Thursday, January 25, 2001
James Yoder writes tales set in the Old West. And like many writers who know that the shoot-em-ups that made Zane Grey famous are out of date, the Hesston, Kan., storyteller prefers to call his work historical fiction.
Many Western writers are looking for new angles to steer the genre. Some add to their stories the tales of ex-slaves and their migration out West after the Civil War. Others write about the landgrabbers or the financiers who took control of the land. Yoder has his own twist. He writes fictional stories built around real people.
In his new book, "Lucy of the Trail of Tears," Yoder modifies a real-life account of a Cherokee Indian woman who was forced from her homeland and made to trek over 1,000 miles to new surroundings in Oklahoma. The Cherokee nation labeled it the "Trail of Tears" after 4,000 people died during the course of the hazardous journey.
"You get a sense of the spirit of a suffering people, both children and adults, and how they can find meaning in the worst of circumstances," Yoder says during a recent phone interview. "That would be the theme."
His latest project is his fifth historical novel. All have been well received and well reviewed by such sources as the Library Journal and Booklist. His novel "Sarah of the Border Wars" even won the Best Kansas Book Award from the Kansas Author's Club when it debuted in 1995.
Yoder gained his inspiration for "Lucy" by scanning a newspaper.
"I read just a snippet about the real Lucy and her life. And from there I used author skills to create a timeline based on Lucy Greenway. I had to flesh out the character," he says.
Greenway took advantage of the offer of a classical education made available at a seminary and through the Cherokee nation. She advanced in her life to a leading position in early Wichita society.
In the book, Yoder picks up the story of a young Lucy Drake as she and her family are forced to march from their Georgia territory. Along the way, the refugees survive on minimal rations while also facing fear, bad weather and death through disease and fatigue.
The story captures the Indians conflicts with the United States government, along with the prejudices they faced at the hands of their soldier tormentors. They were treated as an inferior race, even though the Cherokee had developed their own academic institutions, newspapers and churches in their native Georgia.
After arriving in Oklahoma, Drake receives her education, then marries Andrew Greenway and establishes herself in Kansas.
Yoder says he is compelled to tell readers about real historical figures that played a vital role in the West but are often neglected in the history books.
"You really need to tell a story when it selects you. There was a real passion in me to tell her story. For me it was never about money," he says.
To accurately convey the time period, Yoder spent more than a year researching the subject, often visiting libraries to read copies on 100 year-old newspapers. Once he starts writing, he commits himself to four hours a day of the creative process. He also involves himself in the publishing and marketing aspects of the trade. Yoder travels and lectures at schools along with his book readings and signings.
All of his books have been self-published, but with "Lucy of the Trail of Tears," Yoder captured the attention of a literary agent, who is promoting the book to East Coast publishers.
Yoder also writes works not connected with the Old West. His "Black Spider Over Tiegenhof" tells the tale of a family dealing with Nazi horrors, while his newest novel is about Simone Weil, a French-Jewish agnostic who converts herself into a religious mystic.
"I have a strong compulsion to tell her story to people who have not heard it," Yoder says. "I work a lot. I may be retired, but this is what I like to do."