Sunday, March 11, 2012

M.M. Justus: Repeating History

Repeating History
by M.M. Justus
"A GRAND yarn you can't put down." Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures

Romancing The West welcomes M.M. Justus who loves to travel, but when she's home, you'll find her quilting, gardening, or studying meteorology. Yellowstone National Park is one of her favorite places, and she lives within easy reach of her other favorite park, Mt. Rainier. You can read more about M.M. Justus on the bio page of her website.

RTW: So let's get started. Please tell us about your book.

MJ: Repeating History is about second chances. It's also about how heroes aren't always so heroic as the stories say. In Yellowstone in 1959, Chuck McManis, a college dropout and self-described failure, strolls past a geyser, gets hit by an earthquake, and is flung back in time 82 years into the middle of an Indian war and into his great-grandfather's life. He rescues/is rescued by the woman he comes to love, and sets out to fulfill the destiny laid out before him, only to discover that his past is where he really belongs after all.

RTW: What aspect of life in the Old West intrigues you the most? Did you work that into Repeating History?

MJ: I think the thing about the West prior to the 20th century that fascinates me the most is how the great distances isolated people, and how much of the country was still wilderness, or at least still wild. The "big city" in my story, Helena, Montana, was a three-day stagecoach ride from the nearest railhead in Utah during the time of my story, and a two-day trip from the head of navigation on the Missouri River. And yet, people didn't feel isolated, they still traveled, for pleasure as well as business, and went over the mountain to see what they could see. Several of the characters in my book went to Yellowstone National Park as tourists in 1877, which surprises many people when I tell them that Eliza is based on a real person (Emma Cowan). And, of course, after they were released by the Nez Perce, Eliza, her young sister Anna, and Chuck set out on the long trailless road to civilization -- and arrived there, after many adventures.

RTW: If you lived in 1877, what would you visit first? Is there something you’ve been curious about that you can’t find in your research sources?

MJ: I would head straight for Yellowstone, Indians or no Indians. I've tried to imagine what the park was like back in the days when it was brand-new, when it wasn't possible to bring even a wagon to Old Faithful because there was no road, when you might go for days without seeing another human being. I would love to experience it for myself.

There are complications with that scenario, of course, even if I could time travel as my hero does. For one thing, he was lucky he was male, and didn't have to wear long skirts and corsets, or struggle against inequalities of all kinds. For another, I wouldn't wish wandering lost in the wilderness for over a week or getting kidnapped by Indians on my worst enemy, and I have no desire to experience that for myself.

But to experience the wilderness that was Montana and Wyoming in the late 19th century would be absolutely majestic. I hope my characters appreciated it as much as I did, viewing it through their eyes.

RTW: If a person who had never read a Western (any sub-genre) asked you for a recommendation, what novel or movie would you recommend and why? What did the author do to bring the story alive for you?

MJ: I know it's horrifically idealized to the point of being a fairy tale or a fable, but I love Dances With Wolves, both the book and the movie. It's a journey story, and, as Repeating History proves, I am a sucker for a journey story. It has all of the best memes of the West, the beautiful wide open spaces (even after visiting South Dakota on several occasions, I had no idea it could be that beautiful), the good guys vs. bad guys (although the Indians/whites thing got turned on its head), and the strong, silent hero. The buffalo hunt sequence is shiver-down-the-spine country. And it has a terrific love story. It's just a lyrical movie, with the landscape as a full-fledged character. I think all of the best Western stories treat the land that way.

RTW: Why must Chuck McManis take this particular story journey? What does he have to prove? How does Eliza affect his journey?

M.M. Justus, author

MJ: I can't help grinning at this question. I am going to turn what you're asking me on its head about as much as Dances With Wolves did the Indian/white trope. Chuck doesn't take this trip. His trip takes him. He has nothing to prove, either. As a matter of fact, as the story opens, he's doing nothing more than trying to escape the wrath of his father for a few days before going home to face the music about having flunked out of college. After the earthquake, he's just trying to survive. In some ways, although it takes him a while to realize it, he's glad to have been yanked out of his dead-end life and into one where the way to make something of himself is laid out for him. He thinks all he has to do is put in the work. Not that the work doesn't come close to killing him a couple of times...

