Lewis and Clark carefully recorded the plants, animals and people they encountered in their journey across America, but many were things left unwritten.
Among them was the son William Clark conceived with a Nez Perce woman. In the novel “The Coming,” author David Osborne combines fiction with rigorous historic research to tell the story of the man called Daytime Smoke.
Osborne lives in Gloucester, Mass., and is the author of six non-fiction books, including the 1992 New York Times bestseller, “Reinventing Government.” He served as a senior advisor to Vice President Al Gore and is acting director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s project on Reinventing America’s Schools. “The Coming” is his fiction debut. It recently won the 2018 Spur Award for best historical novel from the Western Writers of America.
The idea for “The Coming” was sparked by Ken Burns’ documentary “The West,” which mentions Clark’s Nez Perce son. The documentary said he died at the Big Hole Battlefield, which Osborne later discovered was false.
“I thought it was the book ends to an amazing story,” Osborne said of the man’s life.
To write “The Coming,” he spent time traveling the Nez Perce Trail and at Fishtrap, an annual gathering of writers in Wallowa County, Ore. He also studied with a shaman.
Before signing books Saturday, June 30 at And Books Too in Clarkston, Osborne told Inland 360 the story behind the novel he almost gave up on.
What do we actually know about Daytime Smoke?
Osborne: It’s clear that he lived. He was introduced to reporters and generals as William Clark’s son but there’s not much information about him. That’s why the book is fiction. I couldn’t find anybody who knew anything about the course of his life.
Did the Nez Perce have anything to say about him?
Osborne: It’s interesting, when I would ask them about it the attitude I would get was, he existed but we don’t know that
much about him. To us he’s the son of an American hero. To them he wasn’t the son of an American hero, he was just another half-breed. They intermarried a lot, it wasn’t unusual. They didn’t take much notice of him. As an individual, he probably has more meaning to us than them.
Osborne: In 1997 I decided it was an impractical idea to write a book about this. The theme at Fishtrap that year was, “The Return of the Nez Perce.” They had just bought land in Chief Joseph Canyon. There were 20 Nez Perce folks there. Horace Axtell was teaching a class. I got the sense how different their culture was from my culture, that I would need to spend time there. I had four kids, my wife was a busy physician and I lived in Massachusetts. I just thought, how in the world would I ever be able to spend a lot of time out in Idaho? I put it on back burner. It wouldn’t stay on the back burner. It had really grabbed me.
At the end of 2000, my wife came home and told me she had terminal cancer. That was a huge shock. After you finally get over the shock, it puts you in touch with your own mortality. If there’s something you wanted to do, you better get started.
You researched historical texts to write the novel but you also studied with a shaman, why?
Osborne: My feeling was that the whole spiritual side, which was so central to the Nez Perce world view, a lot of it had been lost. Those of them who still practiced it — I would have had to spend a long time earning people’s trust to understand it. Now that I was a single parent with four kids, that was out of the picture.
I got to know a guy who was trained as a shaman by people in Peru, The Four Winds Society. I took workshops and trips to Peru. That way of viewing the world, of seeing everything embodying spirit, every tree has a spirit, every rock has a spirit, every wind, which is so hard for us to comprehend, was pretty common among native peoples in the Americas. This guy had also studied North American Tribes.
I had enough experiences to understand that it was real and that their traditional healing certainly didn’t work for everything, but it worked for a lot of things. It is real. Part of being able to imagine and write about things is being able to believe it, not having doubts that, “this isn’t real.”
Have you received any response to thh book from members of the Nez Perce Tribe?
Osborne: No, I’ve sent it to a few people but haven’t received a response yet.
What does Daytime Smoke represent to you?
Osborne: He represents his people. He’s a vehicle to tell the story of the Nez Perce, from first contact to at least half the tribe being crushed in 1877. To me he was a vehicle that encapsulated the experience that all native people went through from first contact to being put on reservations. It all happened in one lifetime for the Nez Perce, it just so happened that was the lifetime of William Clark’s son. I saw that as a way to get white readers interested. I thought it would pull people in and they would have an emotional experience of what happened to native peoples and that’s really what I wanted to accomplish with the book.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Author David Osborne signing “The Coming”
WHEN: 1:30 p.m., Saturday, June 30
WHERE: And Books Too, 918 Sixth St., Clarkston