Suddenly, after decades of quiet farm and family life, Josef Fleischer can’t stop dreaming about his first kill: an Indian warrior on the Palouse, one cold December day in 1856.
Fleischer was an 18-year-old volunteer back then, and eager for action — or so he thought, until the moment his pistol was pointed point-blank at the skull of a fellow human being and his commanding officer was screaming for him to shoot.
Fleischer did what he had to do — and then he and his fellow volunteers did some things they shouldn’t have done.
We glimpse the gratuitous carnage toward the end of “The Haunting of Josef Fleischer,” a short, shocking novel by Hockinson author Dan Strawn that’s available in e-book form through Amazon.
Strawn’s new story skillfully straddles historical fact and dark, realistic, psychological fiction as we watch our aging hero’s long-buried demons catch up with him decades later — with the Spanish-American War on the horizon and Fleischer’s son, a member of the Oregon National Guard, getting ready to go.
Fleischer finds himself dreaming about the warrior he killed and wondering if the man had a wife and family. He pictures the man playing with his children and wonders: “Who was he, the warrior who plagued him in his dreams?”
This story was inspired by the kind of talk Strawn used to hear about some of his own Indian-fighting ancestors and their peers, he said.
“I had uncles and aunts who talked about manifest destiny and about treating Indians like they were obstacles. ‘Let’s just get them out of the way,’ ” Strawn said. “There are penalties for that. Generations are going to pay the price.”
There was no better way to personify the whole problem in fiction, he said, than by refusing to let that dead Indian warrior die.
Strawn doesn’t usually read horror or supernatural fiction, but to get prepared for this one he absorbed a requisite amount of Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker, he said. He also did deep research about PeoPeoMoxMox, aka Yellow Bird, a Walla Walla tribal leader whose demands for justice, and his death at the hands of Oregon Volunteers in 1856, play a pivotal role in “The Haunting of Josef Fleischer.”
(Don’t worry that this article is spoiling the story. “I didn’t use Yellow Bird as my fictional ghost,” Strawn said. “I have too much respect for the real man and his historic role to trivialize him.”)
When fiction does its job right, it touches people “in that secret place where they hide their prejudices,” Strawn said. “If I can catch them off guard with a story like this, maybe they can relate to the fact that we’re really all the same.”
Strawn grew up in Idaho and spent his working life teaching business communication in California. But he didn’t make his favorite hobby, creative writing, a real pastime until he was in his 60s and retired from all that. He’s never made much money at it, he said, but he’s been gratified to connect with readers who seem to love his tales.
Today you can find several Strawn books published by Bluewood Publishing and available at Vintage Books in Vancouver or via Amazon. They include family epics, young adult novels and Nez Perce adventures.
“You don’t grow up where I grew up in Idaho without being very aware” of Nez Perce history and culture, he said. Strawn was a volunteer docent and researcher at the many scattered sites that make up Nez Perce Historical Park, and he still teaches the occasional course about the Nez Perce at Clark College.
Much to do
“The Haunting of Josef Fleischer” is available only as an e-book, Strawn said. That’s because, at 35,000 words, it’s not quite the length of a standard novel (usually at least 50,000 words). Strawn has ideas for sequels that would extend the tale and demand real paper between real covers, he said, but he’s doubtful that will ever happen.
The reason “The Haunting” came out shorter than standard novel length is that Strawn didn’t want to spend years on it, he said. He’s 81 and still has way too much to do, he said — like his current project, a memoir based on his youth and his older brother’s experience in the Korean War.
“I’ve just got so much I’m interested in,” he said.