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Interview with Alix Christie

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

Rugged mountains and pine trees reflected in water, with the words Alix Christie and The Shining Mountain imposed on the image

We probably all remember the theory of Manifest Destiny, a staple of high-school US history classes for generations. The basic idea—that (mostly) white European settlers had not simply a desire but a kind of divine right to spread out across the continent “from sea to shining sea”—is ingrained in the national consciousness. The brutal reality that in practice the fulfillment of this “destiny” meant cheating, displacing, and flat out exterminating peoples who had lived on the land for millennia was too often ignored, relegated to footnotes about the Trail of Tears and the movement of Native Americans to reservations, or covered up by heartwarming tales of Sacajawea helping Lewis and Clark. Alix Christie’s new novel, The Shining Mountains—the subject of today’s interview—looks at that history through a different lens.

Opening in 1838 and following one family for the next four decades, The Shining Mountains explores how the initial contacts—through fur trading, much of it conducted by the Hudson Bay Company based in British Canada—between whites and indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest gave way to a full-scale invasion after the Gold Rush of 1849. What had been a relatively respectful discourse between equals soon deteriorated into hostility, suspicion, racial discrimination, warfare, and murder—all justified by the need to impose “civilization,” a claim that rings hollow at a time when we are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental costs of the lifestyle the settlers embraced.

This is also, however, a novel about love and family, the beauty of the natural world, and the struggle each of us faces in reconciling the gifts and demands of our heritage with our personal needs. Beautifully written and timely, The Shining Mountains will get you thinking, but it will also warm your heart. Read on to find out more.

You’ve moved a long way from the territory of your first novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice. What inspired you to write this story set in the mid-nineteenth-century American West?

I so enjoy diving deep into another time and place that when I learned about my distant relatives—the McDonalds in the pre-American fur trade period—I was intrigued enough to start looking into their story. My brother alerted me to some articles written about the Nez Perce War by one Duncan McDonald, a distant cousin who was half Scottish and half Native American. What a story that led me to! Duncan’s parents Angus and Catherine McDonald were extraordinary people in a pivotal place at a time of tremendous change and conflict in American history—I felt I had to share their remarkable lives.

Angus and Catherine are not your direct ancestors, but they and their descendants are members of your extended family. Could you explain that connection for us, and how it’s possible to know so much about them? We’re going back four, if not five, generations here.

Angus was the younger brother of my great-great-great grandfather Duncan McDonald of Inverness, Scotland. Scots in the diaspora like my family treasure this ancestry: in California in the 1970s I was a Highland dancer, and my brothers played the bagpipes. We knew most of the genealogy already, but I was immeasurably helped by a great historian of the Highlands who discovered the Montana branch of the family thirty years ago. He wrote a footnoted historical book on them called Scottish Highlanders, Indian Peoples that helped me unearth their tale. Then, since Angus was so prominent in the Northwest, I found more letters and documents in the university archives. But I could not have written it at all without the tremendous support and encouragement of his and Catherine’s direct descendants in Montana and elsewhere, and the formal approval of the Nez Perce and Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes to which they belong.

What can you tell us about Angus McDonald and how he ends up in the Pacific Northwest in 1838?

He, like many Scots, emigrated to North America in the wake of the Highland Clearances, in which English landowners cleared people off the land to run sheep. His people were managers of a sheep farm in Strathconon (tacksmen, as they were called), but the story goes that Angus got caught poaching and had to leave the Highlands in a hurry. His great-uncle Archibald McDonald was an early employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in what was known as the “Oregon Country,” so Angus joined the firm and got on a boat to ship out to Archibald’s trading post on the Columbia River in present-day Washington state, called Fort Colvile.

A man in early 19th-century dress stands at the back of a birchbark canoe. A red flag with a Union Jack in one corner is behind him, and nine other men, some Europeans and others Native Americans are seated in the boat

Angus meets, and soon marries, Catherine Baptiste. Who is she, and why does she agree to marry Angus?

Catherine Baptiste was the daughter of a French-Mohawk trapper for the HBC and a Nez Perce woman who was related to the headmen of several Nez Perce bands. We have a published story that Angus wrote down of a trapping expedition Catherine and her father took down the Colorado River. She was a tough and resilient person, and very attractive, judging from photographs of their daughters. Nearly all of the white fur traders married Native women in this period. From the point of view of the tribes, and likely of Catherine’s uncles, the marriage would have been a strategic alliance giving them access to trade goods and guns. I made the assumption that this was a decision made by the elders which Catherine might or might not have desired.

Their marriage is for the most part happy, although they have both personality and cultural conflicts. Could you talk a bit about those?

The main task for me as a writer was to imagine this relationship fully. What kept them together over a marriage of more than forty-five years and twelve children, when at the same time the US government was both trying to evict his company and remove and attack her tribe? Angus left a few notes that show his fondness for her, but Catherine I had to imagine through immersing myself in the lifeways of Nez Perce women. I was struck by the resilience of their union and their family and put it down to respect for one another’s cultures. Angus loved the Native way of life; Catherine, meanwhile, insisted on her autonomy and wouldn’t live in a wooden house. They were away from each other for months at a time but renewed their vows repeatedly: they were actually married four different times!

One of the things I love about this novel is that you do a great job of recreating the sensory environment of this place that is distant in time—and even space, since the Far West of that time no longer exists, in a sense. How were you able to find out that kind of information?

I grew up in Montana, British Columbia, and California and have spent a lot of time traveling across the Northwest. I believe our native landscapes are part of us, in a profound way. Certainly the region is deeply part of me. It is still comparatively unpopulated, so I was really able to picture how it might have felt and looked before American settlement. And then there is nothing like material culture to transport us: I learned so much looking at objects and artifacts in museums.

A Native American man with a hawklike face sits on horseback, a tepee behind im. He wears a feathered hat and beribboned cape and carries a bow in one hand.

Although this book is in many ways a family chronicle, it is also an account of invasion and conquest, casting a new light on the “taming of the frontier” narrative many of us learned in school. That is, in fact, the novel’s central theme. Please say a bit more about that.

That’s exactly right. I started out writing a family epic but the more I learned about how brutally that American wave of “Manifest Destiny” affected Native peoples, the more I wanted readers to really see and feel how that unfolded. I was shocked to realize that I had learned none of it in school. But there were specific steps our government took to dispossess the tribes and steal their land and force them onto reservations. The McDonalds were smack in the middle of this tragedy, and played important roles in one particular war, the Nez Perce War of 1877, which gave me a chance to make it the story of real, breathing people with whom readers could empathize. I feel strongly that only if we learn and accept the true, documented history of our country will we be able to move forward.

This book came out earlier this year. Are you already working on something new?

Always! It can take a long time from finishing a book until publication, so I’ve actually written another one already, a memoir about my own life and family. Then last year I started another historical novel—this one set again in Germany, but hundreds of years after Gutenberg, in the aftermath of World War II. I still work as a journalist and have come to the conclusion that I write historical fiction because I’m interested in true stories, and find the past an endlessly fascinating place to inhabit and learn from.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

And thank you for such good ones!

Alix Christie is the author of Gutenberg’s Apprentice and The Shining Mountains and the winner of a Pushcart Prize. Find out more about her at

1825 drawing of Hudson Bay employees in a canoe in what was then called “Oregon Country” and 1877 photograph of Looking Glass, a cousin of Catherine Baptiste who played an important role in the Nez Perce War, public domain via the National Archives and Records Administration and Wikimedia Commons.

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