Character Interview: Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer’s Matthew

(Kelly was written by Kelly Blanchard. Matthew was written by Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer.)

The Choctaw Tribune office was especially quiet that morning. Matthew had chosen this day in particular because Tuesdays were known to be the most lax time for him to work on writing the final articles before they went to press for the weekly edition. Few clients went in and out of the shop that day, too, all advertisers already in place. Of course, he always expected the unexpected, especially with the telegraph wire and the Levitts’ repair and music shop sharing the same building as the print shop.

Beulah Levitt had a student in the back storage room now, practicing. Thankfully, it was one of her more advanced students whose violin strains coming through the closed door were soothing rather than sounding like a dying cat. Between that and the clatter coming from the telegraph office lean-to where his young cousin Peter worked part-time, Matthew had learned to focus better with chaos around him than not.

He was seated at the makeshift desk set near the back of the huge open room that held the printing press on one side. Mr. Levitt’s workbench and multitude of repair jobs took up the other half, along with showcasing various items the man had for sale, including a lovely Grandfather clock. Its chime added to the noises while Matthew wrote. And waited for the bell over the door to alert him of the arrival of his his one expected visitor for the day.

Kelly walked in and took in her surroundings. She had to smile. Of all the places to have this interview, it had to be a newspaper office. Seemed fitting in a way.

She looked around and locked eyes with Matthew and supposed he was the person she was here to speak with. “Matthew Teller?” She stretched out her hand to shake his. “I’m Kelly Blanchard. Thank you for meeting with me. I trust you are well?”

Matthew rose from his wood chair and shook her hand, returning her smile. “A pleasure, Miss Blanchard. I am, and you? Would you care for a glass of water? I’m afraid we don’t keep many refreshments on hand.” He motioned to the seat across the makeshift desk from him. “Please, have a seat and let me know what I can do for you today.”

“I’m quite fine, thank you.” She smiled as she took a seat but then she tilted her head to a side. His last sentence puzzled her a bit. Usually the characters she met knew she was there to interview them, but sometimes the authors neglected to tell this to the characters. Kelly wasn’t sure which was the case here. “I am here to find out all I can about you.” She smiled at him but then looked around and nodded. “I’m assuming you’re a reporter of some kind because of this place.” She shifted her gaze back to him. “How did that happen?”

Matthew poured them both a glass of water from the stand behind the table. Ruth Ann always filled it in the mornings and afternoon, making sure they had at least a semblance of fresh water on a warm day like today. “Yes, I’m a reporter. And editor. And publisher.” He laughed as he set the glass on the table in front of her and resumed his own seat, shoving his writings to jumble with the mess of Eastern newspaper he always kept on hand. “I couldn’t do it without Annie—Ruth Ann, my sister. I sort of dragged her into it at first, but now she’s every bit as good a reporter as I am.” Matthew fidgeted with one corner of the article he was editing for the front page. An article that had cost Ruth Ann dearly to get and write.

Matthew shook himself from those thoughts. “I got into this because I wanted to see the truth printed not just what a select few around here want to propagate. The Dawes Commission may or may not be about to divide the Choctaw Nation, but whatever happens, both sides will be heard.”

Kelly nodded and noted how he fidgeted at the paper, but she kept her eyes on him. “But why newspaper? I mean, you mentioned getting the truth out, and that is important, but…why this way?” Even as Kelly asked this, she wasn’t even sure if there was an alternative means to get the truth out, but she thought it was still important to ask.

Matthew hit the desk with his fist, rattling the water glasses. “There’s nothing short of God Almighty that’s more powerful than the press!” He leaned back and grinned. “At least, that what I always say when I’m about to do something especially crazy or dangerous and my sister tries to put a lump on my head.”

He grew somber. “We’ve had our share of scrapes with death. Shootings, fires. I’ve got threats on me now for the story I’m doing. But I wouldn’t choose anything else. This paper is reaching into the remotest parts of the Choctaw Nation, and I have to believe it’s doing good for our people. For all people, in fact. We draw no lines on race.”

Kelly nodded–a little taken back when he slammed his fist because she wondered just who she was dealing with here. She was told he was a protagonist–not an antagonist, but when he smiled, she relaxed a little. “So, tell me about your sister, your family. Are you the oldest? Are you married with a family of your own?” She watched him as she asked these questions.

Matthew sank deep into his chair, gazing past his guest and through the large picture windows that showed the mild side street in the town of Dickens. “I’m the oldest. Now. My brother Phillip was killed four years ago in a robbery. Along with my father. It’s a rough country.”

