The Bookshelf: In 'Retribution Rails,' Erin Bowman Returns to the Wild West

Nov 10, 2017

In the late 1880s, rail was creeping across western America, connecting towns and changing lives. The west was still relatively wild in those days, and that Wild West is the setting of the new young adult novel by Erin Bowman. Retribution Rails is the story of a young man caught up with a band of cold-hearted killers and thieves and the young woman who aspires to write for a newspaper, any paper, and prove that she can write just as well, if not better, than any man out there. Erin Bowman spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

Click here to read Erin Bowman's top five reading recommendations.

What features of this time and place—Arizona in 1887—make you want to write about it?

I’ve loved the Wild West and stories set in that era and location for as long as I can remember. I’ve always had a fascination with that time in history. Retribution Rails is set in Arizona mostly because it’s a companion of a book I wrote two years ago, also set in Arizona.

Vengeance Road.

Vengeance Road, yes. That’s the first book. So this is kind of continuing that. I had a lot of fun writing that first book, learned a lot about Arizona in the process, so it kind of just expanded from that book.

And tell us about rail. Rail, at the time, existed but was still expanding. What was the significance a new rail line might have in a community back in 1887?

It was huge. Even in the first book, set ten years prior, the railroad had not yet reached central Arizona yet. It was just starting to creep into Yuma. So this one, set in 1887, now all of a sudden, it’s connecting towns. It had a really great impact on a lot of impact in some industries. It brought more businessmen in. Goods could be shipped faster. But it also killed some industries. The cattle industry began to die from this because cattle could get shipped places. Oftentimes, the rails went across cattle routes. So the ranchers—their whole industry kind of got upended by this. Then you had the Native Americans who, I mean, what happened to them was atrocious, with them being basically herded up and moved to reserves to make room for these rails. So good happened but also really terrible as well.

This was a time when there were newspapers in lots of these small towns in the west. And Charlotte is an aspiring journalist who hopes to document the opening of a new rail line. What was the inspiration for her character?

The inspiration for her is actually her inspiration in the story as well. She idolizes Nellie Bly, who is a renowned reporter from that time in history. She was one of the first female journalists to really make a splash and do a lot of things that people would say, “Females can’t do that. They’re supposed to write about gardens and fashion and that’s it. They don’t have any business in serious reporting.” That’s Charlotte’s inspiration. Also Nellie Bly was someone I really idolized as a kid.

Did you want to be a journalist when you were growing up?

I didn’t really know. I just loved writing of all sorts. So when I learned about her—probably in middle school or something—I just thought she was so cool. And the fact that she did investigative journalism, that she went into the madhouse undercover basically to report on mistreatment of patients there…I just thought she was so incredible and I loved that she did it against the odds and was told that she had no place in that type of reporting. I remember doing a paper about her in middle school.

Some of what Charlotte faces really might resonate with women today. She’s dismayed when she faces the same kind of unfair expectations that women face today, like: “You should smile and look happy all the time!” And sometimes men will get credit for her hard work.

Yes, and that’s kind of depressing, but it’s true. I thought that while writing it. This is set in 1887, but many of the things she struggles with are things that women still struggle with today. I’ve been told by complete strangers to smile. It’s frustrating. It happens and maybe I don’t feel like smiling. Someone tells Charlotte that in the book. So it’s interesting writing this to know I’m writing historical fiction and see how much has changed today and how much hasn’t.