Sarah Bird has a rip-roaring new piece of historical fiction called “Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen,” and it’s a first-person account from a true American heroine you’ve probably never heard of: Cathy Williams.
She was apparently the first woman to serve as a soldier in the peacetime Army, although she disguised herself as a man. And the former Missouri slave was a member of the Buffalo Soldiers, the African-American Army regiments formed in 1866, after the Civil War.
As the daughter of military parents, Bird says she felt a special affinity for Williams when she first heard of the tale while researching a story about rodeo subcultures at the Diamond L Arena near Houston in 1980.
“These two cowboys … were talking about Cathy Williams, this woman who served as a Buffalo Soldier,” Bird says. “And I thought, ‘What?’ I had never heard of this, and I grew up in the military. My mom served in World War II in North Africa. And that’s where my dad, who was in the military, met my mom. So I began researching the story, in part because I don’t think women who have served in the military have gotten the recognition they deserve.”
The Austin author – whose last book was 2014’s “Above the East China Sea” – says Williams “deserves recognition … because she’s the first woman who did it, and in the most hostile environment possible,” when Buffalo Soldiers were poorly regarded by white officers and when the possibility of being discovered as a woman masquerading as a man could lead to severe retaliation, including rape and expulsion.
So, many years after hearing the Williams story and after approaching it first as a screenplay, Bird decided to tackle the project as a historical novel. Her new publisher, St. Martin’s Press, and her new editor, Monique Patterson, think she has a winner. The book, which is being released Sept. 4, has a first publication run of 150,000 copies – a sizeable investment for any publisher these days.
The trade publication Publishers Weekly has given “Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen” a starred review, saying it “sheds a welcome light on an extraordinary American warrior.” And Kirkus Reviews said it “was rapturously imagined and shamelessly entertaining.”
The “rapturously imagined” part of the Kirkus assessment is partly related to the firebrand, colorful language that Bird gives Williams throughout the novel.
That spirit can be heard in the novel’s first few sentences: “Here’s the first thing you need to know about Miss Cathy Williams: I am the daughter of a daughter of a queen and my Mama never let me forget it. That’s right. Royal blood runs purple through my veins. And I am talking real Africa blood. Not that tea water queens over in England have to make do with.”
Then we quickly hear how in 1864, when Williams was a young woman, she watched her former slave life burn to the ground in Missouri, at the hands of Gen. Philip Sheridan.
Williams points out that her former owner, Old Mister, despised Sheridan’s habit of burning everything to the ground as “despicable and unspeakable savagery and against every rule of civilized behavior.” And then Williams adds, with her typical tart wit: “Unlike, say, shackling up humans and working, flogging, or starving them to death. All in all, I was inclined to like” the general.
After the raid, Sheridan mistakes Williams for a man and decides to give her a job as a helper to his staff’s African-American cook, Solomon. And from there, with many twists and turns, Williams begins her masquerade as a man, and eventually as a Buffalo Soldier.
“There was a horrible world of options for Williams” after leaving the plantation after the Civil War, Bird says. “And she said no to all of them. ‘No, I am not doing that,’ whether it was a laundress or a sharecropper’s wife or whatever. She said, ‘I don’t like any of these options.’” So she became a warrior.
“I found her story very inspiring, and it was a story I wish I had grown up with as a military kid, and as someone who grew up in the West,” Bird says, referring to her earlier years in New Mexico and elsewhere. “My dream is to see all these little girls, of all colors, knowing about Cathy Williams and knowing that she was a total badass.”
If Bird first heard of the Williams story at a rodeo in 1980 — and she felt so taken with it — why did it take until 2018 to write the book?
Well, Bird has a story about that, too.
At first, she says, she thought the rodeo cowboys might be telling a tall tale — that it might be apocryphal. But in 1988, when Bird was pregnant with her son, she attended a childbirth class taught by Pam Black, an elementary school teacher at a predominantly black school. And Bird says that Black found out she was a novelist and mentioned that she should write about “a forgotten hero that her students, especially the girls, need to hear about, Cathy Williams.”
