I could write a whole book about the decade that I spent researching and writing One Is the Sun, between 1980 and 1990. It was a turning point in my life.
It was from tribal relatives of mine that I first heard stories about Earth Thunder, a great woman healer who lived in southwest Montana Territory during the mid-1800s, at a time when the fur trade was waning and the gold rush hadn't happened yet. I had connected with Northern Cheyenne author Hyemeyohsts Storm, who turned out to be a cousin of mine -- we're related through the labyrinthine family networks of old-time Montana mixed-blood families. The story had huge serendipity for me -- I had grown up in the Deer Lodge Valley, right where Earth Thunder had had her camp in the old days. The Black Lodge mounds, so familiar to her, were still visible in an 80-acre pasture northeast of our ranchhouse.
I was so enthralled by Earth Thunder's story that I determined to write a great big rich historical novel, my first, with this woman as its central dynamic character. I was especially excited to be portraying tribal women and children in a way that had never been done yet. Far from the subservient and subdued roles that they usually have in standard American fiction and Hollywood films, women and children played a dynamic and key role in the life of every camp.
Into the story I also wove a German immigrant family like my own German ancestors, who had arrived on the Montana frontier during those days. My greatgrandfather Conrad Kohrs hoofed it into Montana in 1860 and became a business partner of John Grant, the wealthiest metis (mixed-blood) in Montana. Through Grant he socialized widely with the metis traders and free tribal peoples still migrating through the Deer Lodge Valley, and got his first foothold in the Western stock trade. Like the German family in my story, my own German antecedents were decidedly tinged with lingering paganism. Humanist and progressive, they detested the churchy Prussian imperialism that was beginning to take over northern Germany at that time, and left for the United States.
I began work on the book in 1980, doing intensive research that took me on a Medicine Journey all over the American West, from Chaco Canyon into Canada, interviewing white, native and mixed-blood descendants of people who lived in Montana during the mid-1800s, as well as many old Medicine Chiefs and learned people who were still around, living both on and off the reservations. Some of the people I interviewed are dead now.
I had the naive idea that I was going to finish the book in a couple of years. But I underestimated the time and effort that it would take for me to "unlearn" decades of white European JudaeoChristian cultural condition, so I could see into my non-Christian story with non-Christian eyes. Fortunately Ballantine hung in there with me, encouraged by chapters, and later rewrites, that I sent them.
The book is fictionalized to some degree. There were huge gaps in the material that came to me from oral tradition, and I had to fill them somehow. I wanted to create a seamless and exciting story that "worked," that would bring the story to a wide audience. I didn't want to do a lifeless piece of research laden with footnotes, that might be read only by a handful of scholars and Western-history buffs. In spite of fictionalizing, everything that I put in the book was based in some way on real-life fact, from the healing ceremonies to the arrival in that changing country of the humble chicken.
For instance, from my native relatives, I heard many stories about white outlaws who came into the country and amused themselves by committing outrageous atrocities against isolated bands of native people. These men were never brought to justice for their deds, because many whites didn't concern themselves with these things. Seldom did my tribal informants know the name of the "road agent" who had tortured and murdered their greatgrandparents. So I created the character of John Hiller, fictional badman, to cover all those real-life bases. After the gold rush started, Montana pioneers did start worrying about the road agents when they started robbing and murdering white people for their gold. The reign of Montana "road agents" came to an end when the now-famous Vigilantes hung a number of outlaws. My own greatgrandfather participated in these Vigilante operations, so there was information about this aspect of the story that was available to me from the white side of my family oral tradition as well.
In 1990 I finally gave Ballantine the completed manuscript. While they edited, I spent the next six months creating the 43 black-and-white line drawings that stud the book. The drawings were needed because so many Americans today have no idea what the tools and other items of everyday life in the mid-1800s looked like, whether the common trade knife that every tribal woman and man carried at all times, or the type of rugged wagon that white men first drove into that country, over Indian trails where even a covered wagon couldn't go -- the frontier equivalent of the SUV.
The years of struggle and thought that produced One Is the Sun enabled me, in the 1990s, to return to my series of novels about gay life with new maturity and imagination. I couldn't have written Harlan's Race, Billy's Boy or The Wild Man if I hadn't written One Is the Sun.