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Q & A With the Author of "Bone Necklace"
After a long and successful career in law, Julia Sullivan finally has some time to explore some of her other passions. Through her work as the Executive Director and Chairman of the Board of the Mid- Atlantic Innocence Project, Sullivan provided countless hours of pro bono work for many individuals who would not normally have access to justice. As she began drafting her debut novel Bone Necklace, Sullivan knew she wanted to explore a few key themes that were close to her heart, those being justice, courage, and understanding.
In the following interview, we dove into her career, writing inspirations and process, and just how the three unique, fictional perspectives in Bone Necklace explore and highlight these timely themes.
Bone Necklace is your first book. Have you always wanted to become an author?
Yes. I have always loved books, especially historical fiction by writers like Wallace Stegner, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, Leon Uris, and Ivan Doig. I majored in English at Texas A&M University, but I didn’t have the courage to write. I went to law school and practiced for thirty years. At 57, I’m finally living my dream – riding horses and writing stories. I feel very blessed.
What did you do before you began writing Bone Necklace? Did your work relate to the story at all?
I am a commercial arbitrator with more than thirty years of experience in the energy industry. Throughout my career in corporate law, I also followed the guidance of the American Bar Association to provide free (“pro bono”) legal services to clients who could not afford counsel. As part of my pro bono commitment, I served as the Executive Director and Chairman of the Board of the Mid-Atlantic
Innocence Project (MAIP), which is part of a national coalition of organizations dedicated to freeing people who have been incarcerated for crimes they did not commit.
In addition to my work with MAIP, I have represented death row inmates, undocumented immigrants, and victims of domestic violence and
elder abuse. I began my work with MAIP at about the same time I began by work on Bone Necklace. There’s definitely a thematic connection. For me, it’s always been about access to justice. As a lawyer, I saw gross disparities in the kind of justice that was available to wealthy corporations versus poor people accused of crimes they did not commit. The Indigenous people I write about had no
access to justice at all. The Nez Perce lived in peace with American settlers until 1860, when a white trespasser named Elias Pierce discovered gold in a place now known as Pierce, Idaho. The Nez Perce were quickly overrun with
the worst representatives of white society. The miners formed their own government and passed a law that prohibited “Indians” (and African Americans) from testifying against whites.
If I had to identify the single-most important cause of the Nez Perce War, it would be that law. The Nez Perce were beaten, murdered, raped, and robbed with impunity. In 1877, their leader, Chief Joseph, went to General Oliver O. Howard, the Commander of the Department of the Columbia, with a list of
twelve white murderers he wanted the government to either prosecute or turn over to the tribe for punishment. Instead, General “Uh Oh” Howard ordered the Nez Perce to give up their land and move to a crowded reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, within 30 days. Joseph and the other chiefs promised to comply with the order, but a young man named Wahlitits, whose father had been murdered, refused to submit. He and his friends killed seventeen whites, including a young mother, sparking outrage among the settlements. The chiefs offered to turn the guilty men over to the government for punishment, but it wasn’t enough. Militias were raised in every settlement, and they started shooting at any Nez Perce they saw.
The Nez Perce fought a series of defensive battles across 1,100 miles of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. At the start of the war, a newspaper in Portland, Oregon suggested that “extermination” of the tribe was “the only safe and permanent” solution for Nez Perce “treachery.” But over the course of the conflict, the military skill of the Nez Perce and their generosity toward wounded soldiers caused public
opinion to shift strongly in their favor. Shortly after the final battle, the ladies auxiliary in Bismarck, South Dakota, invited Chief Joseph to a luncheon honoring the tribe’s bravery and humanity. But what was even more interesting, to me, was the story of Chief White Bird, whose fame somehow never matched Chief Joseph’s. Towards the end of the final battle, White Bird and Joseph were the only
surviving chiefs. White Bird led 290 survivors on foot through snow and ice to Canada, where they were given political asylum, and camped with Lakota survivors of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. To this day, there is a small Nez Perce diaspora in Canada. Chief Joseph, though still strong, stayed behind with 417
others who were too weak to travel the final distance. His daughter (Sound of Running Feet) and her mother (Springtime) escaped with White Bird.
It is interesting that few accounts of the war, then or now, acknowledge that a large portion of the tribe never surrendered. The Nez Perce who escaped with White Bird – representing more than 40% of the tribe – were never defeated. What’s more, they lived in Canada in peace – suggesting that there was nothing inevitable about the conflict that had cost so many lives.
Can you talk a little bit about the different perspectives through which this story is told?
The emotional heart of the novel is a conflict between two brothers who are both enemies and allies in the war. Jack, a loner and an alcoholic, is shamed by his white father into joining the Idaho militia, while his brother, Running Bird, fights his way to the Canadian border and safety. Nicole, an English tourist
who travels with the Nez Perce for several weeks after her husband is killed, offers an outsider’s unvarnished perspective of the war and its participants. Embedded within these narratives is an epistolary novella, based upon actual newspaper accounts and war correspondence, showing how public opinion shifted in favor of the Nez Perce over the course of war. Nicole’s character was inspired by the true story of Mr. and Mrs. Cowan, who encountered the fleeing Nez Perce in Yellowstone Park in August 1877. Mrs. Cowan, who thought her husband had been killed, traveled with the Nez Perce for a month before learning that he had survived a bullet to the head.
Once reunited, the couple set off for medical treatment in Bozeman. On the way, their wagon flipped over a precipice, tossing Mr. Cowan onto the road. In town, he was taken to a hotel, where his bed collapsed with a great crash. At that point, he called for an artillery strike to end his misery. But the man was seemingly indestructible. After some recuperation, the couple made their way home to Radersburg, MT, thus ending what historian Elliot West described as “the worst vacation in American history.”
Was it difficult to explore these different perspectives and write convincingly from these points of view?
As a lawyer, I have often used my voice on behalf of people who don’t look like me. I have represented Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, battered women, wrongly convicted prisoners, and undocumented immigrants. I have tried to call out injustice wherever I have found it. I found it here.
Can you describe your writing process? Was there a lot of research required to make this historically and culturally accurate?
I worked on Bone Necklace, on and off, for twenty-one years. I spent years researching the Nez Perce War in the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and historical societies throughout the pacific northwest. I traveled their entire 1,100-miled Nez Perce trail. I read published and unpublished accounts
and histories of the war and conducted lengthy interviews with the former Chief of the General Council of the Nez Perce tribe. I published an article in the Idaho Law Review based upon some of my research back in 2004. I wanted to write a novel, but I didn’t know how to do it. I put the manuscript on a shelf for years at a
time, but I always came back to it. I hired five different editors. I agonized over every chapter. In short, I made myself crazy. Nevertheless, here we are!
Do you plan on writing another book?
Yes. I am working on another historical novel, inspired by the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, which brought the US and the USSR to the brink of conflict in the Middle East. The book explores how religious differences, like race, can cause tragic divisions, and how these divisions can be exploited for geopolitical gain.
Would you explore similar themes as present in Bone Necklace or broach an entirely new subject and message?
I tend to return to the same themes in all my work – justice, courage, and the possibility of finding common ground. Those ideas are at the core of Bone Necklace and will be important in my new book as well. Bone Necklace will be available to purchase in 2022.