This is about the book ThunderBird Walking: A Grand Canyon Ghost Story. Specifically, it is about a question that I thought would come from readers of the book but so far has gone unasked, and that question is “When did the ThunderBird Walking character become a ghost?”
Yes, that’s right. At some point in the book the character dies and after that he’s a ghost. The whole idea behind the story is that he walks the Canyon on the edge of reality, a person who hears the whispers of ghosts and spirits, and then he dies and joins them, becoming a ghost that whispers to others walking the Canyon. I didn’t want to lay this idea on too thick. So I made it somewhat subtle, but if you’ve ever analyzed literature, it is there in plain view.
What are the clues? First of all the title of the book is a dead (excuse the pun) give away. If that isn’t enough, in the third person objective opening of the book, it clearly states that the man telling the story is a ghost. Here is the passage:
A man stands on the edge of Grand Canyon, knowing and remembering. The wind rises again, and his spirit takes flight on the possibilities. He is alive, a survivor of a long journey, a ghost looking back over forty-seven years. He has a story to tell and only the wind to listen. …
One of my influences for this book is Sometimes A Great Notion by Ken Kesey, and the narrative in that book jumps from character to character in a weird way. So in ThunderBird Walking, the narrative jumps around in the character’s head and then stays with him even after he dies, and he does not realize he has died.
So before I spoil it, if your haven’t read the book or are currently reading it and want to figure out the moment of death for yourself, stop reading this blog post now.
In the chapter called “A Tale of Two Rivers”, TBW falls into the river at 24-and-a-half-mile rapid and while flailing in the water he thinks “Had life passed me by?” then he felt like he was somewhere else being chased by peaceful primitives. So, was he ever rescued? You’ll notice that later that night he has a weird experience at camp, and he longer interacts directly with anyone other than Jacinth. It has been established that Jacinth possibly talks to Canyon spirits too, so their final conversation three days later could be the two of them talking past each other on two different plains of existence—she talking out of grief and he talking as a ghost thinking she is responding to him.
So he died in the river and after that he is a ghost to the rest of the travelers. He can’t interact with them and his anger turns into a storm at camp. He is on another plain of existence and doesn’t understand what is happening to him. Later, in the talking circle at the end of the trip, the stick is passed to him (an empty spot) as a gesture, but none of the others actually see him there, they observe a moment of silence for their fallen fellow traveler and he uses that moment to talk, but no one responds because they can’t hear him.
At the end of the book, he says that he returns to the same spot on the rim every spring. This hooks back into the beginning of the book where a ghost is looking back over his 47 years. You could look at the whole book as being this ghost on the Canyon rim reminiscing about his life, sharing it with whomever will listen.
I wanted to get that out there just in case anyone wanted to see my book at a deeper level. Many readers want young adult fiction and superficial ideas spoon-fed to them these days in neat little packages, and I realize I was born into the wrong time. I miss the way that readers used to mine the depths of a story, discuss what it could mean, point out the incongruities rather than being afraid to get into a discussion. Life is often incongruous and confusing, with conflicting motifs and themes, and yet people don’t want to see it that way.
So, you might ask, how can there be a second book (Thunderbird Talking) if the character is dead? You’ll have to wait and see, but maybe it’s because thunderbirds can be reborn or that the thunderbird spirit died but the man survived.