An Evening with Author Thomas Peacock

Thomas Peacock on the shore of Lake Superior.

Background

I’ve been a member of an all-women book group for many years. This past fall, we read “The Wolf’s Trail: An Ojibwe Story, Told by Wolves” by Native American author, Thomas D. Peacock. Like my novel, “Eye of the Wolf,” Peacock’s story is told from the viewpoint of wolves. Set in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, it details the long parallel relationship between wolves and the Ojibwe people.

Peacock is a retired associate professor of education who taught and served as an administrator at the University of Minnesota Duluth for thirteen years. Several of his books are Minnesota Book Award winners. He’s well-respected in academic and literary circles, plus, he’s a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

We enjoyed “The Wolf’s Trail” so much, we invited Tom to speak to our group. Despite the pandemic, he and his wife Betsy came out from their home in Duluth on a cold wintry evening and met with us outside around a backyard fire.

I wish I had taken notes about our discussion then, but I was too busy tending the fire. Lucky for me (and you), after our meeting, Tom and Betsy invited us to their other home in Red Cliff, Wisconsin, in the spring for a potluck dinner and discussion of another book of his, “Beginnings: The Homeward Journey of Donovan Manypenny.” Tom offered to show us some of the locations where the novel is set on the Ojibwe reservation there. We readily agreed to this generous offer.

The Donovan Manypenny book is a poignant coming-home story. It’s about a boy who lived with his Ojibwe grandparents near Red Cliff until they died when he was ten. Shunted into the foster system, abused and rejected, Donovan is finally adopted by a loving white couple who ultimately moved to Boston, where he remained for forty-three years until the whispers of his beginnings lured him back home to the reservation. During his journey, Donovan followed the same historic westward migration trail that the Ojibwe travelled in their search for a new land “where food grows on the water.” (This refers to wild rice.)

Finding a date that worked for my book group members pushed our meeting until after the solstice. The weather was beautiful for a drive along the South Shore of Lake Superior to Red Cliff. Tom spent his summers with a great uncle and aunt in Red Cliff, and Betsy is a Red Cliff band member, so that’s what drew them to live there.

Here’s what happened.

Blueberry Road

Blueberry Road winds its gravelly way through the Red Cliff Reservation woods, dotted with FEMA trailer homes and other modest dwellings. After meeting at Tom’s home, we caravanned down the road, stopping at the trailhead for the new Frog Bay Tribal National Park after Blueberry Rd. veered and turned into Frog Bay Road.

Tom explained that his great uncle and aunt lived on Blueberry Road, which served as his inspiration for the setting of Donovan’s grandparents’ home. “My aunt and uncle seemed ancient to me, but I was only ten at the time. They didn’t have any running water, no electricity. They had an outhouse. Like many homes at that time, they had lilacs and weeping willows in the yard. That was the setting I thought of for my book,” he said.

The house where Donovan grew up on Blueberry Road isn’t actually on that road but is off busy Highway 13 a few miles away. Tom showed us that later during our tour.

An older couple who Tom met while he was teaching an Ojibwe language class in Bemidji years ago served as inspiration for Donovan’s grandparents. “They were just old-time native people who spoke the language and ended up teaching the language. The husband would drive the wife and then he’d sit with her in class. They always sat in the back.”

Tom said people who are familiar with the area often think he named Donovan Manypenny and his grandparents after the street in Bayfield called Manypenny Avenue. “But I didn’t,” he said. “There’s a lot of native people from the White Earth Reservation with that last name. I just liked it.”

While driving to our next stop, I had the luck (or was it planning?) to be in Tom’s car with a couple other book group ladies. We discussed different parts of the book that struck us. One I particularly liked was the conversation that Donovan’s grandparents have after they’re dead. The grandmother died first and after the grandfather dies, he apologizes to her for not being able to take care of Donovan anymore. But he’s so matter of fact about being dead – no wailing, no gnashing of teeth, just, “I’m dead, that’s all, I guess . . . maybe we’ll just have to help him from here.”

Tom said, “I wondered about putting that in there. But I wanted to write it, so I did. I took it out at one point, then I put it back in again. I worried that maybe people would think it was too weird.”

We told him we were glad he included it. Plus, it set up a pattern for other (living) characters to offer their viewpoints later in the story. That brought our conversation around to “Chapter 7, Ramona of the Wolf Clan.” This was another section Tom thought twice about including because Donovan, who is married by this time and is on his solitary westward migration, finds himself attracted to Ramona, gets drunk, and almost has an affair with her.

“Some people wonder why I put the Ramona chapter in there. It seems out of character for Donovan. I thought it was important that he be tempted, challenged, to show his humanity and that he isn’t a saint. And the chapter does explain, too, the difficult position that a lot of native women are put into.”

By this time, we reached our next stop.

St. Francis Catholic Church

The quaint red and white church in town was the inspiration for the church that Donovan and his grandparents attended, and the cemetery where Donovan’s relatives are buried. Tom said the church was familiar to him as a child. “I’ve gone to a million funerals in that church.”

