arkansas slave, Sara understands there really isn’t much difference between the Nez Perce saga of the sea monster and Elijah riding into heaven in a chariot, and Rick discovers his own racial biases when football season rolls around. I want Americans to understand we are all the same when it comes to being born, living a life, and perishing. All that other stuff—skin color, national origin, religion, et al—is just window dressing that makes each of us intriguing and special. Embracing our commonality while celebrating our diversity is, in my mind, the key to realizing the promise our forefathers’ dreams for us. That noble notion is a common theme in all my novels.
Your novels are ultimately character-driven but they’re also imbued with a wonderful sense of place. How important is the setting to you, or could your novels be set anywhere, the same story being just as effective if told in another context?
A story with the same characters in a different setting can be just as effective as any one of my stories. But, that wouldn’t be the same story. Setting is an integral part of the plot and theme. Setting stages the conflict for the protagonist and the antagonist and allows resolution to occur gracefully. Setting imbues characters with a proper sense of who they are with respect to where they are. For these reasons, setting is important to readers.
When I wrote Lame Bird’s Legacy, I took a special trip to the Idaho Panhandle just to immerse myself in the setting I was writing about. I can’t divorce my protagonist from where he/she is any more than I can separate myself from places I’ve lived. I’ve always felt that way to some extent—haven’t lived in Idaho for seven decades, but have to go back as often as I can. And studying the Nez Perce for so long has given me a slice of their hallowed respect for their homeland. Hence, their story is an integral part of the setting, so I write about it. As I said, readers need to know.
The Southern California setting I wrote about in The Dead Possum Gang is gone now, overwhelmed by asphalt and people. There is no going back, only remembering, only inventing Rick and Diane and melding characters out of a phalanx of boys I knew in that lost era.
Your publisher’s blurb for The Dead Possum Gangstates: “Adventures with an American flavor reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Tom and Huck.” Is this a happy accident, or did you deliberately set out to pay homage to one of America’s greats?
No, not an accident. As far as I’m concerned, he is the stand-alone American Great.
Huckleberry Finn was my inspiration for The Dead Possum Gang. I wanted to take a shot at doing what Mark Twain did—write a story about the magic of boyhood that would appeal to emerging young adults as well as their parents.
I first read Mark Twain as a twelve-year-old. I discovered A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in the family bookshelf, and I was hooked on Twain. Over the years I managed to read more of his work, either by happy discovery or school assignment—Tom Sawyer, Letters From The Earth, most of his short stories and essays, especially that crazy piece about the German language—required reading in my college German class, but not until we too, like Twain, struggled with Deutsche for a semester or two.
Huck Finn—I picked him off the bookshelf when I was thirteen or so, then read him again in freshman English class, and again as a sophomore in college.
Mark Twain remains my great American hero. Why? Because he wrote well and told stories that wakened us to our shortcomings as a people.
Your five favorite novelists growing up? And now? Any parallels between those two lists?
Wow! That’s a tough one. I read so many, I don’t know if I can remember them all. I’ll leave Twain out of both; you already know he belongs there.
As a youth—Robert Louis Stevenson—Kidnapped Treasure Island, The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses; Jack London, The Call of the Wild, White Fang;S. Forester, Horatio Hornblower; Pearl S Buck, Other Gods, The Hidden Flower; James Mitchener, Tales of the South Pacific, et al.
As an adult—Larry McMurtry—Lonesome Dove; Pat Conroy—The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides; Amy Tan—the Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter’s Daughter; John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Sweet Thursday; Michael and Jeff Shaara, The Killer Angels, The Fateful Lightning.
Similarities? All of them are thorough professionals when it comes to writing. All of them know how to tell stories that entertain while challenging the reader to examine themselves. Pearl S. Buck in The Hidden Flower dealt with passion with the same tenderness that Michener did in Tales of the South Pacific. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is the consummate Western for its realistic characterizations and brio; there is nothing to match that in my youthful fiction reading. Michael and Jeff Shaara are the best at bringing historical characters to life. Their stories carry the same can’t-put-it-down tension as Michener, London and Forester. Conroy and Tan can build characters you can’t forget. So too, can Stevenson, London, and Forester.
There are others we could talk about, but you only ask for five each. I think I’ve been influenced in my early writing by poetry, short fiction and non-fiction prose as much as I was by novels. Somerset Maugham’s short stories, Walt Whitman, Robert Louis Stevenson, Shakespeare (who can’t be moved by the Rape of Lucretia), another battalion or two of poets, both English and American, and a forgotten legion of nonfiction memoirs, biographies, and historical perspectives.
What aspects of Dan Strawn and his personal history have you borrowed to develop your characters in The Dead Possum Gang?
There was a girl next door, but she had several brothers, and as far as I knew they were all nice guys, not the creep that Larry is in the story. There was a Mrs. Bagan, although I’m not sure that was her name. As in The Dead Possum Gang, she was Polish, and she tended her own garden and sang a lot. The boys? They are all made up, a conglomeration of those I knew growing up in Idaho and California.
I used a lot of the settings from my personal life. Aunt Marge’s farm was my Uncle Pete and Aunt Ruth’s Farm. The orange groves that crowded into the city limits in Riverside, California, the beaches, the desert, the ride down the Santa Ana Canyon on a three lane highway, the schools, even the hideout where the boys found the dead possum come out of my personal history.
You and your wife Sandi are great travelers. Has travel influenced your writing, and in what ways?
Prior to retirement, I’d been to Canada and Mexico multiple times. I loved going to either one, for the scenery for sure, but more for the people. For the most part, both Mexicans and Canadians validated my notion that people, at least common people, were likeable because down deep they eschewed the views of Nietzshe and Ryand in favor of the Golden Rule.
