The stories of our past, real or imagined, serve as classrooms for today’s traveler. They reveal humanity at its best and at its worst, and as spoken often throughout history, those who fail to learn its lessons are doomed to repeat its mistakes. In the first of a two-part saga, author and historian John J. Dwyer draws from the written and unwritten pages of American history, to weave a story that could parallel today’s headlines.
Q: You are not only an author but a professor of History, what drew you to the subject and how did you become a historian?
A: I was raised by a widowed mother in a home where history and heroes were all around us. Since my younger brother Paul and I did not have a father, nor really any other positive male role model close to our lives, she looked for every way possible to fill in the gap with admirable examples of men who exhibited attributes such as courage, faithfulness, determination, honesty, sacrifice, perseverance, and selflessness that she feared we might miss without a dad. For instance, both the actor John Wayne and the historical figure Davy Crockett that he played in the movie The Alamo could contribute. So could other pioneers, athletes, presidents, war heroes, cowboys, lawmen, etc., as long as they were the sort that exhibited those attributes.
I think it is also in my blood. With a great grandfather named Joseph Jay O’Dwyer, who came to America on a boat by himself at age 17, I have come to realize that I come from a long line, a Celtic culture really, of storytellers. There seems to be an innate sense of wanting to discover an exciting truth, then share it with others, wowing them in the process if at all possible! With that in view, as I look back over my life, I see now why I have been drawn to journalism/writing, theology, and history as my main vocational and avocational pursuits.
Q: Although Shortgrass is a fictional story, you’ve stated that its lessons are timeless and real. What are some of those lessons and how are they pertinent for today’s reader.
A: I think there are many. Keep in mind that on the surface, Shortgrass is a lively story of adventure, romance, action, sports, political intrigue and suspense, a modern Western of sorts, and a historical epic of the Dust Bowl, Great Depression, mass American migration, the Big Band Era, and World War II. Also, numerous famous and colorful characters populate the journey. Shortgrass and its sequel Mustang, which releases early next year, comprise a twelve-year-long Twentieth Century American odyssey of love and war for a clean cut young heartland fellow who sets forth into the world in a time of singular drama, danger, and historical movements.
As far as the lessons conveyed through the story, one is the danger of seeking to impact the world for good, and becoming the one who gets impacted. Put another way, how even the noblest of intentions are fraught with snares and dangers. Lance Roark, the Mennonite farm boy and cowboy protagonist of Shortgrass grows up with an escalating desire not only to leave the hardscrabble Dust Bowl farm in which he feels cooped up, but to go forth and do good for his country and the world. This derives from his heritage of Irish immigrants, American pioneers, and devout, often persecuted Mennonites, all of whom are seeking something better for themselves and to create something better for others. In Lance’s case, he possesses great natural gifts, including working with young people—in particular Comanche Indians—as an athlete—he rises to college football glory—and as an aviator—he becomes good friends with and a mentee of the legendary Charles Lindbergh. And his winsome gentleness wins the heart of the most sought-after woman at his school, who becomes one of the greatest female vocalists of the Big Band Era. Yet, all these accomplishments and associations affect him, almost imperceptibly at first, but gradually, and ultimately very greatly.
Another lesson is how precarious are the freedoms and blessings we possess in our country. As Shortgrass builds to its climactic sequence at the outbreak of World War II for America, we see “behind the curtain” as it were—through Lance’s interactions with friends and even a family member who hold important positions in industry or the government, in a very factual and historically documented fashion—a government that is telling its people one thing, yet acting in a very different fashion, as it tries to maintain power in the midst of the worst economic calamity in U.S. history, a calamity its own policies are unable to solve. This deception and the subsequent actions to mask it, create confusion, division, and ultimately tragic consequences for the nation.
And, Shortgrass depicts, for us, a generation so inclined toward self-seeking, instant gratification, moral compromise, and complaining, what true challenge, danger, and heartbreak—on an immense scale over a period of many years—was faced by an earlier generation of Americans, those who lived through the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and World War II, the latter which was the most colossal disaster in world history.
Q: You’ve indicated that Shortgrass, and the sequel Mustang, are the closest thing to your own written testament to those that will follow you that you have done. How so?
