Author Julia Robb has just released her fourth historical novel (previous titles are Saint of the Burning Heart, Del Norte, and Scalp Mountain). This one, The Captive Boy, is about the U.S. Army and the 1870s war with the Comanches. But it’s really about the fictional Colonel McKenna and his relationship with August Schiltz, a boy captured as a child by the Comanche and then rescued by the Army. Colonel McKenna’s personal interest in the boy creates a relationship that fuels the story.
By listing the “sources” up front (a journal kept by a reporter for the New York Herald Sun, the notes of a doctor who served at the time, and others), this novel appears right from the beginning to be an authentic retelling of actual events. But it is not. Although inspired by actual events and people (The Red River War with the Comanche in the 1870s in Texas, and the actual Col. Ranald Mackenzie of the Fourth U.S. Cavalry), this is a work of fiction. Two years of research gave Julia the tools she needed to create this authenticity. The first person narratives create a portrait of Col. McKenna that is a subtle, nuanced insight into his character.
This past spring I was reading Empire of the Summer Moon (about the Comanches) and coincidentally driving across Texas. When I then heard about Julia’s subject matter, I wanted to ask her some questions about her research and what inspired her to write this book. Julia says that although she has read much western history, she didn’t know about Colonel Ranald Mackenzie and the Red River War between the U.S. Army and the Comanche in Texas in the 1870s that led to the Indian’s final surrender. “When I found this hero had lived among us and had conquered the Comanche, I wanted to tell everyone,” she says. “I adore courage.”
Julia feels strongly that there is disrespect for the frontier army when, in reality, the troops were often “more sympathetic to the Indian and more just in their dealings than white settlers.” She wanted to set the record straight. “It’s been said our troops killed women and children. True. But for the most part, the women and children were killed when they ran into the line of fire. Individual soldiers sometimes acted badly, but the military institution as a whole did not.”
Julia’s interest in the old West began in childhood and continues into the present. “The West is my favorite historical time period. I think that’s because I find the 20th and 21st centuries both boring and terrifying at the same time. Our society is so bored we have devised a hundred kinds of entertainment,” Julia says. “At the same time, everything we know is in danger; our country, our world, and even nature itself. Even the oceans. Even our animal species. Even our food sources. Even the honeybees. Everything is at stake.”
Despite her background in journalism and two years dedicated to historical research, Julia says, “The story is first and everything serves the story. I don’t include historical details or events for their own sake. Historians can do that. I’m a novelist.”
When asked about her unique approach to this story, Julia replies, “Writing in a series of first person narratives is incredibly easier than writing a third person narrative, or a single-first person narrative. It also makes the book sound so much more intimate and personal. I learned that while writing ‘Scalp Mountain,’ which is dotted with similar narratives.”
I’m sure nothing about writing this novel was easy. It is an investment of time in research and writing, and the time and love devoted to the project are evident in the final product. Julia is a Texan and that genetic attraction to the area and the people and the stories have contributed to a novel that is both gritty and touching. Julia’s background is in journalism, but she’s not sure how much that affects her fiction writing. “The sum total of our experiences informs our writing—everything we’ve learned about people and the world,” she says.
You can buy the Kindle or paperback version of The Captive Boy on Amazon.com, as well as Julia’s other books. For more information on Julia, check out her webpage:
Patricia Grady Cox is the author of CHASM CREEK, a novel of friendship. loss, and fates entwined, set in Territorial Arizona.