Debut author Sonia Gensler knew she’d found the setting for her young-adult novel when she visited friends a few years ago in Tahlequah.
“It’s a beautiful building,” said Gensler of Seminary Hall on the campus of Northeastern State University. “It’s got turrets and a clock tower, and it kind of looks like a castle.”
Gensler knew she wanted to write a story set at a turn-of-the-century girls’ boarding school, she just didn’t know exactly which school.
“I have had a thing for boarding schools for the longest time for books and movies,” she said. “I just think they’re so great for tension, for conflict, for really close friendships but also rivalries, for social intrigue and secrets and betrayals.”
The right story just wasn’t coming along to match the setting she wanted, but that changed with the visit to Tahlequah. She fell in love with the building first, then she learned it had been the site of a Cherokee girls’ school.
“There was this moment of cognitive dissonance, because whenever I thought of Indian schools, it was always something kind of bleak and ... a prison-like institution,” Gensler said. “This was so different, and I thought, ‘Here’s my boarding school setting.’” The Cherokee National Female Seminary was founded in the area around Tahlequah in 1846 as an institution to educate Cherokee girls. The school was owned by the Cherokee Nation until it was bought by the young Oklahoma Legislature in 1909 and turned into what would become Northeastern State University.
“This is something I never knew about,” Gensler said. “A lot of Oklahomans don’t know about this elite boarding school for Cherokee girls in eastern Oklahoma.”
She had found her story. After talking with Northeastern State University archivists and people within the Cherokee Nation, it took off from there.
“Once you do research about the Cherokee Nation, you realize what an emphasis they had on education for boys and girls,” she said. “We think of the Trail of Tears, and then there’s kind of a blank after that.”
Her story works to fill in a bit of that blank.
She actually wrote the novel during National Novel Writing Month, an annual event held every November that challenges participants to write a book from scratch — at least 50,000 words, to be exact — in a single month.
The result of Gensler’s month of writing is “The Revenant,” which was released yesterday.
The title is an archaic word for something that has returned, from the French revenir.
“I think ‘revenant’ is sometimes used as a term for a zombie, but in this case, it was an old-fashioned word for ‘ghost,’” she said. “I like the double meaning of it as ‘someone who returns’ because it has that double meaning in the story.”
“The Revenant” is a historical paranormal novel. Gensler said even the paranormal aspect of her book can be traced to stories surrounding the Cherokee Female Seminary. The seminary ghost is said to be a turn-of-the-century principal, but Gensler made her ghost a student to better fit within the scope of YA.
The book, like the actual seminary, is set in northeastern Oklahoma and weaves in a very real sense of life at the time. She concluded the novel with a section of notes detailing how real events and facts influenced her story.
“I wanted people to know that I was really trying to honor the history of Oklahoma and of the Cherokee people,” Gensler said. “There are some sensitive race conflicts in the book, and I wanted readers to know that I didn’t manufacture that out of my imagination. I tried to cover the historical record of the school.”
Gensler, who is from Tennessee but has lived in Oklahoma for more than a decade, set “The Revenant” in the state because the location was just perfect, but she would look to Oklahoma again for a backdrop.
“It’s a great state. It’s got great history,” she said. “I think it’s kind of untapped as far as the national market.”