Author’s historical fiction novels tell harrowing tales

February 18, 2020 3:36 PM

Sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands. And that is precisely what Montana native and author Carol Buchanan did after years of working in the trenches of small-town news, before blazing her own trail, 50-years later, as an award-winning novelist. Buchanan’s quartet of historical fiction novels tell harrowing tales about the questionable morals of vigilante justice during Montana’s post-Civil War gold rush years.

While Buchanan entered the novelist’s life later in her career, inspiration for her subject matter was sparked decades earlier while visiting Virginia City during her eighth-grade field trip that is the culmination of the eighth grade Montana state history curriculum.

“After supper one evening, I walked up the hill to the Hangman’s Building and went inside,” Buchanan explained. “It was a warm evening, but as I stood under the beam where the vigilantes hanged five outlaws and read the sign with their names, I heard the ropes creak and felt a chill. I got out of there. Quick. Since then, I’ve heard that the building is haunted. That experience has stayed with me all these decades. However, I had learned that the vigilantes were the bad guys, so when my husband and I came home to the Flathead, I decided to find out for myself. What I learned convinced me that they did what had to be done.”

“I always wanted to write stories, but eating interfered,” Buchanan joked, setting her dreams of creative writing on a backburner while she took a more pragmatic career route. She cut her teeth as a scout reporter for the Daily Inter Lake as Editor of the High School page during her sophomore and junior years and then edited her college and graduate school papers, which were “incredibly dull enterprises,” by her admission. After earning her doctorate, Buchanan focused her efforts on teaching journalism to students and working as a technical editor. She then moved to the Seattle area and worked for Boeing as a technical writer. During the Boeing years, as she called them, she wrote three nonfiction books in the field of historical horticulture and, while hardly the stuff of fiction, her book Wordsworth’s Gardens received the distinction as a Top Ten Finalist for the Washington state book Award in 2001.

It wasn’t until Buchanan finally retired that she finally felt free for the first time in her life to write about what she really wanted to. Buchanan said that is when she began researching the Vigilantes of Montana that led to pen the four books in her Vigilantes series — “God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana” (2009 Spur Award for best novel from the Western Writers of America); “The Devil in the Bottle; Gold Under Ice” (2011 Western Writers of America Award, Spur Finalist); “Gold Under Ice;” and “Ghost at Beaverhead Rock.”

In writing, Buchanan aims to be as true to history as she can get after the distance of more than a century. Dan Stark, the fictious main character of her four Vigilante books, is a stand-in for real-life Wilbur Fisk Sanders. The historical facts are verifiable based on her research, but in fiction, Buchanan can take liberties in describing the characters thoughts or feelings. She also hoped her books would debunk the myth of the Western popularized by Hollywood and dime store novels.

Buchanan’s father met the Sundance kid when he was a little boy and remembered what a menace he felt for the man for the rest of his life. When her father took a young Buchanan to see “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” at the local cinema in 1969, he hated it. He was furious saying, “It wasn’t like that.” In the real “old west” people scraped hard to make a living and while some struck it rich, the reality was gritty, tough and often cruel. Buchanan listened to her father’s stories and often called upon the reality he reflected as inspiration for her own novels to create an authenticity she felt was lacking on the big screen.

Another disappointment Buchanan suffered early on her path to becoming a novelist came when her family relocated to Spokane and her dreams of studying writing and journalism under her idol, author Dorothy Johnson, at the University of Montana were dashed because her mother insisted that she attend a church college instead. However, in 2016, there was some sweet justice and Buchanan’s patience paid off. The Whitefish Library Association honored her with the “Spirit of Dorothy Johnson Award” at a gala book festival.

“Receiving the award in Dorothy Johnson’s name healed that wound,” Buchanan said.

The Dorothy Johnson Award, to be given annually, rewards the author whose roots are in Montana and whose books reflect the courage, determination, and history of Montanans. Johnson broke ground for women writing about the West with a no-nonsense realism. Buchanan said she most admired how Johnson was so completely able to capture the spirit and atmosphere of the Old West, explaining that while Johnson’s original series about the West was fictious, but they were so authentic that they could have been true. She added that her personal favorite of Johnson’s novels was “Hanging Tree.”

“To be honored with the award that carries her name is awe-inspiring,” Buchanan said and added, “The Whitefish Community Library Association apparently felt that I’ve made a contribution to Montana literature similar to hers. I hope so. I’m not stopping. There is so much about Montana history that fascinates me, and I intend to keep writing.”

Buchanan is currently writing her grandmother’s story, who, as a young widow escaped the slums of St. Louis to homestead on the Milk River near Malta, Montana, in hopes of building a decent life for her two young sons and her feeble younger brother and a promise of other books to come.

The published works of Carol Buchanan are in the Montana section of the Whitefish Community Library. For more information on the author, visit www.carol-buchanan.com/blog, http://twitter.co,/CarolBuchananMT or Http://www.facebook.cm/pages/Carol.Buchanan.MT. To learn more about other programs or events at the WCL, visit www.whitefishlibrary.org or like WCL on Facebook.