Bird says she expressed doubts about the veracity of the Williams story, but that Black showed up at the next class with copies of Williams’ enlistment certificate, discharge and her application for a pension.
So Bird started doing more research and says she began to feel “inhabited” by Williams. But even then, she was wary about tackling a novel, in part because she knew she’d have to be careful with all the historical details, like Civil War-era armaments and guns. “And since I write (my novels) in first person, I kind of pushed it away, fearing I would have nothing but problems.”
Then, in 1989, Bird began a decadelong relationship with Hollywood, after publication of her novel, “The Boyfriend School.” That book was turned into a screenplay for the 1990 film of the same name, and Bird decided that maybe the Williams story could be written as a screenplay.
“It was the closest experience I’ve ever had to channeling,” Bird says of writing the screenplay. “Little was known about Williams. And I mean, we have all these myths and stories about some drunk in Tombstone, Ariz. And I think to myself, ‘What did that guy do?’ And then there was Annie Oakley, who everyone knows because she shot over her shoulder using a mirror. So why doesn’t anybody know the name of Cathy Williams?”
So Bird wrote the screenplay and used it as a calling card in Hollywood. That got her jobs for writing TV movies and features. But the Williams screenplay went nowhere. “They didn’t believe at the time that there was a crossover market for a story like that of Cathy Williams, featuring a black woman. And they didn’t think a strong female heroine could carry a movie. And it doesn’t get much stronger than a female Buffalo Soldier, does it?”
So the story of Cathy Williams languished again, and Bird moved on to the other novels and projects.
“Eventually, I had enough of that,” Bird says of the experience. “I apologized to Cathy. And I did the best I could. But I could hear her asking, ‘Why doesn’t anybody know my name?’”
Then in 2015, the haunting of Sarah Bird entered new territory. That’s when Bird’s sister “sent me a link to an article in Variety in which Meryl Streep talked about the inequities in Hollywood, in writing screenplays and being behind the camera, so she started a contest for female screenwriters over 40.”
Bird submitted the Buffalo Soldier screenplay and was accepted into the Writers Lab in 2015, the inaugural year, in upstate New York.
And shortly afterward, Houston’s Pantheon of Women group started work on raising money to produce the screenplay, with an African-American female director attached to the project, Bird says. “Then the financing fell through, and I started asking myself, ‘Why am I not writing this as a book?’”
That led, of course, to the publication this week of “Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen.”
Some might question the decision, or privilege, of an established white author to tell the story of a black person in the first person. Bird says she understands such sentiments — and that such questioning is necessary in the United States
In 2017, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal faced a critical barrage of appropriation charges for their film, “Detroit,” dealing with the killing of several black men by police during riots in 1967.
And the Emmett Till painting “Open Casket,” by Dana Schutz, faced another critical assault during the 2017 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, in part because the white artist was dealing with the black cultural touchstone of grief about the lynching of an African-American teen in Mississippi in 1955.
Bird says all such questions are relevant, and she points to what she considers one of the best essays on the topic, “Getting In and Out: Who Owns Black Pain?” from the July 2017 issue of Harper’s. It’s written by Zadie Smith and focuses on the Jordan Peele movie “Get Out” as well as the painting “Open Casket.”
Smith’s arguments are complicated and can’t be summed up in a sound bite, as Bird points out. But Bird says she hopes that her novel will be judged by its words.
She’s telling a story of triumph, or a true American hero, rather than appropriating the pain of the past. And she hopes that her novel will give all young women an example of bravery, an example of a female warrior.
“We’ll work our way through it,” Bird says. “It’s necessary to have this discussion.”
Then she adds, “If I don’t have the courage to be uncomfortable, then I don’t deserve to tell Cathy’s story.”
Sarah Bird book signing
Sarah Bird will speak and sign copies of “Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99) at 7 p.m. Sept. 8 at the Austin Central Public Library, 710 W. Cesar Chavez St., in an event sponsored by BookPeople. The event is free and open to the public, but only books purchased through BookPeople are eligible to be signed.