Over the course of the last forty years, I’ve written and published one book after another, all but one of them murder mysteries. Blessing of the Lost Girls, due out September 29, 2023, is number 66. In order to produce that many books, the writing process generally takes six months from beginning to end.
That tradition came to a grinding halt in 2021 when I started work on the most recent Ali Reynolds book, Collateral Damage. That one took a whole year. As I struggled to bring that book to order (I’m definitely a pantser as opposed to an outliner!) I kept thinking that maybe I had lost my mojo, and that would be the last book I ever wrote. Eventually, I finished it, and the handwork paid off because my readers loved it.
But in the meantime, when I was only a couple of months into the Collateral Damage ordeal, a friend called and told me the following story:
In the nineties, a serial killer roamed the West—a guy who happened to hate Indians. His version of hate crimes before “hate crimes” became a thing. His deal was to ride boxcars and push Indians under moving trains. He became known as the Boxcar Killer and is still, at this time, serving life without parole in prison.
Around that time, a Lakota named James was working in the rail yard of a small city in Oregon. That’s when he had his encounter with the Boxcar Killer. James was pushed under a moving train and dragged for a mile and a half before the train was able to stop. Cops were called to the scene. They declared him dead, zipped him into a body bag, and had him transported to the local morgue, which was located in the basement of the community hospital. A nurse who worked there and who was also Lakota happened to know James. That night, when she got off shift, she went down to wash his hair—a time honored Lakota custom.
When she unzipped the body bag, his arm came out because he wasn’t dead. He was immediately transported from the morgue to the OR for the first of the countless surgeries it took to duct tape him back together. He was in the hospital for months on end. He ended up being a paraplegic. He lost the use of his dominant hand. He had to learn how to speak again as well as how to read and write.
One of my friends and fans, a woman named Loretta, has children who are half Lakota. She was also a volunteer at the hospital where James was treated. During his many hospital stays and before he learned to read again, she went to his hospital room and read books to him. And because she’s a fan of my books, she read my books to him, including her favorites—the Walker Family books set on Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Reservation. James loved them.
Once he recovered enough, he spent the next twenty years of his life working with disaffected urban Indian youth in the Portland area, helping them “find the right path.” The last time my friend spoke to James was shortly before his death in the spring of 2021. On the phone, he told her, “Tell your friend she needs to write another Walker book. There aren’t enough Indian heroes in books”.
After James passed away in the spring of 2021, although his case will never come to court, his autopsy report says that he died as a result of homicidal violence, and he is counted as one of the Box Car Killer’s victims. After his death, he was transported back to the reservation, not in a casket but wrapped in a buffalo robe.
I grew up as one of seven children. Our mother had plenty of rules. At dinner, you had to eat a little of everything on your plate or no dessert. I’ve taken that rule into my writing career in that I’m not allowed to think about the next book until I finish the one I’m currently working on. So, the remainder of the time I was working on Collateral Damage, I didn’t allow myself to think about writing the book James wanted me to write. Still, once I cleaned my literary plate, it was time to write Blessing of the Lost Girls, and I did so, beginning to end, in two months flat!
The story flew together, in part, I believe, because writing it was a sacred charge given to me by a powerful Lakota warrior. And if you read Blessing and meet a character named John Wheeler, you’ll know at once that although James said there weren’t enough Indian heroes, now he is one.
J.A. Jance’s Website is www.jajance.com
Autographed books will be available from Mostly Books in Tucson, Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, and Brick and Mortar Books in Redmond, Washington.
Brian Lush is a music journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the founder of Rockwired.com and was the founding editor of Rockwired Magazine, which ran from 2012 through 2017. An enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe in Southeastern South Dakota, he studied Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He received his B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico.
Yankton Sioux writer Brian Lush spins a grim tale of war, occupation, and oppression in his debut novel Roger’s War – a gritty, dystopian coming-of-age story with a Native perspective.
With a war between Russia and Ukraine and a lull in a global pandemic, who wants to get lost in a tale of a world gone mad? It wasn’t exactly the kind of territory that writer Brian Lush wanted to mine in what would become his first novel, Roger’s War.
“This was where the muse led me,” says Lush. “The roots of his dystopian coming-of-age story stemmed from the nightmarish events of the 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shootings and the belief by some that teachers should be armed. “It was pretty wild to imagine high school teachers being armed and yielding that kind of control over kids. Children! Back then, I thought I had at least a short story on my hands. However, life got in the way, and I had other commitments, and the story never saw the light of day. The idea was in the back of my head and then snowballed. The pandemic, and then this little story I had in my head about the abuse of power became this huge novel on how one young boy survives.”
