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Bemidji writer Saxton pens debut novel

Writer Robert Saxton  and image of the cover of his book "Shades of a Warrior."
Robert Saxton
Writer Robert Saxton, author of Shades of a Warrior.

Writer Robert Saxton turns bedtime stories into his debut novel of suspense, adventure, and wilderness awareness.

BEMIDJI--Robert Saxton has traveled the world, immersed himself in many cultures and languages, and studied under naturalist Tom Brown, Jr. at his Tracker School. All of this has helped to inform his debut novel Shades of a Warrior.

In a recent What We’re Reading interview, Saxton shared how he wanted to pass down the lessons and skills he learned about tracking and the wilderness to his children by incorporating them into their bedtime stories.

Eventually, he was encouraged by friends and family to put those stories into a book. Though he’d been telling the stories for years, putting them down on paper was a challenge.

Saxton admitted, “It's not easy to turn from an oral storyteller to a writer, especially if you don't have any formal training in it. So, there were a lot of stops and starts and tons of hard work and mistakes on my part. But with steady encouragement and help, and good editors, the story finally turned into what it is now.”

Story and characters

Shades of a Warrior features ninth grader BJ Maki who lives in the hills of Grand Marais, Minnesota. BJ begins to receive strange messages about an evil presence in his town. One day while exploring in the woods, BJ discovers an old cave that provides a portal to an Ojibwe village 500 years in the past. He believes help can be found there.

Among the supporting cast of characters in the story is BJ’s sister, the tenacious Charley; Elmer, their neighbor; Russ, the towering bait shop owner; and Audrey, a local woman and friend of the Maki family.

These characters create a sense of community, and a richness and warmth to the story. Saxton noted, “I had heard writers and authors talk about characters in a story doing things that they didn't expect and that is exciting because once you bring them to life, they're alive and they're doing their own things.”

Saxton drew from his family life for the story as well. The characters BJ and Charley were in fact inspired by two of Saxton’s own children. He explained, “I designed BJ after our son Tommy, who is a thoughtful, kind, gentle, generous person. And so I thought, ‘that's the kid that we want in the story.’” Charley is modeled after Saxton’s daughter, Charlotte, both in name and spirit.

Ojibwe culture

Much of Shades of a Warrior deals with Ojibwe culture and traditions, as BJ finds himself visiting an Ojibwe village, 500 years in the past. Saxton wanted to make sure these elements were handled with authenticity and respect.

Years living abroad in several different countries instilled in Saxton a respect for different languages, cultures, and life stories. “One of the biggest passions of my life is meeting different people and spending time in different places, in different languages. It's just enriched my life immeasurably,” said Saxton.

Moving to Bemidji many years ago gave Saxton the opportunity to experience the local Ojibwe culture and traditions, and there were many friends to be made. When it came time to write Shades of a Warrior, he had several people to turn to for help.

Saxton explained, “I have a lot of real close friendships here in the Ojibwe world. I checked in with them a lot over the years because I wanted to make sure that I got this right and all of them have said some version of, ‘Well, do your homework and do your best and you'll be OK.’”

Important lessons

But perhaps the most important message Saxton wanted to get across in Shades of a Warrior is the importance of our connection to nature and the Earth.

An integral part of the story involves BJ learning from his new Ojibwe friends how to listen to the nature around them while playing a game. Saxton explained, “I had [BJ] playing with kids in the woods. And learning how to sit still and watch and learn and listen. And that is something that all of our ancestors did and a lot of us have forgotten how to do.”

"Right now, more than ever, we all need to be paying attention to the environment and the Earth and the messages that we're getting and the threats that are showing up."
Writer Robert Saxton

Saxton hopes young people will read this story and be inspired to sit in their yard or in the woods and just observe and listen. He said, “Right now, more than ever, we all need to be paying attention to the environment and the Earth and the messages that we're getting and the threats that are showing up. We need to step up and take care of our environment and our communities.”

Saxton is already wrapping on a sequel and has plans for a book 3 as well. You can find more information on Shades of a Warrior at Calumet Editions.

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Tammy works at Bemidji State University's library, and she hosts "What We're Reading," a show about books and authors.