Every Saturday night in Cairo, where novelist Téa Obreht lived for four years as a kid, a network broadcast the same National Geographic special about Yellowstone National Park. So the American West already loomed large in her imagination when, in 2014, she and her husband planned a road trip from Jackson, Wyoming, into Grand Teton National Park. She was awed by the landscape, the plains stretching out before her, and the Teton Range towering above to her left.
“I remember feeling this tremendous sense of arrival,” she recalled recently, “like a homecoming.”
The trip ignited an interest in the narrative of the West and the consequences of the waves of settlers who’d laid claim to the territory. Obreht’s new novel Inland—her first since her 2011 debut, The Tiger’s Wife, garnered a National Book Award nomination—takes place in a version of that world. It alternates between the two distinct perspectives of its main characters: Nora, a young mother in drought-ridden 19th-century Arizona, whose family homestead seems to be prowled by a cloven-hoofed beast with a grinning skull face, and Lurie, an outlaw and immigrant from the Balkan region of the Ottoman Empire who, in order to escape the marshal pursuing him for murder, takes up with a group of camel drivers about to embark on a military expedition. Through these parallel narratives (which eventually catastrophically collide), Obreht maps out a little-known episode in the settlement of the Southwest: the expedition of the U.S. Army’s first and only Camel Corps, which surveyed a wagon road from Fort Defiance in New Mexico to the Colorado River in California between 1857 and 1858.
A decent portion of the novel is addressed directly to Lurie’s camel, based on one of 34 real-life camels who arrived in Indianola, Texas, in 1856 for enlistment in the Army. Officials figured the animals would be well-suited to crossing the Southwest in the middle of the 19th century—they were sturdy and could go a long time without water or rest. Assigned to lead the Camel Corps was one Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale, the former superintendent of Indian Affairs in California and Nevada; he and his assistant, May Humphreys Stacey, kept detailed diaries of their expedition, which Obreht consulted for her novel. (Beale appears in Inland, portrayed as an enthusiastic leader whose “thick, bushy brows” it’s said “bespoke supernatural powers of observation.” In addition to the fictional Lurie, actual Camel Corps cameleers, like Hadji Ali and Greek George, and the real camel Said also populate the novel.) Beale’s reports showed a growing affection for his trusty dromedaries: “My only regret at present is that I have not double the number,” he wrote in July 1857. When the project was abandoned the following decade, he bought a few to live out their days on his ranch.
But Inland doesn’t focus on Beale. Instead, it forgoes the romanticized imperialism common in stories about the West at the time: very male, very white. “I don’t think that there was much left to imagine about that more dominant myth,” Obreht told me. Her interest in the classic genre tropes lay elsewhere: “I was really curious about the woman who’s always scowling in the corner and stirring the pot when the cowboys come in from outside.” And while Obreht “knew that, as an immigrant from the Balkans, I wasn’t going to tell a Native American story,” as she told the Bookseller earlier this year, she was more interested in “people who had existed at the margins of identity during the Western expansion”—like the Army’s cameleers, Ottoman immigrants who were, with few exceptions, omitted from accounts by men like Beale and Stacey.
By imagining these forgotten characters, she wanted to explore how migration and displacement affect “a person’s sense of self” and “shape our understanding of home,” she said. For centuries, Native people occupied what is now Arizona; it wasn’t until the 16th century that Spanish settlers arrived, and then, in the 19th century, immigrants from across continental Europe, including England, Germany, and what was then the Ottoman Empire. The conflict among these groups surfaces throughout Inland; in one surreal episode, drawn in part from Beale’s diary, a steamship chugs upriver just as the fleet of camels reaches its shores, while a group of Mojave people look on, unfazed. “It’s the same thing to them: ship, camel,” Ali observes. “What’s the difference? There’s no miracle in it. It’s just another sign of their end.” It echoes Beale’s own observations: “The steam whistle of the General Jesup,” he wrote, according to historian Lewis Burt Lesley, “sounded like the death knell of the river race.”
In his diary, Beale also documented the precise coordinates of each of the party’s campsites along their route. Obreht visited as many as she could, taking photographs and notes on the surroundings: one now exists as a Greyhound station in Albuquerque, New Mexico, another a gas station, still another a small island in the middle of a highway. (By the 20th century, the trail he surveyed became known by another name: Route 66.) Absent any physical markers of its short existence, the Camel Corps is now only an asterisk in the turbulent, often horrific history of western settlement. It was abandoned amid the Civil War in 1864. (Jefferson Davis was an early advocate for the project, which can’t have helped its eventual fate.) Many of the camels were sold at auction or escaped into the wild; Said’s bones survive at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
It’s proved too thorny and bizarre a chapter to easily lend itself to mythology, and yet it also survives in fable. Obreht first learned of the Camel Corps through an episode of the podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class that begins with a late-19th-century ghost story about two women left alone on a homestead in the Arizona desert who are stalked by a massive red beast with a demon jockey on its back. Just as with Beale’s and Stacey’s diaries, Obreht became obsessed with what was missing from the story: “Who are these women? What is their relationship?” she wondered. “And then: How had this creature gotten there?” The dreamed-up answers to these questions ended up building Nora’s portion of the novel.
Through history and myth, Inland revives and reframes the Camel Corps experiment, eschewing macho cowboy swagger in favor of what those cowboys might have missed. “What would we have left to say of ourselves, when the Camel Corps was truly no more, only a reminiscence, and we became old men who talked about a long-ago time we had gussied up for the benefit of disbelieving youth?” Lurie thinks toward the end of the novel. What remains is for imagining.