Roger’s War is a tense and frantic narrative that illustrates the life of a young man coming of age in a frightfully repressed society. The country once known as the United States of America has descended into a second civil war. Emerging from the devastation is a rogue nation called Heartland – a totalitarian theocracy under the rule of a maniacal, self-proclaimed prophet known simply as Father and his lethal military. Plucked from the ashes of a war-torn America is a half-Native/half-black fourteen-year-old named Roger Bretagne.
After losing his family to Heartland’s devastating blitzkrieg, Roger is rounded up and matriculated into this stark, repressed, and dangerous new world. His new parents are powerful predators, the quiet country town he lives in is an oppressive hamlet gripped by fear, and his school – under the control of the beastly schoolmaster Brother Isaac – emphasizes brutal indoctrination. Somehow, sanity must prevail. In cautiously navigating the rocky road of this toxic milieu, Roger finds love, allies, and a burgeoning resistance movement hellbent on destroying Heartland and building a glorious future. Whatever that entails.
Roger is not a first when it comes to first-person narratives in worlds gone mad, but his half-Sioux/half-black lineage is a definite first in Native American fiction. Roger is a character that was very unexpected to me. There were a lot of surprises in the writing of this book, but the character of Roger felt like a revelation. While I took great pains to create a character and not put myself or anyone I loved in a fascist society, I feel like I ended up putting myself there. Roger was more than just a window into this world. We share the same heritage. It feels like I’ve got skin in the game.
Roger’s War is available on Kindle and paperback through Amazon.com.
Phone: (505) 239-2666
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West. 2010 Modern Library Edition ed. New York, NY: Modern Library, 2010. Print.
Many consider Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian too violent to read. Violence begins on the second page and continues unabated to the end. McCarthy delivers a treatise on man’s inhumanity to man in the form of genocide. Blood is a constant theme as blood is spilled in one senseless massacre after another. Blood is not the result of conflict, but the reason for it.
McCarthy weaves what could be a series of short stories describing the worth or lack of indigenous people’s lives in the latter half of the nineteenth century west. The story, seen through the eyes of the narrator, follows the Kid and a gang of killers. McCarthy’s narrator never allows the reader inside the mind of the characters. We learn only what McCarthy wants as he develops his characters. He forces the reader to imagine one’s vision of the murderous thoughts. He is masterful in constructing his performers while forcing his readers to judge them.
McCarthy uses understated allegory to deliver messages that express what the characters are or what they represent. Spitting is used throughout as a symbol of the low regard the men have for anything, including human life. The insult of the act says more than dialogue could deliver. Wolves are symbolic actors. Almost daily, we see wolves. The humans and the wolves are representative of hunters looking for easy prey. The only difference, wolves kill for survival.
Glanton and his gang are inherently immoral, evil, clichés of bad guys in black hats. The governments of Mexico and the United States, equally evil, legitimatize genocide. This allowed for the ferocious and persistent murder and attempted extermination of the native peoples of both countries.
Genocide is the predominant theme. Except for the Delaware’s, the Indians are shown as savages. This holds even when the Diegueño Indians rescue the Kid and the ex-priest. “They would have died if the indians had not found them” (312). The narrator refers to these people as savages, as aborigines. “they saw the halfnaked savages crouched…” (312).
Two central characters, Glanton and the Judge, build upon the theme of genocide. Glanton, when he kills an old Indian woman sitting in the square of an impoverished Mexican village. When he sees three of his men squatting with her, he dismounts and kills her. “The woman looked up. Neither courage nor heartsink in those old eyes. He . . . put the pistol to her head and fired” (102). On the very next page, he confirms his complete contempt for life when he tells the only Mexican in his band to scalp the woman’s corpse with these chilling words, “Get that receipt for us” (103). She is nothing more than a hundred-dollar bounty.
The reader becomes almost inured to the violence. Once the butchery began, it seems as though there can be nothing more disturbing—there is—the Judge is evil incarnate. The gang surprises and attacks a large Indian encampment, “the partisans [Glanton’s men] nineteen in number bearing down upon the encampment where there lay sleeping upward of a thousand souls” (161). The Judge leaves the devastated village with a captured child, a ten-year-old boy. He treats the child humanely, and the boy becomes somewhat of a mascot. Three days later, the depth of the Judge’s evil is shown. “Toadvine saw him with the child as he passed with his saddle, but when he came back ten minutes later leading his horse the child was dead and the judge had scalped it” (170). The reader is left to wonder if the Judge killed the boy because he thrives on murder, or if he defiled the child and killed him afterward.
