“Owl’s World” (by David Dean)

Although he’s written several novels, David Dean is primarily a short-story writer. After debuting in EQMM’s Department of First Stories more than thirty years ago, he’s continued to produce a number of stories for us each year, while also contributing tales to anthologies. I’ve found that people sometimes don’t realize how wide the fictional range of an author who specializes in short fiction can be. David Dean exemplifies the diversity that can be found in short tales by a single author. He’s probably best known for his series starring policeman Julian Hall, and we’ll have another first-rate entry in that series in our September/October 2021 issue, but he’s written a large number of nonseries stories too, including his Readers Award winning “Ibrahim’s Eyes” and his Edgar-nominated “Tomorrow’s Dead.” He’s also become one of our best historical crime fiction writers. His best work in that subgenre of the mystery includes the Readers Award winning “The Duelist.” In this post, David relates his inspiration for a series that not only takes readers back in time but across cultural lines. The latest in that series, “Stone Coat,” is in our current issue (March/April 2021).—Janet Hutchings

In the January/February 2019 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine I introduced the Native American character, Owl, in a story titled, “Snow Boy”.  The events that transpire in both that tale and his return in “Stone Coat,” in the current March/April issue are, of course, fictional, though I like to think that they could’ve happened.  Owl is a shaman of the Lenape Nation living in what is now southern New Jersey.  Many readers may be more familiar with them as the Delaware, a name the English settlers would award them in honor of the great Lord De La Warr who had been granted the earth beneath the Lenape’s feet by the English monarch.  No doubt, the Lenape were puzzled at being renamed for a man whom they would never meet, yet whose name would grace rivers, bays, counties, towns, and even a future state within the Lenapehoking, which was their own name for their homeland.  Though I don’t pin the stories down to a particular year, there is reference in “Snow Boy” to the Zwannendael massacre which had happened some three decades prior, so roughly 1663.

If you happen to wonder at my choice of subject, time, and locale, I can offer several explanations, the first being that I have long been fascinated by Native American history.  This love began when I had my tonsils removed at nine years old.  Knowing that I was already promised ice cream when I awoke from the procedure (that was a given), I felt emboldened to demand more—I wanted a book on the French and Indian Wars (as to what I imagined my bargaining chip to be, I can’t recall, nor do I remember what had sparked my interest in that particular subject).

Puzzled, no doubt, my parents did their best, but were only able to come up with a book on the Revolutionary War that contained a few references to the role of the Indians in the War of Independence.  In the end, it didn’t matter—I read it voraciously and kept going from there.

The thing that prompted me to write of the Lenape in particular was locale, both theirs and mine.  I live in southern New Jersey where they also once lived, hunted, and farmed. Arrowheads and spear points can still be found along the Delaware Bay not five minutes from my home. A nearby street, Indian Trail Road, is so named due to having been built on an ancient path blazed by the Lenape connecting the Delaware Bay to the Atlantic Ocean. Large tracts of maritime forest, salt marshes, and coastlines make it easy to imagine that earlier time, especially in the off-season when a deep quiet descends upon the land after the tourists have departed.

Lastly, as a writer, I enjoy incorporating my love of Native American history into my fiction. I don’t dumb anything down. Life during this era was as challenging and demanding as any other in history, and a pivotal time for the Lenape.

“Snow Boy” touches on the political situation not only with the white settlers, but also with that of their Native American neighbors.  “Stone Coat” reveals the full complexity of those relationships as they were developing at that time. The Lenape, and Owl as their shaman, are increasingly pressed on several fronts, not the least of which is the growing Iroquois Confederacy known as The Five Nations. These consisted of the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Seneca tribes—all Iroquois speakers.

It would be wrong, however, to think that with the coming of Europeans that all Native Americans coalesced into a single entity, or that they had ever recognized themselves as unified peoples. They were as diverse as the continental landscape they dwelt upon. They spoke different languages, had different cultures, and were varied in their tribal structures. Rivalries, feuds, and longstanding enmity between various nations and neighbors had also existed long before the arrival of the white man. So too had ancient alliances, affinities, and trade agreements. Their situation, just as that of the European invaders, was complex and fluid.

