YOU MIGHT HAVE SEEN Shelton Johnson prominently featured in the Ken Burns documentary film on our National Parks. What you might not have known is that Shelton Johnson served with the Peace Corps in Liberia in 1982–83, and that he is the author of Gloryland, a novel that is quietly gaining a lot of attention. Dick Joyce (Philippines 1962–64) who coordinates the RPCV group in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and is a former graduate school classmate of mine, brought it to my attention. The novel was published by Sierra Club Books in 2009 and we’ll be reviewing it shortly on our site.
Shelton Johnson is from Detroit, Michigan and has worked for the National Park Service since 1987. Currently he is a ranger in Yosemite, and lives with his wife and son just outside the Park. He has presented his original living-history program about a buffalo soldier as venues around the country. Shelton is also a helluva writer.
After the Peace Corps Shelton went to the University of Michigan, where he won the Hopwood Award in poetry, among other writing awards. In this novel, his first, we follows Elijah Yancy, born in 1863 to a sharecropping family of African and Indian blood in South Carolina in the Reconstructed South, and who walks west to the Nebraska plains and, like other rootless young African-American men of that era, joins the U.S. Cavalry.
The trajectory of Elijah’s army career parallels the nation’s imperial actions in the late nineteenth century. Haunted by the terrors endured by black Americans and by his part in persecuting other people of color, Elijah is sustained only by visions, memories, prayers, and his questing spirit–which ultimately finds a home when his troop is posted to guard the newly created Yosemite National Park in 1903.
Of the book, Ken Burns writes, “This is a work of extraordinary imagination and sympathy, a journey from slavery to the mountaintop. Perfectly realized, with a voice so new and honest and insightful that the forward momentum which is Elijah Yancy will not long leave you.”
Look for this RPCV’s novel, Gloryland.