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Bob Drury and Tom Clavin's Throne Of Grace is an exciting history that also works as a complex adventure story. It investigates the politics and business of the early fur trade with The American Fur Company through the grand adventures of the mountain men who trapped and explored the wilderness past the Mississippi, centering on Jedediah Smith. Mr, Drury and Clavin talked about the book and heir process of research and writing with The Hard Word.

SCOTT MONTGOMERY:I saw this book as at least a spiritual sequel to you Daniel Boone book, Blood and Treasure. What did you see as the main difference between those two eras of frontiersmen?

BOB DRURY: Good catch, Scott, as we feel that Throne of Grace completes the middle section of a sort-of jig-saw-written trilogy beginning with Blood and Treasure and culminating in The Heart of Everything That Is. But I’ll let Tom explain that, as it was all his idea.

TOM CLAVIN: We never intended to create what has become an “American Frontier” trilogy, and there is an eight-year gap between the publications of Heart and Blood and Treasure. Once the latter was done, however, it felt like there was a piece missing in the middle, the explorations and confrontations in the West from about 1800 to 1850. We wrote The Last Hill and were actually on to another World War II story when we gave in to that nagging feeling and redirected our efforts toward Throne of Grace.

BOB DRURY: As far as “the main difference” (aside from geography and terrain, of course): It strikes me that the explorers and adventurers of the Boone era were either consciously or subconsciously looking to expand their idea of America – even before the United States declared its independence – by claiming and settling land occupied by indigenous tribes … whereas the frontiersmen of the Jed Smith era were not only battling Native Americans for land-ownership supremacy, but conducting a Cold War with the British across the continent’s Northwest “Oregon Country” as well as casting covetous glances at the nascent Mexican Republic’s holdings in the Southwest and California. Remember, this is decades before the Alamo and the subsequent Mexican American War. Obviously the trailblazers of both eras had commercial goals, whether deer skins, farming space, or beaver pelts – for all Jed Smith’s idolization of Lewis and Clark, he originally went west to make money in the fur trade. But the men who went into the Rocky Mountains and beyond in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, I think, had a clearer idea of a potential coast-to-coast United States “empire” than those who crossed the Appalachians in the second half of the Eighteenth Century.    

S.M.: Many of the men you deal with in this book have already had books written about them. How did Jedediah Smith get chosen as the focus?

B.D. Tom and I like to think that, with our American Frontier narratives, we write biographies of eras as opposed to biographies of people. But of course, we need to find a guide to take us through those eras, whether it be Daniel Boone or the great Sioux Warrior-Chief Red Cloud. Contemporaneous research is our meat-and-potatoes, and we poured over letters and diaries and contemporary newspaper stories and military After-Action reports searching for that guide. There were some fine candidates, Jim Bridger leaps to mind. But in the end we settled on Jed Smith not only because of the copious and assiduous journals he kept and long letters he wrote, but also and quite naturally for the Zelig-like quality of his travels – so many exploratory “firsts” for a Euro-American: South Pass, the Snake River Country and the western slopes of the Rockies, the Escalante and Mojave deserts, the entry into California from the east, the Sierra Nevada crossing and his traverse of the deadly Great Basin.


T.C.: CLAVIN: Yes, for us, the story comes first. Is it important and interesting enough to be told, and do we want to spend the next two or three years researching and writing it? Once we embark, it is a pleasure to discover how many fascinating characters populate the story, it’s like unpacking a gift that turns out to be even better than we anticipated.

S.M.: I noticed most of the historical moments you cover may have central characters like Smith but deal with several talented men working together for a common goal. What draws you to those events in history?

T.C.: There is a “band of brothers” aspect to our stories. You can trace that from our first book together, Halsey’s Typhoon, 17 years ago, to Throne of Grace – people striving for a common cause, whether it be survival or territory or an ideal. These stories might not always be pretty or uplifting but we think they are captivating.

B.D.: May sound pedestrian, but just the ripping good yarns they entail … not to mention that the research is so much fun.

S.M.: Was it difficult to separate fact from legend, since many extremely dramatic events, like the way two of these men survived bear attacks, were true?

B.D.: Once again, two words: contemporaneous research. It might be easier to take the Liberty Valance approach – “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” But as I mentioned above, we were lucky to have the Jed Smith journals and letters as well as much else as our guideposts. Whenever we ran across someone who many years later put his memories to paper – the “gaudy liar” Mountain Man Jim Beckwourth comes to mind – we try to remind the reader that such memories may be, um, flawed and/or enhanced.

T.C: I often compare the research process to prospecting for gold: You spend hour after hour sifting through sand and water, tossing away the useless pebbles and other debris, and with luck, at the end of each day, you’ve found a few nuggets worth keeping. There are no shortcuts to authenticity.

S.M.: What was the biggest thing each of you learned in researching the book?

B.D.: I frankly had no idea, nor do I think most Americans know, about the (mixing metaphors) slow-burning cold war waged for decades in the early Nineteenth Century between the United States and England for control of what was then called the Oregon Country. (Today’s Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and a slice of Montana; not to be confused with the “Oregon Territory.”) To think that today, if history had tipped just a tad the other way, British warships might be sailing out of Puget Sound flying the Union Jack. 

T.C.: I was intrigued by how these mountain men became the point of the American spear penetrating the western half of the country. Only a few, like Jed Smith, had some kind of awareness of what barrier breakers they were and the national implications of their fur-trapping adventures.

S.M.: You both have written books separately. Is there a certain story that brings you together to collaborate and is there any delegation of duties?

B.D.: Both of us are inherently drawn to untold, or at least hardly told, nonfiction stories where ordinary men rise to extraordinary occasions. (So far, alas, we haven’t found the right women.) And we each write every other sentence.

T.C.: My aim is to keep Bob busy because idle hands are the devil’s playground.


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