Matt Bondurant’s latest novel, Oleander City, published earlier this month by Blackstone, vivifies a lesser-known but vital piece of American history. In 1900, the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history converged on Galveston, Texas. In response, Clara Barton and the relatively nascent Red Cross traveled to the Lone Star State to provide relief, and famed boxers Joe Choynski and Jack Johnson crossed the color line in a match to benefit the recovery effort. Against this backdrop of tragedy and tumult, Oleander City traces three intersecting lives, each subject to forces beyond their control. Bondurant, whose previous novels include The Night Swimmer, The Wettest County in the World, and The Third Translation, weaves together each story with characteristic sophistication and intricacy, as historical figures and fictional characters collide amid the chaos of unprecedented natural disaster.
The Millions spoke with Bondurant about his research process, the moral obligations of novelists, and how historical fiction can help bridge the gap between the past and the present.
The Millions: Oleander City is based on the true story of three lives converging in the wake of the 1900 Galveston hurricane. How did you discover this little-known piece of history, and what drew you to it as a story worth novelizing?
Matt Bondurant: About 12 years ago, my wife was doing research for her Ph.D. dissertation on immigration through Galveston around the turn of the century. She started unearthing all kinds of interesting historical anecdotes and events surrounding the 1900 hurricane, including the boxing match between Jack Johnson and Joe Choynski. I immediately saw the fictional possibilities of this amazing true story, as it contained a lot of elements that I often work with in my fiction: challenging physical environments, athletic contest, violence, desperate circumstances, and unique historical and cultural anomalies. But it wasn’t really until I went to the Rosenberg Museum in Galveston and found the picture, which I include on the last page of the book, of Jack and Joe being released from jail—and the mysterious little girl and the old dog in the corner—that I knew this was a compelling story. Who was this girl? How did she come to be in this picture? What was her role here? That was my catalyst, the mystery that I could write toward, that faint glimmer of light on the horizon that drew me onward.
TM: What kind of research went into writing Oleander City? When writing a historical novel that is based on a true story, how do you decide which facts to keep and which aspects to fictionalize?
MB: I spent about a decade reading about the Galveston hurricane of 1900, slowly working through all the pertinent available books in my university and public library. About four years ago, I began to devote myself to boxing history, from the bare-knuckle period of the late 19th century to the rise of Jack Johnson in the early 20th century. Besides reading books, I spent a fair bit of time on the internet looking at any images and film of early boxing matches that I could find, as well as diving into the biographies of Jack and Joe Choynski. Concurrently, I read books about Clara Barton and the American Red Cross as the character of Diana began to unfold.
The decision process of what to keep as true to the historical record and what to fictionalize is difficult to summarize. I would say that in most cases it is fluid, organic. Clearly the most compelling details, like the arrest and incarceration of the two boxers and what we know about their experiences together in jail, are the things that I am most likely to keep “as is.” But even in that case, so much “fictionalizing” is happening as I attempt to portray the day-to-day moments, thoughts, dialogue, and actions of these men. So even as the basic facts of the situation are historically accurate, there is always a lot that is fashioned by imagination in a historical novel. There is really no such thing as absolute historical truth; every fact of history is at least incrementally recast or adjusted in the retelling. And this doesn’t even account for the impact of style, organization, tone, and a multitude of other writing craft elements. Then, once I have a feel for the central components of the story, I can be somewhat selective, choosing incidents that support or feed this dynamic or the plot line while leaving out others that don’t “fit” or needlessly overcomplicate or confuse matters.
TM: What about the historical fiction genre interests you?
MB: I’ve always liked the feeling that I’m learning about something, a culture, a historical moment, a person, a place, when I’m reading fiction. I also like the task of researching things that I find compelling. In fact, I would likely spend all my time reading and researching the things that interest me if I could, and as it is I take three to four years to finally put it together in a book. But most of all I like the challenge of attempting to accomplish a rendering of what the writer Tim O’Brien called “story truth”—the kind of truth that lies beyond the objective facts and actualities of a historical moment. This is about capturing the essence, the spirit of the people and the story. The history of a place and time like Galveston in 1900 is obviously massively incomplete; what we do not know far outweighs what we do. Those spaces, the dark matter between the few points of light of recorded history, is the imaginative space that I live for. My intention is to create a story that honors this time, place, situation, and people through this method—even if large parts of it are made up.
TM: At the heart of the novel is this boxing match between boxers Joe Choynski, who was Jewish, and Jack Johnson, who was Black. I can imagine in 1900 Texas, this fight took on outsize significance because of the ethnicity of its participants. Can you describe why this fight was so important and how it reflected—or perhaps transcended—the racial attitudes of the time?
