Monday, June 18, 2012

Carol Buchanan, God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana

Review and interview

This is not a novel for the squeamish. It also plays a little fast and loose with some sacred myths about the West. It takes a fact about many Old West communities, that they were often magnets for villains and corruptible officials. And instead of telling a story about a western hero cleaning up the town single-handedly, or with the help of a partner, it cuts a lot closer to the realities of history.

God’s Thunderbolt immerses the reader in a time and place where the only protection for honest men and women was vigilante justice. Today, Old West vigilantes are rarely if ever portrayed in fiction as heroic. A secret organization skulking around at night to take the law into their own hands, that’s not supposed to be the American way.

So it’s a challenge to credibly portray an honorable man—and a lawyer—as a willing participant in the hanging of malefactors without due process. And not just 2-3 horse thieves, as in The Virginian or Lonesome Dove. Cleaning the thieves and murderers out of the mining camps along Alder Gulch in 1860s Montana meant a deliberate roundup of more than a dozen men, including a few otherwise prominent citizens.

Virginia City, Montana, 1866
Plot. The central character, in this case, is Daniel Stark, a decent man who lawyers at securing claims for prospectors and occasionally wins money playing poker. He’s putting together a stake of gold dust to take back East, where he intends to reverse a family misfortune, get married there, and settle down.

But the murder of a young man becomes the tipping point in the willingness of men like himself to confront the rising tide of lawlessness around them. He’s joined by two other lawyers to bring to trial in a miners court a man believed to have committed the murder. Feelings run high in a population of both Union and Confederate sympathizers, at a time when the Civil War was still raging on the other side of the continent.

The first half of the novel is devoted to this trial, and the suspense builds as the element of danger steadily rises. Through Dan Stark, with his Spencer repeating rifle, which he carries at all times for protection, we ride a tide of uncertainty as a civil process threatens to be overwhelmed at each step by mob rule.

Brewery, Virginia City, Montana
Realism. In the hands of another writer, the outcome of that trial would leave a clean, clear sense of justice done. But Buchanan treats it more realistically as the lesser of two evils. And it’s just the beginning for the men who have taken it upon themselves to confront and eliminate the conspirators and wrongdoers who prey on other men and women trying to make an honest living.

It is a perilous mission, partly because it means putting themselves in harm’s way. Dan himself takes a gunshot wound from a man who resists arrest. It’s also a morally perilous enterprise, for cold-blooded execution, even of heartless villains, exacts a toll on the soul. Stark cannot know at the end whether he may be haunted by what he’s done for the rest of his life.

Buchanan reminds us that death by hanging is a foul and ugly business. Some prisoners go bravely, some go cursing, some ask to pray, some fight to the end, slowly strangling instead of dying of a broken neck. And when the hangings are public, there are in the crowd both whipped-up emotions and shameless curiosity. The stuff of bad dreams and nightmares.

Home, Virginia City, Montana
Wrapping up. Buchanan balances all this against the indifference of a remote and isolated setting, in the cold of high-altitude autumn and the blizzards of winter. Living conditions and standards of personal conduct here are primitive at best. People stink; their clothing stinks. The air in a saloon is hardly breathable. A game of poker requires not only a deck of cards, but players are best armed.

And there is a domestic drama in the novel as well, with an abusive husband and father, a son grown old enough to rebel, and a wife torn between her marriage vows and a decent man who comes to care for her so deeply that he is in heart-felt anguish at the sight of her.

This is one of those books you don’t skim read. At least I couldn’t. On each page you are aware of the meticulous choice of details and the painstaking measure of emotions. It’s no wonder that this book won the Spur Award for Best First Novel when it was published. God’s Thunderbolt is currently available in paper at amazon and Barnes&Noble and for the kindle.


Carol Buchanan
Carol Buchanan has graciously agreed to talk at BITS today about writing and the writing of God’s Thunderbolt. So I’m turning the rest of this page over to her.

Talking about how long it takes to write a novel, author Graham Swift recently said, “It can be dismaying for a novelist to compare the slowness of the writing with the speed of the reading.” Do you share that feeling? 
Not really. I enjoy the process of writing, the sense of delving more deeply into the story, the characters, the events. As I go, I discover connections and a truer sense of what the novel is about. Frustrating as that can be, I love it.

