On the Creation of Green River Saga, a Novel by Michael W. Shurgot and Rick O’Shea
Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, April 2020
When I retired as Professor of Humanities from South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia in 2006, I could never have imagined that several years hence I would be co-writing a novel with a former student. Yet that is exactly what happened. Rick O’Shea was a prize student at SPSCC. He took several of my literature classes, including Introduction to Shakespeare and modern European novels, and wrote excellent papers.
Rick completed his BA in English Literature at St. Martin’s College, then moved to Los Angeles where he continued to write short stories and pursue his musical career. We corresponded frequently after I retired, and I read several of his pieces that were published in local literary magazines. I published a few short stories in Crosscurrents, the magazine of Washington Community Colleges Humanities Association, and continued to write scholarly essays and theatre reviews. But neither of us tried anything remotely resembling an entire novel.
Then one whimsical day in July 2013 I sent Rick an email suggesting that we write a novel together. “A mystery, set in Seattle,” I wrote. My wife Gail devours mysteries, and I was sure that she would be an excellent source of ideas and a willing in-house critic.
“Western,” Rick wrote back. “I already have the first chapter written.” And he did! Thus was launched an enormously complicated, sometimes fraught, often maddening seven-year co-creation of Green River Saga. We had major differences about every possible component of a novel: characters, especially Johnny Redfeather and Jeremiah Staggart; plot; setting; background information; narrators’ voices; length (“Rick, this cannot go on forever. I’m getting old!”); diction and use of slang; and even publisher. I located Sunstone Press in Santa Fe that agreed to publish the novel, but Rick thought that publishing after “only” 34 chapters was premature. I thought him mad!
Because we lived so far apart, much of our “discussion” about the book was via email. We would send chapters back and forth, and then debate them for months. Our son and his family live in Malibu, so when visiting them I would drive to Rick’s house, and we would commander a table at a local cafe for several hours debating where we thought the book and its main characters should go. I took reams of notes, drew diagrams for plot connections that later proved indecipherable, renamed mountain ranges and saloons (Green River Saga has two), and desperately tried to convince myself that order could evolve from this chaos. The main rub was our differences about Johnny Redfeather, Rick’s marvelous creation; and Jeremiah Staggart, my main character. Both are Civil War veterans, and both have been severely damaged by the war. Johnny is of mixed Irish/Cheyenne heritage, and he and Sheriff Jim Talbot try but fail to protect a band of Southern Cheyenne from a vicious rancher named Brent Tompkin. Jeremiah’s family was murdered at their farm in Tennessee while he was in combat, and he goes mad when he returns on leave to find his family in ashes.
The single most difficult challenge was devising a plot that would accommodate both main characters in a single narrative “voice” while also creating a coherent narrative. We set the novel in Green River, Wyoming from September 1866 to April 1867. Rick wrote the initial chapters which introduce Johnny Redfeather: his fame as a war-hardened gunslinger; his inability to reconcile his dual ethnicities, and his anguish at the continual attacks on Native American settlements. I focused on Jeremiah Staggart: the murder of his family, his flight from the horrible battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and his mental collapse and desperate search for redemption from a god he can no longer understand. Without giving away any more of the plot than I just did, we succeeded by agreeing to work both Redfeather and Staggart into a final battle scene in Reiser Canyon northeast of Green River.
Despite these serious difficulties, I would certainly conclude that the process was worthwhile. Our novel was short-listed for the 2021 Nancy Pearl Book Award in Genre Fiction, received a fine Kirkus Review, and a brilliant analysis by my former colleague Jack Estes which is posted on my Amazon author page. The truly marvelous reward was that Rick and I discovered writing and (eventually) organizing talents we only glimpsed when we started. And as they say in Hollywood, the story continues. I am pleased to say that in spring 2023 the sequel to our novel, Raven Mountain: A Mythic Tale, will be published by Sunstone. Johnny Redfeather, as well as other characters, return from Green River Saga, and I developed this sequel directly from an incident about Redfeather’s prison break that is narrated early in our first novel. Alas, Rick declined to participate in Raven Mountain, so it is a solo venture which nonetheless continues Redfeather’s amazing fictional life.
Given Sheila’s invitation to include a short excerpt from our novel, I include a short chapter in which Jeremiah rides into the mountains seeking forgiveness for not having saved his family. Later in the novel, he becomes a Job figure when in his madness he believes that a Cheyenne woman and her son are his murdered family. Jeremiah also becomes his Biblical namesake as he tries to save this woman and her son from Tompkin’s savage attack on their village.
