In an epic tale spanning the American landscape, Mark Warren’s new novel “Indigo Heaven” brings us the hero’s journey of a classic Western novel, but with significant attention paid also to the Civil War South. The author, a resident of North Georgia, brought his great love for the American West to a story of coming-of-age in a time of great violence and tragedy across the nation. The young protagonist, Clayton James, fights for the Confederacy before committing an act of violence that will change his life and send him on a westward quest for redemption. Warren joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk through the themes of his novel and his main character’s formidable voyage.
On protagonist Clayton’s rough origins:
“He’s born into a very isolated world. His father, who is a Scottish immigrant, is basically a slave-driver. His mother has been lost to disease, and Clayton is left with a father who is pretty much on a mission to go to battle against the world,” said Warren.
“I think there were probably a lot of people in his situation who got swept up in [the Civil War], some of them out of peer pressure, and some of them out of just lack of knowledge about what the war was about. But for Clayton, it was an exit out of something else. But because of his young age, he was able to infiltrate enemy territory as a very young spy, because he would be the last person to be suspected of such a role.”
Themes of loss of innocence, sin, and redemption:
“It was soon evident that he had a special knack with horse care, and he was eventually taken in by one of the very famous generals of the war, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who… is the man who originated the Ku Klux Klan,” said Warren.
“Forrest was a cavalry leader, and Clayton became part of that… terrible, terrible group of people who have violence just completely acceptable in their lives. They are just immersed in it, and taking another person’s life, as war will often do, becomes the norm,” said Warren. “That loss of appreciation for another man’s life is a terrible loss to incur, which is one of the things that bring veterans back home from any war in such terrible shape.”
“He’s a sensitive enough person to realize that he has some great debt to pay, in the sense of the universe, that his sins are unredeemable, really. And as so many people did in that time after the war, he sought a whole new venue to hopefully grasp a new life somehow. He has no idea how he’s going to try to redeem himself,” said Warren. “But it looked like destiny took a little hand there for him, and wasn’t going to let someone who was as good a man as Clayton spend the rest of his life in the misery of the consequences of what he’d done.”
Encounters on a long journey westward:
“She’s a very strange, old woman, and not someone that most people could connect to, but Clayton must have seemed something in her that just opened his heart to her a little bit…. The reader gets the sense that this old woman has some kind of sense of prophecy, perhaps, and she gives him an old wool blanket that she dyed in alder…. This blanket, which had first just seemed like a very simple gift, she told him that it would take care of him,” said Warren. “That blanket eventually does become his salvation.”
“When he went out into the open spaces, for a long time being in the prairie was just an aimless journey that seemed to have no end,” said Warren. “He really didn’t know why, but he turned his course to go North and to follow [the Rockies] and see what he might find. There’s something about the land there; the land took him in.” He continued, “If you’ve ever seen the Teton Mountains or gone a little farther into what exists in Wyoming, it’s not hard to see how the visual effect can grab you.”
“I wanted to be sure to introduce [Native Americans] as an example of humanity, as they were…. It’s important because in that time, the Native Americans were really seen only as obstacles to manifest destiny, and manifest destiny, to my mind, is just one of the biggest examples of the human being rationalizing what he does. The great victim of all that were the people who had originally lived here, who had no sense of ownership about the land. So there are constantly conflicts that pop up,” said Warren. “Clayton reforms an act of charity with some starving Native Americans, by allowing them to take a wounded cow to use as food, and none of his ranch hands understand what he’s done.”
Warren will be at Eagle Eye Book Shop for his book launch party on Saturday, July 31 from 2-3 p.m.