He pulled his gaze back inside. “No family of my own yet. It’s enough to look after Ruth Ann and our mother, Della Teller. Although either of them would be just fine on their own…” Not that he ever wished to see them left alone. But he was in a dangerous business. “We have the box house across from the railroad depot. Most of our family lives about nine miles south on a large ranch near the Red River. My grandmother, uncle, cousins and such. We go out there often, and they come to church, most of them on Saturday night. We never lack for company.”

“I’m sorry about your loss. I know what it’s like to lose a brother, but can you tell me about Peter? Who he was to you?” Kelly watched him closely because she knew this was a delicate subject. If he didn’t want to talk about it, she would change the subject.

Matthew picked up a pencil to fidget with before he ruined Ruth Ann’s article. “We were close.” Recalling what she’d said, he nodded sympathetically toward her. “I’m sorry for your loss as well.”

He cocked his head, selecting what part of his own story he wanted to share. “I was away at college in the States when it happened. Came straight home to Uncle Preston’s to see after my mother and sister. A few years later, along came Dickens, a mostly white town in Choctaw Nation. I went to work part-time at the Dickens Herald, and well, what I saw made me mad. That’s what prompted me to start the Choctaw Tribune.”

“So in a way, your brother helped you along this path.” Kelly observed as she sat back in her chair. “I want to focus on the Choctaw Tribune in a bit, but before we do, what is the one thing you learned from your brother? One thing you’ll always remember about him?”

Matthew smiled a little. “His laugh. People were never around him that they didn’t hear it, or that he didn’t make laugh. Of course, being brothers, it wasn’t all laughs with him. We had our quarrels.”

It took a moment, but Matthew decided to share one of these with Miss Blanchard. She’d come to ask questions and he was here to answer to her satisfaction. “I always was on him about not finishing his education. He is—was—the type that could win over his most bitter enemy if he’d had one, and he figured that was enough to see him through life. I guess our last talk alone before I left for my second year of school was a fight about him not going.” Matthew tossed down the pencil. “But I remember getting on the train and him making me laugh about something. That was the last time I saw Phillip.”

“At least he made you laugh one last time,” Kelly said softly, but then she shifted her attention to the other sibling he mentioned. “And Ruth Ann? What is she like?” She raised her brows.

This made Matthew laugh aloud. “If you met her on the street or in a store, you’d find her to be a quiet, sweet, modest Choctaw girl. Let me poke at her a bit, and she’ll start swinging her fists.” He shook his head. “She’s grown up a lot since we moved into town. Had to. Done things I never thought she would. She’s as committed to seeing this newspaper stay in business and the truth told as I am. And that’s saying something.”

Kelly smiled as he talked about his sister. He obviously loved her. “So, what’s the hardest thing about running this newspaper? You said you’re dedicated to getting the truth out, and I’m assuming that isn’t always safe.”

Leaning from his chair, Matthew rummaged through the box at his feet that held previous editions of the Choctaw Tribune. Ruth Ann had tried to organize them by date, but he always left them in disarray when shuffling through them. But in the short history of the paper, it didn’t take long to locate the one he wanted. He tossed it in front of Miss Blanchard, where the large front page headline read, Choctaw Tribune Opens in New Location After Fire.

“When I decided to run a rather controversial story, I found myself woke up in the middle of the night by our print shop being burned down. We got there in time to save the press, although it nearly killed me. And I almost killed a man over it.” Matthew folded his hands on the table in front of him, but looked Miss Blanchard in the eye. “Not everything I’ve done for the Choctaw Tribune I’m proud of.”

Kelly looked at the article then up at him. She saw he was closing up on her, and she understood that. “Why are people so adamant about what you publish? Is it someone specifically in the government or someone in charge or just the people in general?” She furrowed her brows as she set the article down and sat back to observe him.

Matthew rubbed his forehead a moment in thought. “That’s a large question, Miss Blanchard. You see, this is Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory, but whites have been here since the beginning. Some came in legally with work or business permits. Now you have the railroad and commerce. And the Dawes Commission that would split up the entire Choctaw Nation by land allotments. Plenty of white land speculators are counting on this, and there are many Choctaws who siphon off our public lands for their own good. I guess if you want to get to the bottom of it all, it’s money. And both sides will do just about anything to protect their own interests. Of course, there are men like Silas Sloan, who went on a shooting spree with other Choctaws, shooting Choctaws over all this infighting. Sloan was executed last fall by the Choctaw Lighthorse.”

