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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Longmire author Craig Johnson explores tragedy, history, and the supernatural in latest book ‘Hell and Back’

The life of a writer is an isolated one, “Longmire” author Craig Johnson said from his ranch in Ucross, Wyoming, population 26.

“You sit in a room by yourself and write about your imaginary friends,” Johnson said.

Walt Longmire may be his best friend in that case.

Johnson will be taking Longmire with him on a book tour that began in Seattle on Tuesday and comes to Spokane for a Northwest Passages appearance on Sept. 17 at the Bing to promote the newest installment in his “Longmire” series.

“Spokane is one of my absolute favorite stops,” the affable author told The Spokesman-Review on the weekend before heading out on tour. “It’s awfully close to Wyoming in its sensibilities.”

Sheriff Longmire, the star of the famous book-series-turned-Netflix-show, has solved a lot of strange and unsettling murders as a lawman in the fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. Occasionally, those stories have taken a more paranormal twist, which is where the “Longmire” series 18th title, “Hell and Back,” begins.

Longmire wakes up in the middle of the road with two silver dollars placed over his eyes. He has no recollection of who he is or how he got there, but he’s covered in blood and he’s missing a bullet from his sidearm.

“It’s this endless night. The skies are this strange, darkish yellow and there’s a strange burning,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t know anybody, but everyone he runs into is someone who is dead.”

That is, the cast members in this story are all ill-fated characters from previous “Longmire” books. It’s a sort of best-hits compilation from the series so far, Johnson said.

“It’s kind of interesting to see him put together this investigation of who he is before he can figure out why he is there,” he said. “It’s not just a case of amnesia.”

In “Hell and Back,” Johnson also explores the real and painful history of Native American boarding schools across the United States.

More than 500 Native American children are said to have died in boarding schools across the United States between 1819 and 1969, sometimes identified in unmarked graves, according to an investigation from the U.S. Department of Interior. The investigation found that the boarding schools deployed “militarized” tactics to assimilate the Native American children, such as renaming them with English names, cutting off their hair, preventing the use of their languages and corporal punishment, among other things.

“Hell and Back” takes place in the fictional town of Fort Pratt, Montana, where 31 Native American boys died in a tragic boarding school fire in 1896. The name, apparently derived from boarding school founder Capt. Richard Henry Pratt who argued in favor of “civilizing” the Native American population, once wrote: “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

A frequent fisher on the Bighorn River, Johnson used to pass by the remains of the St. Xavier boarding school in Montana. The building haunted him for years, he said, but it prompted him to research for the book.

Johnson’s inspiration for Fort Pratt, however, is actually based on a boarding school for Black students in Wrightsville, Arkansas, where 21 teenage boys were burned to death in a fire that “mysteriously” ignited in the middle of the night. The doors to the school were said to have been locked from the outside of the school.

This isn’t “Longmire’s” first brush with topical issues surrounding American and Western life. In his previous title, “Daughter of the Morning Star,” Johnson explored the high rates of missing and murdered Native American people, particularly women and girls.

For that story, Johnson came across a sun-faded missing person poster on the Crow Reservation in Montana.

“It was just wrenching,” he said. “If you feel like there’s been an injustice, that’s powerful fuel for a writer to be able to deal with.”

In “Hell and Back,” however, the sheriff will also take on something more supernatural.

Johnson recalled a story of a Cheyenne friend who told his grandchildren to come back from the tree line or else they would be attacked by the supernatural Cheyenne legend, “éveohtsé-heómėse,” translated as “the wandering without.”

His friend told Johnson that, before jails, people in tribal communities who were banished were often left in the wilderness alone. It was a death sentence.

“I can’t help to think that there was something in that wilderness that was waiting for those souls. I can’t help but think it made it hungry for more souls,” Johnson said. “What if this thing is out there and it decides it wants Walt Longmire?”

The spirit also made an appearance in the previous book.

Admittedly, there are only so many times when a small-town sheriff is going to find a body on Bureau of Land Management property, Johnson said.

“I’m always looking to shake things up a little bit – convey something about the character in a way that people haven’t seen yet,” he said. “It was all kind of there from the ‘Cold Dish,’ the very first book. Indian mysticism threaded itself through all the books.”

Johnson, who is not Native American, said that writing correctly about Native American cultures requires “a certain sense of responsibility and respect.”

“These are my neighbors, friends and family,” he said. “It’s necessary to give them a proper perspective on their lifestyle.”

Native American societies don’t run at the same pace as modern America, he said. They are often about slowing down and listening, he said.

“That kind of dovetails with Walt because he is an investigator. He sees things that others don’t see.”