Fans of Craig Johnson’s popular book series set in northeast Wyoming have seen the title character, Walt Longmire, travel the world. From Vietnam (in “Another Man’s Moccasins”) to Mexico (in “Depth of Winter”), Johnson has sent his popular Wyoming sheriff on adventures far from his home in “Durant.”
But in his 18th novel, which will be released on September 6, Johnson sends Walt even further from home – to “Hell and Back.”
The author told Cowboy State Daily that ghosts and spirits don’t seem to faze his title character.
“Walt’s kind of famous for jumping in where angels fear to tread,” Johnson said.
The book picks up where the previous novel, “Daughter Of the Morning Star,” left off, with Longmire trying to solve the mystery of a woman who disappeared off the Crow Reservation, vanishing, seemingly, without a trace.
Johnson said that the inspiration for that book, which was released in 2021, came from a tattered flyer in the entryway of a library in Hardin, Montana.
“The sun had come across that bulletin board, and the sun had faded away half that young woman’s face,” he said. “And it was just gut wrenching. And I thought, wouldn’t it be one of the worst things that could ever possibly have happened to you, that somebody you cared about, someone that you loved, just disappeared?”
Johnson said the subject of murdered and missing Indigenous women had captured his attention before it became a mainstream topic – as did the related issue of American Indian residential schools, where it has recently been revealed that thousands of Native children perished while under the care of government school administrators.
Fort Pratt, Montana, is the setting for much of “Hell and Back,” a real place, where real tragedy occurred at the residential school there.
“(Civil War veteran Lt. Col.) Henry Pratt developed the boarding school system for the United States like that was basically a form of genocide, in many ways,” Johnson said.
He pointed out, though, that he began researching the topic before the public was made aware of the tens of thousands of Native American children who had died in those residential schools.
“My wife is like, ‘You know, every time you bring up an issue, it suddenly comes to light,’” Johnson said. “It’s really kind of pretty good timing. Because I was doing research (for this book) two years ago, and I think it was in the last year, they discovered all those mass graves up in Canada, and we’re discovering a lot of them here in the U.S., too.”
Walt Longmire, Mystic
There’s a spiritual, mystic thread that runs through Johnson’s books – recurring characters that exist on the edge of reality. Characters such as the vigilante “Hector” and the spiritual guide “Virgil White Buffalo” show up in many of Walt Longmire’s adventures.
Johnson said his friendship with tribal elders, his willingness to listen and ask questions, inspired much of the spiritual direction of both “Daughter Of the Morning Star” and “Hell and Back.”
“A good friend of mine, Charles Whiteman, who was a tribal elder from Northern Cheyenne – one time I remember sitting on his porch, talking with him, and his grandkids were out running around out there in the pasture,” Johnson said. “And he yelled at them using a term that I’d never heard before, which was ‘Eveohtse-heomese.’”
That term, which means, in essence, the “Wandering Without,” sparked something in Johnson, and inspired the mystic bent of both of his recent novels.
“I don’t like to go full blown Stephen King, you know,” he said. “But I’m also a big believer that there’s a lot more going on in the world around us than maybe we’re aware of.”
In this new book, Longmire finds himself face to face with those spirits. At the end of “Daughter of the Morning Star,” Longmire has headed north to Fort Pratt, Montana, where a fire at the American Indian residential school took the life of 31 children in 1896.
“He wakes up in the middle of the street covered in snow, with a silver dollar over both of his eyes,” Johnson said. “He looks around, he doesn’t recognize where he is – and for the first time in 18 books, Walt Longmire is unaware of who he is or where he is or why he is. And it does nothing but become more worrisome as the book goes on, because it seems like all the people Walt meets in this town of Fort Pratt are dead.”
“Hell and Back” Tour
As with his other books, Johnson is going on the road to promote his new book.
“It’s about a three week international tour,” he said, “pretty much going all over the country.”
And although he’ll be gone from his home in Ucross for lengthy periods of time, Johnson said he truly enjoys meeting readers, and supporting local bookstores.
“I have a good time doing the events,” he said. “I laugh about it, because I spend almost as much time with my readers as I do with my family.”
But while he’s preparing for this book tour, Johnson is wrapping up work on the next Longmire adventure.
“It’s kind of psychotic, isn’t it?” Johnson said. “Because you’ll be out promoting a book that you wrote last year, but people want to know about the book that you just finished, and it’ll be out next year. But then you’ve already started the book that’s coming out in two years.”
He pointed out that the popularity of the Longmire books transcends just the Rocky Mountain West, where the majority of the novels are set.
“The books are translated into 27 languages, in 27 countries, and with a TV show,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of amazing to see how far and how broad the audience is.”
“Hell and Back” will be available in bookstores and on audiobook on September 6th.