MB: It was a tremendously important boxing match. Despite the fact that it is not well-known or common knowledge, many boxing historians consider it one of the pivotal matches in boxing history. The “color line” in boxing was very real and was often enforced through law and extrajudicial methods. The majority of white fighters simply wouldn’t fight a Black man. As a Jewish boxer, Joe Choynski also had to deal with enormous obstacles in his career, especially rampant anti-Semitism. But he also was well known for crossing the color line, and he developed relationships and worked with Black boxers at every point in his career. Clearly he felt a kind of kinship with the plight of Black boxers like Jack Johnson and their struggles with systemic racism.
Jack was a fairly popular local citizen of Galveston, already an outspoken young man, and Joe was a storied veteran who had been in the ring and beaten many of the best fighters in the last decades of the 19th century. So it was a highly unusual fight in many ways, but when you add in the arrest of the two combatants and the three weeks they spent in jail together, much of that time spent sparring and working out, sometimes for a paying audience, and then young Jack Johnson’s meteoric rise after this incident, you get a definite watershed moment in the history of American boxing.
The dark space, the unknown here is what actually went on in that jail cell. What did they say to each other? What was their relationship like? What did Joe teach Jack, and vice-versa? Johnson would say many times over his career that it was the time he spent with Choynski in jail that really taught him how to box, especially his defensive technique. Jack went into that fight a raw 20-year-old pug with estimable physical gifts, but he emerged as a defensive wizard who was nearly impossible to hit cleanly, combined with an overpowering physicality in the ring. Clearly this match and its aftermath had a lot to do with the emergence of the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. In this book, I tried to account for how that might have happened.
TM: White supremacists play a role in the novel’s central conflict. How do you as a novelist approach writing characters who are morally despicable, and why do you think their stories should be told? (Interestingly, the Texas Senate recently removed the requirement for public schools to teach that the KKK is “morally wrong.”)
MB: The fact is that morally despicable people are often powerful agents of history, and I feel the historical novelist has some obligation to wrestle with this conundrum. In most cases, I try to provide a compelling background or reasoning for these “villains,” though that is not always possible due to craft-related constraints, including such basic things as time and space. With three principal characters and points of view in Oleander City, plus “secondary” characters like Johnson, Clara Barton, and the Rabbi Henry Cohen, I didn’t feel like I had the space and attention to really develop characters like Craine as much as I would like. Certainly a different kind of book—a much bigger one—could do this and do this well.
I feel like I transmitted a more developed sense of the bad guys in my previous historical novel The Wettest County in the World, but the specific characteristics of that novel made it not only possible but necessary. I didn’t feel the same way here. Perhaps this is due to the level of brutality and evil in the villains, but I think it is more about perspective and focus. The orphan girl Hester provides an important perspective, so I wanted to keep a sort of childlike view of the villains, which is less nuanced perhaps. I also wanted to keep the focus on our three principal characters and hope the reader would be fully invested in them.
I also want to note that I don’t actually mention the Ku Klux Klan in the novel or use that title for the kind of racist vigilantism that actually occurred in the aftermath of the storm. People who have studied the KKK know that the movement had three principal surges in their popularity and cultural influence: Reconstruction, the 1920s, and then again in the 1950s. Direct references to the Klan aren’t really found in the research materials for the period around the hurricane of 1900. Was the KKK in Galveston in 1900? Probably, in some form or another, but it was not likely the formalized, public KKK that we know from those other periods. What we do know is that masked vigilantes on horseback—which were present everywhere throughout the South in the time after Reconstruction—were “policing” Galveston after the storm and performing extrajudicial justice. Lynchings, essentially. There is an account of the children of a popular Black preacher being killed in a suspicious manner like this, along with reports of people stealing rings and jewelry from the dead.
I think you could describe the vigilante group in Oleander City as related to the KKK or sharing similar principles, including some rituals and attire, but it is also not necessarily the KKK. Look, a bunch of ignorant bigots on horseback assaulting people of color has been around since the inception of this country, but they are not always the KKK. Does it matter, this label? I don’t know. The moral cowardice of the current Texas legislature (and unfortunately many others around the country) creates an unfortunate echo for events and attitudes in the book, and I think it is clear to any reasonable person that while progress has been made, many of the same issues that plagued our society in 1900 still exist today.
