The Coming

by David Osborne

THE COMING (Bloomsbury | February 7, 2017 | Hardcover | 9781632863850 | $32) debut novelist David Osborne tells the expansive, tragic story of native-white relations in the American West, through a fictionalized account of the life of Daytime Smoke.

Daytime Smoke, born in 1807, was the real-life son of William Clark and a Nez Perce woman. Little is known about him, but what is clear is that his life spanned an incredibly troublesome time in American history.

Though largely celebrated in American history books, the expedition of Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery began a process that brought disease, war, and genocide to Native American tribes. Daytime Smoke lived through this era, from first contact to conquest. As Osborne says, his life bookended “a story I knew to be both incredible and heart-breaking.”

THE COMING begins in 1805, when we see Lewis and Clark make contact with the Nez Perce west of the Rockies (near what is now the border of Idaho, Oregon and Washington). As the years pass, Daytime Smoke grows up among the Nez Perce and starts his own family, and all the while the Nez Perce continue their largely peaceful relationship with white Americans. In 1860, however, gold is discovered on Nez Perce land, and this relationship sours dramatically. THE COMING concludes in 1877, when the “non-treaty” bands that refused to give away their land fight a terrible war against the U.S. army.

This rigorously researched novel took Osborne more than ten years to write. He painstakingly recreates historical moments for readers, striving to get every event, character, and detail right. He himself hiked sections of the Lolo Trail (the Nez Perce “Road to the Buffalo” followed by Lewis and Clark), spent time with the Nez Perce, and studied with a shaman to better understand Native American spiritual life.

“Little in American history tells us about the great civilizations that were here long before Europeans arrived, but David Osborne’s novel The Coming imagines us back in time, shows what we’ve been missing, leaves us wanting more.”
Gloria Steinem, author of My Life on the Road and Revolution From Within

“[Osborne] brings deep understanding to the dynamics of the white-Indian conflict, and his novel makes fascinating and informative reading.” —Booklist

Kirkus Review, January 15, 2017

"Nonfiction author Osborne (The Price of Government, 2004, etc.) has written a historical novel beginning with the Lewis and Clark expedition and ending with the decimation of the Nez Perce tribe. As the company crosses the Rockies and encounters the Nez Perce, William Clark is the focus. The Nez Perce welcomed and aided the white Americans, and Clark was especially popular. He admired the tribe; Lewis thought them "savages." Clark became fascinated with a woman named Swan Lighting who bore him a son, Daytime Smoke, after he left her behind, and Daytime Smoke becomes the focus of the story as white incursion into Native American territory increases. Osborne shows a considered empathy as he describes tribal life. At first, as the tribe meets white trappers and mountain men, there's minimal conflict. Wanting to learn more from whites, the tribe welcomes missionaries—Sent Ones—but soon they find whites rigid and rapacious. Coexistence becomes impossible. Osborne brings historical characters to life and superbly individualizes numerous Nez Perce, some resisting white incursions, some wanting peace. The early narrative has a Garden of Eden innocence, but the latter portion—equally well-researched and rich in historical detail—becomes a depressing litany of white aggression and dark betrayal, especially as the Nez Perce are driven from their lands and attempt to link up with Sitting Bull in Canada. The pace never slackens as the Nez Perce succumb to the avarice and racial prejudice that stained the early industrial age. An epic story sure to be a hit with readers interested in the American western expansion."

Historical Novel Society Review, February 2017

"Much has been written about the Lewis and Clark expedition to the uncharted territories of America’s Northwest, including biographies of Sacajawea, the young Indian woman who served as a scout for the Corps of Discovery. Along the way, the expedition leaders made friends with the Nez Perce people, a friendship that both sides believed would be everlasting. A little-known, but factual, result of this friendship was the birth of a boy to William Clark and an unidentified Nez Perce woman. The boy was named Daytime Smoke. He grew up with the Nez Perce when his father’s expedition left the area and headed back east.

As more whites move northwest, Smoke is torn between his white and Nez Perce identities, spending several years trying to live as a soyappo—a white—until disease and killings and treaties that are always broken, push him squarely into the Nez Perce camp.

This debut novel imagines the life of Smoke and accurately chronicles the relationship between the U.S. government and the Native peoples of the Northwest, particularly the Nez Perce. Osborne says the novel was ten years in the making, and the deep level of his research is obvious in this richly detailed story. Biographical information about Smoke is almost nonexistent, but the author weaves his imagined life effortlessly into the lives of the other characters, almost all of whom are real-life figures, to create an exciting and engrossing story.

