Jane Kirkpatrick is the New York Times and CBA bestselling and award-winning author or contributor to thirty-nine books, including Something Worth Doing, One More River to Cross, A Name of Her Own, All Together in One Place, A Light in the Wilderness, The Memory Weaver, This Road We Traveled, and A Sweetness to the Soul, which won the prestigious Wrangler Award from the Western Heritage Center. Her works have won the WILLA Literary Award, a Carol Award, the 2016 Will Rogers Gold Medallion Award and 2021 Silver award. A clinical social worker and former consultant to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Early Childhood programs, Jane now divides her time between Bend, Oregon, and Rancho Mirage, California, with her husband, Jerry, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Caesar.
In this interview, Jane talks about her latest book, The Healing of Natalie Curtis.
FF: You an award-winning author of more than forty books. When and why did you first begin writing?
I wrote what I called “wretched little poems” as a child. But I didn’t write for others to read until my husband and I followed our hearts in the 1980s and moved to Starvation Lane to build a new life seven miles from our mailbox. My first book, Homestead, came from that experience and three years later came my first novel based on the life of a historical woman.
FF: Can you please provide a brief summary of your newest novel, The Healing of Natalie Curtis?
A classically trained musician has a breakdown in 1897 right before her New York Philharmonic debut. In 1902, still hurting, her brother invites her west where she falls in love with Native music but learns that Indigenous people are breaking the law when they sing or dance. Natalie uses her influence with President Theodore Roosevelt to get permission to record their music in order to preserve it. She also hopes to break the Code of Offenses that keeps Native people from sharing their music and arts with other Americans. In the process of working with others, the music helps heal her heart as well.
FF: When did you first learn about Natalie Curtis?
Several years ago, I read a book by Lesley Poling-Kempes titled Ladies of the Canyon about four remarkable women from the East who became enamored with the West and who both changed it and were changed by it. Natalie was one of those ladies.
FF: What intrigued you most about her life?
I wanted to answer the question, How did this protected, wealthy woman find herself spending years traveling by horseback and wagon with her brother to record Indian music in hogans and teepees and government schools, and did recording and writing about the music really make a difference in the lives of tribal people?
FF: You have a background in the mental health profession. How do you think this helped you when you wrote about Natalie Curtis?
I spent a fair amount of time exploring what might have been the reason for her breakdown, and I could apply what I’ve learned by working with men and women who are hurting to the depths of their souls and what will bring them peace.
FF: Your book references the US Code of Offenses. Can you explain what this was and how this impacted Native Americans?
The Code was passed in 1883. Its original intent was to identify what crimes would be prosecuted by the federal government on reservations. But it quickly went beyond this to Indian agents identifying what was needed to help Indigenous people assimilate. So they made it a crime to wear long hair, to sing songs, to attend or participate in religious ceremonies, and to speak Native languages. Really, to destroy their culture. Natalie wanted to walk beside Indian people to destroy the Code. She began the work, but it wasn’t eliminated until the 1930s.
FF: Can you explain how music became a catalyst for healing both in Natalie Curtis’s life as well as in the lives of Native American tribes throughout the West?
When Natalie first heard a Yuma elder sing a song (violating the law to do so), Natalie was mesmerized by the complexity and beauty. And when she learned that such songs were being suppressed, she felt it was a great loss to all of us that such an important part of American history would be lost. When she saw that music brought peace to people being persecuted, she realized that her own love of music didn’t have to be silenced, that it too could bring her healing and peace. Walking beside Native people in preserving the music became a melody that Natalie allowed to lift her own spirit and gave her courage to approach the halls of power to change the law.
FF: What do you hope readers will gain from reading The Healing of Natalie Curtis?
That the arts—music especially—can heal a broken spirit, and that walking beside others in understanding can give us a purpose that helps heal others and ourselves.
FF: You have stated, “I work at having a seamless blend of fact and fiction as I write about actual historical people.” What sparked your interest in retelling stories of notable women in the West?
I wanted to write biographies of overlooked pioneering/historical women, but I couldn’t find enough factual material. My first venture was about Jane Sherar, a young wife who was beloved by the same tribe that I was working for in the 1990s. I found lots of details about her husband, father, and brother, but little about her. So, I ventured into fiction to tell her story. I interviewed descendants and tribal members to tell a story that I hoped would inspire. Virginia Woolf once wrote that “women’s history must be invented both uncovered and made up.” That’s what I hope I do.
FF: How do you choose which woman you are going to write about?
They choose me! Sometimes they pop up out of a footnote or they show up in little museums around the country (I stop at all those little museums). Often other people will tell me about their ancestor. I’ve written about three of the pioneer women that are among six memorialized, along with 156 men, at the Oregon State Capital. Sometimes, as with Natalie, I read a nonfiction book and want to explore more about that woman.
FF: What are you working on next?
I’m writing about a Montana woman, the great love affair she has with her husband (an Indian agent on a reservation), and her transformation from people-pleaser to advocate on behalf of one Indian girl.
The Healing of Natalie Curtis
Release Date: September 7, 2021
She came to the West for rest . . . what she found was a passion.
Classically trained pianist and singer Natalie Curtis can’t seem to recapture the joy that music once brought her. In 1902, her brother invites her to join him in the West to search for healing. What she finds are songs she’d never before encountered–the haunting melodies, rhythms, and stories of Native Americans.
But their music is under attack. The US government’s Code of Offenses prohibits America’s Indigenous people from singing, dancing, or speaking their own languages. Natalie makes it her mission not only to document these songs before they disappear but to appeal to President Teddy Roosevelt himself, who is the only man with the power to repeal the unjust law.
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