Fourth generation Washingtonian Heather Lockman has spent much of her career preserving and interpreting historical landmarks in South Puget Sound. She helped lead the effort to purchase and restore Olympia’s historic Bigelow House and turn it into a museum.
Now Lockman’s first attempt at historical fiction draws deeply from that experience.
At the real Bigelow House Museum, there was an old family story handed down through the generations about an encounter between the Bigelow pioneers and some local Native Americans.
But as Lockman points out in her novel, “The Indian Shirt Story,” the veracity of such tales told over time can be problematic, and there can be different interpretations of the same set of incidents.
The novel starts out blithely, with a dash of snarky charm. The Starkett House Museum receives periodic visits from the last living member of the Starkett family. Lucille Starkett had moved into the house as a young bride and lived in it for decades before relinquishing the property to the local historical society. Even now, she likes to come up from her retirement center to see how things are going.
But when Lucille tells a group of nine-year-olds the apocryphal family story about an encounter between the Starkett pioneer matriarch and some local “Injuns,” the museum director, Bess Reynolds, quickly gets blowback. The kids are students at a private alternative school, and their politically correct parents demand that a public apology be made to the area’s First Neighbors.
This public relations nightmare isn’t the only thing to complicate Bess’s summer. The museum’s board also has approved a temporary rental of the house for a music video shoot with Nashville’s hottest country music star, Duane Hasker. The advance crew comes in and turns museum operations topsy turvy, and when Hasker himself arrives the place gets inundated with legions of fans.
Then, in an interview with the local paper, Hasker lets on that he’s looking forward to doing some fishing while he’s in town, which prompts animal rights activists to picket the video shoot.
Most of this story is told from Bess’s vantage point, but occasional chapters bring characters from other generations or other backgrounds to the fore. Lockman handles this deftly and the characters, as well as the dynamics between characters, are detailed nicely.
The author exerts less control over the story’s tone – by mid-book, one story line tends to dominate, and the focus becomes narrower, more personal, and more poignant. It is still an engaging read, but it seems to overwhelm the more socially relevant stories that Lockman set out to tell.
That may be why this tale has trouble wrapping up. The author strings together a series of chapters, any of which might have served as a potential ending.
“The Indian Shirt Story” could have benefited from some additional editorial input, but it still delivers plenty of entertainment value with thoughtful social commentary.