by Helen Sedwick
Paperback, 244 pages
Published November 8th 2012 by Ten Gallon Press
COYOTE WINDS is an historical novel set on the western prairie in the years before the Dust Bowl, a time of optimism and confidence, a time when a man was measured by what he produced, not what he could buy. It explores the American can-do spirit that drew people to this wind-swept frontier and the consequences of that spirit. It asks whether that spirit survives today.
When thirteen-year old Myles brings home a coyote pup half-blinded by a dust storm, his father warns him a coyote can’t be trusted. His neighbor loads his rifle and takes aim. Yet Myles is determined to tame the pup just as his father is taming the land. The time is 1930. Tractors and fertilizers are transforming the prairie into the world’s breadbasket. The American dream is within every man’s reach. But when drought turns these dreams into paint-stripping, crop-killing dust, Myles wonders if they have made a mistake trying to tame the untamable. Seventy years later, when Andy remembers his Grandpa Myles’s tales about growing up on the prairie, he wonders what stories he will tell when he has grandchildren. Algebra, soccer practice, computer games, the mall? Determined to keep his grandfather’s memories alive and have some adventures of his own, Andy heads out to discover what’s left of the wild prairie.
Inspired by her father’s tales of growing up during the Dust Bowl, Sedwick weaves insight, humor, historical details and unforgettable characters into a coming-of-age story that reminds us that chasing a dream, even if it brings heartache, is far better than not dreaming at all.
"Well-crafted, entertaining read..."
EXPLORING THE AMERICAN SPIRIT
COYOTE WINDS follows the adventures of a boy and his coyote living on the prairie in the years leading up to the Dust Bowl. It explores the American can-do spirit that drew families to the wind-swept frontier and the consequences of that spirit, both good and bad.
The historical chapters are told through the eyes of Myles, a teen-age boy, and Ro, his half-tamed coyote, as they watch the life they love disappear. I chose these points of view because they were the best witnesses to the pivotal changes happening around them.
At the opening of the book, Myles, a pun-loving, school-skipping thirteen-year old, wishes he were a man like his father who “could build barns, string fences, tune a tractor, and plow the straightest furrows,” rather than a boy who “bent nails, splintered boards, and once nearly sawed off his own thumb.” He rescues a coyote pup injured in a dust storm, hoping to prove to his father than he can tame something wild just like his father is taming the land. But as the years pass and dust begins to blow, Myles realizes that his father’s dreams “blind him to the wind, the dust and the rattlesnakes.” He breaks away from his father and begins to explore his own dreams.
While this coming-of age story has been told before, I wanted to explore how the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression were altering the American spirit as well. Before then, the American future had seemed ever brighter, hard work and good intentions had been rewarded, and a man had been measured by what he could produce, instead of what he could buy. Was all this coming to an end? Myles’ watches as the future he had imaged-- hunting rabbits, snaring rattlesnakes, and stepping into his father’s shoes-- was quite literally blowing away.
Alternating chapters are told through the eyes of the coyote Ro as he straddles the worlds of nature and man, accepted by neither. When Ro senses the wild coyotes, “his heart ached for the physical romp of the pack; shouldering his brothers in fake battles, sleeping in bundles of fur.” But wild coyotes view him as a rival and attack him. When Ro skirts the farms of men, he hears their bullets hiss through the grass around him. Mid-way through the novel, Myles drives Ro away because he fears the settled land has become too dangerous for the coyote. But Ro has nowhere else to go. He hovers nearby, watching as machines, fences, and dust take the place of grasses, mesquite and sage. He wants to warn the boy of a danger he senses but does not understand.
I used Ro’s perspective to observe the world without the overlay of man’s ambition to conquer it. His motivations are more immediate--hunger, loneliness, fear. I also wanted to capture the canine’s sense of play as Ro befriends the hog, Spark Plug, and “flies” in the back of the pickup truck. As clever and heroic as Lassie and Old Yeller, Ro became my favorite character.
Setting the novel in the Dust Bowl had its challenges. No one can compete with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath for capturing the story after the Dust Bowl, but I was fascinated by the story before the Dust Bowl. I wanted to explore American optimism, the source of our greatest achievements and some of our worst follies. The challenge is how to make that tale meaningful today.
To me, the key is characters. A writer must create characters that she loves, even the evil ones, otherwise the story lacks energy. She must place those characters in peril, both physical and emotional, and see how, or if, they survive. In an historical novel, these perils include real events, real threats, faced by a character who doesn’t know what’s looming ahead. A writer creates wonderful tension when the reader knows what is about to unfold when the character does not.
Then I try to get into the skin of a character living in a different time with different attitudes, expectations, limitations, hopes, and physical experiences. What day-to-day details would the character notice? The color of rain clouds, the circling of buzzards, the ribbon in a girl’s hair? Did the character hunch over his food or sit straight-back with a napkin at the ready? Did she spend her days stuffed into a corset or sweltering in a muddy swamp? How much would he know about the larger world and how much did he care? Who did she go to for guidance--a priest, her mother, the radio? What did he do with his free time? These historical details transport the reader into the character’s world.
I was blessed that my father left a memoir about growing up in Eastern Colorado in the 1930s. It was full of useful tidbits such as making ice cream from summer hail and the frightening silence before a dust storm hits. But I also researched coyotes, rattlesnakes, rifles, prairie dogs, hawks, homesteading, windmills, railroads, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and Volga Germans settlers. I looked at old Vogue and Harpers magazines to see what young women were reading. I watched 1930s films, including gangster movies and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, and listened to old radio serials. I searched YouTube for clips of swing dancing and the lindy hop. Whenever my writing got stuck, researched sparked new ideas. Some of my sources are listed on my website. http://www.helensedwick.com/extras.html#resources
In addition to rich characters and spot-on details, historical fiction must touch on the universal yearnings that connect everyone from Ulysses to Katniss Everdeen. Whether your characters are searching for identity, struggling against doubt, confronting limitations, challenging authority, testing faith, facing injustice or overcoming despair, stories of such endeavors never grow stale.
Great characters, brought to life with historical details, facing challenges which resonate over time--that’s the magic of historical fiction.
Helen Sedwick is the author of COYOTE WINDS. A finalist in the 2011 Mainstream Fiction Writer’s Digest Competition and the Lorian Hemmingway Short Story Contest, Helen Sedwick recently won second place in the Redwood Writers Flash Fiction Contest for a piece adapted from COYOTE WINDS. She is a lawyer and lives in the Sonoma wine country with Howard Klepper, a builder of handcrafted guitars, and an exuberant hound dog named Farlow.
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