The novel, mirroring U.S.-Native relations over the centuries, is often horrifying and heartbreaking. Yet there are many lessons to be learned here, not the least of which is about acceptance and tolerance of the Other. This novel is a must-read for those interested in Native American history."

A Q&A with David Osborne

What inspired you to write The Coming?

I first came across the Nez Perce story 46 years ago, on a trip to see battle sites from “Chief Joseph’s War,” in Idaho and Montana. At the time I read a book about the Nez Perce, as well as Bernard DeVoto’s edited version of the Lewis and Clark journals, so I learned something about both stories. But I did not know of Daytime Smoke’s existence until 1996. I learned about his birth from one episode of Ken Burns’ The West, his participation in the 1877 war from the next. Mentally I sat bolt upright: here were the bookends of a story I knew to be both incredible and heartbreaking, involving two of the most iconic tales of the West. I was bitten.

I had always wanted to write a novel. I had tried and failed once in my late twenties, but I longed to try again. For four years I fought off the idea—after all, I lived in Massachusetts, with four children and a wife who was a busy obstetrician—but it would not let go. Then, in late 2000, my wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Face to face with mortality, it was clear that if there was something I wanted to do, I’d best get about it.

This book came to be through a very long writing process – more than 10 years by your account – can you talk about some of the research you did for the book over this time?

First I read what I could, including Lewis and Clark’s journals. Then I hired a guide and crossed the Bitterroot Mountains on foot and horseback, in their footsteps. I spent time on the reservation, getting to know the Nez Perce. I read the voluminous literature that exists about the tribe, about Lewis and Clark, and about native life in the Northwest plateau region.

You also visited Peru to spend time with shamans there, in an effort to get closer to the Nez Perce as they were in 1805. What was that like? What did you learn?  

I realized that traditional Nez Perce spiritual traditions had been largely destroyed, and among those few who still practiced those traditions a white outsider would not necessarily be welcome. So I needed to explore native worldviews and spirituality through another path. I studied with a shaman who had been trained among cultures that escaped destruction, in the high Andes and the Amazon, a medical anthropologist named Alberto Villoldo. I got to know Alberto well and made several trips to Peru with his organization, the Four Winds Society, to work with local shamans. In between I worked with a very skilled shaman he had trained who lives in Massachusetts.

I learned so much. In native worldviews, everything is imbued with spirit—people, trees, rocks, rivers, the wind, you name it. In our civilization, we think we live in a largely inanimate universe, but the Nez Perce know otherwise. They relied on the spirit world for healing, for knowledge, for protection, and for guidance. Through my own work with shamans, I experienced the power of that world to heal and to guide—including several healings a 21st century American would have to label “miracles.” I learned that reality is not as one-dimensional as most of us assume.

How much do we know about the real-life Daytime Smoke? Why is his story so important?

We know he existed. He was repeatedly introduced to generals and journalists, because he was the son of William Clark. And he was on the ration rolls in Oklahoma in 1880, as a head of household. But we know little else about his life. He is usually described as tall, with reddish hair, like his father.

Fiction has the power to give readers an emotional, visceral experience of something they could never encounter in their own lives. By opening the book with Lewis and Clark, I hope to draw white readers in. Then, by telling Daytime Smoke’s story, I hope to help them experience the tragic arc of Native American history, from first contact to conquest. This is something we need to remember, something that can keep us humble, help us avoid making similar mistakes today. Daytime Smoke’s life provides the perfect vehicle, for in the case of the Nez Perce, that arc transpired within the space of one lifetime.

This story covers a span of 70 years. What were some of the challenges you faced in writing such an expansive novel?

There were so many! The history is just too rich: Lewis and Clark, the fur trappers, the missionaries, the settlers, the soldiers—not to speak of the Nez Perce. And when war finally broke out, what a war it was—front page news across the country, people cheering for these few hundred Indians who defeated and evaded three different forces sent to capture them, before they were caught by a fourth, just 40 miles from the Canadian border and freedom.

How does one capture all of that in one novel? So many of the characters were larger than life: fur trappers Thomas Fitzpatrick and Jim Bridger; missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and Henry and Eliza Spalding (a deeply warped man married to a saint); incredible Nez Perce leaders, from Flint Necklace to Lawyer to Joseph; and soldiers like Oliver Howard and Nelson Miles. There were far, far too many fascinating characters, demanding that their stories be told. I had to kill off some of them, scrub them from the manuscript, to keep the focus on Daytime Smoke and his family. Over the course of a decade I’m sure I wrote three or four times as much as survives in the published novel.