This ‘About Return To Sender’ interview was transcribed and edited from a recorded conversation with Roxana Arama, author of Re-Writing History.
As a young Irish immigrant in America, Theo thrives with the help of Solomon, a Nehalem Native-American man. After the Korean War, Theo finds Solomon again, and his old mentor helps him in his struggle against Genghis. You studied the Nehalem culture closely for this novel. Is there a real-life model for Solomon?
Yes, there is. I mean, I didn’t know this man and I didn’t know if he was anything like Solomon, but he left a deep impression on me. When I was about ten years old, my dad and my uncles would go fishing and then we’d go to the Cannery in Wheeler, Oregon, and they would go inside and have a beer and talk for a long time about smoking salmon. For a ten-year old girl with her Barbie doll in tow this was not a very interesting time. So I would go sit outside on the bench and wait. And outside there frequently sat an elderly Nehalem Indian gentleman. It was widely-known there that he didn’t speak.
Back in those days we had popsicles that break in two, (do they still make those?) anyway, I broke my Popsicle in half and handed him one and he said, “Thank you!” That startled me because I didn’t know he could speak. So I said to him, in one way or another, “I didn’t know you could talk. Can you hear me?” The type of thing a ten year-old would say.
He had this cryptic language and tone of voice, very guttural – it was a wonderful, soothing voice, I loved it – and he said “I don’t talk to white people over twelve years old because they’ve lost their souls and don’t know how to listen.” It was a huge statement to ten year old me. I mean, I went for years pondering why people lose their souls after twelve years old. I know I’m not remembering exactly as he said it but that was the essence. It stuck with me as I worried I would lose mine. And then he said, “…but I can tell that you listen.” And I remember thinking, yes, I’m a good listener; maybe I won’t lose my soul.
Those maybe, three times that I sat on the bench with him, he told me stories and said they were Indian stories and that the Indians used to live there and that it used to be his family’s homeland. It all captured my imagination and interest at the fledgling age of ten.
Flash-forward a lot of years and I decided to put this man in my novel, and so unconsciously created Solomon, who is my favorite character in the book. He is a shaman, a healer, and he heals Theo and helps him transcend his current life situation and move onto his destiny.
I instinctively created a healer while I was dealing with cancer. So I really got involved with writing about him as a shaman – what kind of herbs he would’ve used, and all – while I was going through my own healing process. And it wasn’t really until I made it through the cancer and realized I was going to live that I looked back on that writing and had the epiphany that, while I was going through my journey, I subconsciously created what I needed. I needed a healer. I needed Solomon.
Later, I bought Clara Pearson’s book at an auction held by the Oregon State University. She was considered the last living Nehalem Indian and she was interviewed in 1953 by the Oregon State University and they documented it all in a book called Nehalem Tillamook Tales. So I bid on that book and got the only one they had. And I read through those myths, which was very difficult because it’s such cryptic English and the interpretations are a little wonky. It’s a brutal read. But now, all the myths and things that Solomon says in the book come directly from real Nehalem myths as does his language and the way that he speaks. Inspired by that man I met as a little girl, I tried to make Solomon resonate with his spirit that he so generously shared with me.
I wonder if other writers get as attached to their characters; I cried for days after writing what happens to Solomon in my novel, but it had to be that way. Still, letting go of my spiritual healer was difficult, painful and yet timely.
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