The inspiring reemergence of Debra Magpie Earling

Milkweed Staff — 12/22/2023

Books often come to us at Milkweed Editions in unusual ways, and Bitterroot Salish author Debra Magpie Earling’s work is no exception. The Missoula, Montana-based writer was highly referred to our Publisher & CEO Daniel Slager by Chris Dombrowski, a fellow Missoulian author who had already published a book with us. Slager was intrigued to learn that Earling had broken ground in the literary world with the publication of her highly-successful debut novel, Perma Red, back in 2002, only for the imprint to shutter its doors four years later, sending the novel out of print. He became even more curious after glimpsing a copy of Earling’s subsequent work: a fine press, hand-printed edition of what would become The Lost Journals of Sacajewea, originally commissioned by the Montana Historical Society.

Never mind the fact that The Lost Journals, as it then existed, was written entirely in verse; Earling’s penchant for visceral, gripping storytelling was immediately apparent—as was her boldness to bravely reimagine the whitewashed mythology of the American West, recasting two of its most famous heroes in dark, disruptive fiction. Here was an author commissioned to commemorate the famous expedition of Lewis and Clark, and who chose instead to use that once-in-a-lifetime platform to artfully critique colonialism and all those who continue to glorify its harmful legacies. Slager realized then that Earling was far from finished telling stories: in fact, she had most likely just begun.

After a series of fruitful conversations between Earling and Slager, the latter offered an anything-but-typical two-book deal—one which set Milkweed apart from other interested publishers by promising first to do justice by Earling’s debut novel by reissuing Perma Red, before then re-envisioning The Lost Journals into a full-length novel. Earling agreed, and after years of intensive collaboration with Slager, in 2022, the author’s debut novel was stunningly repackaged at Milkweed and reintroduced to wide acclaim.

Not long after, in Spring of 2023, we celebrated the publication of Earling’s second novel, The Lost Journals of Sacajewea, which was instantly embraced by national news outlets, including the New York Times, where it was hailed as “a formally inventive, historically eye-opening novel.” Earling’s trajectory has evolved over the years from back-list to banned-book to best-selling author. We’re thrilled to witness the inspiring reemergence of a major writer boldly reimagining American histories, and speaking out about critical issues like Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Earling’s work reminds us that paradigm-shifting literature is revelatory and essential—and worth protecting at all costs.