TM: I love that Clara Barton is an important character in the novel—I remember reading about her as a kid. During the events in Oleander City, she would have been 78 years old, yet she joined other Red Cross volunteers to travel to Galveston and administer relief to the storm’s survivors. How did you approach entering the consciousness of such a significant historical figure, and particularly of a woman who was running a nonprofit at a time when she couldn’t even vote?
MB: Clara Barton is one of those astonishing, larger-than-life superhero figures in American history, and it was a real pleasure to work with her character. But because of the historical spotlight on her—like on Jack Johnson—being a figure known to popular culture and with a lot already said and written about her, I made the decision (unconsciously, I think) to subordinate her position in many ways and instead focus on the completely made-up character of Diana, her assistant. So we get the view of Clara through Diana, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. It’s a common method of displacement for novelists. This is similar to the fully imagined Hester, who is based solely on that one photo and the true tale of the drowned orphans, which gave me a lot more freedom not only to explore their lives but to present the world from their perspective.
So you might say that I approached Clara’s consciousness warily, with caution, as I did with Jack’s. I didn’t want to try and fully reimagine these major figures of history or to speak for them. Rather, I wanted to work with either fresh, new characters like Diana and Hester, or with someone like Joe Choynski, who while an important figure in boxing history remains a relative unknown to the general reader. Joe was a perfect historical novel character for me in this way—enough rich and compelling information about him is available, but he is enough of a “blank canvas” that I could impose my own imagination upon his character. Without that element, the novel turns into mostly reportage or simply an attempt to reframe historical events and people.
I hope that I was able to present some of Clara’s attitudes and feelings—about the cultural position of women, for one example—with some nuance and delicacy, indicating that here toward the end of her career, and her life, she would be engaged in a bit of reflection and perhaps even bitterness about the unequal treatment of women in the United States. I know that a central part of her character for me was formed by thinking about the anger and regret one might feel after a lifetime of selfless service to any and all who needed help while at the same time being relegated to a second-class citizen status.
TM: One of the novel’s main characters, Hester, is a survivor of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word orphanage, where 93 children perished in the hurricane. You’ve mentioned that today at the site of the orphanage stands a Walmart, where there have been reports of laughter, footsteps, and toys falling from the store’s shelves. This is a quite literal haunting—but how else do you think history can haunt us in the present day?
MB: For me the most powerful method for history to reach through time and grab hold of us is through stories, mainly narratives like historical novels and similar types of books. I know that I am haunted by McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, by Melville’s Moby-Dick, and by many other tales based on historical events and people. This is especially effective when some aspect of the book seems particularly apt for today, or some connective element clearly tethers that story to my (the reader’s) life. I hope that a tale like Oleander City has a similar effect on the modern reader, in that characters, situations, and themes in the book will resonate as applicable to our present age. Hopefully I was able to do this artfully and with some nuance, rather than clumsily announcing: Hey, racism and anti-Semitism are still a real fucking problem! I hope that these ideas don’t intrude upon the plot or characters in an overpowering way, instead functioning as something reverberating in the background, always present, always pertinent, sometimes deadly.
TM: There are so many things that will be forever lost to history—conversations that were had, relationships that were shared. Even in historical photographs, there might be people who remain unidentified. How do you think novelizing historical events can help us bridge that gap between the knowledge we have and that which we’ll never know?
MB: When my wife was working toward her Ph.D. in history, her professors would sometimes pair historical novels with the academic textbooks for the historical period of study. I think this is becoming more common, because history professors and the rest of us understand that novels and other imaginative renderings of history (including films, poems, etc.) can sometimes help fill in the gaps that persist in these stories. For example, you could read every historical document that pertains to Clara Barton yet still be in the dark about what she might have been thinking as she packed her bags, preparing to depart Galveston in 1901, her last voyage as the head of the Red Cross. What the novel can do is give us possibilities. It can provide plausible, interesting, and hopefully perceptive glimpses inside that poorly understood and recorded world of actualities.
This relates to a theory of narrative construction that I call “The Constellation of Possibilities.” A constellation in the sky is made up of singular points of light that we can see and know objectively; then imaginary lines are drawn connecting the dots and creating a new image of something, a story. So as a novelist I work from those “points” of light that we know—the boxing match between Joe and Jack, their incarceration, the tragedy of the orphanage of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, et cetera—to create compelling and plausible narrative threads that connect them and make some kind of new, complete picture. A new story. It isn’t a presentation of objective truth; rather it is an exploration of story-truth, which as I’ve argued, along with novelist Tim O’Brien and others, is often more real, more true, than what actually happened.