Today’s guest post comes from Harvey Chute, author of the newly-released historical mystery, “Stone and Silt.” Harvey is also the founder of KBoards.com, the web’s largest independent Kindle forum. We asked him to tell us about his debut novel.
“Stone and Silt”
Thank you so much to Page Flipperz for inviting me to the blog today! I’ve been asked to share the inspiration behind the setting for my new historical mystery, Stone and Silt.
The story takes place in 1860s British Columbia, in the Fraser Canyon. I grew up in that area. With its black canyons, bright snow-capped mountains, and bold rivers, it’s among the most striking of settings in a province known for its scenic beauty.
If you drive the Fraser route today, you’ll go through small communities that dot the benches above the riverbanks. They’re generally separated by about 25 or 30 miles. There’s a reason for that: many of the towns served as stops on the Cariboo Wagon Road. Horses were changed out in hostling stations, providing fresh legs for the stagecoaches as they clattered their way north to the goldfields. Many towns of the towns are on ancient sites that have been home to First Nations people for thousands of years.
In the late 1850s, a remarkable pivot-point in history occurred. Gold was discovered near Yale, B.C., and shortly afterwards in claims further to the north. Suddenly the region was buzzing with fortune-seekers from all corners of the globe, and the colonial economy shifted from fur trading to gold. The nexus point for many of the newcomers was Yale, the northern endpoint of boatable waters on the Fraser for miners coming up from Victoria and the lower mainland.
It was a time unlike any other. The streets were suddenly energized with miners, riverboat captains, merchants, prostitutes, and government men. In weeks, Yale became known as the largest settlement north of San Francisco and west of Chicago. By 1858, the little town on the banks of the Fraser had become, for many, the most exciting place in the world to be.
Today the town has fewer than 100 people. Some of the old buildings are still there, including the old Anglican church, St. John the Divine. Little remains of the heady gold-rush days; the high-water mark of the town’s vibrancy has faded with the passing years. The headstone-filled graveyards, and a lovely local museum, are among the few reminders of a time gone forever.
In writing Stone and Silt, I was fascinated by the idea of what it would have been like for a young girl to grow up in this raucous time period. I wanted to personalize the story by looking at that point in history from the perspective of one girl and her family.
The book has found a receptive audience, and I’m so grateful for that. It debuted in August and made the Top Ten in Amazon’s Young Adult Lit/Fic category. The story of Nikaia is putting a little bit of British Columbia into living rooms around the U.S., Canada, and overseas, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
~~~~~Harvey Chute is the author of the cozy mystery “Stone and Silt,” published by Red Adept Publishing. He founded the web’s largest independent Kindle user forum, KBoards.com, which is among the 10,000 most highly-visited websites in the United States. He blogs at harveychute.blogspot.com
Here are the links where the book is available:
Book Page on RAP: http://redadeptpublishing.com/stone-and-silt-by-harvey-chute/
Harvey’s page on RAP: http://redadeptpublishing.com/harvey-chute/
Harvey’s blog: http://harveychute.blogspot.com/
Fort Yale, Colony of British Columbia, 1863
"You dirty Chinaman! Where'd you get those city boots?"
Nikaia stopped. The rough words had risen from behind the chokecherry bushes separating the cedar-planked schoolhouse from its dirt playing field. She recognized the speaker’s voice: Joshua Doyle. His menacing had started early. The first classroom lessons of the year had ended only moments ago.
Nikaia pulled her hand from her sister's fingers. "Klima, head on home. I'll come soon."
Klima hesitated. "No, I want to stay with you." At fourteen years old, she was only two years younger than Nikaia. But she could cling like a thornbush, especially when trouble seemed afoot.
"Go on," Nikaia said, keeping her voice low. "I won't be far behind. I might even beat you home." Without waiting for a protest, Nikaia crept over to the bushes. She held her pigtails back from the serrated leaves and peered through the branches.
Joshua Doyle—unmistakable with his greasy black hair and ragged pants—stood in a small circle with the Cox twins, Edward and Henry. Joshua stood a good half-head taller than the Coxes, and his arrow-thin frame contrasted with their stout middles. Nikaia had seen the boys huddled together earlier that day, Joshua smirking while the dull-witted Cox boys nodded in support of whatever schemes he was hatching. Perhaps Joshua’s crafty ways were what earned him their loyalty. Whatever the reason, the twins followed his lead like stray mongrels.
A dark-haired boy stood in the midst of the trio. The coarse talk soon led to pushing, and before long, the smaller one lay on the ground. Edward and Henry held down his arms.
"I'll have these!" Joshua cackled as he worked the leather laces on the black calfskin boots. "You can always get more."
Nikaia got a good look at the target of Joshua’s tormenting: Yee Sim, who worked in his family’s small general supply shop, Yee-wa. The store lay only steps away from the cabin Nikaia shared with her sister and parents. She often saw Yee Sim stocking shelves with his mother, Yee Sun, while his father tended to customers.
