Monday, September 2, 2013

Johnny D. Boggs, Spark on the Prairie

Review and interview

This fact-based novel is a modern-day treatment of a theme found in early western fiction—the coming of the law to the frontier. Writers from the turn of the last century presented the introduction of courts and lawyers as a mixed blessing. Due process slowed down the wheels of justice. Individuals and vigilance committees, with guns and ropes, lost the authority to enforce the law as they saw fit. Lawyers were regarded with particular disdain.

Today, popular fiction casts them in a somewhat different light. Lawyers are often presented as defenders of the wrongly accused or as advocates of justice for the powerless and oppressed. Thus, in this fine historical novel, they are quite honorable, if not heroic. It’s a story of a pair of court-appointed attorneys who, despite virulent public opinion, do their best to defend two Kiowa chiefs on trial for murder.

Plot. It’s 1871 on the Texas frontier. We know from the start that the chiefs have taken part in the brutal killing of seven overland freighters. Army general William Tecumseh Sherman has ordered them tried in civilian court. However, finding an unbiased jury of white men to decide their fate is a literal impossibility.

Thomas Ball and Joe Woolfolk are assigned by District Court Judge Charles Soward to act as public defenders for the two chiefs, Satanta and Big Tree. Soward expects an open and shut case, since there is little doubt of the defendants’ guilt. But the two lawyers surprise him by putting up a good fight. As they match wits with the prosecutor, Sam Lanham, the novel turns into a suspenseful courtroom drama.

The trial attracts an unruly gathering of the public, as well as newspaper reporters from everywhere. Ball is thrown out of his boarding house as an “Indian lover,” and he is roughed up twice by local partisans before he takes to wearing a gun belt. Meanwhile, the July heat provides a wilting and withering setting for the proceedings.

The jury, of course, finds the men guilty, and both are to be hanged. Ball, determined to appeal the court’s decision, is blocked in his efforts by Judge Soward, who has a few cards of his own up his sleeve.

Themes. At issue for Boggs and his readers is how to understand the whole affair. Woolfolk comes closest to putting the killings into some kind of focus. In his summation to the jury, he argues that the attack on the wagon train was an act of war, not a criminal act. He reminds them that Confederate soldiers were not tried by the Union for killings on the battlefield.

Lanham’s wife, Sarah, witnessing the trial, is moved by what she comes to regard as a tragedy. The evidence against the two chiefs is circumstantial, and regardless of the chiefs’ guilt or innocence, the law is being used as an instrument of revenge. If they were two white men, a jury would likely acquit them.

Boggs layers a good deal of social context into the narrative as he takes us into the streets, residences, and places of business in Jacksboro, Texas, where the trial takes place. The terror and rage that Indian raids have evoked there in the hearts and minds of the whites are palpable. The almost universal epithet for Indians as “red niggers” says much about the common regard for them.

We are also reminded of post-war population shifts, as the Texas frontier has become a new home for emigrants from the devastated South. Meanwhile, among the ranks of the military are men who fought in that war on both sides. The distance of the past from our own age is measured by the unending reference to cigar smoking, chewing tobacco, and spitting into—or nearly into—spittoons. It’s also a time well lubricated with the drinking of alcohol.

Structure and style. The novel is structured as a series of datelines, each following one of more than a dozen point-of-view characters. We see the trial and the events leading up to it from the perspective of soldiers, officers, judge, lawyers, Indians, and civilians. Boggs uses a similar organizing principle to excellent effect in his novel of the James-Younger gang’s failed bank robbery in Northfield.

The novel’s particular achievement is the recreation of the trial itself, since no transcript of it survives. Boggs reconstructs testimony by witnesses and the lawyers’ opening and closing remarks to the jury, using newspaper accounts and other sources. Individual characters, nearly all of them taken from history, are sharply drawn, with vividly precise personalities.

