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August 26, 2019
An indie author looks to his ancestral history for his debut children’s book

Many writers arrive at their craft through their circumstances. It was a profound personal loss that first led Anthony Perry to write Chula the Fox, a middle grade #OwnVoices story about a Chickasaw boy coming of age in the 18th century.

Perry says that fiction writing wasn’t central to his upbringing in his small Oklahoma town, but that he has always communicated his thoughts through journaling. “I didn’t set out to become a writer, though I did use words to help make sense of the world,” he says.

For Perry, life itself has certainly been storied. In 2000, upon graduating from Dartmouth College with a degree in religion and a minor in government, he left the United States and moved to England to pursue a business venture. From there, he began doing volunteer work at a teaching hospital in Pakistan. That role led him to a career in Britain’s National Health Service, where he now works in a quality improvement position at a mental health and community hospital.

It wasn’t until his Chickasaw father died in 2009 that Perry felt truly compelled to communicate his feelings in story form. “I started writing my thoughts, trying to make sense of his death,” he says. Chula the Fox came from a deep need to connect with my Chickasaw culture. I took my ancestry for granted growing up, thinking I would always have a chance to ask questions and learn more—and then I couldn’t.”

While grieving for his father, Perry set out to learn as much as he could about Chickasaw history, as well as his own ancestors. “I needed a sense of what they were like as people,” he says. Though his research into historical documents—including the biased accounts of 18th-century British traders—provided him with a general grasp on how Chickasaw people lived, he struggled to find sources that included authentic voices.

Turning from the limited historical archives, Perry sought fictionalized stories about Chickasaw culture, finding inspiration in the work of children’s book author Joseph Bruchac, Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series, and tales by other writers. As the seeds of his story began to take root, Perry made a decision: “I had to see my ancestral homeland for myself.”

Perry took several days to drive through Mississippi, exploring the sites of Chickasaw villages and the Natchez Trace trading routes that his own ancestors would have used. “I closed my eyes and listened to the birds calling each other. I felt the heat of the summer sun against my skin,” he says. “These were the sights and sounds of Chula’s world.”

In planning Chula the Fox, Perry drew deeply from both his religious studies and his experience of loss. “It felt natural to center the story of Chula the Fox around death, which shapes so much of life,” he says. In the book, Chula’s circumstances somewhat mirror Perry’s own, albeit centuries apart: when Chula’s father is killed, he is haunted by his spirit and struggles to determine his path forward.

While traveling to Chickasaw territory provided visceral inspiration for the book, Perry remained concerned about bringing authenticity to Chula’s story. “It was absolutely vital that Chula the Fox was historically accurate,” he says. “I wrote the story to learn for myself how my ancestors lived their lives, and how their story continues today. I also wanted to give my children, and other young people, a story they could learn from. This, for me, was the test for Chula the Fox’s success.”

When he found Chickasaw Press, an indie publisher owned and operated by the Chickasaw Nation, Perry not only found a home for Chula the Fox and access to a broader audience but also a wealth of resources from tribal historians. “They helped me capture details that weren’t readily available in contemporary accounts, but were essential to creating a story,” Perry says. He edited and revised the book alongside the historians, who fact-checked the material and enhanced the narrative in other ways: they assisted Perry in striking a balance between providing verisimilitude and respecting the integrity of beliefs and traditions.

In telling Chula’s story, Perry ultimately forged a far deeper connection to his own. “Writing Chula the Fox has greatly shaped who I am as a person today,” he says. “It brought me closer to my Chickasaw roots and gave me something that I can share with my own children so they, too, can feel a connection, even from afar.”

But, above all, Perry says, researching and writing Chula led to an even broader awakening: the understanding that “one cannot appreciate the present without understanding the past.”