Pembrokeshire, west Wales 1904: Apprentice solicitor Arthur Nicholas is seeking to trace one William Batine James, who stands to inherit an impressive farm near Fishguard.
Although Arthur knows James emigrated to Canada and then America in the early 1870s, nothing has been heard of him since.
What Arthur cannot know is that, following a series of adventures, James enlisted in the US Seventh Cavalry at Chicago in February 1872 and four years later fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn; better known as Custer's Last Stand, when 210 soldiers were massacred by the largest force of Indians ever assembled on the Great Plains...
As the unsuspecting Seventh depart Fort Abraham Lincoln, bound for their Armageddon, James himself recounts the tortured odyssey he undertook from a tiny north Pembrokeshire village all the way to hostile Indian territory in Montana Territory.
These recollections are interspersed with Arthur's own dogged efforts in following his trail thirty years later. As his investigation unfolds Arthur's motivation to find the elusive James unexpectedly becomes more personal than professional.
James reveals a chain of personal tragedy plus a brutal schooling during the hated 'Welsh Not' era when children such as himself were caned and beaten for using their native tongue.
This has cost him his religious faith; inexplicably, he finds himself unable to recite The Lord's Prayer in Welsh.
While proving himself a proficient soldier, James grows increasingly uncomfortable at what he comes to regard as the US Government's persecution of the Indians; even drawing parallels with Welsh oppression.
On the fateful ride to Little Bighorn, James reflects on his troubled past and gradually comes to the realisation that he is as much a fugitive as the Indians he is pursuing.
But the one thing he has not taken into account is that a man can never escape from himself...
Based on true events, Mike Lewis's novel examines how horrific childhood experiences shape the adults we become.
AmeriCymru: Hi Mike and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Care to introduce your novel 'If God Will Spare My Life...' to our readers?
Mike: Hi Ceri – and many thanks for your interest in ‘If God Will Spare My Life…’ As a lifelong newspaper journalist more accustomed to dealing with facts and figures this is my first foray into fiction – it has proved a memorable, if occasionally unsettling experience.
The novel is based on the true story of William Batine James, the sole Welshman to fight at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (better known as Custer’s Last Stand) on June 25, 1876. It is published by Victorina Press, of Staffordshire, and was launched at the Newport Memorial Hall in north Pembrokeshire on the 145th anniversary of one of the most legendary battles of the American West.
AmeriCymru: The novel is based on true events and the 'hero' William Batine James is based on a real historical character. Care to tell us more?
Mike: Roy Noble, of BBC Wales, unearthed this unique Welsh link to Little Bighorn and subsequently produced a short BBC Wales documentary which aired in 2002. As a local reporter I subsequently managed to trace James’s great-great grand-nephew living not far from my home in Cardigan.
Returning to work in Fishguard a decade later I found myself again driving past Pencnwc Farm – James’s childhood home in Dinas Cross – and wondering if I could somehow find out more about this mystery man.
Then in 2015 I discovered five previously-unknown letters James had dispatched home to his younger brother from the American frontier in 1871-75. They form the framework to IGWSML.
In military terms the letters are a disappointment. For reasons we can only conjecture James carefully hid his army enlistment from his family. Yet they bear very human testimony to a frontier soldier alone in a hostile foreign land yearning for news from home. The sense of hiraeth is real and tangible.
Others who have read the letters agree they contain an unmistakable darkness. If those letters provide an outline of the Will James story then IGWSML attempts to join the dots.
In September 2016 I journeyed to Montana to present facsimiles of the letters to the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument Museum. This afforded me the priceless opportunity to walk the deserted battlefield, study the terrain and ponder the fate that befell James and his comrades.
One of nine children, most of whom died young, Will James left Dinas Cross to work in Llanelli (possibly as a commercial traveller) and then London. In March 1871 he was probably ‘W James’ a 22-year-old labourer, who boarded the SS Idaho bound for Quebec. The following month the first of the James letters finds him in Toronto working in ‘one of the best shops in the city’. The 1871 census has him living in a crowded lodging house whilst working as a dry goods clerk.
AmeriCymru: In the book, apprentice solicitor Arthur Nicholas searches for William to inform him of a substantial inheritance. To what extent do his efforts mirror your own research into William's past?
Mike: In a sense, Arthur Nicholas is me! Having very little to go on, I needed to employ the various people-finding skills I’d gained as a journalist in order to try and track James down. Just as I recognised Arthur’s occasional triumphs in his quest so I could also identify with his occasional bouts of despair!
Having followed James’s twisting route to Llanelli, the streets of Victorian London and then across the Atlantic to Toronto I subsequently made my way to Chicago, where his enlistment papers show he joined the US Seventh Cavalry. He was assigned to E Company – The Gray Horse Troop, eventually rising to the rank of sergeant.
