What’s the difference between a normal story and one about the Vietnam War? author Jim Northrup asks coyly.
A normal story starts, “Once upon a time …”
A story told by a Vietnam vet starts, “This is no shit, you guys….”
The latest book by Northrup, Fond du Lac Ojibwe, could start either way.
Dirty Copper (Fulcrum Publishing, 2014) is the fictional prequel to the story of Luke Warmwater, whose life closely parallels that of his creator. Warmwater appeared first in Northrup’s short story and poetry collection Walking the Rez Road. Both author and character were Marines who served in Vietnam, both were the first Indian deputy in the local county sheriff’s department and both live in Sawyer, Minnesota.
So why bother with fiction at all?
“Fiction gives me freedom,” said Northrup. “When I’m writing a newspaper column, I have to stay pretty close to the facts, to the truth as it were.”
Northrup, an award-winning poet and writer of the syndicated “Fond du Lac Follies,” has not tackled a longer work of fiction before.
“Ordinarily I think short story, but this time I wanted to expand my horizons,” he said.
The longer look allowed for short flashbacks, as Luke deals with memories of Vietnam. Writing these vignettes turned out to be cathartic for Northrup.
“I loosely call it my braining taking a shit—if I write about it, then I don’t dream about it as much, and then I can literally close the book on it.”
Northrup also wrote, via thinly veiled fiction, about working in the sheriff’s department at a time when it also covered the reservation. The contrast is sharp between his got-your-back experience as a U.S. Marine and his behind-your-back encounters as a deputy. Some with whom Luke Warmwater (a.k.a. Northrup) served in the department, including the sheriff, were supportive, but many threw racial slurs or worse.
The term “dirty copper” comes from challenges faced by both the author and his character. First, working on the reservation, both were sure to end up interacting with relatives.
In the book, the first time Warmwater drives to his folks’ home in his squad car, his brothers head for the woods, shouting, “Dirty copper! Dirty copper!” until they realize it’s him.
In real life, Northrup recalls stopping a cousin for speeding.
“You can give me a ticket,” his cousin told him, “but I won’t give you that $10 I owe you.”
“Dirty copper” also reflects corruption that Warmwater finds in a police job in Illinois. His first traffic stop there introduced him to the bribe system, when a motorist handed out his driver’s license and $25.
Familiar with law enforcement and racism, Northrup brings a unique perspective to the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.
“As a former deputy sheriff, shooting someone was the last thing to do when arresting someone,” he said. “Today's police officers carry pistols that hold 15 or more bullets. That explains why Michael Brown was hit six times. I learned to shoot three rounds and assess the situation. I carried a pistol on my hip for about five years and never fired it at a human.”
He also offered advice to the residents of Ferguson: “I believe the citizens of Missouri should carry video cameras to record their interactions with the militarized police.”
Not all officers in the book are corrupt. Warmwater’s allies are Marines who have moved on to law enforcement. Their shared history gives them common ground regardless of race or birthplace. In his own life, Northrup seeks out, and helps, vets.
“Every veterans powwow we have here, my wife and I set up a stand … and a veterans lounge,” he said. “They can sit and tell stories.”
Just as for him, the veterans find that the storytelling can be a release. A ForeWord magazine review of an earlier Northrup book, said, “Fond du Lac is to Northrup what Lake Wobegon is to Garrison Keillor or Yoknapatawpha County was to William Faulkner.”
Northrup has also given voice to veterans. In August the Vietnam Veterans of America honored him with an Excellence in Art award.
“This was from my peers who had lived through many of the same experiences in Vietnam,” Northrup said.
Expect to see more of Luke Warmwater; Northrup genuinely admires him and likes to think he shares his character’s philosophy.
“Life doesn’t wear him down; he enjoys it—the various challenges, the things he overcomes,” the author said. “Regardless of the situation, he comes out of it smiling.”