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Why Bonanza Novels are Studied in College

Posted by bebowreinhard on April 16, 2015 at 8:50 PM Comments comments (2)

I haven’t been able to get my huge nonfiction book published—I write history that is human and very real, and at times the truth that’s uncovered can be uncomfortable. But we cannot learn from history without application of human attitude that created the history to begin with.

I think this is being sensed even in my fiction novels.

University of Maryland at Baltimore was the first college to make Felling of the Sons required reading. The professor told me she was a major Bonanza fan and for the reasons that I am—those very real people we never hear about in real history stories. This TV series used a lot of true history that the Cartwrights became involved in. 

She hosted me at one of their class sessions to discuss this novel, and one of the students showed skepticism with the material. “But cowboys and Indians were never friends in real life, right?”

I was very happy to set them straight on this. I spent 20 years researching and writing the war experiences of a great-uncle between 1862 and 1884, and I can tell you that there were more friendships between cowboys and cavalry and Indians than anyone has led us to believe. I told them what Henry told as his family legacy: “We didn’t try hard to catch the Indians, we could see they were good people.”

This huge Henry nonfiction would make great campus reading because I strive to tell the history that falls between two opposing sides; this is where the truth is found. But that book, for perhaps its more controversial stance of what really happened, has not yet found a publisher.

Much of what I learned with Henry came in later years and can be found more completely revealed in Mystic Fire, which has yet to be chosen as campus reading; I hope it will be, because it is perfectly designed for that kind of study, with more dedicated footnotes.

Being chosen by the University of Maryland was the biggest honor I could have imagined for a Bonanza novel, even one dedicated to truth and history as mine are. But it had begun to feel a bit like a fluke, until my publisher told me that a college in the UK had recently made a major purchase of Felling of the Sons. The location doesn’t surprise me. England, and Germany especially, boast of having a lot of Bonanza fans—they are enamored of American western history and its native Indians in particular. The cowboy culture in America (including Mexico) is quite distinct. Henry himself was a German soldier with an affinity for the Indian culture, but that doesn’t quite explain why he would have called the Indians good people. Certainly his direct experience with them could have altered that perception.  So what he said was based on what he observed.

But what is it about Felling of the Sons in particular that would have encouraged these colleges to have students read it? Is it just because of the American history that is included, with characters that they are already familiar with?

There are elements of American western history that were very well researched for this novel, including cattle driving, the Paiute culture, timbering and silver mining. Any one of these elements by itself could teach students about life in 1860 in the West. For instance, I go into some detail about the Paiute war that happened that year and the repercussions. There is also a good deal of information about the gold strike in Coloma, California on Sutter’s land, because the “villain” was someone Ben knew in his early days with Sutter.

One could also study what a real “bad guy” was like – not a stereotypical one- dimensional character, but someone who had a real life before things went wrong. It’s a study of how a man refuses to take responsibility and blames others. We all know people like that. It’s also a study of two fathers and the opposing ways they raised their sons. I call it a psychological historical novel, not a western.

I was told once by a fellow member of Western Writers of America that I should have changed the title of the book because most people won’t “get it.” But the title’s intelligence is indicative of what is found inside. All three of the sons face being “cut down” by the villain, creating an atmosphere of pain and survival that is so important in western history. Here Ben finds all three of his sons’ lives are at risk. One of the most important things about the Bonanza TV series in its time, and today, is the fact that Ben showed us how to love all our children equally. What does Ben do when his sons are all out there and he can only choose to go after one of them? That is a question for the ages. I don’t know if even the book provided that answer. Maybe you can tell me.

When I write, I take the time to craft a very dimensional book because I want people to want to read it more than once. But this is also a fiction novel that is not in the least intimidated by the subjective questioning that can happen on a college campus. I welcome its inclusion in the study of American history everywhere, and ask that Mystic Fire also be considered, as a way to look at what Lincoln was really like in 1862.




Attitude in History Part II

Posted by bebowreinhard on October 20, 2013 at 2:55 PM Comments comments (1)

More interesting reactions to my historical research. Ethnology Journal recently rejected my Red Bird article because, though well written, it read more as a journalistic approach than a scholarly one. I suppose it didn’t matter to them how many sources I used, and I used all I could find. The tone of the article, instead, was meant to show why the real history of the Red Bird War of 1827 has not yet been revealed. And that is still considered revisionist, right? Like I should just go out there and join those who are trying to show why everything we know about history is wrong, and how real history is being hidden. I’m another conspiracy theory nut, right?

Wrong. There’s a difference between finding a nugget of information that has never before been shared—a true nugget; and theorizing that we’re being lied to and finding ways to put things together to prove it. There’s a big difference. But perhaps there is something wrong with how I’m doing it. So I did get a master’s in history to become a better researcher and I did want to be a writer not for scholars but for the masses. That’s all true enough, and perhaps that’s what they’re talking about in this kind of rejection.

Being a historian for the masses suits me just fine—except there are no good magazine markets for pieces like Red Bird. I have no ‘niche.’ So my long 30-page-with-photo-and-footnote articles need to be reduced, resized and rethought.

