Ohio history comes to life in local author Dr. Larry Powell’s first book, “Pathway of Departed Souls.” A work of fiction about a prehistoric moundbuilder family, the story is based on archaeological facts and set within present-day southern Ohio when the great moundbuilder civilizations were beginning to decline.
Powell, who grew up along the Ohio River, has studied the prehistoric cultures of the Ohio scenic river valley since he was a kid.
“History has always been my hobby. I grew up in Portsmouth and it was one of the biggest centers for the moundbuilders. There was a pretty good Native American historical presence,” said Powell.
The Hopewell mound builders refers to a cultural network of people who spanned from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and whose cultures existed primarily along rivers in the Ohio River Valley. What remains today of Ohio Hopewell cultures can be seen at the Newark earthworks and in Mound City, as well as in the Tremper mound located about five miles outside Powell’s hometown of Portsmouth.
“Behind my high school (Portsmouth Clay) there is a pipe quarry—a rock outcropping the Hopewell used where they got clay to make pipes, They have found in that mound (Tremper mound) hundreds of different kinds of effigy pipes, every animal you can think of,” Powell said.
Hopewell cultures made various earth mounds, burial centers, and geometric earthworks, which gave rise to the term moundbuilders, but of the little archaeological work that has been published on their cultural affairs, much of the Hopewell cultural history remains buried in the past.
And that buried history is what inspired Powell to begin writing his first book.
“These people have been forgotten about,” said Powell, who began to write the book in 2013. “That’s one of the reasons for writing the book. They were such big traders: they have found shark teeth and grizzly bear claws and they found some of the Ohio pipestone pretty far (away).”
Powell’s interest in Ohio history eventually led him to minoring in history at Ohio University in Athens. Today he is an avid outdoorsman, taking trips to the many Ohio rivers and trails around the mounds in the state, which is another reason he said he wrote the book.
“I have traveled to all of the places in the book. I am big-time hiker and kayaker and that kind of inspired me to start writing about the history of the places I go to,” said Powell.
Powell earned his Bachelor of Science from the Ohio University in Athens and later a Masters of education from Xavier University. He earned an educational leadership Ph.D from Ohio University and worked for more than 40 years as a principal and teacher in southern Ohio before retiring. He was just a few years into his retirement when the idea to write the book became his next journey in life.
“Life is an ongoing journey and it’s made up of your choices. Your character and everything else comes out of the choices you make. Some people make good choices, some make bad choices, but who you are is where you go and what you do,” said Powell.
Following his retirement from Miami Trace Local Schools, Powell began to put some of the historical information and research he had been gathering on the Ohio cultures into a book. Pathway of Departed Souls is realistic fiction—based on what archaeologists have uncovered on the ancient Hopewell cultures, which, Powell says, is significant, combined with myths. For example, some of the cultural mounds were aligned with lunar phases.
“The facts in the book (Pathway of Departed Souls) are what these people ate, their funeral celebrations, their mounds, and their relationships to astronomy. Things like … they had white fresh-water clam shells and white rock. They had a trading sphere from south Georgia and west to Colorado,” said Powell. “I added some common myths—pukwudgies and thunderbirds.”
Powell took his research, and with information he learned from talking with the Curator of Archaeology for the Ohio Historical Society Brad Lepper, he wrote a fictional story about what a family may have experienced in the Hopewell culture.
“The outdoor part, that’s a recurring theme: how to make a fire, how to make a shelter, what kind of plants can you use for medicinal purposes. I tried to make it to where they would say, yeah you can do that, that’s possible, that’s feasible. Sleeping outside is not real cool, but these people had to do it, they had to build temporary shelters,” said Powell.
Pathway of Departed Souls begins in present-day southern Ohio at Paint Creek around 495 AD. The main character is a young man in his 20s named Ahki.
“He’s actually like me. He likes the outdoors and being able to be by himself. Being outdoors helps relieve stress. The story starts with his brother being killed and starts with a funeral rites,” said Powell.
“The population is a little too much, the weather is changing, and they (Ahki’s family) decide they want to go somewhere else so they travel to another area,” said Powell. “He’s a shaman/warrior. He has a great knowledge of medicinal plants, based on facts (of the Hopewell culture). They use sunflower oil to keep the sun out. They used mushrooms in their ceremonies.”
By the end of the book, Ahki is in his 60s and decides to take a sabbatical, says Powell, when he runs into something unexpected.
“That’s the cliffhanger—he has left his family and wife behind,” said Powell.
Powell said he will be continuing his writing journey and his outdoor adventures in hiking and kayaking this summer. “To me, God’s cathedral is what I call the outdoors,” he said.
Powell will be one of the local authors featured at this year’s Fayette County Toast to Summer and Hot Air Balloon Glow. You can find him Saturday, June 25 in the author’s tent at the Fayette County Airport. Admission to the event is free and Powell will be signing copies of his book, which will be on sale for $13. His second book is tentatively scheduled for publication later this year.
Reach Ashley Bunton at the Record-Herald (740) 313-0355 or on Twitter @ashbunton