Jonathan Rogers is the author of four middle grade fantasy novels – the Wilderking Trilogy and the newly released The Charlatan’s Boy. Besides all the traditional places, The Charlatan’s Boy may be purchased at The Rabbit Room where Jonathan hangs out with several other fantasy writers including Andrew Peterson, author of the Wingfeather Saga (On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and North! Or Be Eaten).
Feechies and Cowboys: The Charlatan’s Boy and Frontier Fantasy
A couple of years ago I was part of a not-entirely successful experiment by five or six fantasy writers to co-write a story online. Wayne Thomas Batson would post a few pages, then Donita K. Paul would post a few pages, then L.B. Graham, then Eric Reinhold, then Christopher Hopper, then me. Each writer brought to bear his or her unique take on the fantasy genre. If I remember correctly, Wayne started things off in a dark, creepy forest. Donita, as you might expect, brought in a dragon or two. When it was my turn, I introduced a buckskin-clad cattle rustler who got it in his head to steal the dragon.
It will come as no surprise that the story quickly became a sprawling and completely unmanageable mess. But even the mess demonstrated one of the great things about the fantasy genre. It’s a huge, sprawling genre with room for a lot of different kinds of stories, from L.B. Graham’s epics to Donita Paul’s brightly lit dragon stories to Sharon Hinck’s soccer mom portal stories. And fantasy, more or less by definition, invites its practitioners to invent new subgenres.
To that end, I’ve been staking out a little claim in what I believe to be unexplored territory in fantasy’s vast country. I call it frontier fantasy. Fantasy is always about frontiers, I suppose. The hobbits’ movement away from the cozy comforts of Hobbiton and into terra incognita with all its dangers and rewards serves as a metaphor for how all fantasy stories work.
My stories—both the Wilderking books and The Charlatan’s Boy—play with that idea by turning those narrative frontiers into something that looks a whole lot like the American frontier.
I have always spoken of my books as “fantasy stories told in an American accent.” Still, in the Wilderking books there were vestiges of the British-European-medieval traditions that prevail in most fantasy stories. There was a king, a castle, a class of nobles who ruled in a semi-feudal system. In The Charlatan’s Boy I decided to lose even those vestiges and try out a story that is as American as possible without actually being set in America. There are hunters, hucksters, cowboys, trappers, swampers, cattle rustlers. The dangers are frontier dangers, and the humor tends to be the rough and ready humor of the American frontier tradition.
Grady, our narrator, is an unusually ugly orphan boy who travels with a huckster named Floyd perpetrating one scheme after another on the good villagers throughout Corenwald. Their most successful scheme has been a feechie act in which Grady dresses up as ‘The Wild Man of the Feechiefen Swamp.’ The fact that nobody believes in feechies anymore has complicated their lives considerably.
Hucksterism isn’t uniquely or exclusively American. Still, the con artist/snake oil salesman is an important trope in American literature and culture. So are the cowboy, the boaster, good-hearted but gullible villager. Versions of all these figures find their way into The Charlatan’s Boy. When people ask me what The Charlatan’s Boy is like, I tell them that it is, to my knowledge, the first book ever to have both feechiefolks and cowboys.
I get the feeling that American fantasy writers think of themselves as participating in the fantasy literary tradition much more than they think of themselves as participating in the American literary tradition. Americans have an incredible storytelling legacy, both verbal and literary. Consider Huck Finn, in which Twain harnessed the vitality and vigor of the vernacular storytelling tradition for literary purposes—and gave us the Great American Novel. As an American, I’m the inheritor of that legacy; it’s my native tongue. To me it made a lot of sense to speak that language in The Charlatan’s Boy.