Category Archives: Historical Fiction

WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH

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Filed under Excerpts, Historical Fiction, Hull House, Nostalgia

1900 A NEW CENTURY

My last post  was an excerpt from BY GRACE and told of Grace Pelham’s Christmas Eve in 1898, spent at a lavish NYC ball. It is a year later and Grace is now known as Glenda Pearson, housekeeper for the unfriendly Reverend Stans and his wife in Virginia City, Montana. She is on the run for her life with her nemesis Jeremy in hot pursuit.

Christmas and New Year’s came and went quietly in the Stans’ household. The Reverend held two extra, well-attended services and the ladies of the church set pine boughs about the sanctuary. Half a dozen children performed the Christmas story and reminded Glenda of her time at Hull House. She was not asked to assist, even though her artistic talents were known from her sketching walks about town.

Church members provided for the holiday feast. Glenda ate alone in the warm kitchen while the Stans ate in their room. If they exchanged gifts, Glenda didn’t know of any, nor did she buy anything for them. Her first month would soon draw to a close and she debated about remaining with the Stans. She knew Virginia City had no other employment to offer and a move to the boarding house would eat into her cash reserves. She couldn’t face another stagecoach ride in the dead of winter. Her book-safe, Robinson Caruso, held her money but, given the uncertainty of her future, she was reluctant to spend it on room and board. She would wait to see what salary the Stans offered now that her fare was more than repaid.

The new century arrived without fanfare. Gunshots sounded at midnight as snow began to fall. The blizzard arrived before noon, putting a damper on the town’s spirits. Doors remained closed, drapes were drawn against the cold and scarcely a body, human or animal, moved through the streets. It was two days before the storm slowed and a weak sun filtered through the clouds. Slowly, the town came to life.

***

I will be back in January…after traveling in the Yucatan

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Filed under Excerpts, Historical Fiction, New Year

CHRISTMAS IN NEW YORK 1898

BY GRACE is the second book in the Huachuca Trilogy. When Grace Pelham, an orphaned storekeeper’s daughter from Albany, sets out for New York City to pursue her art, she meets up with people on board the Mary Alice who will  influence her. The Schuyler family includes Eric and Gertrude and their young twin sons, Bertie and Charlie. Grace is drawn to Eric who causes new, uncomfortable sensations. She is later surprised by an invitation to the very wealthy Schuylers’ Christmas Eve Ball.  Grace accepts.

THE SCHUYLERS’ CHRISTMAS EVE BALL

Dinner was a long affair with good food and good talk. Grace looked once or twice to the head table to catch a glimpse of Eric, Gertrude or his parents. Soon, both couples were circulating around the room, stopping at one table or another to speak briefly with each group.

Watching them, Chastity cocked an eye at Grace, and spoke softly. “All society knows  Gertrude is wildly jealous of her husband. She keeps an eagle eye on any attractive woman who comes within shouting distance of him.” Grace looked appalled. “It’s amazing you have gotten this close. Beware of her fangs!”

Before Grace could respond, the Schuylers were nearing the table. She thought of excusing herself to head to the powder room and then decided that would be too obvious a snub. Instead, she gathered her wits and prepared for another encounter with Gertrude and her barbs.

“Dancing will start in the main ballroom in a short while,” said Gertrude. “I hope you will find this new orchestra appealing.” Gertrude put a good face on things, having sheathed her slings and arrows

“But first, we’ll have some carolers from Epiphany School serenade us and sing us into the ballroom,” added Eric, just as the sound of “Deck the Halls” resounded from the entry.

The grandeur of the dining room had impressed Grace with its flocked and silvered wallpaper hung above cherry wainscoting, drapery of fine silk and delicate crystal chandeliers. The ballroom nearly took her breath away.

“I had the same reaction when I first saw this room,” whispered Chastity. “It makes me think of Cinderella and her prince.”

The highly polished floor of intricate parquet spread out before them. Immense fireplaces sat in the east and west walls of the room, each big enough to fit a foursome for a game of whist. Silver and gold garlands hung throughout the room and reflected the light from chandeliers and wall sconces. Several chandeliers tinkled in a breeze from the opened doors on the south side of the room. A Christmas tree, easily twenty feet tall, glittered in one corner. Hand painted ornaments retold the Christmas story while star-held-candles sat on the tree’s branches.

