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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Roskelley to discuss first work of fiction, ‘Fancy Dancer and the Seven Drums,’ at Northwest Passages

It was the summer of 1967 and John Roskelley was just a teenager on his way back home from a construction job in Winthrop, Washington, when he and a friend hitched a ride with a car full of young Native men on their way to the Omak Stampede.

As Roskelley recalls, the Omak Stampede wasn’t exactly on the way home, but it sure beat standing in the hot sun waiting for another car to take them to Spokane, 150 miles away.

“We squeezed into the back seat, one of them handed each of us a cold beer, and the driver took off at the speed of light, the center line weaving under the car like a rattlesnake winding its way through the brush,” writes Roskelley.

The Omak Stampede, part rodeo and part powwow, would make a major impression on the young Roskelley. The night of dancing and singing across a 15-acre encampment seeded a love for the central Washington tribes that became the basis for his newest book, “Fancy Dancer and the Seven Drums,” which he describes as historical fiction and mystery.

The book marks Roskelley’s first work of fiction. He will discuss the book at the upcoming Northwest Passages event at the Spokane Public Library with Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal on Wednesday evening.

“Fancy Dancer and the Seven Drums” is about a 9-year-old Nez Perce girl living on the Colville Reservation who is struck and killed by a drunk driver while walking home from school in the 1950s. But the scene of the crime may have been tampered with, and the evidence points to a white rancher in Omak.

“It’s an interesting process,” Roskelley said of the fiction writing process from his home, located on 20 acres in Peone Prairie. “When I first sat down to write this novel, I had a general idea where I wanted to start and where I wanted it to end. All that information, the character building, the setting, the history all came about as I wrote the book. It was like a tree with branches growing out. I could branch any which way because the character could go numerous ways.”

This book proved a more challenging task than the nonfiction writing he was used to.

“You definitely learn about yourself and the type of person you are,” Roskelley said. “In fiction you have a choice where to take your characters.”

Roskelley, now 74 years old, built a reputation for himself as a mountaineer with his first ascents in the Canadian Rockies and later ascents in the ‘70s and ‘80s of 23,000-foot peaks in Asia. His nonfiction works include a guide book, “Paddling the Columbia,” and “Nanda Devi: The Tragic Expedition,” a first-person tale about his journey up a 26,645-foot peak in India, among others. Roskelley also served as a Spokane County commissioner in the ‘90s and early 2000s.

Roskelley had the idea for “Fancy Dancer and the Seven Drums” back in the 2000s, but it wasn’t until January 2019 that he made a promise to himself that he would start writing.

Four months later, his son, Jess Roskelley, and two other climbers were killed in an avalanche on Mount Howse in the Canadian Rockies. Roskelley put the book down to go learn about what happened to his son and his climbing partners over the course of the next several months.

The book is dedicated to his son.

“There’s lots of facets to a person’s life. One of those facets to me is climbing. The other is my family,” he said. “I didn’t feel any pressure to break any molds, but I did find publishers and agents don’t believe that every person who writes a nonfiction book can turn around and write a fiction book. They are so totally alien or different to each other that publishers look at you with a side glance.”

Roskelley managed to pick the book back up in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and finish it over the course of the next two years.

“Fancy Dancer and the Seven Drums” was written with respect to the tribes on the Colville Reservation, as well as the Yakama and Nez Perce, Roskelley said. These cultures are complicated and not often understood by those living in Spokane or Seattle, he said.

“The majority still live on the reservations, and reservation life is difficult,” he said. “Through some of my writing, I hope the reader will have a little more understanding of their culture.”