Friday, February 4, 2011

The Real White Bird

In the Arms of Stone Angels centers on the plight of a troubled teen girl and one very special American Indian boy. He’s in the foster care system in Oklahoma. Without a family of his own, he is in search of roots where he can truly belong. And for him, those roots would lie in the tribe he thought he belonged to. For many tribes, like the Cherokee that I researched recently, belonging to a clan is determined through the mother’s lineage. If a boy’s father is Cherokee, but his mother is not, then the ties to that clan are severed from the official tribe roster. That was hard for me to understand, so I made it hard for my characters, Isaac “White Bird” Henry and Brenna Nash, to understand too. For different reasons, both these characters feel like outsiders and that feeling strengthens the bond they have for each other.

A friend of mine, Susan Johnson, who works in the Sapulpa, Oklahoma library and oversees the American Indian cultural section, helped me research my book. The day I called to talk about the boy in my story, she listened to my thoughts on this character (who at that point did not have a name). And when I described him, she immediately said, “I know this boy.”

My story has several underlying themes, but a few dominant ones involve the dark side of bigotry, being an outsider, and wanting to belong. Often authors write about things to exorcise their own demons and perhaps I am no exception. I had told Susan that since I was part Hispanic, I had struggled with my ethnicity as a kid until I was forced to decide where I stood. And that day came in elementary school, 8th grade. At that time, I had sandy blond hair with green eyes. Except for my last name, no one knew I was Hispanic. And with the prejudice I had seen firsthand, my heritage was a hard thing to claim until the day I was forced to take sides.

One day a friend of mine (who had blond hair and blue eyes with skin as pink as a baby’s butt) was badgering a dark-skinned Hispanic girl who was really shy and small. The Hispanic girl didn’t speak English well, but I had always liked her. My time of sitting on the fence about being Hispanic had come to an end. I couldn’t stand seeing the bigotry and the mean spirited attitude of my white friend, so I got in the middle of it all and stopped her in the school yard. I told her that I was Hispanic and if she had an attitude about that, she could take it up with me instead. And with my fist balled up, I was ready to deck her and she knew it. She looked at me with wide eyes and stammered, completely taken off guard. But I remember that day being important to me. It was the day I acknowledged that being Hispanic was who I was. And that I was proud of it—and proud of the stand I took against a bully, too.

So when I thought about the boy character in my book, I wanted him to be of mixed race where he straddles the line between cultures and doesn’t fit in anywhere. And after Susan Johnson said, “I know this boy,” she told me about her friend, Whitebird. Because of his age and to respect his privacy, I won’t share his last name, but I immediately loved his first name. It was symbolic of the underlying innocence I wanted my character to have. And the spiritual aspects of the color white and the symbolic connection to a dove had meaning for me, too.

Susan told me that the real Whitebird was smart and as adaptable as a chameleon, looking for a place to fit in and belong. He was someone she admired and just plain liked. And although he was struggling to find an identity of his own as a young man, his American Indian roots were very important to him. Even as I was writing the book – In the Arms of Stone Angels – Whitebird had been moved from one foster home to another, making it harder for Susan to see him, but they stayed in touch online.

After I wrote the book and let Susan read it (before it was sold to Harlequin Teen for an April 2011 release date), she heard Whitebird’s voice in her head as she read the pages and she said certain scenes really became vivid for her because she pictured him in her mind. Of course my book is a work of fiction. I completely made up this story. (Even the Oklahoma town of Shawano isn’t real, but in another post, I will share more about why I chose to do this and what the word, Shawano, means in the Euchee language.) But I want to clarify that the real Whitebird is an outgoing guy and he’s never spent time in a mental hospital. I only borrowed his name, with his gracious permission. And through Susan Johnson, I got a glimpse into him that only a friend could share.

Today, after ten years in the foster care system, the real Whitebird is out now and living on his own. He has his own place, supports himself and is completely flying solo. And because of his outgoing nature, he’s got friends who support him like a family. Although I might have wished that he had grown up with a more traditional family and had things easier, Whitebird is the person he is because of everything that he has gone through, good and bad. He’s someone I have a lot of respect for. And I hope that the admiration and good wishes I have for his spirit shows in my book.

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