From there the chase took me to the Deep South of Jesse James and the Ku Klux Klan and finally on to Dakota Territory and the Great Northern Plains, home of the bear, buffalo, wolf and Native Americans.
There were times when I despaired of ever catching up with my quarry; others when the embers of his campfire and discarded cheroot were still hot to the touch.
In IGWSML Arthur’s quest effectively takes over his life as his compulsion to find James becomes ever more personal. In time, the hunt even comes to invade his dreams. That certainly was my own experience.
I was once confronted by a mounted horseman poised like a sentry in our back garden one wild and stormy November night. Despite the full moon his features were masked in shadow; in his hand he clutched what appeared to be a carbine thankfully not aimed in my direction. At that point the horse gave a loud snort and I awoke in my bed. That was just one of a series of disturbing dreams.
AmeriCymru: The life of a U.S. cavalryman in the 19th century is portrayed realistically but unflatteringly in your book. What sources did you use to research conditions in the military at that time?
Mike: For me, historical fiction stands or falls on whether the author is successful at conveying what people’s lives were really like. This was a hard and brutal era when life was cheap. The ‘Panic of ‘73’ had resulted in huge levels of unemployment. The US army had shrunk in size following the Civil War and consequently had to sign up large numbers of impoverished migrants – James among them.
But while the life of a US cavalryman was undoubtedly harsh, many of these desperate individuals were facing starvation when they signed up for Uncle Sam. Others were fleeing the law or had previously served in other regiments only to ‘do a midnight flit’ when the going became tough.
One of the aims of IGWSML was to present the eye view of the common soldier. Officers’ accounts are ten-a-penny but the voice of the ‘rank-and-file’ is seldom heard. Books that helped me learn more about the men of the US Seventh Cavalry ranged from Evan O’Connell’s classic ‘Son of the Morning Star’ to Charles Windolph’s lesser-known, but invaluable ‘I Fought With Custer’.
Unusually for an enlisted man, James was educated and wrote well. He was the son of a Welsh Methodist chapel deacon, after all. I have no doubt that this literacy – along with the ability to use his fists to impose discipline in a regiment where drunkeness was rife – helped propel him up the ranks. I also imagine James was frequently called upon to pen letters home on behalf of comrades unable to read or write.
AmeriCymru: What sources did you use for the Native American side of the story? How easy was this to research?
Mike: Both the eyewitness and written testimony of the Native Americans who inflicted an astonishing defeat on federal troops was inexplicably ignored for many years. Happily, in recent times that balance has been largely addressed and books such as Nathan Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn give an invaluable insight into their experiences.
The battlefield formerly named after Custer is now known as the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Some thirty or so years after a memorial to fallen US cavalry mounts was unveiled they finally got round to putting up a memorial to the Native Americans lost that day – and what a stunning memorial it is.
Some past authors have, I feel, fallen into the trap of relying too much on theory and conjecture. Custer’s Last Stand remains a tantalising mystery, after all, as obviously nobody among his immediate command lived to tell the tale.
I believe the searing testimony of Native Americans drives IGWSML a damn sight closer to what truly happened that day – at least as far as the fate of The Gray Horse Troop is concerned. And although those chilling eyewitness reports differ depending on who was doing what at any given time, most tally remarkably with archaeological finds.
Custer’s Last Stand is one of the most mythologised episodes of the American West. Yet the popular image of Custer standing proudly erect under the US flag whilst encircled by hundreds of yelping Indians all galloping obligingly within range of the Seventh’s blazing carbines is well wide of the mark.
AmeriCymru: Where can readers go to obtain "'If God Will Spare My Life...' online?
Mike: 'If God Will Spare My Life...' can be obtained from the Victorina Press website or from Amazon or a number of other outlets.
AmeriCymru: What's next for Mike Lewis? Any new projects in the works?
Mike: Hopefully yes! During lockdown I penned the manuscript of a second novel. ‘Broken’ tells the story of the doomed first ascent of the Matterhorn in July 1865 when four of Whymper’s seven-man party plunged 4,000 feet to their deaths on the descent. It is written in the first person and in seven parts as each of the men recount what led to the disaster – including those who were lost.
As you can imagine, each has a different take on what went wrong. The time frame and style is obviously similar to IGWSML - the task of trying to convey the thoughts, personalities and motivations of seven very disparate individuals obviously far more challenging!
Recently I have written a 4,000-word short story on a middle-aged runner who, whilst out on his long Sunday morning run finds himself locked in a life-or-death race with his 16-year-old self – it would make a great episode of The Twilight Zone...
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Mike: Like many writers I am plagued with doubts, which is why I have been pleasantly surprised by the positive reviews IGWSML has drawn (although these are still very early days, obviously). I want to know what people liked and what they disliked.
I’d have loved to have had another bash at the final manuscript as there are one or two things I’d have done differently – I’d have added an epilogue for a start!
