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American Confessional

Deanne Stillman

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that while the country may be coming apart, there is another story being whispered, literally, under the news, outside social media, and I miss hearing it, and I long for the day that book talks begin anew in person. At least for me, that’s where I hear America not singing necessarily but whispering.

Over the past fourteen years, I have been on three book tours, and given numerous talks at libraries, book festivals, and other venues. There is something that happens periodically, not routinely, but often enough that it’s a pattern, and it’s one that is not reflected in any of the polling going on today.

At my talks and via email, I hear an America that is sad, ashamed, looking for something to hold on to. The people who whisper are generally not on Twitter or Facebook and you won’t find them writing letters to the editor. But “reach out” they do, to use the current parlance, because they have seen a notice in a library or a flyer in a bookstore or heard via word of mouth about a book having to do with something that interests them, and I try to keep this in mind as the ship of state is taking on a lot of water – perhaps even going down like one of the characters I’ve written about, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer.

The recent assaults on literature and proposed book bans such as the one in Texas (home of the Texas Book Festival, founded – as it happens - by former librarian Laura Bush), brought to mind the unexpected conversations I’ve had at my talks. The subject of my talks is often modern and frontier history, and the stories are the ones that some among us would like to obliterate.

Surprising encounters at my events have involved serious confessions of acts which have contributed to the things I lament in my work, or outright expressions of shock having to do with personal apple carts that have been overturned after years of believing one thing and then, after this very public yet intimate discussion, having a change of heart.

The more I think about these moments, the more I understand what many of us are missing in our civic life. This is engagement that resonates on a palpable level, finding out first-hand that we have a history that connects – or in some cases – separates us, but whatever it is, we are all living inside it. The loss of this experience is contributing to an ever-present sense of gloom; if only we had the means to call it forth and remind ourselves that all is not lost!

I speak of the woman who approached me several years ago at a book event in the Cody, Wyoming local library. I had just given a talk about Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, which explores the four-month period during which the two icons travelled together as co-stars in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885, along with the forces that preceded their alliance and followed it.

Sitting Bull had been heavily recruited for a role in various traveling spectacles following his return from exile in Canada after his tribe was victorious at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Ever since that battle, he had been viewed as “public enemy number one” (though the label didn’t exist then) because he had been erroneously blamed for killing Custer. But he was a celebrity – and one whose fame has transcended the ages - and he could attract a crowd.

Ultimately he struck a deal with Buffalo Bill, likewise bound for the eternal Hall of Fame. In my talk, I made it clear that Sitting Bull did not kill Custer (although certainly his medicine was all over the battlefield) and I also pointed out that when the two men met for the first time in, of all places, Buffalo, New York , Cody introduced Sitting Bull to spectators at the local arena with reverence and respect:

Ladies and gentlemen of Buffalo. To me this hour is a most peculiar one, as on your beautiful fairgrounds, I meet a warrior whom I once attacked, along with the active army forces of the government, and fought a personal conflict with in the campaign of 1876…The man who stands before you today is a great warrior; his deeds, divested of our personal feelings towards the victims of his success, occupy the blood-red pages of the nation’s history. He from his standpoint, fought for what he believed was right, and made a name for himself to be known forever…The man I now introduce you to is Sitting Bull, the Napoleon of the red race, who has journeyed thousands of miles to be present with us today.

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After my talk, the audience began to disperse and the librarian was dimming the lights. A woman – a local, I guessed - approached me as I was gathering my belongings. A blizzard was coming in that evening and the drifts had been piling up as I spoke; anyone on the road at that time heading to the library would have lived in the area and been aware of weather predictions, and blizzards weren’t out of the ordinary during winter in Wyoming anyway.

I was heartened to see that maybe 20 or 30 people had come to my talk despite the weather prediction, and most likely, none had to drive very far – as sometimes people have done at my other events (they’ve told me so, as you’ll see in a moment – and this has generally involved hardcore devotees of the Wild West in either its contemporary or historical form). But it wasn’t just the weather that made me think the woman was a local. She was wearing a cowboy hat and boots and a duster, as I recall, and she had the look of someone who spent a lot of time outdoors, probably working on a ranch. Just before she spoke, she looked around to make sure that no one else was nearby and thus our conversation would not be heard by others.

“I didn’t know Sitting Bull didn’t kill Custer,” she said in a soft tone, leaning in as she revealed her secret. “That’s what I grew up hearing. Thank you for letting me know. I just had no idea…”

I was quite surprised to hear this, not that someone didn’t know, but that someone would tell me they didn’t know in this manner – in private, away from others, which indicated how concerned she was about speaking from the heart on this matter. In turn, I thanked her for disclosing an unsettling truth, but almost before I had finished, she had turned and was heading into the drifting snow of a night on the high plains.

