Exclusive Interview: Kathleen O’Neal & W. Michael Gear Discuss THE DAWN COUNTRY

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Recently I was given the opportunity to read and review THE DAWN COUNTRY by Kathleen O’Neal and W. Michael Gear. I absolutely loved the book and have recommended it to pretty much all of my friends.

I was lucky enough to get a chance to send a few questions to the authors about The Dawn Country. Take a look at the interview below (and go buy the book!)

The characters in “The Dawn Country” are some of the most realistic and well written characters that I’ve ever read. The main characters like Koracoo, Gonda, Odion, etc. are they based on actual tribe members or are they strictly fictional?

Kathleen O’Neal & W. Michael Gear: Yes, many of the characters in The Dawn Country are based upon Iroquoian oral history: Koracoo, Odion, Wrass, and Atotarho, were all probably real people. However, in native societies people often undergo name changes, and that will be the case with all of these characters except Atotarho. A person’s name can change for many reasons, valiant conduct in war, or when a child from another nation is adopted. One of the most interesting name change traditions occurs when the soul of someone who has died is “requickened” in a living person. The clan mothers are the keepers of names. In the Requickening Ritual, the clan mothers call up the soul of the dead person, embodied in his or her name, and transfer it to a living person. In this way, the wisdom of the people is never lost. The dead continue to advise and participate in the daily life of villages. So, several of the characters will undergo name changes and become the historical figures known as Jigonsaseh, Dekanawida, and Hiyawento (Koracoo, Odion, and Wrass.)

Gannajero is a pretty terrifying person when you really think about her. Is she (or her premise) an actual Iroquoian myth?

Kathleen O’Neal & W. Michael Gear: Gannajero, the evil old woman who captures children and sells them into slavery, is a composite figure based upon a series of Iroquoian legends about the Workers of Evil. For example, in The Story of Okteondon, the Eagle Women carry away children. Or the story of the Vampire Skeleton, where even death cannot stop the Evil-Worker from thirsting for human blood. In this story, a woman is afraid the vampire skeleton is coming for her baby. To protect her child, she flees through the forest with the evil chasing her, its eyes glowing like red flames. Another of our favorites is the story of The Stone Coat Woman whose skin is made of flint. She secretly enters lodges and steals children to eat them. Many evil-workers are associated with birds, as is Gannajero, who is also known as “The Crow.”

What made you choose to have children as the main characters that are in danger? I find that in movies and print writers tend to skirt around the idea of any harm coming to children. Yet, “The Dawn Country” not only explores it, but makes it one of the primary topics.

Kathleen O’Neal & W. Michael Gear: We chose to tell the story partly through the eyes of children because we know from historical records that children were often the targets of Iroquoian warfare. Clan matrons dispatched war parties whose sole goal was to steal children and bring them back so that they could be adopted into the clan to replace members who’d been lost in battle. When you tell a war story just through the eyes of adults, the horror rarely hits a visceral level. Adults watching other adults can stay above of the horror, and just observe it happening. We practice this skill every day when we watch the evening news. We needed to find a way of thrusting the reader into the ferocious warfare of fifteenth century North America. Seeing the story unfold through the eyes of children brings it home in a way nothing else can.

How many more novels are you planning for the People of the Longhouse series?

Kathleen O’Neal & W. Michael Gear: The People of the Longhouse saga is a quartet of books. The first duology chronicles the childhoods of the leading characters, and the second duology follows them as adults. This is an important, actually a critical, moment in the formation what would become known as “The Free World.” It deserves four books.

What was the hardest part of writing “The Dawn Country”? Knowing what you know about the history of the world that you were writing, was it difficult to inject fiction into that world?

Kathleen O’Neal & W. Michael Gear: Writing fiction based upon archaeology and history is a balancing act. We always start with the archaeological record. It establishes the basic facts of what was happening in the 1400s. For example, we know from the burned villages and mutilated bodies, including those of children, that the warfare was brutal. Then we move to the historical record, and ask, what was the culture like at the point of contact with Europeans? By studying the Mourning Wars of the 1600s we get a clearer understanding of the practice of Iroquoian warfare, particularly how captives were taken and treated. Lastly, we study the oral history that has been passed down for centuries. There are literally hundreds of versions of the Peacemaker story.

For us, the hardest part of writing these books was selecting which details of Iroquoian oral history to use. We had to establish a kind of oral history baseline, which means that we looked for commonalities in the stories. Where many versions agreed, like on the subject of where Dekanawida was born, we used that detail. If stories disagreed dramatically, for example on what happened to him at the end of his life, we had real decisions to make. For the most part, we try to write about human beings, not divine beings, and that posed a problem here. Some versions of the Peacemaker story have Dekanawida establishing peace among the Iroquois, then traveling across the ocean to become the person known as Jesus. We chose not to use this element of oral history, not because we disbelieve, but rather because it seemed unlikely that this was part of the Peacemaker story prior to the arrival of missionaries in the 1600s. Making such decisions is, undoubtedly, the greatest challenge of writing prehistorical fiction.

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