As for Eliza, she's destined for him, or so he thinks. But then there's one obstacle after another to challenge that predestination, until their relationship isn't anything like what Chuck thought it would be when he first met her. She's the symbol of everything he thought his new life was going to be, and she's the symbol of how it didn't turn out anything like he had expected. And she's really good at showing him how to get on in 1877, too.

RTW: You have an excerpt today--please set it up for us.

MJ: This passage takes place after Eliza, thirteen-year-old Anna, and Chuck, who is now Charley, have been kidnapped and released by the Nez Perce, out in the middle of nowhere with two exhausted ponies and very little else.

Eliza slid neatly off the horse's back and it struggled to its feet. She tried to stay upright, but she’d have gone down in a heap if I hadn't grabbed her arm. As it was, she hung off of me like a deadweight for a moment before she righted herself and stood, swaying.

She looked like she was about at the end of her rope. No pun intended.

Her once-tidy dress was stained and torn. Her hair hung in ropes around her shoulders. The only word I could think of to describe her face was painful. Her eyes were hollow and somehow full at the same time, of things I didn't think anyone should have to endure.

"It was my second anniversary," she whispered suddenly.


"Sister, don't," said Anna, who had materialized at Eliza's other shoulder.

Eliza went on as if neither one of us had spoken. Her voice was deceptively calm, at first. "Our second wedding anniversary. William--Mr. Byrne," she added, as if we wouldn’t have known "was shot on our second anniversary. That's why we were here. I'd always wanted to see the geysers, ever since I was a little girl when an old mountain man came to visit us. So when William asked me what I would like to do to celebrate our anniversary, I wanted to come here. We didn't have a honeymoon, so this was supposed to be it."

Then her voice cracked for the first time. "And now he's gone." Her words dissolved into tears and she turned to me. Me, not Anna. I wrapped my arms around her and held her as she wept.

Anna stood rooted, her eyes wide open and staring at me over her sister's head. I tried to look reassuringly at her, but I know I didn't succeed.

"Sister?" she asked, all the fear I realized she'd been masking, too, in her voice. Frontier women. They were human, too. They'd just been trained not to show it.

"She'll be okay," I said, as much to convince myself as Anna. "Eliza? I'm sorry. Dammit. Anna won't care if I use your first name."

Eliza raised her head. She swallowed, hard. The tears had run new streaks down her face through the grime, but her eyes didn't look hollow anymore. I wanted to kiss her. Make it all better, somehow.

She backed up slowly. Her reluctance drew an unwilling smile from my lips. "Better now?"

She reached into the pocket of her skirt and drew out a handkerchief. It wasn't all that clean, but it was cleaner than her face, which she wiped with it. It didn't take her long to pull herself together.

"Thank you, Charley," was all she said, but it made me feel ten feet tall.

RTW: Terrific! Where can we purchase this intriguing story?

MJ: Repeating History is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.

RTW: What’s next? Is Repeating History a part of a series?

MJ: Yes. It's always been the first book of three in my mind, although because the second book's hero is Chuck's son/grandfather, and the third book's hero is Chuck's father/grandson (I hope that's not too confusing -- I tend to think of the whole thing as a mobius strip), it's a series only in a fairly loose sense of the term. The second book, True Gold, will be coming out this summer. It is set in 1897-98, on the trail to the Klondike Gold Rush. The third book, Finding Home, is set in 1959, back in Yellowstone, in the days after James finds out that his son ran away and is missing in the aftermath of the earthquake, and will be coming out the end of this year or early next.

RTW: Anything else you’d like to add?

MJ: Just that I've really enjoyed being here. Thank you for having me.

You're welcome, any time!

Stay tuned for Thursday's article when M.M. Justus takes us on a journey through Yellowstone.


  1. Great interview, Meg and Jacquie! What an intriguing story. I grew up in Montana and have always loved Yellowstone.

  2. Meg, sounds like a wonderful book and series. It's certainly a unique and intriguing story arc. Thanks so much for joining us at Romancing The West!

  3. Great interview. Having read Repeating History, I'll be looking forward to the next one in the series.


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