Historical Amnesia

Letting my book’s characters speak for me, I voice my dismay that human beings seem incapable of learning from past atrocities. I hope that The Last Shade Tree will make a dent in this seemingly willful amnesia.

Looking back, I see my high school history classes as one big maneuver to avoid presenting the ugly facts from our nation’s past. Perhaps my generation was shielded from harsh realities that later generations would hear about. Or suppressing the facts could have been the policy of my school district and many others all over the country. Education always seems to prefer nice-sounding myths about our country’s virtues and achievements over its blind spots and failures. When my heroine Aleta is forced to time-travel back to the week before Pearl Harbor, she witnesses first-hand the internment of Japanese American citizens: “Aleta frantically scoured her memory for what she’d learned in her high school history class [c. 1960], but she could not recall a word in her textbook about this human catastrophe.” 

When I started writing The Last Shade Tree, I had no idea where I was going. As the books began to stack up on my desk and my research intensified, I couldn’t believe that so many dreadful episodes had somehow been swept under the rug. And thus I came up with “historical amnesia,” the concept especially urgent today as our world lurches again toward exclusivity, racial hatred, totalitarianism, and, worst of all, nuclear war. Some of the book’s episodes have been in the public eye for a while, such as Japanese internment after Pearl Harbor and the Cherokee Trail of Tears. But what about Drancy, the Indian residential schools, or the Roma in Nazi camps? Add in the right-wing historical revisionists and the deniers, and let me say, we as a nation are in big trouble! 

Propelled through condensed time, principal character Aleta witnesses more than a century of genocidal history that is unfortunately not fantasy but inspired by real events. In despair, she says, “Those horrible places I went to in the past ... I thought none of it could ever happen again. I thought people had learned…. I know thousands will die because some people think they’re right and everyone else is wrong. And not just this time. It’s going to happen over and over.”

Source: https://richard-panofsky.squarespace.com/config/pages/59fb923a0d929751059cd525

Mythology in my novel

As in many myths and sagas, the backbone of The Last Shade Tree is the hero’s quest or journey—both external within the world, and internal within the self. Sequoyah most resembles two mythological heroes, Moses and Ulysses. The first hero leads his people to a new place, and the second hero spends many years seeking a way home as he cares for his band of similarly stranded adventurers.    The story begins when Sequoyah is four years old and an unwilling captive in a Cherokee residential school. When he is eight, he composes a poem: “Old Man Moses ate the roses, /Meanie Matron broke his noses.” It seems like a nonsense rhyme, but it is not. The child Sequoyah is already a poet who tries to assimilate the beauty he sees around him. He is prevented from doing so by the Establishment that breaks him in every way possible. Did Sequoyah know what his poem meant? Probably not, but it is his first creation, and it mentions one of the heroes that he will emulate eventually when he and his small band of fellow travelers journey to the future world. Later he has a vision about himself as Baby Moses, and shortly thereafter he begins preparations for the journey. 

Ulysses, on his way home from Troy, had to choose between the wrath of one or the other of two sea monsters, Charybdis or Scylla. In fact, one of the novel’s final chapters bears their names. Sequoyah’s “Charybdis and Scylla moment” happens in the previous chapter, “Babloons,” when he faces two options: to either accept or reject help from the future world’s dominant species, creatures highly evolved from their original kind. The choice is rigged, of course: each option is equally awful. He decides to accept their help, which protects the clan members from the coming winter, but at the expense of their freedom. For better and worse, it is the logical choice for a person with his caring nature.

The heroine’s name, Aleta, means “traveler” in Greek, and she, too, participates in multiple journeys, both real and symbolic. Aleta and Sequoyah, husband and wife, must mimic Ulysses’ journey home, but not to a real place. Their journey is internal—to the symbolic centers of their joined hearts.

Real myths that are interwoven throughout the book include two Cherokee stories: The Haunted Whirlpool” and “Cherokee Rose.” Both occur at significant turning points. In “The Haunted Whirlpool,” Sequoyah sees his future in a vision, and in ”Cherokee Rose,” his teenage daughter, Svnoyi, who is both as fragile and as tough as the flower in the myth, understands how her future will tie to his. Many myths appear as passing references, some serious, and others, as cynical jests: The myth of Sisyphus, Hercules and the Augean Stables, Leda and the Swan, Niobe and the death of her children, and many, many others. 

Perhaps the strangest achievement in the novel is the evolution of new myths that spring from the horrors of true historical events: the magic wolf pack during the WW II persecution of the Roma or the tale of the golden eagle pair on the Cherokee Trail of Tears. A most powerful mythological figure is Aleta’s almost animate Italian violin, made in 1838, the year that coincides with the Trail of Tears. It tends to scream when the people in its life are suffering. There on the Trail, Sequoyah’s great-great-great grandmother had tied a rope around the neck of the violin case, and she “drug it, that thing howlin’ up a storm inside, all the way to Oklahoma like a pup on a leash.” 

Source: https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/15872377-mythology-in-the-last-shade-tree

The Last Shade Tree

How did I dream up The Last Shade Tree, a strange book by any definition? When I was fifteen, a frightening polar-route flight home from Europe to San Francisco forced an emergency landing at the air force base in Frobisher Bay, Canada (now Iqaluit), at the Arctic Circle. It was mid-winter. Shivering in the sub-zero air, I was amazed by the intensity of the Northern Lights—and decided to write about it one day. Many years later, pieces of that experience have inspired several chapters. But what truly shaped the book and its peculiar story are my fears for our future. I have watched the world lurch from bad to worse to bad and back again—more times than I can count. Letting my characters speak for me, I voice my dismay that human beings seem incapable of learning from past atrocities. But I didn’t want to preach, so I imagined a story that would be fun, thought provoking, terrifying, and a great adventure all at the same time. I hope I’ve succeeded, and that The Last Shade Tree will sweep readers off their feet as they share in my characters’ extraordinary journey across the world and through time, always battling the intensity of their heightened emotions.

Source: https://www.lastshadetree.com/new-blog/