By Phil Burnham
Gerald Cantrell grew up as a Cherokee, though no one ever bothered to tell him. One of only three “white” kids at a rural school in eastern Oklahoma, he didn’t have much to do with tribal ways as a boy. “When you grow up looking like Mayberry’s Opie Taylor, it’s hard to identify yourself as Indian,” he chuckles now. “But back then, it made no difference. My friends didn’t call me ‘white boy,’ I was just a neighbor kid.”
A Corrales resident since 2019, Cantrell has just published his first novel, The Blue Pathway, set in the Ozark Hill country where he grew up. It’s a tribal mystery chock full of shape-shifting and Cherokee medicine rites…and a reluctant law man charged with uncovering the secret behind a series of mysterious heart attacks.
Not until he graduated college did Cantrell even learn he was Cherokee. By then he was already set to leave his old haunts in Adair County and explore the world for himself. It was only years later that he moved back to Cherokee country to see if the old cliché “You can’t go home again” held any water, even if the journey to get there proved to be a challenging one.
“The novel is mostly about Cherokee folklore,” Cantrell explains. “I read up on the subject and realized that some of the stuff that happened to me when I went back wasn’t just a part of my imagination. That stuff is real. Part of the fun of reading this book is trying to determine what’s real and what isn’t.
“I really did walk a different path when I went back to Oklahoma than I walked as a child. And I wanted to chronicle the events that happened to me along that path.”
His early home life wasn’t easy. His parents divorced when he was young, he lived for a time with his grandparents, eventually dropped out of high school. One day he took his mother by the hand and led her down to a courthouse in Muscogee where she signed Air Force enlistment papers for a boy who had just turned 17. “So, the service became my home.”
Three-plus years in an airman’s uniform got him an early out for college. At Oklahoma State University he had no financial help, worked long hours for bed and board, couldn’t keep his grades up. So he went back to his grandparents and enrolled at Northeastern State in Tahlequah, the Cherokee capital.
The winter of 1968, he recalls, he graduated on a Wednesday and was married that very Saturday to Janell Webb of nearby Hulbert. Life was happening very fast.
Except he missed the stability of military life, the only secure home he’d ever known. So he decided to enlist again, this time with the U.S. Army. He applied to Officer Candidate School, where Uncle Sam made an intelligence man out of him. He was stationed in Germany, then Atlanta, and did counterintelligence work in the Caribbean, leading an intel team after the Grenada invasion of 1983. But after 16 years, most of it out of uniform, something was nagging at him: he wanted to go home again.
He took early retirement. So, what was his Cherokee heritage like, he wondered? Why had his family told him so little? Gone from Oklahoma for 20 years, his absence didn’t keep him from landing a job as CEO of Cherokee Nation Enterprises, a modest bingo operation in Tahlequah.
But his old haunts had changed. “Instead of one of them,” he says, “I became a stranger who went back and tried to fit in.”
His friends had scattered, his grandparents had passed away. Even his cousins didn’t seem to know him. He was a changed man, the first in his family to become a military officer. No matter what he did, though, the locals still saw him as white, either because of his light skin or his long furlough from Cherokee country. But a lifelong interest in reading, not to mention writing a ton of military reports, had primed him for a new vocation.
On Cantrell’s watch the tribe formed a corporation, bought commercial properties, encouraged outside investment. But some tribal members didn’t like what they saw; they wanted things to stay the way they were. The white Cherokee CEO tried to be a “neutral broker,” as he puts it, but the politics were rugged. Things got so messy the tribe finally cut him loose. And then tragedy: the death of their eldest son, about the same time, devastated Gerald and Janell.
It wasn’t long after when Cantrell started The Blue Pathway, a catharsis of sorts, a way to vent his feelings after so much frustration and pain. But one day 100 pages of the draft that he’d transferred to his computer mysteriously disappeared, every single word wiped clean.
Heartbroken, he threw up his hands and let go of it.
Years later, after a move to Rio Rancho, Janell came upon what remained of the manuscript in an unpacked box of his old writings. She set it on a chair in his office without saying a word. “I picked it up and dusted it off and started writing it again,” Cantrell remembers. But there would be no more computers. The rest of the story he would write out longhand.
“I wanted to compare what it was like growing up to what it was like as an adult in that environment,” he says. “When I was a boy, there wasn’t prejudice because everyone was mixed. If I’d known I was part Cherokee, it wouldn’t have made any difference. We were just a melting pot.
“But I went back to a different world than the one I grew up in. There were traditionalists and mixed bloods, and political factions like anywhere else. But when you mix all those together you walk a delicate tightrope between two different cultures. It wasn’t like working for a big corporation in the traditional sense.”
The protagonist of The Blue Pathway, Conor Campbell, a retired military intelligence officer, is only loosely patterned on the author. Some of the story is culled from memory, some of it not, a mix of fact and fiction for a novel that sat for years on the shelf before it was ever finished.
Is Cantrell a one-book guy? He’s already started on a prequel, he says from his home in Pueblo los Cerros, a tale also set in Cherokee country. “I’ve told my story in The Blue Pathway. Now I’m writing for pleasure. There are no issues I have to work out. I’m writing because I just simply like to write.” And still in longhand.
They say you can’t go home again. And Cantrell agrees.
But maybe, if you’re determined, you can find a good story along the way.