But it has to be done, and I also have to find a way to do presentations to audiences in a way that will not only get them to come, but will also get them to think.

For instance, recently a college professor in Maryland chose Felling of the Sons to be required fiction reading in a class on Americana. She wanted them to discuss the history used in fiction. I had the pleasure of Skyping with the class with friend and fellow Bonanza fan Isabel Piana, and together we fielded questions about how realistic this history was.

My favorite was the question about whether cowboys and Indians really could have been friends in the Old West. I used this theme because it’s a popular one on the TV series, at least during its first six years. The idea that these young people in a college class still believed in John Wayne westerns made me realize that as historians we have not come as far as I’d hoped by this time. Are teachers still teaching that Indians were bad and the rest of us were good?

I was able to respond to this by using Uncle Henry’s experience and comment about the Indian wars. And if it was true back then, then the real truth of those years is still being hidden from view, except from discerning scholars like David Dortort, who knew and reflected on the reality in Bonanza. I was able to pick up on this, believed all along that patriotic garble was just that, and when my grandfather told me about Henry, I realized that his story needed to be told.

But Henry’s story is yet in limbo, and the reason could be that today’s America still isn’t ready for this truth –and this was demonstrated by college kids believing that Bonanza remains just popular fiction.

It’s not just fiction. And it’s my job now as a historian to show how and where the truth lies. Just how I’ll do that remains to be seen.



Why You'll Like - Or Not - Mystic Fire

Posted by bebowreinhard on July 10, 2012 at 9:20 PM Comments comments (0)

When I first conceptualized this second Bonanza novel, my first concern was to differentiate it from Felling of the Sons. I knew I could never recreate the feeling that I get, personally, reading that book. I put all the Cartwrights in danger, and gave them hurt and pain, to the point I could feel it myself.

But I didn’t want to do that again. There are fans, too, who dislike these kinds of storylines.

Also, since I was setting Mystic Fire two years in the future from Felling, I felt I needed to capture what the TV show itself did two years later—and that was focusing on individual storylines for the four Cartwrights. I call this an ‘epic saga’ because that’s exactly what it is. It is like getting four novels in one.

Now that can be a bit disconcerting to a reader, constantly going off in a new direction almost every other page. If I did it right, the story lines are different enough so that you do not get lost. If the majority of readers get lost, then I failed, and my editor failed.

I have heard from readers who will choose their favorite storyline, and using that as their focus and almost breezing through the rest of it. I heard from one reader who completely skipped the Joe storyline because “I never liked him.” But even if you do this the first time you read it, try reading it again. I’ll bet it gets easier. I like writing novels that you want to read more than once.

Because here’s the thing—the four storylines are meant to go together. It may not seem like it at times, but it is. Skipping even one storyline means you miss most of what the novel is about.

This novel is about family—and together or separate, you will always get this intense feel of family devotion, just like in Felling of the Sons.

But this novel demands more reader involvement. You have to let yourself get drawn in. Without that determination, right from the start, to accept these four worlds as being real and valid as I created them, then please save your money. Because each and every one of the four storylines are valid, in their own way.

Now – here’s a spoiler. Here’s a reason I believe a lot of readers are not mature enough for Mystic Fire. I have not ever anywhere warned anyone about this particular feature of the book before. One reason is that my publisher warned against doing this. She thought having sales was better than having satisfied customers. But as it stands, I have neither. And I would rather have satisfied readers.

I created a number of characters for this novel. True, I use real-life figures like Lincoln, McClellan, and even Mark Twain. There are several women created as sideline romances for each of the Cartwrights. But I needed one event, one romance, to be so devastating to Adam that he goes walking off into the night, during a party, and stays out all night. By morning, a runaway slave has found him and asks for his help. A short time later both are abducted by slavers and taken east. That is the Cartwright involvement in the Civil War. And from there, so much is shared about what the Civil War was like in 1862 and what Lincoln was like.

What was this devastation? Margaret comes back into his life. They’d known each other five years before but she and her father left suddenly one day, never to return. Adam feels himself falling for her again and is not ready to hear her tell him that she had been pregnant—that her father had raped her. Adam asks where the child is now. And she tells him that when it was born—she didn’t even know its sex—her father strangled it and buried it. She never even saw it.

Adam can’t handle it and walks away. Margaret becomes overwhelmed with guilt when she learns he is missing and she becomes a connecting figure between the four storylines.

Now, as a reader, you have to be mature enough to accept that these things happened. And probably still do happen. And you have to be able to forgive Margaret and even root for her as the heroine who deserves happiness.

You have to accept the reasoning that Adam decides that pretending to be a muley slave is the only way to save his neck, but he’s also curious about the runaway’s story.

Yes, you may have some discomfort during the novel. That’s deliberate on my part. I don’t think anyone should ever just breeze through a novel and emerge at the other end unscathed.

Consider yourself scathed when you read Mystic Fire. And now, in the future, I never want to hear anyone say they couldn’t get through it. Now, consider yourself warned.

Mystic Fire will burn you – with knowledge, truth, angst, spirit, humor and the effects of family devotion.

Oh, and by the way, that ‘stinky hole’ in the beginning? That’s what mystery writers would call a red herring.