Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Maggots in the Cornmeal

(March 13, 2009)

How does an author handle it when the protagonist of his work has to do things that are less than honorable? In other words, what do we do about the "maggots in the cornmeal" of history? (I'm borrowing this phrase from a discussion once with Jack Shakely, author of The Confederate Warbonnet.)

Tonight I was procrastinating in my actual writing by doing some research into the history of the treaty with the Arkansas Cherokees that will figure prominently toward the end of my second book. To summarize, white settlers and the Cherokees were both claiming a section of land in what is now northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma. The territorial legislature in Arkansas had launched a "pre-emptive strike" in the battle by designating the area "Lovely County," making it part of their jurisdiction and effectively claiming it for the whites. A delegation of Cherokees from Arkansas went to Washington, DC, in 1828 to try to get government officials to enforce the provisions of previous treaties that would keep whites out of the region. However, the delegation found that the US government wasn't interested in talking about the old treaties; all they would talk about was a new treaty in which the Cherokee would agree to give up their lands in Arkansas in exchange for land farther west. After 6 weeks of futile negotiations, the Cherokees, "frustrated and worn out," according to one source, agreed to the proposal, on the condition that nothing was final until the full Council back in Arkansas Territory had approved the agreement. They signed the treaty on May 6, but on May 12 - less than a week after the signing - President John Quincy Adams took the treaty to the Senate for ratification proceedings, obviously without any effort to get approval from the other Cherokees in Arkansas.

Unpleasant happenings, agreed? And yet the protagonist of my story (John David) is a white man who wants to settle on land that, by rights, belongs to the Cherokees. If he is going to achieve his goals and his dreams, he has to participate in these actions that defraud an entire group of people and deprive them of their own dreams.

How do I manage the necessary balance between having my protagonist act in a way that rings true to historical fact and yet having him remain a sympathetic character that readers will still like? Actually, the reason I am procrastinating is because I've reached the point where I have to write the first scene in which John David has to harbor some politically-incorrect feelings toward the Cherokees. It's not that he's a "perfect" person who's never displayed any negative feelings or behavior; it's just that this time, he's really not justified in what he's going to do. It's a little scary to put those "maggots" into the "cornmeal" of my story.


Augustina Peach said...

Easy.. remember they are human and write them as such.

I was a bad author in An Involuntary King and just did not mention Lawrence had slaves. But I did show him try to kill a defenseless man. Why? Because that is what he would do.

Nan Hawthorne

Jim Cooke said...

If there are creatures in your cornmeal I am of the opinion that they are weevils. One might find maggots in cornmeal mush but not in the meal itself.
Setting that aside: Why must your protagonist be sympathetic? Great literature abounds in unsympathetic protagonists. Most of the really interesting ones are not sympathetic.
I'm going to have to look into President J. Q. Adams and this treaty. Thank you.

Augustina Peach said...

Ha ha, thanks for pointing that out, Jim! You'd think two people who write about the nineteenth century would have done better with the metaphor....

The history around the treaty is very interesting. In some ways it was a dress rehearsal for the policy that led to the Trail of Tears.

Thanks for your comments!