Today I’m delighted to welcome Heather Miller to the blog with an article about her new book ‘Tho I Be Mute.
Your book, ‘Tho I Be Mute, sounds absolutely fascinating. As a historian first and foremost, and then a writer, I’m always interested in how people research their historical stories.
Can you explain your research process to me and give an idea of the resources that you rely on the most (other than your imagination, of course) to bring your historical landscape to life?
Thank you for saying so. Honesty, some people believe that it is not my story to tell because I am not Cherokee. It is something that weighs heavily on my heart.
I have tried to write with sensitivity, research, persistence, perspective, and due consideration. Two “sensitivity” editors read the novel before and during the publication process. I asked myself whether I could construct this narrative through the eyes of both Cherokee, John Ridge, and his Caucasian wife, Sarah, with honesty and researched integrity. I followed the history as closely as possible. I kept the narrative’s theme very human, not singularly defined by ethnicity or identity.
David Marion Wilkinson, the author of Oblivion’s Altar (John’s father, Major Ridge’s story), said when I interviewed him, “This isn’t only a Cherokee story. It is one of courage. The Ridge family’s story is a human one, surrounded by corruption, evil, and greed.” He’s right. Although, the story is also one of love, not defined by race or cultural background. John and Sarah found a connection to one another’s character, not one another’s culture.
So, to tell the tale, I research and continue to uncover new texts to illuminate the story from multiple perspectives. History advised each event within the novel’s pages. When there was little evidence, I worked backward from laws John Ridge submitted to the Cherokee Legislative Council. I asked myself what could have prompted him to present such and created a plausible event leading to the facts, working backward from effect to cause.
My research began in a Special Collections Library on our local university campus during a “field trip” for a Researched Fiction course. I knew the character I wanted to begin with: an archetype of American Southern Fiction, the woman who lives alone in the hills offering medicine and life lessons to anyone who crosses her path. She is reminiscent of the “goat woman” from Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. She became Clarinda Ridge, John and Sarah’s daughter.
Why was she alone? What could have happened to her to leave her with so much to teach and no one around her to share her wisdom? What kind of life could she have lived to gain such knowledge? So, I began to dig for gems and found her and her family on the pages of Thurman Wilkin’s text Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People.
From there, I obsessed, as most historical fiction authors tend to do. I scoured the Internet and libraries for biographies, Ph.D. dissertations, archaeological reports, and historical texts on the political climate surrounding Cherokee’s removal from their ancestral lands. Several books were pivotal to plotting the manuscript: Thurman’s Cherokee Tragedy, Cherokee Cavaliers by James Parins, John Rollin Ridge also by James Parins, Tiya Miles’ Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, Living Stories of the Cherokee, collected and edited by Barbara R. Duncan, An American Betrayal by Daniel Blake Smith, Blood Moon by John Sedgwick, To Marry an Indian: The Marriage of Harriett Gold and Elias Boudinot, 1823-1839 edited by Theresa Strouth Gaul, The Heathen School by John Demos, Sovereignty: A Play by Mary Katharyn Nagle (a Ridge descendant), and Toward the Setting Sun by Brian Hicks. My latest read is Steve Inskeeps’ Jacksonland. I have also read extensively from Theda Purdue’s body of work. In all these texts, John Ridge’s own words, primary source documents filled my ears with his voice. The manuscript contains excerpts that are his exact words.
Legend and Myth also influence the narrative, so I have read and listened to many oral stories from Cherokee Treasured Members and listened to Cherokee Native Speakers and read from a pivotal primary source, Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee by James Moody.
Chieftain’s Museum/Major Ridge Home Picture
Field trips are exceedingly fun and widen my circle of knowledge, not only of the people but of the era (and get me away from my computer screen). My first field trip was in September of 2019 to the Chieftain’s Museum/Major Ridge Home near Rome, Georgia. The visit made it all real. To stand where these very real people lived and worked, farmed and raised children was beautiful to my soul. I used my imagination to take in the landscape, to unwind time, to shrink the massive tree trunks on the property next to the Oostanaula River. Inside the museum, there are scale models of what renovations the home underwent through its lifetime and glass covering removed walls that reveal its original log structure.
One archeologic gem made me hold my breath. John Ridge’s shoe taps lay under glass, worn on one side from his persistent limp from hip scrofula. So taken aback by their presence, I wrote a scene where he leaves his shoes in a nearby field so they could be discovered by archaeologists nearly two centuries later.
After uncovering so much that influenced the manuscript at Chieftain’s, I widened my field trip circle, visiting: New Echota, the once Cherokee Capital, the Vann House, Red Clay, Tennessee, Ft. Mitchell, Alabama, Horseshoe Bend, Alabama, the McIntosh Reserve in Whitesburg, Georgia, and the OconalufteeVillage and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina. I have learned many historical facts from each adventure, uncovered human anecdotes, and built visions of landscapes from the past. Each of these enriching experiences makes writing this world more realistic.
On May 29th, 2021, I travelled to Indian Springs, home to Creek Chief McIntosh’s Tavern, where he signed the Treaty of Indian Springs, selling Creek land to the American Government. His signature on that document brought his assassination. During the tour, I was able to hold a flint-lock pistol. As I am sure your readers know, rarely do these guns shoot accurately. After firing the lead ball and likely missing its target, a shooter could hold the barrel in their hand and use the stock as a club. They are exceedingly heavy.
With permission from Ridge descendants, each purchase of ‘Tho I Be Mute will fund a future scholarship for Cherokee students planning to pursue a law degree. My husband and I plan to travel to Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma this summer to celebrate the novel’s launch. Also, the trip is to continue research for Mute’s sequel, Yellow Bird’s Song. The Ridge family saga continues.
Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. Good luck with the new book.
Here’s the blurb:
Home. Heritage. Legacy. Legend.
In 1818, Cherokee John Ridge seeks a young man’s education at the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut. While there, he is overcome with sickness yet finds solace and love with Sarah, the steward’s quiet daughter. Despite a two-year separation, family disapproval, defamatory editorials, and angry mobs, the couple marries in 1824.
Sarah reconciles her new family’s spirituality and her foundational Christianity. Although, Sarah’s nature defies her new family’s indifference to slavery. She befriends Honey, half-Cherokee and half-African, who becomes Sarah’s voice during John’s extended absences.
Once arriving on Cherokee land, John argues to hold the land of the Cherokees and that of his Creek neighbors from encroaching Georgian settlers. His success hinges upon his ability to temper his Cherokee pride with his knowledge of American law. Justice is not guaranteed.
Rich with allusions to Cherokee legends, ‘Tho I Be Mute speaks aloud; some voices are heard, some are ignored, some do not speak at all, compelling readers to listen to the story of a couple who heard the pleas of the Cherokee.
Meet the Author
As an English educator, Heather Miller has spent twenty-three years teaching her students the author’s craft. Now, she is writing it herself, hearing voices from the past.
Miller’s foundation began in the theatre, through performance storytelling. She can tap dance, stage-slap someone, and sing every note from Les Misérables. Her favorite role is that of a fireman’s wife and mom to three: a trumpet player, a future civil engineer, and a future RN. There is only one English major in her house.
While researching, writing, and teaching, she is also working towards her M FA in Creative Writing. Heather’s corndog-shaped dachshund, Sadie, deserves an honorary degree.
Connecting with the author