“I think I have died and gone to heaven,” Grace whispered to Chastity as they moved across the vast room. Their little dinner group stayed together with the men making places for the ladies on the brocaded settees and tiny chairs along one wall.

The Epiphany choristers gathered near the tree and ended their performance with a medley of traditional carols and then slipped out the side doors and were gone in a flash. From an overhead gallery, a large orchestra immediately began a waltz to entice dancers. Both Schuyler couples moved onto the dance floor and met with applause as they dipped and twirled about the room. In moments, the floor was full of couples, young and old, slim or stout, all showing their enjoyment in smiles and trills of laughter.

Grace’s dance card was soon filled with the promise of a long evening. She was glad for the lessons at Mrs. Thompson’s Dance Academy that she had begged from her father. At times, she scarcely learned her partner’s name before she was whisked away by the next. When a break in the music came, she found Chastity locking arms and leading her to the balcony. A maid stood at each door to offer wraps to the women who sought to take the air. All along the terrace, men and women were resting from their exertions on the dance floor and chatting or flirting with their companions.

“Good, here come Ralphie and Bob Warren with drinks for us,” said Chastity

As the foursome downed the cool champagne punch, Gertrude and Eric came out on the balcony. Eric had his arm about his wife’s shoulders and was talking to her with deep concentration. Grace felt a knot form in her stomach as she watched them. Gradually, they  forfeited their privacy as guests vied for their attention with compliments and congratulations on the fine party.

Chastity nudged her, “A penny for your thoughts.”

She was saved from answering when a drum roll called the dancers back inside to find Santa and his elves gathered near the tree. With many a “ho, ho, ho,” Santa began calling ladies to his side. To each he gave a gift, carefully wrapped in silver and gold foil. When Grace’s turn came, she approached and recognized “Santa” as Eric’s father.

“And are you having a good time, m’dear?”

“Yes, Santa and I have been a good girl all year.”

Santa beamed. “That’s what I wanted to hear. Now, here’s your reward. Enjoy!”

On returning to her friends, Grace opened the slim envelope to find a membership card for the Museum of Art resting inside. She looked up to find Eric watching her from across the room. She nodded her thanks, and saw by his answering smile that the gift had been his doing. Beside her, Chastity found a silver pen in her gift box.

“I wonder how Santa knew of my poetry attempts!”

The evening whirled on with surprise after surprise. The season’s opera diva made an appearance and sang her famed aria. Teddy Roosevelt, so recently back from Cuba, rumbled in after midnight, in good time for the light buffet. A duo of flamenco dancers entertained, their lightning steps and graceful maneuvers putting the audience to swaying. Jugglers dressed as court jesters kept balls flying.

By four in the morning, Grace was sure she couldn’t drink more champagne, dance another dance or eat another morsel. She knew from Chastity that the Schuylers would serve breakfast at six for the diehards who remained. She intended to be in her bed by then. Taking leave of her friends and refusing offers of an escort back to The Lily Hotel for Ladies, Grace made her way to the entry where she asked for her things and her ride home.

Grace slept in late on Christmas morning, her head full of memories and dreams. She kept to her room most of the day, thinking back to Christmases past and drawing her visions of Albany, the store, the apartment and the town. At two o’clock, over a fresh cup of tea, she drew a random mark that evolved into the outline of a man’s head. It took shape and became her father’s image. Not a picture of his last days, but from her childhood when health and hope were still his. She caught his essence in the finished work, as her tears swelled to the surface.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from BY GRACE.  Watch for its publication in the coming year as Grace flees NYC in fear for her life and makes her way West.

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Filed under Christmas, Excerpts, Historic New York, Historical Fiction

THANKSGIVING, ARIZONA TERRITORY 1888

EXCERPT FROM ROSE OF SHARON

At noon on an unusually balmy Thanksgiving Day, the ranch yard was jumping with activity. Guests were arriving, but not Miss Jacks. Blake had delayed so long in inviting the teacher, she had accepted another invitation by the time he got up his courage to ask. Rose had something to say on the matter when she approached him as people gathered.

