In that spirit, I wanted to let you all know about "He Who Goes First". It's a book I found to be refreshingly honest and heart warming. Kevin J. Curtis's first novel is incredibly well-researched, honest and thought provoking. It's a story told from the perspective of a warrior in 13th century Mongolia and it's not the standard blood and guts we associate with tales from that time. The book follows the life of He Who Goes First who is so aptly named because he charges into battle and life boldly and without fear. He's in the army of Genghis Khan and he and his fellow soldiers charge all about Asia in one of history's most interesting times. The book really delves into the emotional, mental physical and spiritual aspects of what it means to be not only a warrior, but a a part of a community that plays a major role in modern society.
One of the most heartwarming parts is how women in Mongolia are portrayed in the book. They definitely have their hands full running every day life as their men are off to conquer new frontiers. It's amazing how courageous they had to be despite some very harsh conditions.
I had a chance to chat with the book's author Kevin J. Curtis about his experience in writing the book.
Q: What was the inspiration for the book?
A: The story actually picked me. It came from a "daydream," or a vision of some kind. It was quite vivid, and felt like a memory, but it was someone else's memory.
Q: What do you want readers to walk away with after reading the book?
A: History (especially what I remember from school), often portrays the Mongols and Genghis Khan, as uneducated, wanton killers. Though this is somewhat true, it stops short of the reality. Genghis (actually -Jenghiz or Chingiz) Khan was a master of human nature. Those who went along with him and acknowledged his rule were able to live much as they always had. Genghis did not restrict religion and he did not destroy scholarly works. He craved knowledge and organized his army by tens (decimal system). Though not formally educated, he was as smart as he was ruthless. He enjoyed trade, and there was far more security in commerce when the Khan was involved. Those who chose to defy him were mercilessly destroyed.
Q: Even though much of the book's action is on the battlefield, there's a real heart to the story. Could you talk a little about the emotional center of the book and what it means to you?
The main character, He-Who-Goes-First, is a warrior. Without a code of conduct, a warrior is merely a murderer. You find out that while this man is a soldier (and thus a killer), he is loyal, he is a family man who loves his wife and children, and he sometimes suffers from the emotional problems of balancing his private life and his demanding profession. I think there is perhaps more psychology than battle in this book, and there is also an undeniable love story. We learn about the best and worst in people and a quite a bit about the culture and beliefs of the people in 13th century Mongolia.
Q: What do you think our society could learn from 13th Century Mongolia?
A: Spiritual bonds were more important than flesh-and-blood. This is demonstrated by the love these people had for their children, whether they were biologically related or adopted. We should also remember that the world was a far different place back then. Political correctness did not/could not exist. Life was difficult, and survival depended on being strong and innovative. I believe we could learn from the Mongols’ connection to nature. We have become distant from nature and the real world. Modern people fear the wilderness and see it as something to be conquered. Most people today, are ill-equipped to survive without electricity and gasoline.
Q: What did you learn about yourself, in writing the book that most surprised you?
A: First of all, since this took place roughly 800 years ago, and the people were largely illiterate, I found that when I did research, one source contradicted the other. For example, there was a PBS special that claimed Genghis Khan never had a palace. When I researched this topic, I found that it is thought that his stone palace was dismantled when he died so that no one else could ever possess it. This compliments the idea that the people in attendance at the Khan's funeral were killed to keep the location of his grave secret. If this seems extreme, remember that these people believed in reincarnation. Death was not the final stop for one's soul. There was also a relatively recent find by a joint Japanese-Mongolian archeological team that may have found the remnants of Genghis Khan’s palace. For me personally, I didn't know how the book ended when I first thought about writing it. The story unfolded in many ways and in the end it made sense -especially from the point-of-view of a Mongol from that era. It was definitely a learning experience for me, since the main character and I share many of the same emotional/psychic idiosyncrasies.
Q: What hope do you have, if any, that Genghis Khan's reputation might get a revamp following the book?
A: I think this is already happening. There was never before, and likely will never again be, such an Empire. It is astounding to think that it was all done with horses, swords and arrows. Genghis Khan united the nomads who had previously been raiding and making war with each other. It took an incredibly powerful and charismatic figure to do that. No one else came close, with the exception of Genghis' grandson Kublai -who was able to carry on where his grandfather left off. When else in history, did a conqueror spare religion, art and knowledge from destruction?
Q: What's next for you, as a writer?
A: I have an idea for a book that will incorporate my observations and the history of the Minnesota River Valley where I work as a volunteer park ranger. At the moment, I haven't the time or the proper mindset to take on the project and deal with publishers and editors. That said, I am still writing and my blog can be found at http://cutris.blogspot.com
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