Many novelists have broached the subject of violence in the history of the West.
Montana-raised author Shann Ray has entered the fold with his first novel, "American Copper," out on Nov. 3 from Unbridled Books.
Ray, who drops his surname Ferch in writing, emphasizes not just the violence, but the subjects of atonement and forgiveness - possibly because of his other career: a professor of psychology and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University.
His work as a family systems psychologist deals with couples and marriages and "the fracturing that happens for most people in society," he said in a phone interview from Spokane.
"The writing helps sort of find a more elegant or subtle way to get at that shadow," he said.
"American Copper" tracks four characters in Montana, including Josef Lowry, a Czech immigrant turned copper baron and his daughter Evelynne Lowry; and a steer wrestler named Zion who's "a drastically poor sharecropper's son from the Hi-Line" prone to fighting, he said.
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The last major character is William Black Kettle, a descendant of a Northern Cheyenne chief present at the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, when almost 200 Natives were killed by the government after a white peace flag had been raised.
A starred review from Kirkus said, "Devotees of the genre will find Ray’s lyric, often poetic saga to be equal to McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and Harrison’s 'Legends of the Fall.' "
Ferch’s pen name is a tribute to his mother, Saundra Rae Ferch, with whom he shares a middle name with a different spelling.
She was the "poetic" and "spiritual core" of the family, he said, and "the main reader of the family."
He and his family are likely best known to many Montanans through basketball.
Sports fans likely recognize him from his given name: Shann Ray Ferch.
His father, Tom Ferch, coached high-school basketball around the state for decades, and his family followed his career accordingly.
Shann was born in Billings and the family moved to Alaska till he was 8 years old.
His father then got a job coaching on the Crow Reservation and the family moved back to Billings.
Shann's middle-school years were spent on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, where his love of basketball deepened with a "certain style and speed and passing and great shooting," he said.
He spent his high school years in Livingston, where he, his brother Kral and his dad won several title games. After graduation, he attended Montana State University for two years, as did Kral.
He transferred to Pepperdine University for the rest of college and chased professional sports dreams abroad before pursuing his higher academic degrees: a dual MFA in fiction and poetry from Eastern Washington University, a master's in clinical psychology from Pepperdine and a Ph.D. in systems psychology from the University of Alberta in Canada.
He's spent the past 25 years teaching and working as a psychologist and scholar.
Ferch's upbringing and his professional study of forgiveness have informed his writing.
His parents divorced and then remarried when he was young.
He said they'd lost each other, in part due to his father's alcoholism.
After a year apart, they forgave each other and remarried.
His studies focus on the scientific side of forgiveness, including a stint at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The science on it is beautiful, too," he said, explaining how people with a higher capacity for forgiveness have less anxiety, anger, depression and even less heart disease.
The Mayo Clinic "uses it in all of its interventions for cancer treatment," he said.
(He's also written a nonfiction title, "Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity," a book about leadership and forgiveness.)
Other events in his youth spurred interest in his literary subjects: His cousin was killed in a drug shootout, and the history of alcoholism in his own family.
In addition, there were his youthful experiences on the reservation.
"The reservation had quite a heavy load of violence as part of the structural system that America has built in the shadow or wake of genocidal colonization," he said.
"That thread runs throughout the poetry and the novels and nonfiction books," he said.
What he saw on the Northern Cheyenne was a lot of pain and sorrow, but also "communal power and resilience," he said.
That "comes through in things like great friendships, everyday focus on laughter as a healing effect. And then a gift-giving culture and a very loving ... just a circular culture versus an individualistic culture," he said.
Over time, those subjects began to very subtly influence the kind of writing he loves.
He listed "Ceremony," by Leslie Marmon Silko, whom he admires for her "lyrical flight" and ability for unrestrained writing, N. Scott Momaday's "House Made of Dawn," and James Welch's "Fools Crow."
Those three, combined with classics such as Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo, "changed my vision of how to write and what I value as a writer," he said.
Much contemporary writing of the past 80 to 100 years has focused the "existential angst of the Western world," in his opinion.
Those three writers, meanwhile, "didn't overlook the sacred or the divine."
"So I think part of what we're experiencing is that seeking of something sacred or divine beyond the existential vacuum."
He doesn't believe his psychological training gives him any special insight over other writers.
"I think every writer does it in a different way," he said. There's "a humility to what we've been given. I don't think we can write beyond maybe what we've been given."
Take another one of his idols, for instance.
"I think all of us are still shaken by reading somebody like Tolstoy. How did he know that? We all have things to aspire to," he said.
"That is an upper-level, transcendent understanding," he said.
Another author he admires is Toni Morrison and her book "Home."
"She basically forgives the unforgivable," he said.
"The level of atrocity is so high that this guy took part in, you can't imagine a full healing coming out of that," he said.
But he believes she succeeded. "How do you do that as an artist?" he asked.
Five failed attempts at novels preceded "American Copper," but it's hardly Ray's first published work.
His 2011 collection of short stories, "American Masculine," won the American Book Award and the High Plains Book Award. He's been published in McSweeney's and praised by Esquire.
His 2014 poetry collection, "Balefire," was a High Plains Book Award finalist.
The "American Copper" manuscript took about six months, followed by numerous revisions - an approach he learned at Eastern Washington.
There was one whole round dedicated exclusively to passages on Montana’s flowers, an obsession of Josef Lowry's. He and his editor discussed "where to place those and make sure it's not overtaking the story and not being too quiet."
More rounds followed on the five senses to ensure that they're represented.
Many of the 75 total rounds were for "tightening the prose and drawing the senses down to their strongest quality."
His editor at Unbridled, Greg Michalson, is old school, Ferch said, and took him through line by line and helped with larger structural issues.
Ferch did extensive research on Butte during the mining boom, when $3 billion worth of copper was extracted.
There were the barons like William Clark and Marcus Daly, but also somewhat less wealthy figures like Ferch's character Josef Lowry, nicknamed “the Baron." He's the center of the book, Ferch said, a man who's "kind of lost his soul in a way." (He's obsessed with money and success and is abusive.)
"So there's a question around him: How would his children carry his legacy?"
Meanwhile, his daughter Evelynne is a poet and an equestrian.
For the character of William Black Kettle, he drew on the oral histories of John Stands in Timber, a Northern Cheyenne man born in the late 1800s.
William’s character, and the past atrocities, are where the themes of forgiveness and atonement will come furthest to the fore.
Ferch described his work as a psychologist as "an incredible gift."
"It's just so humbling to see people want to come into a true place with each other," he said.
He works long term, meaning two to five years or up to seven, with families who have "gone through major disruption and harm."
He said it takes five years to change one's character, to get from the "point of total brokenness or willingness to live toward a purposeful type of life."
"So that long-term thing is always informing the poems and novels," he said.