House Guest with Ben Stroud: Wrestling with History

In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors, cover artists, and editors from peer presses and magazines to tell us what they’re working on, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.

Ben Stroud’s story “Traitor of Zion,” is reprinted in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade.



One of the great difficulties in writing fiction that deals with history is figuring out where to depart from the historical record in favor of invention. In some ways, this can be the biggest problem in such a story. I had this struggle with “Traitor of Zion.” I can’t remember when I first heard about the branch of Mormons that settled on Bear Island in the far north of Lake Michigan. But once I did, I tucked it away as an idea for a story. I was drawn to the distance of the place, and the audacity of the enterprise: to build a new settlement in this remote, incredibly difficult-to-get-to island. In my writing I’m often driven by a sense of adventure. I want the story to be a journey for the reader, but also for me. This seemed like solid material.

However, to write the story I had to wrestle with the actual history. The truth behind “Traitor” is that in the late 1840s a man named James Jesse Strang led a group of Mormons from Illinois to Beaver Island when the other Mormons, under the leadership of Brigham Young, set out for Utah. Strang’s community lasted for about five years until eventually things fell out as they do at the end of “Traitor.”

For the story, I shortened things. Five years is a long time to cover, and much of the dispute between the whiskey traders and Strang’s group had to do with congressional districts—which doesn’t make for thrilling reading. There were other changes I had to make too. Strang’s name, for instance. Strang, so close to strange, is a name that we wouldn’t buy in fiction. And I changed the Mormons into fictional Hebronites, because the intricacies of Strang’s splinter group would take up too much story time to elaborate—and probably be too boring as well. His Mormons were never recognized by the larger Mormon Church, which viewed (and continues to view) him as a huckster. And so that I could make a firmer departure from historical record into fiction, I changed the island from Bear Island to the invented Peaine Island. Why “Peaine”? It’s the name of a Native American chief strongly associated with this area of Michigan. A natural enough name for an island in upper Lake Michigan, even if no such island exists.

Of course, the greatest part of invention in the story was in Anson, the main character, who is purely fictional. There’s always some anxiety in doing this, in letting imagination intrude on history. Will I get it right? Will I piss off some expert? One of the challenges of historical fiction—a challenge each writer meets in his or her own way—is negotiating this line between the true and the made-up.

But then, that’s a problem for all of us fiction writers, too.

Ben Stroud is the author of Byzantium: Stories. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, One Story, Electric Literature, The Best American Mystery Stories, and New Stories from the South, among other places. Originally from Texas, he currently lives in Ohio.