I took a cab back to the Hotel Irma, an establishment in Cody founded by Buffalo Bill himself, named after one of his daughters. I’m always famished after book talks and at the hotel I immediately consumed one of their Wyoming-sized dinners and then headed up to my room. I had been warned that the hotel was haunted by Irma herself and that she might pay me a visit on this dark and stormy night. But I quickly fell asleep as giant snowflakes amassed on the eaves outside the windows and the old radiators rattled and creaked. As far as I know, the spirit of Irma Cody did not pervade my sleep, although perhaps Buffalo Bill’s ghost was having a drink downstairs at the stately old bar where he was a regular when in town. Perhaps he had even checked in at my talk and noted the moment with a stranger in the library. “Foes in ’76 and Friends in ‘85” was the slogan that Buffalo Bill used for his show while he and Sitting Bull were touring. Across those months, Sitting Bull was on the receiving end of accolades, harassment, and blame, responses that endured over the decades and right into that night on my book tour.

How entrenched these myths are, I thought, as I headed out of Cody a few days later, and what courage it must have taken for a stranger to tell me that she was giving up a lifelong belief – and one that she was not alone in possessing. My next tour stop was Missoula, but all flights were cancelled due to the weather. The scene at the small airport was convivial and a few hours later, I caught a ride to Billings where I would connect with another flight for the rest of my tour. En route, the driver, who was pregnant, spoke of having her ninth child. A friend of hers was also a passenger, someone who worked for the Forest Service. Both of their families went back for generations in the West and as we drove on, we passed some mining operations, including one which was extracting bentonite, I learned upon inquiring. “You know, it’s used in makeup?” one of the women said. “You might be wearing some now.”

I considered this new connection with the land, and felt even more deeply rooted in it, even though there was an odor coming from the mines and I’m generally not in favor of such extractions, though it was probable that my face was indeed covered with bentonite and other minerals. At that moment, I just wasn’t troubled by the knowledge, I think because I was so close to its source. Bentonite I said, kind of out loud to myself…it had a ring to it and on we drove into the dusky dreamscape and soon we entered the small town of Bridger, Montana, and I thought of Jim Bridger for whom the town was named.

Bridger was a famous nineteenth-century mountain man and teller of tall tales, including the one about Indians who had chased him into a box canyon which ended with the punchline, “And then they killed me.” That’s a good one, everyone would say, as massacres of Native Americans were playing out nearby, and soon enough, Bridger entered the frontier pantheon, returning years later in the movies, in the Leonard de Caprio film “The Revenant” as a figure based on himself, and via Brad Pitt in “Inglorious Basterds,” written into the script as a direct descendant.

A few hours after leaving Cody, my traveling companions and I arrived at a hotel near the Billings airport. We said our good-byes and I gave the women signed copies of my book. Yes, I generally travel with copies when I’m on tour; you never know when it might be time to pass them on. It was the least I could do as a thank-you for a ride from Cody to Billings.

“Wow!” one of the women said. “I’m gonna tell my brother-in-law about this. His great-grandfather trained horses for Buffalo Bill.” Indeed, in the West – and sometimes in the East, the North, and the South - it often feels like all roads led to Buffalo Bill, or Sitting Bull, or relatives or friends or just plain hangers-on thereof, I hear from them one way or another and when you get down to it, all they want is for someone to listen to their stories, just like Jim Bridger and the rest of us.

The next day, I had an event at the Tattered Cover in Denver. Sure enough, after my talk, a man approached me. He was a dedicated fan of Buffalo Bill’s, it turned out, and had driven for three hours to hear what I had to say. I was really honored, to use a word which has been devalued by social media but I mean it, that someone would drive such a distance to hear me talk about one of my books. When it comes to experts on a subject or person, it’s generally hard to surprise them with stories or information, but this fellow told me that he had never heard that Denver was the site of America’s first traffic jam and that it was precipitated in 1917 by Buffalo Bill’s funeral.  

Amazing, isn’t it? I responded. I couldn’t believe it myself when I came across that bit of information during my many hours and weeks in the archives; it’s not often that the world of obscure newspaper clippings offers up such a coda on the state of things one happens to be writing about. “The age of the horse was over,” I had said at this talk. “But the Wild West lives on.”

In fact, it was shortly before that event that I was speaking at a bookstore in Sonoma, California where I experienced this very thing. The talk was about my book Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West which recounts the story of wild horses and burros on this continent and the ongoing wars against them. I spoke of how and why I came to write this book, which had to do with the fact that I had grown up around horses. After my parents divorced, my mother, sister and I experienced a reversal of fortune and immediately moved from an upper middle class neighborhood to the working class side of town. My mother’s most marketable skill was horseback riding, and she was able to land a job at the local racetrack as what was then called an “exercise boy.”

