The manuscript of my fifth novel in the Monastery Valley series is at the editor’s desk. It’s perhaps the ninth or tenth draft–I lose count after six or so–and it’s working title expresses the main story and sub-plots: The Posse, the Hotshots, and the Miracle. Without spoiling the story, I want to share how I came up with that title.
Briefly, the main story of number 5, like all my books, is inspired by events in the news–in this case, the takeover of federal land by right-wing extremists affiliated with the Posse Comitatus. The Posse is named after a law passed by Congress in 1878–at the end of Reconstruction–explicitly banning the use of Army or Navy personnel to enforce the law within the United States. It was a reaction against Reconstruction, during which the Union Army was used in some states to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment (which freed the slaves and allowed for penalties against states that prevented freed slaves from voting). The “unreconstructed” (vengeful) supporters of the Confederacy hated Reconstruction and did all they could to weaken the federal government in retaliation for it.
In the late 1960s, Henry Beach, from Portland, OR, founded the modern Posse Comitatus (the Latin name means “power of the county”). Beach’s extreme anti-Semitic, racist, and anti-government views included the belief that there is no legitimate government higher than the county, and that the county sheriff is the highest authority in the land. Beach wrote that if any local sheriff were to allow federal authorities to come into the county and impose regulations, “He shall be removed by the Posse to the most populated intersection of streets in the township and at high noon be hung by the neck, the body remaining until sundown as an example to those who would subvert the law.” Note: Beach founded the Posse in 1969. Yep, 1969.
In The Posse, the Hotshots, and the Miracle, against the extreme threat posed by the heavily armed Posse members–whom Deputy Andi Pelton must confront to prevent violence–a summer wildfire threatens St. Brendan’s Monastery high on Mount Adams. St. Brendan’s is Monastery Valley’s namesake. As many of you know, “hotshots” are twenty-person teams of elite wild land fire fighters deployed on the most dangerous fires. But before the hotshots arrive, even as she works to contain the Posse’s danger, Deputy Pelton needs to mobilize the community to build a fire line to protect the monastery–in case the hotshots can’t get there in time.
The premise of the novel is that wildfire and heavily armed protesters have something in common: The capacity to do great violence to a community. Poised against that violence is the character of the community and its leaders.
Okay, that’s enough for the “Posse” and the “hotshots.” What about the “miracle”? I’ll save that one–maybe you’ll read the book when it comes out. Suffice it to say, this isn’t a “walking on water” kind of miracle. It’s the sort that can happen when folks in a small community face a daunting challenge and must eke out a way to confront it.
The Posse, the Hotshots, and the Miracle will be released late in 2020, or very early in 2021. Watch this space!
A sub-theme of my novel, Climbing the Coliseum, explores the recent resurgence of the extremist anti-government and racist right wing in our society.
When I was writing the book, I wanted the action to show, from inside the movement, the kind of hate-filled thinking that drives this it. At the same time, I wanted to avoid demonizing anyone and to portray the characters involved with some sympathy. In this sub-plot, Climbing the Coliseum portrays an anti-tax, anti-government conspiracy modeled on the real-life Posse Comitatus, more on whom later.
If I couldn’t write the characters with genuinely mixed good-and-bad traits, I knew that my readers would be unable to feel a human connection with them, and that would sink the story. This problem absorbed a lot of my energy in the early going. In a moment, I’ll share with you the solution that evolved. First, let me give you some back-story on the Posse Comitatus, which is the model for my conspiracy.
In the novel, as in real life, the Posse Comitatus is an ugly, hate-filled, and (if they weren’t so violent) ludicrous group of human beings. If you want an in-depth look at what the Posse is about, you can check out Rachel Maddow’s deep-historical overview here. It’s long – twenty-one minutes – but she’s very thorough. She traces the roots of the Posse to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which effectively ended Reconstruction and opened the door to Jim Crow. (If you’d prefer a shorter explanation, check Dana Milbank’s articlehere.)