A: Through the years, people have often told me that they can “see” me in my books, that is, my perspectives, opinions, attitudes, or that they can almost hear my voice telling the story. Others have been able to see this more clearly than I have. I guess I’ve been too close to the forest to see the trees, as they say. This time, with Shortgrass and its sequel Mustang, despite their comprising a fictional American adventure odyssey that takes place in a different era than ours, and despite my not explicitly declaring those elements that form a “testament” of sorts, I believe the characters, story, events, and themes, as they unwind through a twelve-year saga that takes place in multiple countries over the course of two books, truly summarize so many of the convictions, questions, and observations I have after a somewhat lengthy life. For example, they depict what I have learned (thus far) about love and loss, history and heroes, conflictedness and unanswered questions, God and America, and life itself. They deal with inexplicable tragedy, the glee and hope of youth with everything in the world to live for, bad things happening to good people, God often silently yet decisively directing events for His own purposes, when and how and with whom is often least expected.
Also, the capricious nature of worldly pleasure and glory, the ambiguous nature of so many well intended efforts, and the inescapable reality that despite the best of intentions, we are all human, we are all flawed. None of us shall escape the sometimes grievous consequences, to some extent, of a marred, fallen world with resident evil.
And the great responsibility incumbent in leadership, whether of a family or a nation. How greatly the peace and happiness of those under a leader’s influence can be affected for good or bad by that.
Finally, how such sources as the Scriptures and wise parents can guide us toward so much that is good and preserve us from so much that is hurtful, but how we so inconsistently pay heed to these exemplars and even when we do, we may face great challenge and trial, even as part of God’s plan for our good and His glory. “Now we see through a glass darkly…”
Shortgrass and Mustang, though, are historical novels filled with the action, adventure, romance, and intrigue I earlier mentioned, not philosophical tracts. These themes will not necessarily be readily apparent to many readers. And some of them may be so only upon reflection, as with many of the lessons of life itself. But rest assured, they are there.
Q: What can readers expect in the upcoming release of Mustang?
A: The literary ride of their lives. Shortgrass has been compared to Herman Wouk’s classic The Winds of War, which covered the pre-World War II years, up through Pearl Harbor and its aftermath. Mustang has been compared to his sequel, War and Remembrance, which covers the war years. Mustang takes place entirely during World War II, largely in the cockpits of Flying Fortress bombers and Mustang fighter planes fighting the Nazis in the bloody skies over Europe. I spent years researching both this historical era and the unique and crucial military campaign that it involves, and I am confident it will be unlike anything anyone has read before. And it is absolutely unpredictable, as were the real events. I say that having read everything available in the genre myself, both fiction and non-fiction. Plus, those who have already read Shortgrass are going to be very vested and involved in the lives of Lance Roark the protagonist and his friends by the time they begin reading Mustang. I will also say that some of the events, themes, and messages I intended to convey when I began Lance’s long journey through Shortgrass and Mustang remain as I initially intended, but some changed dramatically as I came to better know him, his friends, and the historic events they were part of and helped make.
Q: What makes you different from other authors of historical fiction? How is your work unique?
A: Unfortunately for me, my work probably contains sufficient elements to offend or at least challenge just about everybody. I have always written from a providential Christian worldview, featuring the notion that no matter what happens, God has redemptive and uplifting purposes for His people, of which He has chosen some but passed over others, not because I desired it that way, but because that is how He has clearly explained to us in His Scriptures He has done it. So, not everyone is going to be happy with a literary universe of that sort. Yet, these are imperfect people in my books, with questions that sometimes don’t get answered, dilemmas and choices that frequently defy easy answers or even any answers, and disappointments and even tragedies that remain mysteries inexplicable in this life. Plus, though my literary universe possesses overarching standards of right and wrong, my “good” characters are not always good, and my “bad” characters are not necessarily one-dimensional villains constructed in accord with society’s current trends and mores. So, as in life, but not necessarily some Christian-inspired literary universes, my readers will hopefully depart my books moved and even inspired, but also with things to contemplate or reflect upon, things that are not all formulaically packaged and all tidied up for them by the final page.
Q: What would you say to today’s generation to convince them of the value of history?
A: Mainly, that if we don’t learn the right lessons from history, the wrong ones will damage us worse than learning no lessons at all. We need to learn whom from history we should emulate and whom we should not. For instance, telling our children that a villain is a hero, putting that person on or in our money, calendars, and movies, then exhorting our children to emulate him or her, is a dangerous thing to do.