I see you’ve written another book. What’s this one about?”
“It’s called 'Mountain Folk.' It’s a historical-fantasy novel set partly in North Carolina during the Revolutionary War.”
“It’s a what?”
I’ve had some version of this conversation many times in recent months. Having spent most of my journalism career writing about government and politics, and authoring books of economic and political history, people assume any new project of mine would fall into the same category.
When they learn I’ve written a novel — and particularly when they discover it doesn’t just have an historical theme but also includes dwarfs, elves, magic, and monsters — they grow concerned. Am I having a midlife crisis, or indulging some childhood whim?
Not at all. While I greatly enjoyed writing "Mountain Folk," and hope that my readers will enjoy it as a rollicking tale of frontier life and high adventure, I admit there is more than just simple escapism going on. Perhaps it’s just because I was in the 4-H Club growing up, but I believe I can summarize my reasons for writing the novel in four words: History, Heroes, Heritage, and Humanity.
First, I hope to encourage a greater understanding of and appreciation for our country’s history. According to one recent survey, only a third of Americans possess enough historical knowledge to pass the U.S. citizenship test. Most can’t say which countries were on which sides in World War II, or why Americans declared their independence from the British empire.
Second, I want to rescue, refresh, and expand the concept of American heroism. Yes, historical figures such as George Washington, Daniel Boone, and Abraham Lincoln were imperfect in real life. We should come to know as much as we can about them, warts and all.
But we can and should still admire the important contributions these old-school folk heroes made to the growth and development of our country, even as we properly integrate a broader variety of tales into the story of America. In "Mountain Folk," one of the main characters is a Cherokee heroine named Nanyehi who as a young woman led her people to victory in battle but later in life became a legendary peacemaker.
Third, I use elements of history and folklore to explore what it really means to be an American. Our country is different from most others in a key respect: we do not share a common ethnic heritage. During centuries of migration — some voluntary, in search of a better life, and some involuntary, the consequences of removal or the slave trade — America has become a dynamic, sprawling, sometimes-brawling society encompassing many different peoples, religions, values, and cultures.
The resulting diversity can be vibrant and powerful. But Americans still require a common creed to unify us, and a common set of institutions to convert abstract principles into practical governance. Freedom is central to that common creed, or so I argue in the pages of "Mountain Folk."
Finally, although my novel has many non-human characters, I actually use them to illustrate the inescapable realities of human nature. We are all fallen creatures. We yield to temptation. We make mistakes. Even the best of us, if entrusted with great power, may end up abusing it, insisting all along that our noble ends justify ignoble means.
“We always have a choice — a choice whether truly to live according to our principles, or simply to survive by abandoning them,” one of my fairy characters says towards the end of the book. “With that freedom to choose comes the responsibility to accept the consequences. I accept mine. I will not submit. I will not be complicit to tyranny. If that robs me of my home forever, so be it.”
Now, "Mountain Folk" is hardly a history textbook or a philosophical treatise. There are heroes, villains, thrilling rescues and epic battles. Daniel Boone even fights a giant, fire-spitting salamander! But there’s a serious purpose underneath — a fact that should come as no surprise to longtime readers of my column.