At root, the Posse is an outgrowth of two earlier (but still active) extremist movements: Christian Identity and the Sovereign Citizen movement. From the Christian Identity movement, the Posse Comitatus inherits its virulent strain of white supremacy, racial hatred, and anti-Semitism. From the sovereign citizens, it borrows a set of potent but bizarre ideological beliefs:
The individual citizen is sovereign; that is, a citizen is a nation unto him- or herself, and citizens are free to decide for themselves which laws, if any, they will obey. This, of course, is utterly confused thinking, since by definition, the citizen is a member of the sovereign state. This idea leads to a basketful of bizarre behaviors, such as people deciding to simply eliminate their debts — without paying anything (except $1500.00 to the sovereign citizen site that promotes the idea).
The federal, state, and local governments, with one exception, do not exist and have no authority over individual citizens.
The county sheriff is the highest – and only – valid governmental official; however, see the next point.
If a sheriff, or anyone, attempts to impose “illegal” taxes or other laws on citizens, the Posse is empowered to try him or her by a “citizens’ grand jury” and, if warranted, “We the People” (you’ll find Posse speakers referring to themselves this way all the time) shall penalize him, and even, if necessary, hang him. Yes, that’s right. Hang him. Don’t believe me? Check it out here. The original statement of this is that the offending sheriff “shall be removed by the Posse to the most populated intersection of streets in the township and at high noon hung by the neck, the body remaining until sundown as an example to those who would subvert the law.” The quote is from 1968. Yes, Nineteen-sixty-eight.
As I said, if they weren’t so violent, the Posse would be ludicrous. But they are violent. Remember Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bombers? Posse members. Remember Randy Weaver of Ruby Ridge, Idaho? Posse-influenced, if not a member.
Remember Cliven Bundy? He’s the Nevada rancher who for many years has grazed his cattle on federal lands but refused to pay more than a million dollars in grazing fees – because he does not believe the federal government exists! Remember how he and his supporters stood with rifles aimed at federal marshals who came to remove his cattle from public lands? Remember how he told Fox News that he thinks “the Negro” would be better off as a slave? Why? Because they (“the Negro”) are “basically on government subsidy, so . . . they abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.” (This video clip appears starting at 19:19 into the Rachel Maddow segment mentioned above.) That Cliven Bundy.
Well, Cliven Bundy was repeating Posse Comitatus propaganda, chapter and verse.
So, when I was writing Climbing the Coliseum, I faced this difficult task: How could I keep the Posse Comitatus-based group in the novel from so resembling the real Posse that readers couldn’t engage with them, maybe couldn’t even believe they were real? How could I depict the group sympathetically, without descending into either condescension or farce, and without condoning their destructive ideas?
As is so often the case, my characters saved me. Originally, Vic Sobstak, the rancher I envisioned belonging to the anti-tax conspiracy, was like most Posse Members. He was opinionated, racist, against the government, and brimming with anger. But I was also writing about his wife, Maggie, a much more sympathetic character, indeed, a good and strong person. The trouble was, Maggie truly loved Vic. This forced me to ask myself, “Would Maggie have stayed married to this guy for so long if he was as big a jerk as I’m portraying him?” The only answer I could find was, “No way on earth.” So Vic had to change.
Vic and Maggie were small-time ranchers facing bankruptcy as a result of a big tax problem. I realized that Vic didn’t have to be an anti-Semitic racist to join an anti-tax conspiracy: Lots of folks are searching for a way to solve their tax problems, and the leaders of the conspiracy could pitch it (during its initial recruiting phase) as a benign help-with-taxes organization. The fact that it turns out so much more deadly than that didn’t need to discount Vic’s motivation for getting involved: He wanted to save his ranch and win back Maggie’s respect.
So my solution, thanks to Maggie’s love for her husband, was to write Vic’s character as a decent, hard-working, but stubbornly prideful rancher who, rather innocently (at first), attends some anti-tax meetings put on by the Reverend Crane, from Idaho, who preaches the Posse Comitatus Bible. In his naiveté, Vic has no idea the wasps’ nest he’s being seduced into, and when he finally wakes up to the craziness – and the hatred – it’s almost to late to get out. I wanted Victor to emerge as a vivid and sympathetic guy, trapped by his own pride and fear of failure.
In other words, a person like most of us.
If you’re wondering whether Vic stumbles his way out of trouble, here’s where you can find Climbing the Coliseum!