“Spirit or Spiritual?” – 52 Pickup, #25

Question #25, 10/30/18

From Beth Cook- Question: “I am very interested in the mysticism as a narrative device. Beginning with the anonymous old ones in the early books, Virgil White Buffalo has emerged as the “voice” Walt hears when he is near death in several books. In Hell is Empty Virgil tells a fable about the old ones sending someone you know to collect you. However, when Virgil is around he encourages Walt. So, please tell us more about this very intriguing character who may or may not really be there.”


“There are far greater things, Horatio, than are dreamt of in thy philosophies…”

–William Shakespeare

Thinking you know everything puts you at an incredible disadvantage and also gives you very little to write about. One of the wonderful opportunities that are a part of what I get to do is write about my friends up on the Cheyenne and Crow reservations, who are incredibly spiritual people. They’re not just Sunday-Spiritual in that their beliefs are integrated into all aspects of their lives every day. Starting with The Cold Dish, I wanted to include a spirituality in the books, another layer that the readers could enjoy and contemplate. Chapter Twelve of that book pretty much set the tone for the entire series, and I’ve used the Old Cheyenne and more specifically Virgil White Buffalo as the constant reminder to Walt that we’re never truly alone.

It’s interesting because Walt is what I’d call an unbeliever–his entire life and occupation rely on an absolute belief in empirical data. He’s not given to flights of fancy, but he’s sometimes undermined by an overly-active imagination. It doesn’t interfere with his job, but it does “get him up the hill” as the old cowboys used to say.

Henry will always be Walt’s conduit to what we would refer to as the supernatural, but I’m not so sure Henry would view it that way. To the Northern Cheyenne it’s not supernatural but simply the natural we’re not noticing in the super-highspeed, technologically driven society we’ve chosen to pursue.

I think Virgil has become the spiritual sounding board for Walt, and evidently, he’s more than we suspect as he appears in places he simply can’t be, like Mexico. So, where is he? Following and mentoring Walt—or somewhere inside his head?

Readers sometimes forget that we first meet the character in Another Man’s Moccasins, three books before Hell is Empty where he’s remembered most. I was planning on writing an analogous retelling of Dante’s Inferno for quite sometime and figured I needed a Virgil, but having an ancient, Roman poet show up in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming was stretching things a bit… So, Virgil was born. He’s a legend on two reservations from a family of giants, but he’s more than that, a Shaman who weaves in and out of people’s lives to the point that they’re not even sure if he’s really there. Virgil has a bit of the Trickster in him, so it’s possible that he was sent to collect Walt a long time ago, but is putting it off… Or maybe he’s not the one who is meant to do the job which begs the question, who is?

I have in mind that we haven’t seen the last of Virgil and as a matter of fact he shows up again in the next novel, Land of Wolves, though perhaps not in a human sense…

—Craig Johnson


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