An Excerpt from Green River Saga
Jeremiah’s February Ride
After the New Year’s meeting in Tompkin’s bunkhouse, Jeremiah took to himself. He slept alone in the small cabin, away from the others, and always with a loaded rifle and pistol by his side. He seldom went with the other herders now, preferring to stay behind and, as he told Tompkin, guard the cabin and bunkhouse and the few horses in the corral that Tompkin’s men weren’t riding. Some of the men expressed concern about his withdrawal and worried about having among them a man they knew was deeply wounded in ways none of them could understand. But, knowing about his loss, they decided to leave Jeremiah to his solitude, and even during shared meals in the bunkhouse didn’t make much effort to speak with him.
Winter in the mountains evokes a terrifying beauty. The canyons hoard the sun’s slim light; it brushes the eastern slopes, southern snowfields, and barely teases glaciated western and northern-facing slopes. On clear nights crystalline stars and the wandering moon orchestrate a dance of shimmering light that pirouettes endlessly over sparkling snow-bound peaks. Wind drives the cold ever deeper into clefts and crevices, freezing every drop of moisture. A landscape equally dazzling and deadly.
Yet here, as much in defiance as in determination, Jeremiah ventured often. More alone now than at any time since coming to Green River, he sought out these desolate canyons north and east of the river, especially the seemingly endless maze of side canyons carved by streams cascading from peaks surrounding Reiser Canyon. On many winter mornings, he sought the solitude and the cold, always the cold, of the nearly sunless canyons, as if preparing himself for a mission that demanded purification and pain. As he rode deeper into the forbidding valleys, he sensed a gradual calming, an almost involuntary purging as if bits of an image in his mind’s eye were slowly fading. After a particularly long ride, he would often remain in his cabin for several days, brooding and confused, equally drawn back to the canyon lands yet resisting a further venture. Fewer were the nights when he saw his wife and child tied to stakes in a burning barn and terrified screams awakened him.
Endless snow-capped peaks of the White Mountains, glimmering in the early morning light, greeted Jeremiah on a bright Sunday morning in early February as he slowly rode northwest through fresh snow, following the contour of the Green River toward Reiser Canyon. Coming upon a trail junction just over a small ridge, he stopped, sensing familiarity with the area but not sure why. Hearing running water to his right, despite the cold, he turned his horse toward it and rode for another twenty minutes before encountering yet another trail that led due east toward a wall of rugged, forbidding rocks. He followed this latter trail and fifteen minutes later recognized the rock outcropping as Casper’s Bluff, below which a stream from high above him cascaded into Eagle Canyon.
Jeremiah slowly steered his horse toward the canyon entrance, ever mindful of the slippery surface of the rocks from the frozen spray billowing off the stream. He rode for several minutes, not sure exactly why, but again sensing that he must proceed further into the canyon, as if searching for something waiting there that had previously eluded him. About fifty yards down, Jeremiah stopped when his horse stumbled slightly. After settling the horse, he sat upright in the saddle and looked across the canyon to his right.
Enveloped in brilliant winter light the Indian woman and her son appeared to him on the ledge where he had seen them months before at the canyon. This time she did not run from him. Rather, she held out her arms in supplication, as if seeking protection and, Jeremiah believed, the salvation that only he could offer her. As he gazed upon them the words of the prophet that his father had read to him long ago came to him again, and he believed they were now his destiny, for he had borne witness to terrible evil: “Therefore will I scatter them as the stubble that passeth away by the wind of the wilderness.” Besides the rippling waters of Eagle Canyon Jeremiah heard his calling from the Lord and saw in the woman and child those he believed he must now lead away from evil and into salvation. Baptized they would be, and blessed they would become, and with them, he would erase forever from his mind the terrifying fires that still haunted him. With them, he would obliterate knowing that he could not protect his wife and child or quell the rage of men who hated without reason and killed without mercy. “My God, my God,” he cried, “surely thou has tested me because thou has called me and found me worthy!” Again he heard the voice of the Lord calling to him: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee: and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” For the Lord commanded him: “Take the wine cup of this fury at my hand and cause all the nations, to whom I send thee, to drink it. And they shall drink, and be moved, and be mad, because of the sword that I will send among them.”
The vision slowly faded. For several seconds Jeremiah sat trembling in his saddle. Then a great wave swept over him and drained his fear. His breathing calmed, and warmth filled his body. He turned his horse and headed back up the trail through the snow and slippery rocks toward the junction. Twenty-five minutes later he came to the initial crossing, then pointed his horse south toward his cabin.