Novel 'Song of the Horseman' tells a story of reclaiming generational Cherokee heritage

"Song of the Horseman," a recent novel by Mark Warren, won recognition as a finalist in the Literary Fiction category of the Georgia Author of the Year Awards for 2022. (Courtesy of Mark Warren)

Everyone — everything — has a song, and tying it all together is the larger song. “Song of the Horseman” is a recent novel by Mark Warren. The novel won recognition as a finalist in the Literary Fiction category of the Georgia Author of the Year Awards for 2022. Mark Warren joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about his sweeping story cataloging the lives of two Native Americans a generation apart.

Interview highlights:

Two related members of the Cherokee nation, living 50 years apart:

“The book is a parallel telling of two lives, a grandfather and a grandson. The grandfather’s name is Jonas Walks Through The Storm. He’s a full-blooded Cherokee living in the 1940s, and he has a reputation as an extraordinary trainer of horses — what people today would call a ‘horse whisperer,'” Warren recounted. The grandson, his name is Russell Storms, his last name being abbreviated from his grandfather’s longer name, and he’s a school teacher in Chicago. He’s one-quarter Cherokee and he’s immersed in some of the racist problems in public school in the 1990s.”

Warren continued, “Little does the populace there know that the real minority race at that school is his, Cherokee. He has burned out as a teacher and really fallen from grace in almost every area of his life, including his marriage and his health, his habits. And we follow these two in different time periods so that we can get an idea of how these individual lives run on their own. But there’s a weaving together that happens, because the younger man goes in search of some rescue of his self-esteem, and he does that by re-addressing his place as a Native American.”

How Russell Storms’ 40th birthday travels drew him closer to his grandfather:

“Russell decided to explore the idea of ritual. He didn’t have a guidebook of any kind. He didn’t really know how it was going to go. He just knew he needed a change, a transformation. He needed to find something of what he remembered from his early childhood, when he did spend time with his grandfather, but he knew nothing about his grandfather except the man’s love for horses,” Warren said.

“He went off on his own, driving from Chicago, just in search of anything that looked like remoteness. And that was of course going to include some forest, and he had the idea originally that he wanted a place similar to what a Plains Native American would seek out for a ‘vision quest,’ a place that would have, usually, a grand vista to ponder during the vision quest itself. But Russell’s forest led him to something even more appealing than that. I won’t give away what that is, but he entered into an area of the forest and created his own type of ritual that would help him to, in a way, step through a new doorway to rediscover something about his Native traditional past.”

Reflections on horses from Russell and his author:

“When I was a boy watching Westerns on TV, my eyes mostly stayed on the horses. If it was a wagon train pulling wagons across, and I’m sure the producers wanted all eyes on the actors there, but my eyes were on the horses. I’ve always thought of them as being the true heroes of our westward expansion,” said Warren. “Can you just imagine what it did for the Native people who lived in the plains? And to them, the plains just seemed like an unending landscape, and when they learned that they could leap up onto the back of a horse and have that, it was basically like flying… It was a life-changing event. It was a culture-changing event.”

“Jonas just has that magical empathy to understand horses. He’s been around them so long. But the beauty of his approach is that he works with the horse and not against it. He’s not trying to conquer it. It’s the typical Native American approach to nature, really, whereas the European approach was to conquer it and push it back, you know, to make a clearing in the forest. The Native person embraced it and appreciated what it was.”

Mark Warren’s novel “Song of the Horseman” is out now and available to purchase via