McCarthy’s colorful and graphic language adds significantly to the ability of the reader to see, understand, and experience the scenes and settings. Short and straightforward, his portrayal of the gang as they cross the desert, conveys in a few easy to read lines, in which the reader can feel, and smell the riders. “They rode on, and the wind drove the fine gray dust before them and they rode an army of graybeards, gray men, gray horses” (259).
The Kid, born into a violent world, dies a violent death forty-five years later. Some assume that the Judge, a pedophile, and sexual deviant, rapes the Kid and leaves him for dead. We’ll never know the answer.
McCarthy’s final message to the reader, evil cannot be eradicated; it lives forever.
No day is complete without a visit from Jim Bob. Day 7 he got a brochure for the battlefield museum at Exit 514. 8:00 a.m. we are running down I-90 when we pass a sign for the Little Big Horn Battlefield, Exit 509. Jim Bob kept a-going. We get to Exit 514. No battlefield.
The folks at the motel had told us of a good restaurant across from the park. No restaurant or park in sight. Wearing a sheepish grin, Jim Bob took off on the frontage road. He saw ‘his’ first road kill of the day, a horse. Now a horse is pretty good sized. Jim Bob pointed but I didn’t see a horse. Maybe the horse is with the brown bear Jim Bob saw a few days before.
Back at Exit 509 we find the battlefield and restaurant. The restaurant sits about 20 people, the gift holds a couple hundred. After the slowest service ever, we got our food. JAK was happy, not I. My over medium eggs were broken and hard. The hash browns were not exactly cold, but close. All is forgiven because the coffee was excellent.
Cathy and I ate there with son Jonathan about 30 years ago. He was 10. He never stopped talking not matter how much we cajoled, promised or threatened. One time I offered him $10 to stop talking for 10 minutes. He didn’t last 5 minutes. I kept the $10.
We asked the manager about road conditions heading east. I told him; “I can take either I-90 or US 212. 212 looks shorter and more interesting.”
He said, “212 is quicker and a better ride, but it was closed yesterday by heavy smoke.”
I beg to differ. The road was closed by fire. Only two miles east the fire had come down and jumped 212.
After eating we went to the battlefield. Our Senior Park Access passes got us in for free. JAK had never been to the battlefield, this was my third visit. It has changed over the years. The first time I visited was probably 35 years ago. Then it was mostly good soldier, bad Indian. Now the presentation is more evenly matched with an explanation from the Sioux’s point of view. They and their allies were cheated and mistreated.
The battlefield is on the Crow Indian Reservation. They conduct bus tours, we should have taken one. We heard a young Crow Indian speaking. He pointed out where events had taken place. If I ever visit here again, the tour will be a must do. The Indian warriors who died here have much newer and nicer monuments than the soldiers.
Afterwards we got gas at a gigantic gas station. All they had was unleaded regular. Before I got to Belle Fourche, South Dakota, I had to fill two more times with unleaded regular.
JAK and I part company
JAK rode to Casper, Wyoming where he stayed in a very upscale Best Western, with bar, restaurant, pool, and laundry. His rent was $105. I stayed in Motel Kozy, Spearfish, South Dakota for $118. I didn’t have any of those amenities. I had cinder block walls and a bar next door full of noisy bikers.
US 212 is an excellent two lane road, wide and well maintained. For most of the 235 miles I was on it, my cruise control was set at 75.
The first burned area, only two miles from the restaurant, was still smoldering. It stretched for six miles. The fire had jumped the road in a few places. Over the next 60+ miles, I never went more than five miles between fresh burns. Most of the farm homes were islands in a sea of black. The firefighters worked heroically to save them. I saw only one burnt to the ground. I heard that about 60 homes had been lost.
The temperature never dropped below 100.
I got to Spearfish, and changed into shorts and a tank top. I had to show off the tattoos. Without JAK to nag me, I put the helmet away. I held my speed to 80-85 for the ride into Sturgis.
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally begins the first Monday in August. This was the first day of the rally and my sixth or seventh visit. I usually arrive when it is in full swing. Things were a little subdued compared to what I’ve experienced. The population of the town is about 8,500. During the rally they expect at least 500,000 bikers to pass through.
At least ten blocks of Main Street are for motorcycles only. Bikes are parked on each side of the road and two deep in the center. Side streets are set up the same way.
I got an “I rode mine” patch. Many haul their bikes in trailers; I’ve been guilty of that sin.
I walked around until 7:00 p.m., ate nasty food, visited the Jack Daniels site and had my one drink. It was 95 degrees. When I got to Spearfish the sun was blocked by clouds. It was still 90.