The flourishes of rhetoric and courtroom tactics seem especially well grounded in a knowledge of the techniques and practice of legal persuasion. Crafty country lawyer Woolfolk is especially entertaining as he outmaneuvers the prosecutor’s strategies. He manages to trip up the super-confident General Sherman when he takes the witness stand. And his closing argument to the jury is cunning in its unvarnished appeal to both rank prejudice and common sense.

Wrapping up. Boggs’ notes at the end of the book disclose the extensive research involved in the creation of this novel. Here we learn that the cast of characters comes straight from history, and Boggs takes the time to give a brief account of the rest of their lives. While details of personality and incident derive from informed speculation, only a few scenes are pure invention.

One of those, a flash-forward that ends the novel, is especially fitting and brings the story to a close that softens the ending with a touch of both irony and sentiment—in nicely equal proportions. For another of Boggs’ courtroom dramas set in the Old West, definitely read Lonely Trumpet.

Spark on the Prairie, first published in 2003, is currently available at AbeBooks. For more of his fiction, go to amazon and Barnes&Noble. You can visit him at his website, and he can also be found at Facebook.

Johnny D. Boggs

Johnny Boggs has agreed to spend some time here at BITS to talk about writing and the writing of Spark on the Prairie. I’m turning the rest of this page over to him.

Talk about how the idea for this novel suggested itself to you.
I don't remember where I first came across the trial, but I was living in Dallas, Texas, at the time. So I started research, reading everything I could find, contacting libraries, the state archives, the state park at Fort Richardson in Jacksboro, the museum at Fort Sill.

Research turned into a borderline obsession—as often is the case with me. It just seemed like a great story. It was probably the novel I most wanted to write.

Did the story come to you all at once or was that a more complex part of the process?
I signed a three-book deal with Penguin-Putnam for what was called "Guns and Gavel," novels based on actual murder trials. I wanted to do Spark on the Prairie first, but my editor said we should start with a “name” to launch the series, so I had to write Arm of the Bandit: The Trial of Frank James first.

That set up the way those three novels would be told. Various points-of-views told in third person. I’d use actual quotes when I could find them, and follow the course of the trial as best I could based, mostly, on newspaper accounts. Transcripts don’t exist for any of the three trials—Frank James, the Kiowas and Billy the Kid—we covered in the series.

Did anything about the story or characters surprise you as you were writing?
My first idea was to follow Joe Woolfolk. But Cynthia Haseloff beat me to that when she published The Kiowa Verdict, a Spur Award-winning novel based on the trial. I thought I'd have to shelve the whole idea when I read her novel—that was well before I signed with Penguin—but at some point, I realized, "That was Cynthia’s story. Spark on the Prairie was my vision."

But I didn't want to follow Cynthia too closely, so I focused on Thomas Ball. And the more I looked at the prosecutor, Sam Lanham, the more he grew on me.

What parts of the novel gave you the most pleasure to write?
Pleasure? Writing? Those don't mix. Writing is a disease, an addiction. It’s seldom fun. But it’s something I can’t live without.

Did any parts of the writing present a particular challenge?
I didn't want to write about good guys and bad guys, right and wrong. These were people doing their jobs, and dedicated to their jobs. The Kiowas killed those teamsters, but should they have been tried for murder?

I don't think so, but I had to look at how white Texas settlers would have looked upon them in 1871. I wanted to tell a story about people with strong beliefs as to what is right and wrong, and often those beliefs clash.

Ball, Woolfolk, and Lanham are strongly drawn characters. Talk a bit about where they came from.
Ball was a Virginian, so I saw him more as a fish out of water, the stranger in a strange land. Woolfolk was the hardscrabble Texas lawyer. Go to a criminal trial in Texas today, and you'll find a lot of Woolfolk-style attorneys. Lanham had political desires, was mostly self-educated, and loved his wife.

They were all products of the time, of course, veterans of the Civil War, smart men and dedicated to their cases. Since Lanham went on to become governor of Texas, there was more material on him than Woolfolk and Ball. I found some information on Woolfolk, but Ball sort of faded out of history, so I had to rely more on my imagination on him.

