Diminutive Native Americans, thought to be the stuff of legends, are mistakenly transported to present-day New Seabury by four 12-year-old boys and a magic orb in the ground. The boys and their future adult selves are tasked with rounding up the four Pukwudgees and returning them to the past before they can wreak too much havoc on the present.
That’s the premise of Sandwich author Joe Cunis’s novel “Itchiwan,” released last year. Had you suggested I read “Itchiwan,” I would have replied that it didn’t look like a novel that would interest me, but after only a few pages I found that I couldn’t put it down. The book is action-packed, gruesome in more than a few places, but laugh-out-loud funny in others. For me, though, as the mother of four sons, I think I was drawn to Mr. Cunis’s four young protagonists: Timmy, Amos, Vernon and Brett. They are well-defined, likable, and easy to root for. You want to know what happens to them, and because the book goes back and forth between the past and the present, you get to find out a lot about them.
I especially enjoyed seeing how the boys’ friendship developed. Amos and Vernon are Wampanoag twin brothers. Brett is from a wealthy family that summers in New Seabury, Timmy’s family summers in Popponesset. As for the pecking order—as if it’s not enough to snub the people who grew up in the area—people from New Seabury, like Dr. Seuss’s star-bellied Sneeches, look down their noses at the Popponesset crowd. It’s gratifying, given some of the divisiveness that we’re seeing today, that the boys not only come together despite their cultural differences, but some of those differences are even shared and celebrated among the boys.
In the acknowledgements, Mr. Cunis said that the idea for the book came to him in 1986 when he was asked to write copy for the 25th anniversary of the New Seabury development. “I came across a wonderful book entitled ‘The Narrow Land: Folk Chronicles of Old Cape Cod’ by Elizabeth Reynard, first published in 1934. It was a treasure trove of local myths and legends! It caused me to ask ‘hey, what if…?’ And thus I brought some of those legends forward in time and gave them personalities of their own.”
When asked how an assignment from 30-plus years ago finally led to a novel in 2018, Mr. Cunis said he began writing the novel in the early 1990s. “In 1998 my daughter Kay was born. In 1993 we moved to Sandwich. In 2006 she graduated from high school and went off to Northeastern so I was preoccupied in those years enjoying the movie ‘Kay Growing Up.’ Also there was work. In 2007, The Ridge Club was sold and I was out of work. Up until then I had been pulling the book out and writing a bit here and there, but in 2007 I went full bore on it.”
In addition to the Pukwudgees, who can best be described as folkloric mischief makers, the Wampanoag giant Maushop plays a role in the plot development.
Without going into too much of the plot, I asked Mr. Cunis how much from what he refers to as the “time of legends” he made up and how much was actual folklore. “They are all real, as real as legends can be,” he said. “I learned the legends from Elizabeth Reynard’s book. She learned them, I read, from the Wampanoag Chief Wixon. I embellished everything as I’m sure storytellers throughout the ages have. Witch Pond is a real place and the witch Sarah and Hannah were also real, though I added embellishments.”
Mr. Cunis’s Pukwudgees are named Pomarat, Hysko, Massot, and Sarkem. Much of the book’s humor comes from the Pukwudgees’ interactions with present-day technology.
With a mix of both humor and horror I asked Mr. Cunis how he categorizes “Itchiwan.” “Defining its genre was the hardest thing to do when submitting it to agents,” he said. “I categorized it as thriller/suspense and mythology/folklore on Amazon but really, I’ll be darned if I know. It’s a bedtime story for adults.”
While this is Mr. Cunis’s first novel and a long one in the making, he’s already working on two more books, one a sequel to “Itchiwan.”
Mr. Cunis said he’s been interested in writing since high school, citing Edgar Allan Poe as an early influence.
Mr. Cunis said he was encouraged by his teacher, Sister St. James. “I wrote some pretty gruesome short stories and Sister St. James liked them. I couldn’t seem to horrify her.”
Describing his writing process as “when the spirit moves me,” Mr. Cunis said he works on his writing “mostly after supper, sometimes until after the clock strikes 12, sometimes in bed before sleep. Something hits and I write it down or else it will be gone.”
Mr. Cunis described his four protagonists as “amalgamations of the dynamic cultures I found through working and living in Mashpee in the eighties and the type of kids I grew up with in the late sixties. Once you give the characters a name and you’ve seen their face in your head, they are alive and seem to chart their own course.”
Character traits in the Pukwudgees also came from Mr. Cunis’s real-life experiences. “The fear Pomarat evokes is not from his size or appearance but from his confidence, swagger, his personality. He’s that person you start feeling uncomfortable around the moment his eyes meet yours or he speaks, even though his tone is gentle. You just sense danger and want to get away.”
Mr. Cunis’s advice for other would-be novelists was to “re-write again and again.” He also suggested reading “On Writing,” by Stephen King, “no matter what your genre or box is.”
“Itchiwan” was self-published by Mr. Cunis in December of last year and is for sale at a number of local bookshops including Titcomb’s Bookshop in Sandwich and Isaiah Thomas Books and Prints in Cotuit. So far, reaction to the book has been positive. “I never expected women to be the biggest fans of the story, but they are,” he said, citing several reviews on his website, which describe the book as “a fun ride from start to finish,” and a “terrific yarn,” and “a fast-paced page turner with a constant flow of creative mayhem.”