Literature

Author Erika T. Wurth's White Horse Captures a Denver That Is Going, Going, Gone

Erika Wurth standing in front of the White Horse bar.
Erika Wurth standing in front of the White Horse bar. Evan Semon
There’s a moment in Erika T. Wurth’s new book, White Horse: A Novel, that encapsulates just how important Denver is to its narrative. Especially the Denver that Generation X knew, the one that’s nearly gone now, with only a few holdouts to remind us of the place that used to be.

This particular moment takes place at Lakeside Amusement Park, a spot where time has frozen, where the past is still visually present. It, too, is vanishing by degrees, but Wurth captures Lakeside in all its declining beauty with a scene between the novel’s main character and her sister, sharing a cigarette in the shadows of the Wild Chipmunk. The main character thinks to herself that they could never get away with sneaking a smoke at Elitch’s. But at Lakeside? Part of its allure is also its danger: No one is really paying attention.

That sense — that things happen in a shadowy world that enjoys no real oversight, for good or for ill, and that people have to live with the consequences of those shadowy things in their choices and their lives, and even in their deaths — is at the core of White Horse.

White Horse isn't a Native American take on Denver; it's a Denver novel that roams the detritus of the Mile High City with a focus that happens to be through an Indigenous lens. Its namesake saloon, the White Horse, was either a bar or a lounge, depending on what sign you encountered. The building is still there, on Alameda just east of Sheridan, but it closed soon after the pandemic hit, as other bars have — quietly, and without much in the way of an announcement — and is now for sale. One of Denver’s oldest drinking institutions, the White Horse opened in 1926 — smack in the middle of Prohibition, no less — and kept busy slinging drinks for nearly a century. “The White Horse was important to me not only because it was known as an Indian bar, but because it was old Denver," Wurth says. "The book is, in a lot of ways, an homage to old Denver as it dies, the Denver that I knew.”

Wurth grew up in Idaho Springs. “I was a tremendously nerdy kid,” she recalls. “I ate lunch sitting under the display case at school, to get away from the bullies. I read a ton of dragon books and ghost books. Someone once gave me a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I read it and wondered where the dragons were. It just wasn’t interesting to me at all."

She did her undergrad at Fort Lewis College, got a scholarship to the University of Toledo for her master's in English, and then returned to Colorado to get her Ph.D. in creative writing and literature at the University of Colorado Boulder. "And they steamroll the love for things like that out of you," she says. "If it’s a ghost, it has to be a metaphor. Science fiction is for children, and fantasy is for babies. Horror is for weirdos. Stephen King isn’t literary. I remember arguing the other side in my classes for a long time, but in the end, I think they won. At least until now.”

After earning her Ph.D., Wurth taught, splitting her time between Colorado and a simultaneous gig at Western Illinois University. And through all that, she wrote, making a name for herself with portrayals of a gritty sort of reality. Her 2017 collection of short stories, Buckskin Cocaine, did well on the indie circuit, as did 2019's You Who Enter Here and 2021's Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend.

But this is the first of her works of fiction to be offered the big-publisher push, marketed as a literary horror story, and it's paid off: White Horse, which was just released November 1, has already earned anticipatory raves from Buzzfeed, was named an Indie Next pick, and is included on Barnes & Noble's Best Horror of 2022 list. “It’s bananas,” Wurth says. “I have two publicists, two marketers; it’s madness. Indie presses have always been good to me, but this sort of thing is all new.”

Wurth describes White Horse — with no small bit of relish — as “coming back to my nerd roots. I missed elves and dragons. And especially ghosts and demons. The book is just more satisfying for me when the ghost isn’t just a metaphor.”

Another impetus for the novel is more personal. “Part of my family is from northern Mexico,” she explains. “They were Apache, and they came into Texas because the president at the time was pushing them out. And the other part of my family is of Black descent, Chickasaw and Cherokee from the Southeast. White people and Indians in that area owned slaves, and so my ancestors were like, ‘No, thank you, goodbye,’ and they also went to Texas. A lot of urban Indian communities formed around these multi-tribal urban centers.