How much consideration did you give to recreating the vernacular of the day?
There’s a trick. You want to make the dialogue sound like it’s the way people spoke then, but not so much that it’ll be too hard for a 21st Century reader to understand. It’s like the late Elmer Kelton once said about slang. “It’s like seasoning. A little goes a long way.” So I'll sprinkle in words here and there.

What were the up- and downsides of telling the story with multiple point-of-view characters?
If you use too many characters, you run the risk of confusing the reader. And in most of my writings, I use limited viewpoints, or more often first person or a single third-person point of view.

But for Spark on the Prairie, I wanted to take everyone’s view into consideration. Tell both sides of the story. All sides of the story. That’s probably from my journalism background. Tell the story and let the readers make their own conclusions.

You’ve written other historical westerns, like Northfield and Lonely Trumpet. Have you found the writing process similar for these projects or different?
I approach characters the way an actor will. Find your character’s motivation, and go from there. But each book, each project, is different, though writing is pretty simple. You sit at your desk with your research material handy, and you write. Then you rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite. And...

Talk a bit about the other novels in the “Guns and Gavel” series.
Arm of the Bandit, the first in the series, told of the 1883 trial of Frank James in Gallatin, Missouri, for the Winston train robbery. I pitched that as the O.J. trial of the 1880s.

Law of the Land was about the trial of Billy the Kid for the murder of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady. What intrigued me about that one was the political corruption in the territory at the time. But Spark was my favorite, the one I wanted to write.

For readers who like courtroom-drama fiction, can you recommend any others?
You know, now that I think about it, I don't think I've ever read any courtroom drama fiction. Not even John Grisham. But I did enjoy Perry Mason, and my favorite novel is To Kill a Mockingbird, which I guess you could call a courtroom drama.

What have been the most interesting reactions of readers to the novel?
It’s scary when you write about actual people, because a lot of times those actual people have living descendants. So when I got an email from one of Sam Lanham's descendants, I cringed. But he loved the novel, loved the way I portrayed Sam, and has pretty much adopted me into the family.

That, I think, was even better than when I learned Spark on the Prairie had won the Western Heritage Wrangler Award for Outstanding Western Novel from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. And I got an email from a reader in Australia who loved it just recently. That novel's 10 years old, long out of print, but somehow people still find it. And for the most part, they seem to like it.

What are you reading now?
The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn and the Pitching Duel of the Century by Jim Kaplan. Baseball. Next to Western history, that’s my passion when it comes to reading and writing.

What can your readers expect from you next?
Wreaths of Glory, a young adult/crossover about the Civil War border wars and the Lawrence Massacre, comes out from Five Star, and Greasy Grass, a novel about the Little Big Horn told in multiple first-person viewpoints, comes out from Five Star in December. Right now, I'm working on another Daniel Killstraight Comanche mystery, The Killing Trail.

Anything we didn’t cover you’d like to comment on?
The bulk of that novel was written right after my son was born. Meaning that I wrote most of it when he and my wife were asleep at night. Which might explain why I hardly remember anything at all about the actual writing of that one.

Thanks for the interest and for all you do in promoting Western literature!

Thanks, Johnny. Every Success.

Further reading:
BITS reviews of books by Johnny D. Boggs

Image credits: 
Santana, Wikimedia Commons
Author's photo, Johnny Boggs' website

Coming up: Revise, revise, revise: readability


  1. A dandy interview, fellas. Weaving fiction into the actual history is a challenge, and the observation about "characters" having living descendants is well taken!

  2. Some great looking covers there. thanks for introducing us to Mr. Boggs.

  3. I hope more readers find Johnny D. Boggs. He's one of the best writers of our generation.

  4. This looks great. Johnny Boggs has won six Spur Awards, and this novel displays the reasons for that. It also expresses the direction I hope western fiction will go if it is to prosper.