Working with historical records, did you ever find the facts getting in the way of a good story?
Sure. I expect most historical novelists do. But I stick to the historically factual order of events and the facts. God's Thunderbolt took 7 years to write: 5 for research and 2 for writing, when research continued but didn't consume the same amount of time. I kept thinking the Ives trial would spring the story out of shape because it took up so much of the novel, but I plowed ahead anyway. History tells good stories.

What liberties, if any, do you feel you took with history?
I can't remember taking any liberties on purpose, but I'm sure I made a lot of mistakes in interpretation because I didn't have a source to go by.

Hydraulic mining, near Virginia City, Montana, 1871
What parts are you particularly satisfied with as a faithful representation of history? 
Why the Vigilantes had to do what they did. People talk about vigilantes violating due process, and these men did, in a sense, but what most historians and novelists don't get is that in that place at that time there was no code of law, let alone criminal procedure, in place to safeguard anyone's Constitutional rights to due process

Besides that, Congress had passed the Habeas Corpus Act of March 1863, so it may have been a combination of necessity (self-defense) and example that led the historical vigilantes to hang men after a hearing in their tribunal. The sources are vague about both the evidence and the procedures in the tribunals, so I had to be a bit of a detective in piecing it all together.

How closely does the finished novel compare to the way you originally conceived it? 
As all novels seem to do (or so I've heard), this one moved on its own the deeper I dove into it. But I don't remember what I intended at the beginning, except that I set out to learn why on earth a lawyer would become a vigilante.

To what extent did living in Montana help or hinder the writing of this novel?
It helped a lot. People are more forthcoming when they know I'm a Montanan and living in the state. And the distances are less. It's a huge state, but 350 miles from the places I write about is much easier to cope with than 750.

Did any of the characters surprise you as they took shape in the writing?
All of the fictional characters did, especially Tobias Fitch, the Confederate veteran. I found likeable aspects to a character I had expected to hate; he's a former slave owner, a racist, and a generally hard man. But he genuinely loves his Indian wife. The most interesting historical character is John X Beidler.

He mentions in his memoir how angry he was at George Ives who rode his saddle mule, Black Bess, so hard he lathered her up. Yet after a hanging, when someone asked if he felt for the "poor boys" he hanged, he retorted, "Yeah. I felt for his left ear." It's the contradictions in people -- fictional, historical, and current -- that I find most interesting.

Virginia City, Montana
The novel successfully maintains an intense level of suspense through several lengthy scenes, the trial of Ives as one example. What rules are you aware of following as you write for this effect?
None. I read thrillers and legal thrillers, but I don't know of any rules for building suspense. It's not cooky cutter stuff.

As happens in historical fiction, there are a lot of characters to account for. Was managing them all ever a challenge?
You bet. All the time. My writers group kept telling me I had too many characters, but this isn't the typical Western with basically 2 men at war. It's historical fiction, and history is well populated, like life is.

The novel involves a couple of intense games of poker. Did you write these as an avid poker player?
I don't play at all. In fact, when it came to writing those scenes, I was scared I'd get them wrong and I couldn't figure a way to find out what I needed to know. We live in a small town, and I could just imagine the gossip, especially among my church friends, if my car were spotted in a casino parking lot.

So my husband, bless him, went on the Internet and found a computer poker game that he loaded onto my computer. With that and a couple of books on poker, I figured it out. Then a friend who's a vet read the manuscript. He said he didn't know how I knew how a bunch of guys would behave in a poker game. It rang true for him, though. I've no idea how that came about.

I don’t recall coming across such a thoroughly realistic portrayal of hanging in other works of western fiction. What went into the decision to be so graphic?
I wanted readers to understand the moral and emotional cost of hanging people. So many novels skim over the effects of killing on those who take a human life, especially decent people who kill from principle. If the readers doesn't feel revolted by it, he or she won't empathize with the characters.