“So my family was doing the Native American Church and Pow Wow and all these sorts of things,” Wurth continues, “and meanwhile, my grandmother — who was in fifth grade at the time, fourteen years old — was put into an arranged marriage. This would have been 1927. There was no recording for urban Indians, no enrollment possible. If you weren’t on a reservation, you didn’t exist.”

It was in this environment that Wurth says her family tried to engage in what they saw as traditional marriages, specifically to marry off Wurth’s young grandmother to another Native. “He was terrible,” Wurth says. “And abusive. She left him for someone else, but her life was still incredibly hard. The story was that my grandmother had suicided. But then later, a cop looked at her police report and decided that, no, it looks to me like her husband murdered her.” But because of the government’s lack of record-keeping for the Native population, “she wouldn’t be listed as a missing and murdered Indigenous woman, but yes, she is. Of course she is.”

Wurth says there’s still no resolution to her grandmother’s case, but the kernels of that story can be traced through White Horse: a disappeared mother, controlling husbands, the conflict of family and society and government agency. Fear and truth, items of magic, ghosts that want to tell their story, as all ghosts do.
“I pride myself on creating more and more imaginative, non-autobiographical narrative, but in the end, Kari [White Horse’s main character] is a working-class Indian who’s self-educated. I might be a middle-class Indian with a Ph.D., but Kari and I have a lot in common. We’re both Gen X, we’re both cynical, we both probably take a joke a little too far sometimes,” Wurth laughs. “So I can’t deny that I have some things in common with my main character. I wouldn’t want to.”

White Horse
wasn’t always a novel — it began as a collection of short stories called White Horse Love. “It revolved around relationships that were in some way connected to the White Horse Lounge over the years," Wurth explains. "A lot of it was historical. But at a certain point, I started to write a science-fiction novel. Slowly, as I started paying attention to not only what I was told to admire, but also what I was more naturally drawn to, I realized that I loved horror. In that, I was able to marry my love for speculative fiction with dark realism in such a way that was still fun. I kept chopping away at it, and eventually what I had was this novel. I ended up only keeping the main character and her mother from that original draft.”

What has remained in the transition from short-story collection to White Horse as novel is the sense of Denver history that pervades its ghostly tale. The bar and Lakeside are the most prominent, but scenes in the book also take place in the much-lamented, now-defunct Tattered Cover that once ruled over Cherry Creek North, and the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, itself famous for its own spirits. There’s also a locally mandatory mention of Casa Bonita, and even Beau Jo’s in Idaho Springs gets a nod. Wurth says those choices were deliberate. “A lot of it has to do with nostalgia,” she says. “You attach to certain places and you don’t always know why. But it’s also just what was spooky. That’s what I was going for. Celebrity Sports Center is just not spooky.”

Wurth is careful to say that she doesn’t consider this book to be a Native American novel, nor does she want to be known as only a Native American author. “Not everything I write has to be an education,” she says. “That’s no fun. I just want to be a writer and tell a good story and also be Native American. Someone once called me an activist, and that made me nervous, because there are people who’ve literally put their bodies on the line. That’s real activism, and to me, it’s extremely disrespectful to accept that label for what I do.”

Instead, Wurth wants the book to be read for its connection to people, place, time and history. “Human loneliness is a big part of the book,” she says. “The capacity that we all have to bury the things that have hurt us, even when we’re smart, even when we’re capable of confrontation.”

It’s these small truths that Wurth teases out of the narrative of White Horse. The sort of thing that makes sense, that feels familiar, that we recognize on some level. The sort of thing someone might talk about sitting at a bar on West Alameda at any time in the past nine decades, three beers in but still alert enough to know to keep an eye on who comes through the door, who takes a seat next to you, and maybe, just maybe, that shadow in the corner by the jukebox that might have just blinked.

Erika T. Wurth will be at the Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl Street in Boulder, at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 16, for a live recording in association with the KGNU Radio Book Club. Find out more here.


An Excerpt From Erika Wurth's White Horse:

I am thirteen years old when I tell my best friend to get the fuck out of my house.

I’d gleefully popped my cherry earlier that year in the basement of a house on an old mattress, wine-sick but ready to get this part of my life over with. I remember there had been a toy truck underneath me as he came. I flung it into the darkness, listening to a child crying somewhere in the distance, sounding lost.