He shrugged. “In short, the Tribune is threatened by white town leaders who are ready for the Indians to disappear from Indian Territory, Choctaws who are against anyone who has white blood, like me, and Choctaws who are in for their own gain. I take no one’s side and that puts pretty much everyone against us.”

“That must be very hard, but I admire your stand, and I pray that God will keep you safe.” But then Kelly thought of another question and tilted her head. “But what is driving you? You have these threats against your life, and you’ve already lost some.” She searched his eyes. “Why do you press on?”

Matthew sat back, staring at Miss Blanchard for several moments. Few had bothered to ask the question so directly—his family seemed to understand his passion and reasons. Which was good. He’d never had to explain them much. Now that he did, the answer came more easily than he thought it could. “This is the purpose God has for my life. I believe that with all my heart. If it costs my life someday, I will have lived it fully for Him.”

Kelly respected him for that answer, but she had to press once more. “And what of Ruth Ann? I get the impression she’s in danger–maybe more than you. As her older brother, aren’t you supposed to protect her?”

Matthew sighed. “That’s always my biggest concern. I tell Annie—Ruth Ann—all the time to tend things here in the shop and her usual advertising rounds and to leave the reporting to me. But it’s impossible to keep her still when she feels like she needs to do something. I guess she’s been called to it, and all I can do is protect her to the best of my ability and leave the rest in God’s hands.” He chuckled and shook his head. “You know, the worst scrape she got into had nothing to do with the newspaper. In fact, I made her stay home while I went to cover a witch hunters meeting. She and Mama were to go to Uncle Preston’s for the day. Little did I know she would be the one to encounter the witch hunters that day, not me.”

Witch hunters? Interesting. Kelly leaned forward into the story. “What happened?”

Matthew leaned forward as well, deadly serious. “Read all about it in last year’s paper.”

Grinning, he leaned back again. “You have a good knack for interviewing, Miss Blanchard. I don’t suppose you’ll be staying around here long enough to do a story or two for the Tribune?”

Kelly laughed. “Sorry, I’ve got other commitments, but thanks. That coming from an actual reporter is pretty awesome.” She grinned at him. “However, we still have a little time, so tell me, what is your greatest desire for this paper? If all were to go well?”

Matthew opened his mouth to reply, but just then, the telegraph wire finally went silent and Peter stuck his head out of the lean-to. “Hey, when are you going to introduce me to the pretty lady? I can’t just play checkers with D all day!”

Matthew shook his head and pointed one finger at his fifteen-year-old cousin. “That one reminds me most of Phillip. Gets him in trouble all the time.”

Peter ambled over, both hands in his pockets, grinning at Miss Blanchard. “I never get introduced around here, especially to lovely ladies. I’m Peter, and I keep this place going. No one is better on the wire, nor more modest about it either.”

Kelly smiled as she rose to her feet to greet him, offering him a hand to shake. “Peter, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Kelly Blanchard—just here you interview your cousin.” She motioned to Matthew then looked back at Peter. “I’m sure you are a very hard work, and that Matthew appreciate the effort he puts into it….even if he doesn’t say it much.” She chuckled but then looked back at Matthew. “My time is, unfortunately, about up. Won’t you ask my last question though?”

Matthew rose as well and nodded. “Of course. My greatest hope is for the Choctaw Tribune to be a driving force to hold our people and our nation together. Both nations, Choctaw and the United States. I’m a mixed blood, and believe every story is mixed too, with two sides, if we just bothered to read them.”

Kelly offered him a kind smile. “Hang onto that hope and have faith in God, and many great things can happen. I merely hope you stay safe in the meanwhile too.” She then shook Matthew’s hand. “Thank you for your time. I must be leaving now, but it was wonderful meeting you and having this conversation. I hope you the best in all your endeavors!”

Matthew nodded. “Same to you, Miss Blanchard. Safe travels to…where are you off to next?”

Kelly had to grin. “Oh, somewhere—I never know!” With that, she waved farewell and left with a smile.

Matthew shook his head. He understood that type of answer.

He sent Peter back into the telegraph office and reseated himself at his makeshift desk. Article drawn back in front of him, Matthew resumed writing his next article to the strains of violin music, the clattering of the telegraph sounder, and the words of Miss Blanchard that resonated with him.

God knows.


Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer’s book Choctaw history, ‘The Executions: Book One (Choctaw Tribune)’ can be purchased here:

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