Putting the History in the Historical Novel: Kutsavi

This is the sixth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about how one’s legal status – slave or free – was determined in antebellum North Carolina. This week, I turn to a very different subject, kutsavi, an important trade good among the tribes east and west of the Sierra Nevada.

I learned about kutsavi on a family vacation to California many years ago. On the way to Yosemite National Park, we stopped at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve visitors center in Lee Vining. While there, a California Park Ranger led us on a tour of the lake’s western shore. We learned about the Monachi. In my research for New Garden, I further researched the history of the Mono Basin and incorporated it in the story.

His brother Richard is at the pinnacle of his career, now serving as a United States Senator from North Carolina. Kutsavi has become critical to Jack surviving a Sierra Nevada winter. So, the reader is introduced to the Monachi and kutsavi.

The Yokuts of the western Sierra had given the Paiutes east of the mountains the name “Monachi,” meaning “the fly people.” The whites understood the name as “Mono,” and used that name for the people and the lake where they lived, an ancient terminal saltwater lake on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. The lake is populated by algae, brine shrimp, and alkali flies. A small migratory tribe with no more than two hundred members, the Mono women harvest the alkali fly each summer. They dry the pupae in the sun and then rub off their shells, leaving a yellow kernel the size of a grain of rice. Each pupa, which the Monos call kutsavi, is rich in fat and protein, providing fifteen calories of nourishment. The kutsavi store easily, critical to surviving a long winter. For hundreds of years, the Monos had used the kutsavi as a major product for trade with the tribes of the western Sierra Nevada.

New Garden, Prologue, p. vi.

Before the onset of the previous winter, Jack traded his horse to a miner for food.

Among the provisions were a bushel of pinon pine nuts and three four-pound bags of kutsavi. Jack would never be able to bring himself to touch the kutsavi unless he was starving to death.

* * * *

Starvation took hold in early March. At first, Jack ate the kutsavi by the handful, but the sudden consumption of the high-calorie food bloated his stomach and he soon learned to eat the kutsavi in smaller portions. The food he had avoided for five months sustained him until early April when he could trap and shoot game.

Several of my readers have told me that the passage about Jack’s winter in the Sierra Nevada, particularly the discussion of kutsavi’s importance to his survival, is among the passages forever etched in their memory.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

The stand-alone sequel, Trouble at Mono Pass, is available at the same locations. It is also available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining), the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, California).


Indian Life of the Yosemite Region, Miwok Material Culture, by Samuel A. Barrett and Edward W. Gifford, Bulletin of Milwaukee Public Museum, Vol. 2, No. 4, March, 1933 (republished by Yosemite National Park, California, Yosemite Association).

Taxonomic Inventory, Insects as Food, by Gene DeFoliart, http://www.foods-insects.com/book7.

Kutzakika’s People, by Thomas C. Fletcher, http://www.monolake.org.

Flies of Fancy: Alkali Flies, by David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve, http://www.thesierraweb.com/monolake.


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