Lewis and Clark, wagon trains and the Gold Rush. These are likely the first generalities that come to mind when you consider the settlement of the American West. Though the Oregon Trail and madness of ’49 are players in the historical novel Tears of the Mountain, Corvallis, Oregon’s John Addiego chronicles lesser-known but consequential events and weaves a colorful array of players and a compelling personal story into history’s timeline. Addiego certainly put in his library research time, but he also had some sources that give the novel its particular flavor—his family. We asked him a few questions about his impressive new book.
Spiritual and supernatural matters abound in the book. They’re debated—internally and out loud—used as parables, for power, as excuses, etc. The story ends with what feels like both an openness and a skepticism. Things are left to consider—for your protagonist, Jeremiah, and for the reader. Does this, I’ll venture to say, playfulness, reflect a personal philosophy? Yes, it does. I’ve read many accounts of nineteenth-century spiritualism and other metaphysical events, particularly past-life memories exhibited by young children, and although my first response is skepticism, I’ll allow that there are things we didn’t understand then and still don’t now. As a writer I love a bit of magical realism in the narrative, the interplay between what seems real and what appears to be supernatural, and I wanted the reader to experience this in an open way. The novel tips toward a kind of metaphysical experience, hopefully without damaging the reader’s sense of plausibility.
Your publicity reveals that your own family’s history as early white settlers in the northern California country provided inspiration for the book. Did that history also provide specific material? Do you have family accounts of some of the particular hardships, race clashes, displacement of earlier settlers, etc.—the whole westward expansion/Manifest Destiny package? I read everything I could specific to my own family, most of it supplied by my brother and sister. Our great-great-great grandfather, John York, makes a cameo appearance in my book at the takeover of Vallejo’s garrison, and I followed his pioneer route and year (1845). Shooting the grizzly in the pigpen and barring the door really happened, but not with the result I made up. There were many amazing things he and his wife, Lucinda, did, and I touched on a few. There were far more real events I got from many other sources, historical accounts of contemporaries of my ancestors, which I incorporated into the novel. Some may seem too strange to be true, but they really happened. I didn’t have a sense of my family’s response to Manifest Destiny, or race and injustice, except that York was a temperance man, which would make him anti-slavery.
Name at least one western historical novel that has influenced or particularly impressed you. The most impressive Western historical novel that comes to mind is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr. was a primary inspiration for me, and there are many historical novels, like Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier and Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks, that I love.
Historical western non-fiction that guided you and maybe reads like fiction to those who haven’t heard the story: Bear Flag Rising by Dale L. Walker and A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Fremont and the Claiming of the American West by David Roberts are both excellent books and great reading for fiction-lovers.
What’s your favorite line or exchange from Tears of the Mountain? I had the most fun with the professor’s snide remarks, as when he pretends to be a doctor and diagnoses a gold-seeker’s foot condition as foetidus pes (stinky foot) requiring a solution of equus urines (horse piss).