Across the street sits a decrepit school building that he envisioned as Donovan’s school.

Standing in the church parking lot, we discussed Tom’s own westward migration, which he took thirty-five years ago when he finished college in Boston. (He graduated from Harvard with a master’s and doctorate in education.) At the time, he did not know he would write a book about his travels – he just needed to go home.

“After school, I had to pack up everything and leave. The route west just seemed like the logical thing to do. One of my brothers came out and helped me pack up. I had an old rez car and he works on cars, so he helped me fix it up enough that I’d make it home.”

Shore of Lake Superior with view of Sand Island

Our next stop was at the end of a road near Tom and Betsy’s home. We gathered at a parking area near a small beach with a view of the nearby Apostle Islands. Near the end of the novel, Donovan, his wife, and daughter visit Lake Superior one morning to offer tobacco. They prayed and Donovan thanked the Creator for everything, “For our lives and all the blessings we have had. Just then when I prayed a slight breeze came up and caused ripples on the water. I know it was our Creator answering,” Donovan said.

Tom explained he was thinking of this beach during that scene. It’s also the same beach where he and Betsy married.

The Peacock’s Living Room

After our potluck dinner, we sat down for an extended conversation. Tom let us in on some other changes he made to the story before it was published and gave us insights into its main characters.

He explained that in his original version, Donovan discovered he had Stage Four pancreatic cancer, which is basically a death sentence. “So that’s why he made his journey home – to die. But my publisher, Jim Perlman, liked Donovan so much, he didn’t want him to die, so I had to rewrite it.” (Perlman is the publisher for Holy Cow! Press.)

When he reached Red Cliff, Donovan discovers he has a sister, Maggie. Tom said she is a character in a previous story he published, where he described her journey from the foster care system in Minneapolis to Red Cliff. I was glad he mentioned that because I noticed the lack of her backstory in the Donovan Manypenny book. I will have to find that story and read it!

The character of Uncle Eddie, who orients Donovan to Red Cliff and his past, has been featured in many of Tom’s short stories. He is also the main character in Tom’s next book, which is coming out soon from Dovetailed Press.

“Eddie is 86 years old and the story is written in first person like a memoir. Eddie’s been my favorite character. Donovan is also in the story, but more as a cameo,” Tom offered.

I’ll end this extended post (thanks for sticking with it!) with some Q & As from our living room conversation. The second question was especially enlightening, and Tom’s response seemed out of character for this soft-spoken, mild-mannered author:

Growing up, did you experience the same disconnect with your heritage that Donovan did?

“No. I grew up on the Fond du Lac Reservation and I’m very comfortable there. Even when I was out East, I hung out with native people. I think when you’re educated you can be comfortable in both worlds (the white world and native world). I feel safe on Fond du Lac. Those people who are shooting each other are all my relatives. But because I was blessed with an education – I feel comfortable in the academic world, too.”

So, you didn’t find education to be a barrier between you and your native heritage, similar to the main character in Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian?”

“I think I was kind of an enigma because I liked to drink, fight, and raise hell. During prom, I was out stealing gas from all the cars and getting straight A’s at the same time. I could do that and get away with it. I didn’t feel stigmatized at all – because if they did, I’d beat the crap outta them!”

Do you think things really got better for the little boy that Donovan comforts on Manitoulin Island after they went to the police?

“No, I don’t think so. That’s a really common thing with a mom and her boyfriend – the kid kinda takes all the crap. I had to leave it at that. There are a lot of native kids who are of mixed race, black and native, and I wanted to have that in a character. It’s hard for them. They get picked on by everybody and they’re never accepted anywhere.”

What’s your writing process?

“When I’m writing, I’ll write a chapter a day. I’ll get up at five in the morning and write until seven or eight at night. Then I’ll ‘force’ Betsy to read it before we go to bed because I want someone to read it. (Laughs) And then I’ll work on it for about a week, editing.”

Do you know many people who have come back to the rez?

“In Fond du Lac, I had a nephew who showed up right around his eighteenth birthday from California. He just came and banged on the door one day. He was the spitting image of one of my brothers who passed away 20 years ago. He scared the crap out of all of us!

“One of our nieces showed up when she was eighteen, too. Then when they were sniffing around for someone to date, we had to set them down and tell them who they shouldn’t be hanging out with because, ‘That’s your first cousin.’ We had to do that with both of them.”

Why didn’t you describe Donovan’s physical characteristics much in your book?

“I couldn’t visualize what he looked like. That’s one thing I had to add in as an edit. Same thing with Maggie. I couldn’t visualize her. The characters often appear to me as voices rather than a physical presence.”

And so, sated on Betsy’s fry bread, filled with a new appreciation for Tom’s work and a deeper understanding of native issues, we said our goodbyes and each began our own journeys, homeward.

My book group with Tom in his living room. From left to right, me, Konnie, Sherry, Sharon, Tom, Judy and Diane.

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