Jaime and I were drunk on the whisky and cokes conned from men we’d chatted up in a bar in Denver. We’d hitched one Saturday night, ready for adventures of the kind that could not be had in a small town that sat at the bottom of a mountain, the trees swaying above our trailers, our dingy houses, our wild, furious hearts.

We had told the men at the bar that we were in our 20s and they had laughed and said they’d love to buy us drinks, love to take us home. I’d been drawn to the taller one because he’d been wearing a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt. I thought that band had gone a little soft, but they were Jaime’s favorite band, and I still liked what this minor metal-head, and his friend, who laughed like a donkey, seemed to be offering.

What they were offering: experience.

Even at that age, I’d learned that I liked to work my way in slow, though I was never what you would call subtle. I knew what I wanted, and they had it. A little cash, enough for drinks. Packs of cigarettes poking out of their tight, slightly dirty jeans. The hint of an adventure that held just a little bit of danger.

If I was honest with myself, it was especially the last thing. This was the time that I learned to test myself, test my limits, find out what I could do and come back from, what I could do and survive.

I had decided that we would go home with them, when one of them asked me what it was like to live in Idaho Springs.

There was something about his tone. Mocking. Superior. Cruel even.

Up until then we’d been having a great time. Bonding over metal. Arguing, my long, brown hand slamming playfully down on the arm of the man who’d been supplying us with cigarettes all night. I’d been wondering what his thighs looked like under those tight jeans. What it would be like to get on top of them.

What do you mean by that? I asked, my eyes going flat as a cat’s.

He blinked rapidly. He was dark-eyed, tall, long-haired. I remember thinking when we first let them approach us that he was the kind of man I would’ve wanted as a boyfriend, if I was the kind of person who would ever want that. Even then, I knew that wasn’t for me. That there were some things better left untouched.

He said, well, it’s just, Idaho Springs is full of white trash, sorry. You’re cool though.

I had closed my eyes then, and when I opened them, he was looking at me like he’d just handed me something beautiful, like a dime bag or roses.

Do I look like trash to you? I asked.

He stammered. Shit, I wasn’t even white.

I lit a smoke and squinted up at him, Jaime babbling nervously in the background, my hand fluttering behind me, trying to shut her up.

His friend told me I looked like a hot piece of ass.

I am a hot piece of ass, I said.

He laughed his donkey laugh.

You laugh like a donkey, I said.

His mouth clapped shut, then a minute later, opened again with you trash bitch.

I smiled, and his friend told us both to cool it, cool it. He said that’s not what I meant. And that there was good shit at his place, that we should just forget about what he said.

I told him I couldn’t forget. But that he should remember that trash rejected him.

He shrugged, knowing it was over.

I grabbed Jaime’s hand, and pulled.

She was angry with me, told me to calm down Kari, said, the guy said they hadn’t meant it, that we should go home with them and have some fun.

I told her dead-eyed that she’d be going home with them on her own then, and then stalked towards the exit, smoking as I did.

A few minutes later, she was beside me, pouting.

I started walking, my thumb out. I told her to have some fucking dignity.

She was silent.

We found a ride, a truck that was going west. It dropped us off at the outskirts of the city, the place where the grasslands began to meet the mountains. And eventually, we found a ride going all the way to the Springs. But it took a while, our thumbs out in the dark, not far from the mountains where a boy had been killed by a lioness, worried for her cubs when he went jogging past, too close.

I didn’t speak to her the whole way, just smoked and smoked, glad I’d pulled the pack off the table before I’d left.

When we got back, she told me that we should just forget about it, go back to my place, stay drunk. She had some tequila in her bag that she’d lifted from a liquor store.

We walked down the empty streets, next to the beat-up Victorians, the shacks; the shadows long, the kids asleep who went to sleep, the others, like us, just maybe getting started. There was something sad and small and yet, almost otherworldly about Idaho Springs, like there were secrets in the cold, rocky ground that might spring up at any time. And take you down with them into the dark.

Excerpted from White Horse: A Novel. Copyright © 2022 by Erika T. Wurth. Reprinted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of MacMillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen

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