The Lenapehoking encompassed what is now southeastern New York, all of New Jersey, southeastern Pennsylvania, and eastern Delaware.  Yet the Lenape were never a populous nation. They existed as a loosely knit group of bands organized under a matrilineal clan system. Men married outside their own clans and their children were raised in the mother’s by her family.  This custom had the advantage of discouraging in-breeding, but was confusing to the Dutch, English, and Swedes that encountered it during the colonial era. Women also enjoyed an equality of status that was mostly foreign to Europeans, being able to own property and have a voice in the affairs of their households and villages.

So this then is the stage upon which my stories are set.  All that is left are for their characters to appear.  And that is the hard part.  It would be ridiculous for me to claim that I have any knowledge of how a Native American living in the 1600s might actually think.  The Lenape (Algonquian-speakers) did not have a written language at that time, so that is not a resource I could turn to. There are, however, some accounts by early white settlers (mostly missionaries and some government officials) that do detail the words of a few Lenape chiefs and leaders of the day. One is able to get a feel for their speech and cadence in the better written of these, and the sense they impart—to me, at least—is one of careful deliberation of thought and an earnestness of purpose.  They are both proud and realistic.

It is also possible to know something of their customs and beliefs thanks to the lifelong efforts of such people as historian C.A. Weslager, and anthropologist Herbert C. Kraft, both of whom made the study of the Lenape their life’s work. Some of these customs and rituals are practiced today by the descendants of those early Lenape now living in Oklahoma and other places.

With these things in mind I set about creating the characters of Owl, Shingas, Wolf Paw, Poushe, Snow Boy, and others. Owl, the main character, being the shaman for his band, has duties touching on matters both natural and supernatural. He is a person of great discernment and a keen student of human nature. Wolf Paw, as chief, relies on Owl as an advisor, healer, and, when necessary, a sorcerer. Though having grown old, Wolf Paw has not grown jaded.  He enjoys conversation, especially when he is the one speaking, and has a subtle sense of humor, mostly at the expense of others.  Shingas, the village’s lead hunter and fiercest warrior, serves as Owl’s reluctant bodyguard and vigilant companion.  His tendency to violence is both fueled and controlled by his sense of duty to his people. These three form the triumvirate of my tales.

In many ways, both “Snow Boy” and Stone Coat” are as much tales of adventure, as they are of mystery.  Perhaps their inspiration hearkens back to my nine-year-old self lying in a hospital bed in what also seems like a different historical period. Of course, in the end, Owl, and his companions are fictional, and a product of my imagination. They are my responsibility.  It is also my responsibility to entertain, which I hope that I have done with these two stories. If not, I have failed on two fronts, and can only plead that I have done my best to honor both the subject and the reader to the best of my ability.

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7 Responses to “Owl’s World” (by David Dean)

  1. lou manfredo says:

    Great piece, thanks for sharing your insights. And let me assure you, there has been no failure on your part; these are fascinating and masterly stories, acredit to creative writing in general, and our shared genre in particular. Great stuff!
    Stay well my friend.

  2. Josh Pachter says:

    Thanks for all the background information on this fascinating series, David. I look forward to reading more about Owl and his tribe.

  3. I loved the story! It’s a pity I missed the first one, as my first subscription issue was May/June 2019, but that issue introduced me to your writing–The Duelist, a superb story.

    • Thank you, Anne, you’ve made me happy. I very much enjoyed your story, “The Poet Who Locked Himself In” in the Sept/Oct. 2019 issue of EQMM, by the way. We have a mutual friend in the multi-talented Josh Pachter, I think.

      • Thank you for the kind comment, David. Yes, Josh Pachter is a mutual friend. What he does is amazing. Consider all these writers he introduced to an international audience. It’s a tremendous effort. I’m grateful to him.

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