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For the next few years, horses were supporting my family, and at some point, I decided that I’d repay the favor. How that would work, I did not know, but much later, after learning that 34 wild horses had been gunned down in a massacre at Christmas time outside Reno, I knew that the time had come. I would write the story of that massacre and why it happened. But what was it? I wondered. And how did wild horses come to live in the mountains outside Reno? Ten years later, I emerged from the desert with the sad and glorious tale, and I called it Mustang and that’s what I relayed at my talks, including the one in Sonoma. “Why are we, a cowboy nation, destroying the horse we rode in on?” I concluded, as always, and it seems that my question – and the nature of this entire story – has drawn many into the battle to save our great four-legged partner.

After my talk that evening, when everyone else had left, I was approached by a cowboy. He was right out of the movies - tall and, gangly and weathered and handsome. I wondered if he was looking to hang his hat somewhere, but something else was going on. He looked around to make sure that shoppers were gone and bookstore employees were not within earshot and then fixed me with a most serious gaze.

“I want to apologize,” he said, taking my hand in both of his, “for my role in the decimation of our herds.” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant and waited for a moment until he continued. “I was involved in some of the early round-ups,” he continued, referring to the brutal assaults on wild horses just like those that were portrayed in “The Misfits,” the iconic film about the end of the West with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. “I am responsible for killing many wild horses, and I want to say I’m sorry.”

I was stunned by his statement and took a moment to think about it. He was still holding my hand and I swear I heard a clock ticking but no one has clocks any more and then he went on. “I look out at the land sometimes,” he said, “and it’s all gone. There’s nothing left and I was part of that.”

And then the store was closing and it was time to go. He had a horse to take care of, he said, one that he had adopted for a minimal fee from the government’s adopt-a-horse program, the one that was being abused by unscrupulous buyers who would then turn around and sell the horse to “kill buyers” for slaughterhouses. “The horse I have now,” he said, “it’s the last one I’ll own.” He was referring to his age, which I would say was maybe 75 or 80, and his eyes were misting over, briefly. And then like cowboys tend to do, he tipped his hat and disappeared into the great wide open.

A few months ago, I gave my first in-person book talk since lockdown. This was at a small, independent bookstore in Huntington Beach, California called Mystery Ink shortly before Christmas. Once again, I was making a presentation about Mustang. Afterwards, I was approached by a woman who was speaking softly, though with some urgency, and she wanted to know what she could do on behalf of wild horses and burros. I made some suggestions, as others were dispersing. “My mother is blind,” she said as our conversation was concluding. “She loves horses. Is there a braille edition?” I didn’t think so, I responded, but I explained that Mustang was available in audio with an amazing cast. She said she would order it, then thanked me and left.

That moment wasn’t as dramatic as the others I’ve talked about (and there are more), but it was a hint of what I’d been missing during the pandemic. I’ve not been able to have direct contact with readers for over two years, and social media with its drive-by communication doesn’t really suffice. No one is going to approach me on Zoom after others have “left,” carrying secrets, wanting to express wonderment or shame; or if they do, there is no reading of body language, no way of taking the moment’s temperature, no way of feeling all of the vibrations.

I’d be lying if I said that I love book tours; for me, the dancing bear routine can be exhausting and humiliating, as it is for many authors whom I know. “Buy my book” is not a natural pose for a writer to take, not for me anyway, yet there is a cause and effect and the proffer is made. With America now cracked wide open, is this important, in the scheme of things? Maybe not, but we play our parts and that’s the road that I travel – not book tours per se, but writing itself, and the writing life, and what life in modern America demands. I was profoundly affected by the meetings I’ve described herein, shattered in the best of ways, and I’m longing for the day that I can meet readers face to face again, and hear from them directly. America is locked and loaded but it also seeks grace. We have our stories, after all, and it is our nature to tell them.

Deanne Stillman is the author of four books, including Mustang, Desert Reckoning, and Blood Brothers. Mustang was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Hunter S. Thompson called Stillman's cult classic, the bestselling Twentynine Palms “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.” Starting in August, Deanne is teaching a nonfiction workshop at Journal of the Plague Years. See the course description here: The Power of Place.

Brian's Midnight Cowboy Playlist

Cowboy ::: Randy Newman

Mother Country ::: John Stewart

Horses ::: Rickie Lee Jones

The Ballad of the Runaway Horse ::: Rob Wasserman & Jenifer Warnes

Wild Horses ::: The Sundays

Book Song ::: Fairport Convention

Connection ::: The Rolling Stones

Please Mr Custer ::: Larry Verne

The Day I Read A Book ::: Jimmy Durante

Saddle up with Journal of the Plague Years