Q&A: Lori Benton (Burning Sky)
Lori Benton answered six questions about her book Burning Sky (WaterBrook) which is getting rave reviews from Historical Novel Society and USAToday.com.
WHAT FIRST SPARKED YOUR INTEREST TO WRITE BURNING SKY?
When I began researching the 18th century history of what would become the United States, almost at once I was drawn away from the populated seaboard settings to the sparsely settled periphery—the mountain and over- mountain frontier—where cultures inevitably collided, in friendship, trade, and war. What captured my imagination were those individuals who were drawn across those cultural barriers and not only survived the encounter, but thrived, in some cases learning to straddle that line between two worlds.
The Mohawk Valley of New York—before, during, and after the Revolutionary War—is a setting rife with such encounters, played out against the greater conflict of what amounted to a civil war. I couldn’t resist learning more about these men and women—European, African, and Native American—who survived profound losses, made wrenching choices, and saw their families and communities fractured by violence and upheaval, leaving them to redefine their identities as nations, as neighbors, kin, and individuals.
I began writing Burning Sky in 2009, but because I let a story germinate for months before writing, I can’t recall exactly when the character of Willa Obenchain first came to me. What I do recall is that a vision of a solitary woman on a journey, somewhere on the New York frontier, intruded upon me as I was going about my day. She was tall and strong, and she bore a carrying basket on her back. And somewhere, I was fairly certain, a collie was lurking.
WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTER AND WHY?
Because I’ve attempted to live inside each main character’s skin, to understand them and their concerns, I’ve formed a deep attachment to all of them. But to give an answer I’ll choose Neil MacGregor, the wounded Scottish botanist Willa meets in the first chapter. Neil MacGregor is a survivor. He has suffered a debilitating injury that might easily have caused him to give up his life’s passion, his dreams. It’s an injury that renders everyday life more challenging. Yet he’s pressed on, found ways to compensate, and discovered he is capable of more than he’d ever have known had that injury not occurred. I find that inspiring, and hope readers do as well.
DO YOU HAVE ANY NATIVE AMERICAN HERITAGE IN YOUR OWN FAMILY?
Possibly, if ancient family history is to be trusted. In my case it traces back to the settling of Jamestown, and the Powhatan people of eastern Virginia, where I was born. But that’s very far back in my family history. I came to adulthood with no connections to Native American nations besides friendships. My husband’s Cherokee heritage is more recent, and more certain. He’s descended from a Cherokee family who didn’t go west in the 1830s, along the Trail of Tears. They hid from government officials and remained in the east, and thus never ended up on the Dawes Rolls. My husband’s Cherokee ancestor eventually settled in Louisiana, where my mother-in-law was born. Now in her 80s, she remembers her half-Cherokee grandmother well.
WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS WILLA’S MOST RELATABLE CHARACTERISTIC TO READERS?
During the war years, prior to the opening of Burning Sky, the inhabitants of the Mohawk Valley who didn’t flee back east in the face of continual raids and attacks were forced to live within walled forts to survive. Devastated by personal losses, Willa Obenchain has internalized this defensive position, forting up her heart behind protective walls. But behind those walls she’s still a woman of fierce compassion. When push comes to shove she follows that compulsion, even if it entails putting herself in harm’s way. I admire that in Willa.
HOW DO YOU HOPE BURNING SKY WILL AFFECT READERS?
I’m a storyteller first and foremost. As such I hope readers are entertained by Willa’s story and transported to her 18th century world to experience situations and challenges most of us (thankfully) don’t encounter in our daily lives, but that hold abiding interest nevertheless. Beyond that... I’ve heard it said that no two people who read the same book... read the same book. Each reader brings to the story a lifetime of experience (and opinions, wisdom, burdens, questions, preferences, and dislikes). It’s a wonderful, unpredictable chemistry that can happen between the reader and the story world. Sometimes the chemistry is strong and good. Sometimes it isn’t there at all. But if a reader should turn the last page of Burning Sky and find herself reminded that through trials and tears we have a heavenly source from which we can draw comfort, courage, and strength to help in time of need, I’d be thrilled.
THOUGHTS ON THE MIDDLE GROUND EXPERIENCE, AND FRONTIER FICTION?
As an avid reader of early frontier American novels, what continues to draw me to the genre more than any other element is something historians call the Middle Ground.
The Middle Ground has been variously defined as the present states of Tennessee and Kentucky, the Ohio River area, the Lower Mississippi, or the Great Lakes region. I like to think of the Middle Ground in a broader sense—that shifting, redefining space wherever two cultures meet, whether that’s a location on a map, the encounter of contrasting life-ways, or the meeting of two human hearts. During the 18th century, whether on a plantation, in the wilderness, a village, or a mountain clearing, that meeting sometimes occurred amidst a clash of ignorance, intolerance, and betrayal. Other times it took place with a remarkable attempt at understanding, with a hand extended in trade, or aid, or friendship.
One of the surprising aspects I’ve learned about the 18th century is how far, and how early on, individuals penetrated that shifting frontier—from both sides. Native youths attended schools in the east. In a few cases warriors sailed to England to be received by British royalty. White men called Long Hunters roamed beyond the mountains hundreds of miles from settlement, spending months or years trapping furs. Then there were men like Samuel Kirkland, a missionary to the Seneca and Oneida Nations of New York, who endured hardship to serve and teach, and became an advocate for the Oneida during their decades of war and displacement.
Through such meetings, for good or ill, come what I see as one of the hallmarks of a good frontier novel: the testing of a character through an exposure to a way of life about which they’ve maybe held preconceived notions. When this Middle Ground experience is reflected in the inner landscape of a character who chooses to cross that cultural line, or is forced across it by circumstance, I get the thrill of living it through the sensibilities of a person born to that time and place, while finding in them a common humanity, a place of connection from which to taste a slice of history.