Cowboy poet becomes fiction writer
May 16, 2007
Lannie Scopes imagines he looks a lot like Samuel J. Groo: a tall, Western poet with a moustache that spans his jawline a "walrus’ style worn in the 1800s by novelist Mark Twain, and United States Army cavalry commander George Armstrong Custer.
"When I was writing, it was hard for me to differentiate between myself and Sam," he admits.
On front cover of his first novel, "The Life and Times of Samuel J. Groo: An American Adventure," Scopes includes a photograph of himself in a brown leather hat, resting a rifle on his shoulder to give readers an idea of what Groo might have looked like.
The book, which follows Groo on his journey from Utah to Alaska to find gold, is a work of fiction based on facts about Scopes’ family history. So if Scopes envisions he has some of the same characteristics as his protagonist, he’s probably right. Groo was his great uncle.
The book cover also shows Groo’s actual diary, worn and bent, likely from carrying it in his pocket on his journey north, during the Alaskan ("Klondike") Gold Rush in the late 1890s.
As Scopes explains it, the family never spoke of Groo. Clues about his great uncle didn’t surface until after Scopes grandmother Nelly died, leaving behind a steamer trunk she forbade anyone from opening. Scopes found the diary beneath old dolls and china in the trunk’s false bottom a decade ago, when he and his family decided to open it.
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When he finally began to piece together the facts, his parents had also died . Originally, he read the entries without any information about who had written them.
Then he discovered a handwritten note in an old family Bible from February 1, 1897:
"In case of my sudden flight to the ‘Great Beyond’ I want all my belongings, and the amount from the Collett Mining Company for labor, to be given to my sister Mrs. R.W. Gee…Samuel J. Groo."
Mrs. R.W. Gee was Scopes’ grandmother, Mary Elizabeth, and, as it turned out, also Groo’s sister.
Scopes visited towns his family lived in, and continued combing family heirlooms. He found out Groo stayed behind with his grandmother when the rest of their extended polygamist family went to Utah, he says. He also found out, from an interview with a former Cokeville mayor, that Groo might have been an outlaw. "That Sam Groo was a wild one. He used to run with that Butch Cassidy," Scopes remembers the mayor telling him. At the time, Scopes estimates the mayor was in his late 90s.
Records about Groo, end in 1903, however. "I searched the 48 and Alaska, and there’s just no information about him after that time," he reports.
According to Scopes, the Klondike Gold Rush began with nearly 3,000 U.S. prospectors, and, unprepared, most died along the way. The United States eventually sent soldiers to rescue the few that survived.
With some preliminary research under his belt, Scopes started exploring Groo’s history with a pad and a pen, patching what he knew about Groo with what he knew about the history of the West and the Alaskan Gold Rush.
"What I didn’t know, I guessed at, filling in the details based on historical fact and what could have happened and what should have happened," Scopes says. "It was great. I would just wake up at 4:30 in the morning and by the end, I had about 10 stories."
Scopes is a musician. He writes and performs cowboy music throughout the West and has written and produced cowboy shows, including a radio program "Tunes and Tales from Tumbleweed," a Western counterpart to Garrison Keillor’s "A Prairie Home Companion." Recently he performed at "Saddle Up!" a fundraiser for the Egyptian Theatre at the National Ability Center.
Scopes describes writing "The Life and Times of Samuel J. Groo," as an adventure, far different from songwriting which he says "condenses everything."
The story is told in first-person from Groo’s perspective, and Scopes referred to English schoolbooks from the 1800s to simulate how Groo might have thought to convey his thoughts. At the time, reading capabilities were measured by how well a child could comprehend long sentences and big words, he explained.
Though he wishes he could have had the chance to ask his grandmother questions, Scopes says he enjoyed the research, bringing his two daughters along with him to teach them about their past. "I think everyone should know their roots, because it helps you figure out who you are," he concludes.
The book was also way for him to explore the landscape and culture he knows and loves best.
"The thing about the West is that the world is still clamoring for the hearty handshake, the integrity and honesty," he says. "I think the world believes it because the world needs it so badly. The West is something that’s inspirational."
This Saturday will be his very first book signing, says Scopes, and he hopes it won’t be his last. "I would like to finish the story," he says. "Sam deserves to have the rest of his story told."
Lannie Scopes will discuss his book and sign copies of "The Life and Times of Samuel J. Groo: An American Adventure" at the Spotted Frog Bookstore at 1635 Redstone Center Drive on Saturday, May 19. The event is from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, call (435) 575-2665.