How I Came to Write ''The Floor of Heaven''

The more I read, and the more I thought about all that I was reading, I became fixated not so much on the taming of the American West as I was by what happened after the West was won. Like my childhood “West” that came to an abrupt end at the hands of the developers, I became intrigued by an Wild West that had suddenly grown civilized. In the 1890s the vanquished Indian tribes had settled with dour resignation on government reservations, the wheels of steam engines now clicked and clacked against the metal tracks stretching across the plains where short generations ago herds of buffalo had thundered, and homesteaders pounded sturdy fence posts and plowed the rich brown earth.
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When I was a young boy growing up in a wooded area of the north Bronx, my friends and I used to chase around playing cowboys and Indians. Hiding behind the rock outcroppings and clumps of tall, ancient trees, we devised intricate games that involved ambushes and ferocious shootouts with our cap guns. Then the developers came—and the Wild West that was our corner of New York City began to disappear. We had no choice but to move on to other pursuits. And so I soon discovered basketball and books.

Howard is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Wanda won.)

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Guest column byHoward Blum, author of
The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last
Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush (Crown; April
2011). The book received a starred review in
Publishers Weekly and was recently purchased
by 20th Century Fox for production as a movie.
He has also written 8 other bestselling nonfiction
books (see all here). A former NY Times reporter,
he's now a contributing editor
at
Vanity Fair.

But the memory of my early “cowboy days,” of the adventure and intrigue of a child’s old west stayed with me over the years. And in time I decided to write a nonfiction book about the period.

However, the more I read, and the more I thought about all that I was reading, I became fixated not so much on the taming of the American West as I was by what happened after the West was won. Like my childhood “West” that came to an abrupt end at the hands of the developers, I became intrigued by an Wild West that had suddenly grown civilized. In the 1890s the vanquished Indian tribes had settled with dour resignation on government reservations, the wheels of steam engines now clicked and clacked against the metal tracks stretching across the plains where short generations ago herds of buffalo had thundered, and homesteaders pounded sturdy fence posts and plowed the rich brown earth.

But what about the men—wanders, trappers, Indian fighters, cowboys, lawmen—whose fierce, independent, courageous, and often violent ways had shaped the West? They had succeeded in taming one frontier, only to become victims of their own success. They were heroes who had outlived their usefulness. Their spirits found neither joy nor comfort in the routine and—a curse? a blessing?—they had grown accustomed to the sharp edge of uncertainty that shaped an active, dangerous, self-sufficient life. They wanted to grow old boldly, and in the company of new adventures. And so they packed their saddlebags and, as if driven by some natural instinct, began to migrate. They turned their backs on the towns they’d helped build, on the Main Streets where families now strolled, and journeyed to Alaska—last great American wilderness.

It was Alaska’s very remoteness, the promise of a vast, virgin and uncivilized country, that attracted these pioneers. And when in my readings I came across one them, Charlie Siringo, a cowboy turned Pinkerton detective who becomes caught up in a puzzling and dangerous mystery involving a fortune of stolen gold at the height of the Yukon Gold Rush—well, I knew I’d found the story I wanted to tell.

Howard is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Wanda won.)

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