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Behind the Writing of NEVER LET GO

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November 23, 2019 by Pamela Nowak


One of the things authors are frequently asked is “why did you write this book?” My reasons for writing NEVER LET GO and for structuring it as I have are many and varied.

Growing up in Minnesota, I learned about the Dakota Conflict from an early age. I think I was in fourth grade the first time I visited Lake Shetek as part of a summer science camp program. The focus was nature but I saw the Koch cabin and it caught my attention. Then, I moved from Worthington to Tracy, the summer before sixth grade. One of the first friends I made was Kelli Bolin Vogel, whose dad, Bill, was the summer environmentalist at Lake Shetek State Park and history teacher at Tracy High School. I recall a trip to the lake with the Bolin family and Bill’s sharing of knowledge about the Shetek settlers. He made the history real—a personal living story rather than dry facts. Already interested in history, I was grabbed and grabbed good!

In junior high, I took Bill Bolin’s class on Minnesota History and grew ever more intrigued by the Dakota Conflict and the story of the settlers at Lake Shetek. I read Manfred’s novel, SCARLET PLUME (which echoes the story of Lake Shetek, combining it with other events of the overall conflict). An early writer, I even started a manuscript but had no idea how to make the story unique so I didn’t pursue it past the first few pages. Still, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I wrote a term paper comparing historical fiction and fact which I later delved further into as a college project.

I visited with Frederick Manfred at his home near Luverne and learned about his reliance on the Workman Papers. Manfred said he’d been granted access to a “private” letter that was not available to the public. Dr. Alan Woolworth, a friend of my late husband (then my fiancé) took me into the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society and granted me access to Workman files. By this time, the letter Manfred had referenced was now past the “reserve date” and available. In reading through the entire collection, I realized how many stories Manfred had blended together for his fictionalized account. And, I recognized there were stories that still needed to be told.

The Lake Shetek story was mentioned in nearly every history of the Dakota Conflict. However, it usually centered on the major events of August 20, 1862 and the days thereafter. I was always curious about HOW the survivors, particularly the women, were driven. What allowed them to survive? What had made them the type of individuals who had the strength to live through those events? The Workman Papers revealed much more about the Shetek settlement than the events of August 20, 1862. Letters referenced relationships and personalities, friendships and disagreements. I grew curious about the “pre-history” yet didn’t pursue it until years later.

Once my family was raised and I’d learned fiction-writing craft, the story of the women of Lake Shetek beckoned again, poking at me. In 2017, I began to research in depth, looking to fill in the holes and tell their stories. Lavina, Almena, Christina, Julia, and Laura needed their voices. I revisited cabin sites, dug into archival records, researched on-line, and spent a week with Bill Bolin pouring through his files and listening to all he could tell me and met with other local historians. I picked Jeff James’s brain for all his stories about Almena Hurd (Jeff was one of my English teachers and lives on the Hurd cabin site). I also looked at how each of the five women came to be at Lake Shetek and was formed into the person she was in 1862. I found “stories” that had no substantiation and I found details that created windows into their personalities.

What also became clear was that there were threads of the historical account that had been repeated over the years that needed more consideration: the timeline of events on August 20 (it was always accepted that the Dakota arrived at the Hurd cabin around 8:00 a.m. but references to sunrise place it around 6:00 a.m.—an error likely made by someone miscalculating daylight savings time and others repeating that error). Pawn’s role, the motivations of the various Dakota present, and how the captives were treated. Some of this, when examined, led to answers. Other threads led to gut-level interpretation that could be neither proved nor disproved.

With interpretation and my desire to make the stories of the Lake Shetek women come alive, I knew I would be creating a novel. I wanted to combine the historical fact into a work that would bring the reader into the events. Non-fiction wouldn’t do for that, despite my heavy reliance on research. I wanted to explore motivations, conversations, and emotions. For that, I would need to create fiction. No one knows what was said, beyond what was reported by survivors. No one knows what most of the women felt. No one knows what led them to react as they did. And so, I created those elements, based on events and what I had learned about them from my research.

I explored census and land records to trace family structure and each woman’s trail to Lake Shetek. Local histories revealed detail about where they’d lived and their families. Comments made by each in interviews with Workman indicated personality and potential bias and role in the community. Gossip about their lives that was either proved or disproved (or neither) helped further shape them.  I looked into which tribes and bands were represented at the Dakota War Council held on August 17, 1862 and how each leader had voted. I also explored Dakota culture.

Using fiction as a vehicle to tell the story of Lake Shetek also allowed me to use different points of view, with each shaped to represent my interpretation of each woman’s personality and to reflect differing views on what happened at the settlement. Julia Wright, recognized universally as a leader and knowledgeable about/friendly with the Dakota, became a window for revealing more about Dakota culture and the Dakota views. Laura Duley was known to be quite biased in her opinions so she was used to reflect biases of the larger society. I used Christina Koch to reflect the immigrant experience; Almena Hurd to interpret the importance of family, and Lavina Eastlick to highlight the need to be practical when necessary despite her own emotions.

My story of Lake Shetek is a story of the five women who survived and their collective strengths and weaknesses and varying viewpoints on life. Their stories begin much earlier than August 20, 1862 so I started each at the point she begins moving toward Lake Shetek, exploring her relationships, dreams, and disappointments (fictionalized but based on what might have been within the facts discovered). I’m hopeful I have done each justice and that the novel will lend new perspectives to the story of Lake Shetek.

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As I count down to my July 2020 release of NEVER LET GO, I’ll be posting weekly blogs about the history of Lake Shetek, the Dakota Conflict or the people and cultures involved. Or, I may touch on the writing process or interesting tidbits included in the novel.

For more details on the novel, please visit my HOME page. 

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