My author guest today is Carol Buchanan, descended from Montana pioneers and homesteaders. She is a longtime nonfiction writer and student of Montana history and has turned to historical fiction with her first novel God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana.
Carol, as a Montana native myself, I’ve always been fascinated by the Vigilante Justice era. What gave you the impetus to write about the Vigilantes?
When I was in junior high, my parents and I took a trip around Montana. We stayed in a motel (now defunct) in Virginia City, where much of the Vigilante activity took place. One evening after dinner I walked up the hill to the “Hangman’s Building” where the Vigilantes hanged five men at once. I went into the building, and as I stood there, I heard the ropes creak on the beam where the men were hanged. That moment is still with me. When we came home to Montana, I knew I had to write it.
What made you decide to write the book as fiction rather than nonfiction?
I needed more elbow room than a straight history would give me. I believe in historical fiction being as tight to the history as possible, but history doesn’t give a writer scope to imagine what it would feel like to put the noose around the neck of someone you knew. Wilbur Sanders, the actual Vigilante prosecutor and leader of the Bannack branch of the Vigilante organization, had been Henry Plummer’s guest at Thanksgiving dinner just six weeks before he helped to hang Plummer.
You’ve done a masterful job of building the characters, especially the protagonist, Dan Stark. I love how he carves as he thinks during difficult situations. Is this character closely modeled after a real person?
Dan Stark isn’t modeled after anyone in particular. He has Wilbur Sanders’s position with the Vigilantes because I don’t think it’s kosher to put thoughts in the heads of people who really lived. After all, how could I know 145 years later what they thought? It seems extremely disrespectful to do that. So I just elbowed Sanders aside and put Dan Stark there. And a former two-term County Attorney for Flathead County gave generously of his time and knowledge as a prosecutor to help with how an attorney might think and act during a trial. It was he who suggested the carving.
I know Henry Plummer was a real individual. How many of the characters are based on real persons?
Either they are real people in the story or they are purely fictitious. The main fictitious characters are Martha and her family, Dan Stark, Jacob Himmelfarb, and Tobias Fitch. Others include Lydia Hudson, and Tabby and Albert Rose. Paris Pfouts was real and the Vigilante president. John Creighton was also real. He later went home to Omaha to build Creighton University, and eventually the Pope made him a Papal Count for his services to the Catholic Church.
These men were rough, crude individuals, yet with a spiritual side. Is that what you gleaned from research about them?
Yup. Walter Dance did kneel in the street to pray with and for the five as they were being led to their execution. While the sources give some of the comments, no one mentions the prayer, so I wrote one for Dance. Creighton was a devout Catholic.
You must have done an inordinate amount of research. How long did it take you to research and write this book?
Were you able to interview any of the Vigilantes’ descendents?
No. One wrote to me that his grandfather had burned a bunch of papers. Others mentioned that they were descended from Vigilantes, but I didn’t “interview” them. I did have plenty of reminiscences from some of the Vigilantes themselves, most never published and housed in the archives of the Montana Historical Society in Helena (our state capital).
Were they proud of their heritage?
They seemed to be.
The story includes quite accurate depictions of playing poker and characters who spoke German. Do you play poker? And speak German?
I studied German in Germany while I was in graduate school in 1969, and a lot of it has stayed with me, but I don’t speak it any more. The poker question is really funny, because I don’t even like card games and have never played poker although my father tried to teach me when I was a kid. My husband sought out a computer poker game that includes both 5-card and 7-card stud, and I learned to play from that. I thought of visiting casinos here in Montana, but my old red Jimmy is fairly noticeable and I could just imagine the talk there’d be in this small town if people saw it in casino parking lots. Besides, 5-card is almost never played any more, and 7-card is likewise an old game.
You were the winner of the Women Writing the West short story contest this year. Congratulations! Have you always been a writer?
Yes. I was writing stories and even a couple of novels before I got into high school, and got my first paid writing job for the local newspaper during high school. Later, after college and graduate school, and a recession or two, I joined a Seattle-based aerospace company as a technical writer and stayed with them until I retired in 2001. During the 1990s I wrote three nonfiction books, one of which, Wordsworth’s Gardens, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Awards in 2002.
What are you working on next?
The sequel to God’s Thunderbolt. It’s titled Gold Under Ice, and takes Dan back to New York where he gets involved in some heavy-duty gambling in gold futures.