Lorin R. Robinson talks with Book Glow about the writing of his historical novel, The 13: Ashi-niswi. The book is available from Open Books Direct.
Without needing to issue a “spoiler alert,” how would you describe The 13?
The book is historical fiction based on an old Anishinaabe/Ojibwe story that tells the tale of 13 (ashi-niswi) teenagers who seek to restore the honor of their band after a devastating raid by the enemy Dakota/Sioux. The story is a parable that considers the age-old and always relevant question: “What is the price of honor?” It is also a poignant coming of age story as the main character—the youngest of the boys—struggles to come to grips with the aftermath of the quest.
The story takes place in “a time before time.” Why isn’t the time frame more recent or more specific?
I wanted to tell the story in its purest form—before the arrival of white men and the introduction of new diseases, alcohol, guns, horses and other cultural, political and economic distractions. The Native Americans known today as Ojibwe and Sioux are referred to in the book as Anishinaabe and Dakota—as they were known before being renamed by French fur traders.
What is the historical basis for the book?
For millennia, the Anishinaabe had lived on the shores of the Atlantic near the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Some 1,000 years ago, according to oral traditions, mystics warned of the coming of pale-skinned invaders who would destroy them. Many heeded the warning and began a migration westward where they were told to look for safety in a land where, mysteriously, “food grew upon the water.”
The migration took many generations and was fraught with danger for the Anishinaabe had to pass through lands long inhabited by other tribes. When the survivors finally arrived on the southern shore of Gichigami, Lake Superior, they found the manoomin, wild rice, that signaled the end of their journey. But here, in the dense northern forests of what are now Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Anishinaabe met its fiercest opponent—the Dakota. In centuries of conflict, the Anishinaabe successfully drove the Dakota into the prairies to the south.
It is this bloody conflict that provides the backdrop for The 13.
You are not Native American in heritage. Were you at all concerned about writing about a culture so different from your own?
I know there’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about the appropriateness of writers stepping outside of their own ethnicity to write fiction about other races. My position is simple. I would never presume to write a work of contemporary fiction focusing on a race other than my own. I don’t have the “chops.” I’m not a Sherman Alexie. The 13, however, is a work of historical fiction. The historical and cultural information upon which it is based is available to any writer who has the interest, ability and commitment to do the necessary research.
Where did you get the idea for The 13?
The idea was not mine. It came years ago from historian Dr. Walker Wyman, a fellow faculty member and friend at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls. Walker, who was known primarily as a folklorist, published 23 books during his long career. In 1979, following publication of his Wisconsin Folklore, he was named Wisconsin’s “Honorary Folklorist.”
Walker told me the tale sometime in the early 1980s during a faculty cocktail party. At the time, one of my responsibilities was serving as the university’s director of outreach and I was working with Walker to develop a “newspaper classroom” course about Wisconsin folklore. We were discussing possible course content over drinks when he mentioned an Ojibwe story he’d recently heard. He had only the sketchiest of details and I assumed he might, through research, later fill in the blanks.
Try as I might, I can’t remember whether he called it a legend or merely a story. But I do remember I was intrigued by the tale of 13 boys who, after a devastating raid on their village by the Dakota/Sioux, sought to restore the honor of their band through revenge. The journalist in me thought—there are ingredients here for a great story. So, I filed it away in my mental compartment labeled “Ideas for Novels” that I hoped someday to write.
Walker and I never again discussed the story. He died at age 91 in 1999. It was some 33 years after that cocktail party that I started to write The 13. I’ve found no trace of the story in his academic output written after our conversation—books, articles and other materials—that are stored in the university’s archive.
So, The 13: Ashi-niswi is my creation, built on the meagre details Walker provided. I hope readers will agree that, whether legend or story, the tale was one worth the telling.
Have you had other books published?
Yes, my previous two are called The Warming and Tales from The Warming. I considered writing The 13 first but, instead, felt compelled to deal with the very pressing issue of global warming. The books are fiction, probably falling into the recently named genre—climate fiction. In them I explore the human impact of the climate crisis on “real” people over time in locations around the world. Though fiction, the books are based on scenarios for the future suggested by climate and earth science. They are thought exercises blending fact and fiction whose purpose is not to preach, but to get people thinking about the implications of this potentially civilization-changing phenomenon.
If interested, how can readers get copies of The 13 or your other books?
They are available in soft cover and e-book from all online book retailers or may be ordered from any bookstore.