Jefferson River, Madison County, Montana
It’s not often that a historical novel ends with an act of sexual congress. Talk about how you came to end the novel this way. 
I felt there had to be a saving grace for Dan, and Martha is that. I thought of some of the historical wives of the vigilantes who lived through what their husbands were going through and imagined the lives of the bachelors afterwards in contrast. Beidler never married; he lived his whole life essentially alone. To me, that's sad. People need someone to love and to love them, women as well as men.

How did you go about deciding on the novel’s title?
It was a process that lasted nearly the whole time I was writing the novel. And then I found the Psalm, stumbled across it in reading, and I thought, That's it!

Talk a bit about the creative decisions that went into the novel’s cover.
After the title, I needed a lightning bolt. I was working with CreateSpace (then BookSurge), and their cover designer came up with that. I took the picture at the bottom, the (replica) gallows Henry Plummer was hanged on, and their designer made the lightning bolt and put it together with the photo, then put on the title and my name.

Do you think of or "hear" any kind of music to go along with scenes in the novel? 
No. It would be Bach if I did, probably, or Mozart's Woodwind Quintet. (I forget which one.)

Do women writers bring something to the writing of western fiction that male writers generally don’t?
Perhaps a realization that women had more to do with settling the West than we're given credit for. Certainly that's true in my family. The Homestead Act of 1862 made no stipulation about gender or race on who could own the land, so women homesteaded in their own right. My grandmother was one. Lydia Hudson, the Quaker in God's Thunderbolt, is more typical of Western women than people might think. She's a homeopathic healer who owns and operates a successful restaurant.

Lower Madison Canyon, Madison County, MT
How would you hope to influence other western writers?
To pay better attention to how it really was, to do research and not sacrifice history for what they think is a better story

What do you learn from your readers?
What I could have done better, what they liked, what they want from the next book or books. They trust me to stay true to the history and to give them a good story. It's an awesome responsibility

What can readers expect from you next?
The fourth Vigilante novel. With the coming of a legal system to Montana Territory, the possibility exists that some of the Vigilantes could be indicted for murder.

 Anything you’d like to add that we didn’t cover?
Oh, my, no. These questions have wrung out my brain and hung it up to dry. Thank you for your interest!

Thanks, Carol. Every success.

Photo credits:
Virginia City, Montana, 1866,
All others, Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Cy Warman, Frontier Stories (1897)


  1. I just ordered this book from amazon. Nice interview and a fascinating period when sometimes citizens had to take the law into their own hands.

    Your first question is very interesting and I know what Graham Swift is talking about. James Joyce once sneered that it took him 18 years to write FINNEGANS WAKE and it should take the reader that long to read and properly understand it.

    I'm looking forward to reading GOD'S THUNDERBOLT.

    1. Given the dedication of some Joyce scholars, I'm guessing there's a few that have put in their 18 years. Thanks, Walker, for the comment.

  2. So true that many novels skim over the actual results of violence on people, such as hanging. This sounds really interesting. Gonna have to check it out.

    1. Many writers probably only know what they've seen in the movies. Hitchcock put a scene in a spy thriller about two people trying to kill another man who won't die easily, and by the time they're finally done (I think they put his head in a gas oven), you've practically squirmed out of your seat.

  3. Fine review and interview. I can see where trying to fictionalize history like that could be challenging, and I can see why it took so much research and two years to write.
    Will add the novel to my to be purchased list.

  4. You have made me order it on Amazon!

  5. Great review and fascinating interview. I can see that I need to get myself a copy of this one.

  6. There was a serious effort some years ago to revise the history of Virginia City, declare Sheriff Plummer innocent, and condemn the vigilantes for lawless conduct. The effort was feeble and ideological, and was ultimately discredited by continuing research. Frederick Allen's A Decent Orderly Lynching is a well grounded and impartial account.

    I've admired Carol Buchanan's novel, and regard it as a remarkable fictional interpretation of the violent history of 1863-64.

    1. Richard, I agree about Allen's A Decent Orderly Lynching.
      Ron, I have God's Thunderbolt on the list. Keep up the great work.

    2. Thank you, Richard!

      While I was researching God's Thunderbolt, I used Allen's book extensively along with contemporary accounts and others. Luckily, it came out in time for me to get a copy. It's the best history of the Vigilantes ever done.