SO HOW DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?
Or The Girl with the Indian Tattoo
The photograph sent chills up my spine.
I was leafing through one of the Old West Series of Time-Life Books when I came across the picture of a woman dressed in elegant Victorian clothes, with her hair neatly parted and curled—and with an intricate Indian tattoo imprinted on her chin.
The dichotomy between the woman’s clothing and the primitive design of her tattoo whispered to my writer’s mind about the conflicts this woman must have faced. It made me think about the difficulties in reconciling the part of her life she could never deny with a white woman’s role in Victorian Society.
As it turned out, that woman was Olive Oatman. In eighteen fifty one on the Gila Trail through the Arizona Territory, the Yavapai Indians attacked the Oatman family’s wagon, and Olive and her sister Mary Ann were taken captive. Later they were traded to the Mohave Indians, where Mary Ann died of starvation.
Olive was rescued in 1856 by her brother Lorenzo, who had also survived that terrible day. Not surprisingly, Olive underwent a difficult period of readjustment when she returned. But eventually she went on to travel the United States lecturing about her experiences, having books written about her and marrying a Texas rancher.
Although I drew many elements for my novel from Olive’s experiences, I hoped to tell the story of a heroine in somewhat similar circumstances who resolves her difficulties in her own way—which is how Cassandra Morgan was born. I wanted to be able to construct a novel where a woman entirely changed by her captivity confronts the life she might have lived and creates her own destiny. So Wide the Sky is that story.
In the years since I wrote So Wide the Sky there has been a good deal of scholarship done on Olive Oatman. The most significant is the excellent non-fiction book, The Blue Tattoo, written by Margot Mifflin. It deals not just with Olive Oatman’s captivity, but her later life and how she made her own peace with what she had endured. I recommend it to you if you’re interested in knowing more about the real Olive’s fate.
Interestingly enough, in the chapter Ms. Mifflin devotes to Olive’s literary legacy, So Wide the Sky is acknowledged and discussed.
Other writers have discovered Olive’s story, too. The current, and probably most prominent use of an Olive-like character is in the AMC television series HELL ON WHEELS, where the role of “Eva Toole” is played by Robin McLeavy. As a devoted viewer, I can’t help hoping that in the end Eva find her happy ending, too.