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April 18, 2016

Book Notes - John Smelcer "Savage Mountain" and "Stealing Indians"

Savage Mountain Stealing Indians

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Acclaimed poet John Smelcer is also an impressive writer of young adult novels, including Savage Mountain and Stealing Indians.

In his own words, here is John Smelcer's Book Notes music playlist for his novels Savage Mountain and Stealing Indians:

My 2015 adventure novel Savage Mountain is the incredible story of two teenage brothers, Sebastian and James Savage, who set off on a journey to climb one of Alaska tallest mountains to prove to their demeaning father that they are strong and courageous young men, worthy of his love and respect. It's a story that should resonate with most sons, and I dare say with many daughters as well. So many young people feel like they don't measure up to their parent's ideals. The novel is based on true events. Although I set the story in the early 1980s, when my brother and I were still in high school in Fairbanks, the actual event occurred a few years later. My brother committed suicide in April of 1988, only a year or so after our summit. Years later, I returned to the mountain alone to throw some of his ashes into the wind. He's part of the mountain now. A soundtrack to Savage Mountain would include songs that inspire listeners to rise to challenges and to believe in ourselves, but it would also have to include songs about loss and grief.

No sports/adventure story about pushing oneself to the physical limits would be complete without Survivor's ubiquitous 'Eye of the Tiger' made famous by one of the Rocky movies. I can just see a scene from the book as a motion picture: the climber reaches for an impossible handhold, grabs hold with his fingertips, pulls himself up the cliff face by sheer muscle, his toes searching for a toehold, kicking loose rocks, which plummet hundreds of feet to the valley below.

Jim Croce's 'I Got a Name' would definitely be included in the soundtrack; maybe as background music on the radio when the two brothers are driving to the place where they begin their ascent of the mountain. With lyrics such as “They can change their minds but they can't change me, I've got a dream, I've got a dream,' I always felt the song was about me…for me. It's been my mantra, an old friend that reminds me it's okay to be me.

One of the top hits of the summer my brother died was Cheap Trick's haunting love song 'The Flame.' With lyrics like, 'I can't believe you're gone' and 'Wherever you go, I'll be with you,' the song quickly became my brother's mourning song. It was even on the radio during his wake. It still affects me deeply every time I hear it. The song reached the top of the charts that year. Oddly enough, the band didn't like the song at first and didn't want to include it on their album Lap of Luxury.

But no soundtrack to my brother's life would be complete without at least one song from his favorite band, AC/DC. I choose two from around the time we climbed the mountain, saving each other's life time and time again: “Highway to Hell' from Highway to Hell (1979) and 'You Shook Me All Night Long' from Back in Black (1980). Even now when I hear them I sing along loudly for my brother's sake (I didn't like AC/DC back then; my musical tastes were more subdued. Barry Manilow was more my speed).

My forthcoming novel Stealing Indians (August 2016) is also based on true events. From the late 1800s up until the late 1950s, the U. S. government removed Native American children from their families and communities and sent them off to Indian boarding schools, sometimes more than a thousand miles away from home. The policy was to deny the children their Indian identity and replace it with White values. Children were expressly forbidden from speaking their own indigenous languages. They were physically punished if caught doing so. The novel follows four teenage children, each from a different region of America, and how their unlikely friendship helps them to endure their first year at the fictitious and ironically named Wellington. A sound-track to this novel would include songs about injustice, but also about the bonds of friendship and love.

'Indian Reservation' by Paul Revere and the Raiders, often mistakenly called “Cherokee Nation.' With its deliberate double-time drumbeat and accusatory lines like, “Took away our native tongue/and taught their English to our young,' Although the British Invasion band culturally appropriates the persona of American Indians, this song could be the title track.

Andrew Gold's 'Thank You for Being a Friend' could easily be included in the soundtrack. It even fits. The events of the novel occurred in the 1980s around the same time the song was used as the theme to the hit television series, The Golden Girls.

'Stand By Me' by Ben E. King. More than one critic has written that Stealing Indians is a kind of Indian version of Stephen King's coming-of-age classic, Stand By Me.

John Smelcer and Savage Mountain and Stealing Indians links:

the author's website

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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musician/author interviews
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weekly music release lists
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