Nikaia had rarely seen him outside of the store and was surprised when he’d entered the classroom that morning. Most Chinese in Fort Yale sent their children to the smaller school in the Chinatown district. Yee Sim had flattened his windblown black hair and glanced around the classroom, which was already full of students wearing their first-day-of-school clothes. His eyes met Nikaia’s, and she thought he probably recognized her, though they had never spoken. He headed straight to a desk in the back, where he kept to himself the rest of the schoolday. Nikaia had noted the unwelcoming looks of the girls in her row and wished she was bold enough to offer him a friendly face.
Yee Sim pumped his legs to thwart Joshua Doyle's unlacing. Edward and Henry jostled and bounced as they countered the flailing of Yee Sim’s arms. His struggles were no match for their combined weight.
Nikaia glanced back at the schoolhouse. Mrs. Trey had closed the door and was nowhere to be seen. Nikaia pulled in an unsteady breath then stepped forward through a break in the chokecherries. "Leave him alone!" The sharpness of her own voice surprised her.
The three boys wheeled around.
"Says who?" Edward asked. "Go home, squaw."
The other boys guffawed.
"Just leave him alone!" She felt her throat tighten, lifting the pitch of her words.
Joshua Doyle stood and stepped toward Nikaia. His face contorted into a sneer. She froze. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Yee Sim scramble to his feet and bolt away, the loose laces whipping about his legs.
In the next instant, the boys were on her. With a shoulder shove, she was pushed to the ground by Joshua Doyle. She tried to twist onto her side, but Joshua’s weight settled on her as he straddled her torso. She reached out to push him away. His rough fingers clamped onto her wrists, pinching her skin. With a sudden jerking motion, he brought her arms up on either side of her head and pinned them down to the clay. The small rocks in the clay dug into her arms.
"Get off of me!" Nikaia cried.
From behind Joshua, the face of Henry Cox came into view. He leered at her as she struggled, his mouth open and his eyes dancing with callous delight. Nikaia felt a surge of shame and outrage at being seen that way.
Joshua shifted forward, settling his rump on her chest. His hands gripped her wrists more tightly, and his knees pressed into her upper arms. He laughed, cold glee in his eyes. "You should keep to your own business, half-breed."
The cruel taunt was one Nikaia had heard before, and not just from Joshua Doyle. It always stung. "Can't breathe." She squirmed, but it only caused him to drive his knees forward. Her upper arms burned under the added weight. "Get off me!" She tried to buck him to the side. "Please."
"You just cost me a fine pair of boots." He brought his face closer to hers, easily containing her struggles.
Nikaia recoiled from his stale breath.
"Half-breed," he hissed. "What're you gonna do to—yow!" He winced, and something fell from his hair.
She turned her head to see a smooth rock, no bigger than a cat's paw. Joshua brought his hand up to the back of his head, turned, and looked over his shoulder, but not before she saw his face redden. Nikaia followed his gaze and saw Edward and Henry also rubbing the backs of their heads. They spun around to find the source of the stones. Nikaia spotted Yee Sim at the end of the line of bushes, running across the field toward the riverbank.
"Get him!" Joshua yelled.
The three of them scrambled toward the water, leaving Nikaia suddenly free. Keeping her eyes on the boys, she stood up cautiously. Her heart hammered in her chest as she rubbed her aching arm muscles. She straightened her skirt and circled the bushes to go back to the school path.
Her sister was nowhere to be seen. Good girl, Nikaia thought with relief. It would have been humiliating to have Klima see her struggling with the boys. She started down the path, and something caught her eye in the alder shadows. If that's Klima, I'll shake her like salmon in a net.
Yee Sim hopped out into the afternoon sun. Nikaia wondered how he had evaded the boys. She opened her mouth to speak, but before the sounds could form, she heard excited voices approaching.
"They're coming back this way!" she said. "Quick, follow me!"
They charged to the far end of the chokecherries, Nikaia in the lead. She glanced back to see Yee Sim pumping his legs in smooth strides to keep up. Nikaia knew an animal trail that threaded through the firs and cedars, running parallel with the riverbank. The calls of Joshua Doyle and the Cox boys faded away as she and Yee Sim darted over roots and stones toward the north end of town.
They soon reached Front Street and slowed to a walk, short of breath. Nikaia felt safer among the bustle of busy hotels, saloons, and gaming houses.
Crossing Albert Street, they saw a group of Royal Engineers stringing survey lines over a flattened lot. Nikaia had heard her parents talk of a church to be built on that site. It would replace the nearby tent that presently served as home to Fort Yale's Anglican ministry.
A foreman in a red-checkered shirt looked up from his papers and watched the two of them pass. Nikaia suddenly became conscious of the dirt marks on her skirt.
From Albert Street, it was a short walk to the outskirts of Fort Yale, to Yee Ah's supply store and, slightly beyond that, to Papa's cabin. Joshua Doyle and his gang must have lost interest or found some other target to menace.
When they reached the supply store, Yee Sim headed for the door with a low wave of his hand.
