I wrote this novel for a very personal reason, and the road to getting there was long and complicated. In Our Bones has heavy political overtones, and that’s a subject I’ve been interested in forever. My first political decision was made as I was picking grass on the playground and considering who I’d vote for in the 1980 Madison Elementary straw poll for president. Both my parents had intense political opinions and political discussions were part and parcel of our family life. My folks agreed early in their marriage, but by the time I was old enough to really follow along their opinions had become quite divergent. Their disagreements laid the foundation for my understanding that political fights need not become personal.
I also grew up in a highly racist community and most of my friends from that time are now the President’s most ardent supporters. As such, I understand the mindset of a hateful person quite well. Even my liberal mom would express views that could make me cringe. I was always a sensitive soul and never understood this malice based on something so flimsy as skin color or difference of religion, or whatever else someone wanted to hate someone else for. I never got it, but stayed quiet and didn’t challenge them, I’m ashamed to say. I don’t know why exactly. I was shy back then, and I guess it seemed that everyone around me was that way. That was until I met my ex-husband and went to college. I finally saw windows into worlds that were quite different than the culture of throw-away white kids I came from.
To escape that culture, I needed to become an adult a bit earlier than many. In referencing my ex-husband above, he’s the one I moved in with when I was only fifteen. I wanted to create a life that worked better than the instability of my family. Unfortunately, my ex had severe mental illness and things weren’t always smoothe with him either. We divorced many, many years ago, but he had a good heart, and he cared intensely about environmental issues. I’d long been a nature girl, spending much of my childhood in the big woods that I butted right against our house. My ex’s ideas were grounded in science and reason and that combined with the hoopla over the 25th anniversary of Earth Day to turn me into an environmentalist. I became convinced that people were making a huge mistake in how we were managing our natural resources, how we were treating each other and how we were treating non-human life.
After college, I went on to travel abroad extensively and went back to school again for a Master’s in anthropology and sustainable agriculture. The sustainable ag program was brand spanking new and the professors were brimming with excitement. They didn’t want to simply fill their students with figures and facts, but to provide opportunities to think through problems, particularly using a systems-level approach. This is a salient point because I ended up using this strategy twenty years after I graduated when I decided how to weave together the main themes for In Our Bones – the triple threats of authoritarian government, white nationalism and climate change.
I didn’t really use that Master’s degree much otherwise. I worked professionally for a year after I graduated, then my new love and I bought an acreage near Rochester, Minnesota. She got a great job to provide for us, and I stayed home with the pack of children we fostered and adopted from foster care. I grew much of our food and taught gardening and homesteading skills to dozens of interns from all over the country and all over the world. All the while my hands and eyes were always occupied, but long stints of weeding or cooking for hoards left my mind bored. I’d been listening to National Public Radio somewhat obsessively since I was 18 and tripped across their morning program while I drove through the dark to my 5 am job. Living in the country with my kids all those years later, I had little adult company or time for friends. I began homeschooling them to better address their needs and was exceedingly isolated. Radio was my lifeline and in 2015, I discovered podcasts. I loved the deep dive into specific issues that podcasts offered. But that’s where the trouble really began.
Around the time, my older children’s mental health issues had spiraled beyond control, and my second marriage fell apart. I retreated further into the world of news and information than I would have otherwise, since if you can believe it, the news was less stressful than my life. I could keep an emotional distance of sorts from it. A distance I’d spent decades establishing, since I’ve been a bleeding heart my whole life. Like my character, Lauren, in the novel, I had to build some walls to protect myself. Unlike her, I’d learned this technique earlier in my life. Though sad things always did creep in. After the divorce, we had to sell the homestead, and I found myself unsure of my next steps. I started writing as a way to process the trauma that involved raising kids with challenges the “system” cannot begin to fathom, to manage difficult feelings, and to bring attention to issues that need brought to the light.
The Winter and Spring after I’d moved away from the farm I listened to a few podcasts that really rattled me. I think because my own life was a mess, I didn’t have any emotional reserve to buffer the worry that came to me through those innocent waves of sound. These podcasts were Bundyville: The Remnant and It Could Happen Here. They highlighted the emboldened white nationalist movement and an already flaring civil warfare in the States. Even though I was upset with what I’d heard about that and everything else, I was still hanging in there emotionally. I’ve struggled throughout my life with depression and anxiety, but never the sort that kept me from getting done what needing getting done.
It all caught up to me in late Summer, though. It was just last year, yet it seems so long ago. In 2019 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released their much anticipated report on the state of the climate catastrophe we’re facing. In the lead up to the release, news coverage of climate was increasing as well. I’d been stressed out about climate chaos and working it into every conceivable conversation for decades. I’d seen the effects in my garden as weather was erratic, crops weren’t growing as well and strange pests became more common. So, when the coverage before the report itself even came out was painting a disastrous portrait, I was shocked, but not surprised. My youngest child was just six and the thought of what life he’d have when he was my age haunted me. It was all too much. I was on overload, and I took to bed. I cried often and didn’t want my kids to see. I had a hard time interacting with them lest grief overtake me. I wasn’t eating or sleeping. Weeks passed with only marginal functionality on my part, and I knew I had to do something. I wasn’t being the mother these kids needed now, let alone in some scary potential future. I knew enough about mental health to know that we’re happier when we’re doing something about the things that make us stressed. So, that was what I needed to do.
Fairly quickly I decided to write as my contribution to addressing these myriad problems. I figured that I’d be doing a series of blog posts of other non-fiction type short pieces, but that approach wasn’t really taking hold in my heart. Facts and figures are powerful, but can fall emotionally flat. Further, the complicated nature of the problems felt too much to convey in short essays. One evening when I was sitting alone, like a bolt from the blue the rough outlines of In Our Bones came into my mind. The story was so clear and unexpected that it was as close to divine inspiration as anything I’ve ever felt. It was either that or the beer. 🙂 Regardless, I got out of bed, opened my laptop, learned how to write fiction and created this novel.
An intellectual reason that I chose this undertaking was that fiction can pull together complicated strands in ways that are accessible. In my formative years, I read many books that made such a difference in the way I thought about the world and related to authority and power. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, dystopia was high on my list. I read all the greats – 1984, Animal Farm, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451. These books taught of how easily those with wealth and position can and do take advantage of those with less. These books also helped me understand the threat of the President and his Party from the start. Even though it was nonfiction, I also thought of another book that told an important tale and made a big impact – Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. She showed us a world we didn’t want to come about and helped bring America to her senses.
Ultimately, I wrote this novel to deal with my own grief around what was happening in the world. My hope is that rather than becoming mired in sadness, you find your own ways to engage in making things better. As the process of writing this novel unfolded, I was tested in ways that I could never have imagined at the outset. Perhaps I wouldn’t have started at all had I known how hard it would be. Nevertheless, I have emerged as a stronger, more resilient, and more grounded person than I was coming into this project. I found fortutitude that I didn’t know I had, often at times when I thought I had none left. I had to be mindful when I was overwhelmed and focus on each step rather than the gigantic whole of the problem. I hope you too will find strength beyond what you know possible to meet this moment in history. My dystopian future does not need to become reality.
I’ll leave with a quote from Dr. King to see us out, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Love to you all, dear readers. Stay vigilant, stay safe.