I bent forward over the lamplit table, following the fingers of my Navajo host as he sketched out words for me in my little notebook, repeating them aloud for me to try at pronouncing.
Ya’at’eeh abini—the morning greeting
Hagoóne’—the way to say farewell, a kind of blessing as you leave someone
Again and again I tried master the articulation of ahe’hee’, “thank you,” stumbling over the complex tones and glottal stops. And here I’d thought myself fairly adept at languages—no wonder the Navajo Code was never broken in World War II.
Next he wrote out the expressions for maternal and paternal grandparents, and used the word for “father” to give me my first lesson in Navajo pronouns, the different prefixes shifting the meaning from “my father” to “your father” to “his/her father.” My mind spun a bit to realize again how very little about this language I knew.
I couldn’t help thinking of a scene from my novel, where my heroine, Caroline, and hero, Tse, bend together over a lamplit table late at night as he sketches out words to teach her in Navajo. We hadn’t intended to recreate that scene on this trip—it just happened, reminding me again of how the Lord keeps tying my story in with reality in oft surprising ways.
When I visited a church on the Zuni reservation with my hosts, they introduced me to a friend as their guest from California who was “writing a book.”
“We’re her heroines,” my hostess said, lifting her head with mock pride. She quickly demurred her own statement, saying that really, the only similarity was that the heroine was white and the hero Navajo, like herself and her husband.
But what she said rang very true for me. No, this couple, who have so opened their home and hearts and lives to me and my little story, are not carbon copies of the characters in my book—I didn’t even know this family when the Lord first birthed this story in my heart. And while she came to the reservation as a missionary nurse (not teacher, as in my novel) and they did meet at a mission boarding school, they were born a good fifty years after my characters, and their personalities and life stories differ in many ways.
Yet to me, this loving, godly husband and wife have indeed become my “real life Tse and Caroline,” as I have seen in their lives and marriage that a story like mine could happen, and learned through them insights into the real life issues and heart struggles my characters do and will face, things I never could have discovered on my own. They have given of themselves to read my manuscript, correct my mistakes, and share their hearts in ways for which I can never thank them enough.
And when they tell me they can relate to “their” characters in my story, it means more to me than anything an editor or publisher might someday say.
Because while I am writing fiction, I am still writing about things that really happened to real people—the boarding schools, the heartache, the cultural walls, the damage that carries on still today—as well as the beginning sunrise of God’s healing. And to have those who have lived that tell me that yes, elements of that truth are coming through (though I know imperfectly)—that means everything in the world.
And that’s why I have to keep coming back, I think, to the Diné Tah, keep connecting with relationships, keep reminding myself that I am not just dealing with a pretend world I’ve created in Microsoft Word but am writing about real history, real issues, real people. And while I know I have and will make mistakes, I hope and pray my stories will honor those who’ve lived them.