Nikaia walked on a few steps then turned back. "You have a good throwing arm," she called.
Yee Sim looked at the ground but allowed a small grin. "Yes."
"Thank you, Yee Sim."
He seemed mildly surprised that she knew his name. He raised his dark eyes and looked directly at her. "Thank you." Then his face turned serious again. "Next time, I'll pelt them with rocks like rain."
Nikaia rubbed the pangs out of her arms as she walked the last few steps to home. She tried to shake the shame and fear of Joshua pinning her to the ground and felt grateful that Yee Sim had not abandoned her. But there was no one to shield her from the cruelty of Joshua’s words. Half-breed.
She pictured her mama and papa sitting near the woodstove that morning. They loved each other, Nikaia knew, but surely they must have known their marriage would produce children who landed in the void between two wildly different peoples. Perhaps in their youth they were too foolish in love, too deep in longing for each other, to worry about the future. It hadn’t mattered then that he was a Welshman and she a native Indian. The mocking names she sometimes heard in the schoolyard were bitter reminders of her own longing… for what? She wasn't sure. To fully belong, perhaps.
Nikaia looked down at the brown wool of her skirt. The front and sides of it were smeared with clay. She swept her hand behind her; the back was equally a mess. She spied a straight twig and used it to scrape the skirt. Futile. She tossed the stick aside and felt a cool dampness between her shoulder blades. The clay had seeped through the back of the button-up blouse Mama had unfolded for her that morning. I’m in for a talking-to today.
She was in no spirit to discuss the schoolyard encounter or to hear Klima prattle on about how Nikaia could have walked away and avoided any trouble. She approached the door to her family’s simple home and let out a sigh of relief when she heard the scraping of Papa’s planing blade coming from his woodshop. Papa always ended his day by sharpening each tool he had used, and the family could time his arrival home by the sounds of his routine.
Nikaia softly closed the cabin door behind her. Klima looked up from the corner stool, a heavy book open in her lap. Nikaia ignored her inquisitive stare.
Mama knelt with her back to the door, working to rearrange a piece of wood aflame in the cabin's stove. Her braid, thick and black, lay along her spine like the shimmering mane of a pony. Nikaia started to walk past, hoping to change into different clothes.
"Smells like you and mischief met up again," Mama said, still facing the woodstove.
Nikaia haltingly related the encounter while Mama added small cedar cuttings to the fire. A waft of smoke twisted from the firebox, and Nikaia blinked to keep her eyes from watering. Her voice broke when she told of Doyle's jeering.
Mama turned to her. "Better to be a half-breed than a half-wit like Joshua Doyle," she said evenly.
Papa stood in the doorway, wood shavings sprinkled throughout his springy brown hair. "Daughter, you are not half of anything." He brushed his thick fingers along the shoulder of his wool flannel shirt, releasing small curlicues of cedar.
Nikaia did not know how to express the turmoil inside her. Finally, she choked out, "Half plus half makes neither!" Hot tears spilled onto her cheeks.
Mama rose from the stove and held out her hand. "Child, walk with me."
They stepped outside. The fall air, cooled by the river, felt fresh against Nikaia’s face. She followed Mama to the waterline, where the lowering sun held off the advancing shadows of the fir trees. The Fraser River’s brown waters, flowing swiftly and saturated in silt, scrubbed the bank with a gentle hissing. Her mother liked to call the soft sounds "river whispers."
Mama pulled off her deerskin shoes and motioned for Nikaia to do the same. She took Nikaia's hand and waded into the eddy, soaking the hemline of her dress and pulling Nikaia behind her.
"Don't be afraid," Mama said.
"Yes. The river is quite wet today." Mama let out her soft laugh.
Nikaia had to smile at the absurdity of it. She hoped no one was watching from the banks.
Mama took a series of steps deeper into the river, tugging Nikaia behind her. The opaque water concealed whatever rocks and snags might lie below its surface, and Nikaia felt her way with each footplant. They approached the eddy line, where the water curled against the main flow like a swirling nest of snakes that pulled at their skirts. Nikaia flexed her knees and leaned into the current to keep her balance.
Mama released her grip on Nikaia’s hand. Nikaia sculled her hands through the water to steady herself, shivering from the Fraser’s cold. Mama leaned forward and plunged her arm into the river. Holding up her black braid with one hand, she traced a series of circles in the water with her other hand.
After a moment, Mama lifted up her open palm and presented its contents to Nikaia: a single river rock, black and gleaming in the late-day sun. Its edges were rounded into a near-perfect oval, and a thin white vein ran through its equator. There were many like it along the banks and in the river shallows.
"See this?" Mama wiped it with her thumb and held out the glistening orb pinched between her thin brown fingers. "It faces the river currents. Every day, rough water. Not so easy a life for a rock, being ground up by the flow and the silt." She studied its dark surface. "But after a time, the river has done all it can do. The rock is transformed into something so strong, so smooth. So beautiful."
Mama pressed the rock into Nikaia’s palm. Nikaia closed her fingers around the cool curves of the stone.