Serious travel, the kind that takes one out of the continent, occurred too late in life to seriously influence my writing. That said, late in life travels have done wonders in expanding my awareness of the world. I have a few more stories left in me. If I find the time and energy in my dotage, impressions from my travels will no doubt show up on a page of a novel or short story.
Can we talk briefly about your Nez Perce Collection? We’re talking about three fantastic novels now released (July 2016) as an omnibus collection. You are one of only a very few writers whom I know of, writing about Nez Perce people and their culture. Where do you go for your research? Any one little tidbit of research that struck you while writing these books that you would like share with us? If, after reading the omnibus, readers are interested in finding out more, can you suggest other books we should check out?
Good question: the research started in my boyhood. When I was twelve I suffered from a serious illness that kept me out of school for several months. I was not quite bed-ridden, but I was restricted from all but the most sedentary physical activity. Already a voracious reader, I turned to books to occupy my time. I consumed virtually everything about North American history and North American Indians in the Riverside Public Library. That solidified an already burgeoning interest in American history, especially Indians and the Civil War.
Soon after, my aunt sent me a non-fiction book called Yellow Wolf, His Own Story. This book turned out to be the seminal piece of history that looked at the Nez Perce War of 1877. Reading it started my love affair with the Nez Perce and their story. I was, after all an Idaho boy, and all Idaho boys of that era knew about Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce.
When I retired, I volunteered with The Nez Perce National Park, and spent several summers interpreting the Nez Perce experience to visitors at Wallowa Valley in eastern Oregon and the Big Hole Battlefield in Montana. The picture of the Big Hole Memorial on the cover of Lame Bird’s Legacy is mine. I’ve also taught multiple courses about the Nez Perce and other Northwest history for the Mature Learning division of Clark College in Vancouver. In 2008, I took a bus load of students to eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, and Idaho to see first-hand those places we studied about. I continue in this Nez Perce interpretation role by doing presentations at local schools and senior living facilities.
The best nonfiction reference to the Nez Perce War of 1877 remains L. V. McWhorter’s Yellow Wolf, His Own Story. The definitive work on the post Columbian Nez Perce People is Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.’s The Nez Perce Indians and The Opening of the Northwest. For a contemporary Indian view of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, check out Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006.
You and Sandi have wonderfully close-knit extended family – a large one! Any stories you’d especially like to write for them?
I’ve already written them. Each of my stories, poems and essays have family in the back of my mind. The Dead Possum Gang, especially falls into this for-the-family category. The decision to write it came when one of my daughters, herself a mother, commented on how the times we lived in (post 9/11), what with terrorism and all that implies, gave parents worries that were unique to her generation. My immediate thought was how wrong she was. My mind drifted to those awful World War II times. I was six-years-old and visiting my grandmother on her and Granddad’s farm in Meridian, Idaho when they came and told her my Uncle Gail, Grandma’s youngest child, would be coming home from Italy in a box. I thought about the nights my mother cried herself to sleep over the latest newspaper and radio reports from Korea, where my older brother was fighting with the Eighth Army. I thought about Kennedy squaring off with Khrushchev over Cuba and nuclear missiles pointing at each other, and polio in our backyards. And I thought about the special ways we fought off the angst with what the magical world of orange groves, beaches, desert, mountains and buddy-hood offered. I was in the midst of another story then. But the need to tell the story of the Dead Possum Gang’s tale persisted until I could sit down and write it—for all who would read it, but mostly for family.
For more information and further reviews about Dan’s work check out Uvi Poznansky’s blogspot.
Lee’s Review of The Dead Possum Gang.
Several years ago, I beta-read the draft of a short story named ‘Son’ by US historical fiction writer, Dan Strawn. It was an interesting departure for this writer, who I’d known for period fiction novels based on events in Nez Perce history. The short story was a keenly-described slice of life from suburban America told from the perspective of a six-year-old struggling to understand events unfolding around him. I liked it a great deal and clearly it resonated for some others as well because it went on to win Idaho Magazine’s Annual Short Fiction Contest. So, when I learned that Strawn had expanded on the story and made a novel of it, I was intrigued. The Dead Possum Gang is not Strawn’s usual style, a treatment of an historical event or a series of events, but instead reads as a memoir, a story told in the margins of major world events by a boy who is helpless to affect any of it. What was it like to grow up in America in the aftermath of World War II, at the onset of the Korean War, polio, and with the all-pervasive threat of atomic warfare tainting your every day? How did it affect your after-school time? Your summer break? Whether or not your friends moved to another neighbourhood?
In terms of style, other reviewers have mentioned a parallel to Twain, and yes there are some connections, but The Dead Possum Gang reminded me more of Brent Leslie’s recent YA novel Milk Bar Warriors, an account of a school boy coming of age in late WWII New Zealand. Likewise, Strawn’s characters are well drawn and recognisable: Rick the Dick, Hard-on, Teach, and the ebullient pipsqueak Frog. Both stories deal with coming of age, pivotal moments in which boys change from boys to men with all the awkwardness and angst that irrevocable transition involves.
As always, Strawn excels at the detail, his writing full of simple yet effective imagery which serves to make Rick’s story tangible. For example, beginning in Idaho, the family is transferred to California where the summer sun puts the “final leather on the soles of our bare feet” and the nights are so hot that characters are “poached in our own sweat”. Small observations make Strawn’s prose pop. The Dead Possum Gang is a feel-good story in a way, although there’s no Disney-esque conclusion. It’s also an important document, a snapshot of childhood life in the turbulent post-war 1950s.