Margaret Verble is the author of the new novel Cherokee America, set in 1875. She also has written the novel Maud's Line. An enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, she lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
Q: Cherokee America is inspired by your own family history. What's the blend between the fictional and the historical in the novel?
A: The plot lines of Cherokee America are pure fiction. To my knowledge, none of the characters based on real people ever got themselves into the kind of messes I’ve created for them in the book.
However, the fiction is planted in real locations, life histories, and relationships. For instance, the bawdy house is real. I’ve been on its porch many times. And the ominous black thunder cloud that appears over the Bushyhead detachment of Cherokees as they start their journey on the Trail is a documented fact.
Also, Nannie Cordery, who carried the same name in real life, really was, as a small child, picked up by the Cherokees somewhere in Arkansas. But was she given away accompanied by a ham? Not to my knowledge. That’s fiction.
Q: In a New York Times review of the book, Melissa Lenhardt writes, "Cherokee America is an essential corrective to the racially tinged myths created to justify the annihilation of indigenous cultures and the theft of native lands." What do you think of that assessment?
A: I was pleased when I read that. That’s exactly what I intend. I also intended, as Lenhardt points out, for the book to be about Cherokee culture, not just about a single person. I am one of many, many citizens of the Cherokee Nation trying in every way possible to salvage our culture, save it for generations to come, and bring its importance into the awareness of the American mind.
Q: What does Check's life indicate about the role of women in Cherokee culture of the time period?
A: I’m not sure it says that much. When the book opens, Check’s husband is dying. Like all loving spouses in that situation, a lot of her energy is focused on his illness. That’s not because she’s a Cherokee, that’s because she’s a person. She’s also the mother of five children who are affected by their father’s death. Again, her responsibilities are those of any parent of any culture.
However, I know some readers would like for Check to be sort of a Wonder Woman, who leads the charge to right all wrongs. But that notion is based in a European myth of the individual hero that is currently a fantasy particularly in vogue for women.
In not doing that, Check is fully Cherokee. Acting in concert with others – not by yourself – is fundamental to the Native American way of life. And that’s what happens in the book. The whole community comes together to solve their problems. That’s one of the things that makes Cherokee America Native American, not White, literature.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I have found – somewhat to my surprise – that what people take away from books is largely based on what they bring to them. So I understand I don’t have much control over readers’ reactions. But I wrote Cherokee America to be entertaining and, I hope, funny, because people have choices about what they do with their leisure time and because nobody learns anything if they’re bored.
I’d also like White readers to understand a little bit about what their ancestors destroyed when they decimated Native American populations and cultures. And I’d like African American readers to expand their knowledge of their peoples’ struggle to include the Africans in Indian Territory, a subject not often mentioned in fiction or history books. For Native American readers, particularly young ones, I want them to see Indians don’t always have to lose.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I like to write about the lost history of land I’m intimately familiar with. And I was raised in a neighborhood in Nashville that literally sits on the site of an old park zoo that was built over a Civil War battlefield and a desecrated Native American necropolis of 3,000 graves. That land was also owned at one time by the family responsible for the most notorious financial scandal to ever rock the South.
I’m trying to wrestle that material into shape. Some days, I come out on top. Some days, it does.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Margaret Verble.