Boise native and former Wood River Valley resident Gayle Marie will return to Ketchum next week for a reading at The Community Library to promote her recently released debut novel, “The Serpent, the Puma, and the Condor.”
The book centers on a young Inca prophetess, a dying Catholic priest questioning his faith and a dashing conquistador. As the Inca encounter Spaniards for the first time, cultural and ideological difference threaten to consume the weaker of the two empires.
Inca oral history holds that ancient shamans prophesied the coming of white conquerors from the East, following a string of natural cataclysms and civil war, and corresponding with a specific alignment of the planets. Interestingly, the Maya produced similar predictions ahead of their own destruction.
The majority of the action in Marie’s novel takes place against the backdrop of initial contact between the Inca and the Spanish. In 1526, conquistador Francisco Pizarro first encountered the Inca Empire. By 1529 the empire plunged into a chaotic war of succession, and Pizarro exploited that division to begin his conquest of Peru.
In the course of about 40 years, the Spanish swept across Peru. The conquistadors, aided by superior technology and tactics and the devastating diseases they brought with them from Europe, killed untold millions during that time.
As a secondary objective to their conquest, the Spanish sought to convert as many natives as they could to Catholicism, eliminating the Inca religion and destroying artifacts, monuments, treasures and buildings they deemed heretical.
Among the most sacred sites in the Inca Empire was the iconic citadel Machu Pichu, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Remarkably, during their conquest, the Spanish never happened upon Machu Pichu, even though it was near the Inca capital of Cusco and would have been a famous landmark to anyone familiar with the region. How exactly they missed Machu Pichu remains a mystery, one that forms the backbone of Marie’s new novel.
Marie tackles this tumultuous time in history, cross-examining the explosive clash of cultures, militaries and faiths, while zeroing in on the personal struggles and emotions of her very human characters.
The author’s careers as a psychologist and, before that, an astrologer also informed her creative process. She said she used psychological evaluations and exercises and completed them as she thought each of her characters would, and that process helped round out the characters into fully realized individuals.
As for astrology, an intimate knowledge of the movement of planets and the ways in which people throughout history have used their positions to divine the future gave her perspective on the development of Inca prophesies and predisposed her to understand their religious beliefs.
What truly brings the work to life is the perspective with which she describes Machu Pichu and its role in the Inca society. It was a trip to the citadel that first inspired Marie to write the book.
“I didn’t know I was going to write a book at first,” she said. “I got inspired to write it after meeting a shaman in Machu Pichu and getting a sense of what a spiritual, amazing place it is. I got to know a little about the Inca religion, and had a lot of time when I was hiking to think about the contrasts between the Inca belief and Catholicism, and what the conquistadors did to the area.”
Soon, she charted a follow-up, more research-oriented trip to the sacred site, plotting a six-day Andean hike to Machu Pichu.
“It became more of a pilgrimage,” she said. “The journey became just as important as seeing Machu Pichu for the first time. I spent a lot of time with shamans and village elders and learned the oral history.”
Between her two visits, Marie also completely upended her previous understanding of the European conquest of the New World, finding the truth a far cry from what she learned in school.
“I love the story and tried to do it justice. I hope if anyone still has misconceptions about the conquistadors being the good guys, I can set the record straight. I tried to show the truth,” she said.
Marie’s reading at The Community Library will begin at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 15. A discussion of the book, the author and her process will follow. Visit comlib.org for details.