When I learnt IGWSML was going to be published my first thought was that the timing was wrong. In these days of Black Lives Matter would people want to read about a long-forgotten sergeant in a cavalry regiment which went a long way to depriving Native American peoples of their traditional way of life?
Readers have assured me that despite the essential grimness of the tale – and atmosphere of mounting doom - there is a fair degree of humanity in there.
At the risk of sounding disingenuous, I do not consider IGWSML a ‘Custer book’. I honestly don’t feel you have to have a great knowledge (or interest) in the life and times of one of the most divisive figures in American history to truly ‘get’ it. Everyone who has read IGWSML appears to have their own take and see things I never envisaged.
As someone from Victorina observed at the launch: “It’s no longer your book now, Mike – it’s everyone’s.” And I totally get that…
For my part, I consider IGWSML as the tale of someone struggling manfully to come to terms with who he is and where he's come from while at the same time asking the fundamental question: ‘Do the things I have been through have to shape me’?
'Am I the sum total of everything - good or bad - that I have ever experienced or do I have the option to be someone else?'
Let’s be honest: whether we like it or not, all of us are products of our own collective experiences, for better or for worse. Is it too late for James – who is clearly a damaged individual in modern parlance - to change and perhaps emerge as a different person to the one he was before?
My own take is that IGWSML is about the type of people - be they Native Americans, dirt-poor Southerners or impoverished Welsh and Irish immigrants struggling to survive a hostile environment where dangers often emerge from the most unexpected quarters.
Their lives are harsh and unrelentingly bleak; each and every day presents fresh hardship, yet despite the difficulties and challenges faced, they do not surrender to overwhelming odds, but continue to stand defiant in the face of adversity.
If you view IGWSML in that way then the final battle scene can be regarded as an analogy of all that has gone before.
Some readers have said the opening chapters are slow and humdrum before the tale really gathers pace. But then this novel is akin to a ride on a runaway horse. Having saddled up the reader sets off at a sedate walk which proceeds into a trot. Before they know it they are moving at a canter and then breaking into a full-blown gallop. All of a sudden the sight of a large hedge rapidly appearing in the distance triggers a flash of awful clarity: “Oh my God, he’s going to jump it!”
Make no mistake, IGWSML is a wild ride – whether the reader can manage to stay in the saddle remains to be seen...
'If God Will Spare My Life....' is an unusual book. Whilst it can certainly be described as a historical novel, details of the life of hero, William Batine Jones are so scant that it doubles as a detective novel and affords the author a broad canvas on which to weave his narrative. That a Welshman served with the 7th cavalry at the battle of the Little Bighorn is a matter of historical fact, everything else is a matter of conjecture.
In the novel, apprentice solicitor Arthur Nicholas searches for William to inform him of a substantial inheritance. In the course of his investigations he uncovers a cache of letters written by William to his younger brother between 1871 and 1875. These provide some leads but also add to the mystery because William is at pains to reveal very little of his current life and circumstances. Indeed Arthur does not uncover the truth about Williams history in America until the closing chapters of the book.
Williams account of his adventures in the new world include a fascinating description of the Chicago fire of 1871 and his experience of life in the U.S. 7th Cavalry. The author has researched cavalry life thoroughly and is at pains to let the ordinary soldier's voice be heard in the pages of this book. We learn that:-
'What they didn’t tell you about were those long, hard marches in temperatures so low the snot freezes inside your nostrils, the tinned meat stamp-dated back to Civil War days with green mould growing over it, the maggot-ridden hardtack, infestations of bed lice and rampant plagues of yellow fever and cholera that put many a young soldier in the ground afore they’d even fired a shot in anger.'
Throughout the book, William reflects on his turbulent past. He was a victim of the 'Welsh Not' and was frequently beaten in school for using his native language. His family's tragic past also provides pause for reflection. But it is in the course of a converstaion with his Irish girlfriend that he finally comes to realise that his past is not as dark as he had hitherto supposed and that a brighter and happier future might lay in store for him. This sets the stage for the novel's denouement on the plains of the Little Bighorn as the 7th approach their final engagement and William James and the 'Gray Troop' meet their fate.
The final scene is a revelation and even leaves open the possibility that William James survived the battle, but to say more would be to give too much away.
This is a well researched and artfully constructed novel. It satisfies on a number of levels. For those who are intrigued by Custer's last ill fated campaign there is a wealth of detail and conjecture. For those who struggle to understand why a Welshman from Pembrokeshire should wish to fight with the 7th Cavalry there is a historical and biographical explanation. Above all the book explores the effects of horrific childhood experiences on subsequent adult life. Whatever attracts you to read 'If God Will Spare My Life....' you will not be disappointed. Unreservedly recommended, the book is a page turner throughout and remains in your thoughts for days after reading.