Fourteen years ago, P.J. Wesley and her husband were driving in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness when a huge white wolf crossed the road in front of them. It paused for a few seconds to stare at them. Before Wesley could grab her camera, it vanished into the woods. But her imagination had already captured it as a lasting memory.
That image stuck with her and wouldn’t go away.
A retired county employee from Florida, Wesley now lives in Libby, Montana. She had long toyed with the idea of writing a book and had taken online writing classes and twice attended the Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell.
“The story evolved a lot over the next 14 years,” Wesley says. “One day, while visiting the local Forest Service office, I discovered two pamphlets on ‘The Big Burn.’ I was enthralled by the firsthand accounts of the largest fire to devastate the northwestern United States and Canada in 1910. I knew then I had to include this in my book.”
Her vivid memory of the white wolf, coupled with extensive historical research into the Big Burn, became her first book, Chinook: King of the North (BookBaby, 2021), last November.
The story features 12-year-old Will Oleson, who lives in the Montana wilderness in the early 1900s. Wolves had long been believed eradicated in that part of the country, so when Will hears a haunting howl in the night, he is fascinated. Soon he encounters a starving lone white wolf and offers it food.
From there the adventure takes off like a shot.
Wesley wrote the story for children ages 8 to 12, particularly boys, who are often reluctant readers. The fast-moving plot features plenty of action to keep their interest, including violent confrontations with a school bully, a near-fatal fall from a steep cliff, and a budding friendship with an Indian elder who has a wicked sense of humor.
Will bonds with the white wolf, whom he names Chinook, and teaches the intelligent animal to perform tasks that rival Lassie. But their friendship comes under threat from neighbors and townspeople who fear the wolf will spread rabies. To save Chinook from a death sentence, Will escapes with him. However, they run smack into rapidly spreading wildfires.
Despite his young age, Will convinces a tough boss to hire him as a firefighter. He even wangles a job for Chinook, who becomes a valued member of the team, carrying water and messages.
Wesley incorporates a real-life event in Idaho, when the fire blew up and imperiled everyone and everything in its relentless path of destruction. Her research took her to Wallace to gain firsthand knowledge where the incident happened.
She also hiked the Ed Pulaski Trail, named for the heroic forest ranger who saved most of his team by taking shelter in an abandoned mine shaft as the inferno blew over them. The Pulaski fire-fighting tool he invented is still used today.
“Being there,” she says, “inspired me and spurred me onward to keep writing the story about those brave firefighters.”
At the end of the book, she writes, “Seventy-eight firefighters and seven civilians lost their lives to this devastating fire which forever changed forest management.”
This coming-of-age story is a page-turner with plenty of excitement to keep the interest of even reluctant readers. I won’t give away the ending but let’s just say it’s completely satisfying.
Wesley encourages other seniors to start writing.
“It’s never too late,” she says. “I think a personal biography is a great place to start writing. Your family will appreciate it.” Tales passed down from her own ancestors are woven into her novel along with real-life history.
If the task of writing your story seems too daunting, she suggests you ask someone to help you. Alternatively, record it on audio or video, as if you’re telling it to a friend over coffee.
“You won’t regret it, and then your family will be able to cherish those memories,” says Wesley. ISI