Bergeron family descendant and author George Godfrey released his fifth book in 2016. After spending years researching his Potawatomi lineage, discovering stories about his ancestors and becoming the president of the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association, he started writing books as a way to solidify some of the history.
“In some ways, I guess you might say, my writings are a way of refreshing people’s memories,” Godfrey said.
He has released nonfiction, historical fiction and fictional books over the years, with another piece coming this year. His family’s capacity for resilience through difficult times inspires his ideas, and he remembers their ability to overcome adversity every day.
“I think also then about the fact that, in spite of their difficulties, they treated people fairly, kindly and civil,” Godfrey said. “My own life I guess is driven by, ‘OK, I need to treat people kindly, but I need to keep moving ahead with whatever I’m dealing with.’”
“I have a so-called study. Sometimes I’m working at the kitchen table. Sometimes I’m working at the dining room table. Sometimes I’m at the breakfast nook,” Godfrey said and laughed. “Probably drives my wife nuts.”
He writes as he moves around his house, letting his determination and vision flow. He takes days off, and often he makes notes of ideas to complete later.
Godfrey continues to learn new information by talking to other Potawatomi. When working on fictional outlines, he enjoys thinking of creative ways to complete stories inspired by real life. On top of researching Potawatomi history, he also makes a point of examining the various periods and geographic layouts his characters explore to develop a lifelike setting.
“In my present work, I have a man falling off of a log into the river during the wintertime. If that happens, the person is going to end up getting wet and perhaps freezing certain parts of his body. He certainly would not get suntanned,” Godfrey said.
He searches for realism, always factoring in new information. After reading about his great-great-grandmother Watchekee, Godfrey felt parts of her story were misrepresented. He wrote his first book about her as a nonfiction novel with citations. Views in works published during early Illinois statehood often glamorized Native Americans, including Godfrey’s ancestors.
“They would say something that would give the person the idea that she had been raised on bunny skin on the banks of the Iroquois River,” he said. “And so I wanted to actually bring out where she lived and what happened to her. It wasn’t all romanticism.”
While writing his first historical fiction novel, Godfrey took into account a character’s humanity — their emotions, motivations and viewpoints as well as those of the people he or she encounters. He now spends a significant amount of time developing their personalities.
With a Ph.D. in entomology, Godfrey mastered academic writing. He modified his style after becoming a novelist, dropping some of the formality and factoring in improper speech.
“I had to keep a character basically consistent throughout a book. So, you would not want them talking in an informal manner and then speaking in a formal matter as if he were getting a Nobel Prize,” he said.
Godfrey took pride in learning the Potawatomi language over the years. Some of the characters speak it, and writing those conversations forced him to reconsider the basics of linguistics.
“I had to go back to some of my previous training in the academic world, and I had to realize that not everybody thinks alike. Not everybody speaks alike,” Godfrey said. “And … in many cases, the way a person speaks … involves their thinking.
Godfrey again found inspiration for his new fictional novel from the Trail of Death. This time, he put a twist on it.
“I wanted to, shall we say, reverse the project because there were so many stories that had been written about the movement from Indiana to Sugar Creek (Kansas) as a large group of people,” Godfrey said. “But I wanted to write about a person who was returning and why he was returning.”
He heard the story of Sin-a-gaw, a Potawatomi man forcibly removed from his pregnant wife and home in Indiana. He survived the Trail of Death and made it to the Sugar Creek Mission in Kansas. His wife, Ko-bun-da, ran from her village to escape removal and gave birth to their daughter, Loda, in the woods. Sin-a-gaw decided to leave Sugar Creek in search of them, heading north. Godfrey heard this story told several different ways and wanted to tell his own version.
“I’ve read that when he returned, he was a physical and spiritual wreck. And so I am trying to fill in the blanks with imagination in terms of what made him a physical wreck,” he said. “Because he would have returned really on his own and would have encountered some difficulties getting back, whether the extreme cold or crossing rivers.”
Collecting information from several Tribal members and the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi consumes his time. While Godfrey’s writing process — including idea cultivation and revisions — is taking him longer than usual, he enjoys every part of it.
“I think it’s probably more of a personal sense of accomplishment than anything else,” Godfrey said.
He expects his new project to be out sometime this year. Search “George Godfrey” on Amazon Books to find his work.