“I surely do wish you’d invited Miss Jacks. I think she’s sweet on you, too.”

Blake blushed in shades of pink below his tan. “Why do you say that?”

“You mean about wishing she’d come or that she’s sweet on you?”

“I don’t know, both, I guess.” He didn’t look at her, struggling to find something to distract them both.

“She watches out the window when you come to school and she asks about you.”  Rose answered with a big smile. “I just plain like her, and you do, too.”

“Better look to our guests,” he mumbled, even redder in the face.

The Tomlins, with their father and husband home from the sawmill up Carr Peak, accounted for six visitors and brought peach pies and “smashed” potatoes, as their three year old called them. The elderly Browns added home-canned green beans and cornbread to the table. Blake’s fresh caught wild turkey roasted in the yard pit with the children taking turns at rotating the bird on its spit. Venison steaks and ears of corn were added to the feast as they came off the grill.

“I think that turkey is about done, don’t you, Miz Brown?” Jim was quick to seek the experienced woman’s counsel.

She demurred, just briefly, and then spoke in a thick, lady-like southern accent. “I do believe you are right, my boy.” She prodded the leg of the bird and juices ran into a pan sitting in the fire for that purpose. “We will have us some fine gravy to go with the Tomlin’s taters. Please take that pan in the house and I’ll work it up.”

“Yes, Ma’am, I’ll do just that.”  Jim grinned and caught up the pan with a coarse cloth serving to protect his hands.

“Come along, Rose,” said Mrs. Brown. “Y’all can be of help and learn at the same time.” She put her arm around the child’s shoulder and Rose snuggled into her embrace.

“My mama made good gravy.”

“I’m sure she did, child. Ours will be different from your mama’s, but I think we will do alright.” They busied themselves with the drippings, flour and milk, whipping it to a frothy blend in a separate pot. “Did your mama ever use our desert sage in her gravy?”

“I don’t think so, Ma’am. .” She watched Mrs. Brown open a tiny cheesecloth bag to reveal a dusty gray matter and stir a small quantity into the gravy. “Maybe my grandma back in Texas used it.” She couldn’t remember for sure.

“I suspect you are right, my dear.” She tapped Rose’s hand gently. Jacob, Rose of Sharon’s twin, ran in and grabbed the pan back from the pair, yelling as he went, “It’s done. We can eat.” Rose carried the thickened and flavorful gravy out to the table while Mrs. Brown brought out her beans and the potatoes. Others scurried about pouring milk and coffee, placing utensils around the table, heading back into the cabin for last minute needs.

“Mr. Brown, sir, would you do us the honor of carving the turkey?” Blake asked. He handed the tools over to the older gent.

“Don’t mind if’n I do.” Though from somewhere in the south, his speech wasn’t as genteel as his wife’s and that caused some folks to wonder how they’d come together. But, in the custom of the west, it wasn’t something polite folks would ask. As far as their neighbors knew, they’d been in the area for more than thirty years and had no children or other family. They’d put in orchards of apples and walnuts early on and prospered in feeding the workmen and families of the San Pedro River Valley and its mining communities.

When the group settled at the table, Blake asked if one of the twins would recite the old Bobbie Burns grace after explaining its family history to those gathered. Jacob and Rose, seated on opposite sides of the table, nodded and spoke the grace in chorus as they’d practiced for a week.

“Some hae meat, and canna eat,

And some hae none that want it.

But we hae meat and we kin eat,

So, let the Lord be thankit.”

“Why, thank you, children. That was very nice,” said Mrs. Tomlin. “I’d like to learn it for our family to say.”

“It’s in old Scottish, my mama said, but I bet you could learn it.” Rose was proud to pass on her mother’s custom to one and all. She stated it line by line, with first Mrs. Tomlin repeating and then others joining in. Jacob’s grin spread ear to ear as the old refrain was echoed about the long table.

“It’s surely fitting for us this Thanksgiving for ‘we hae meat and we kin eat,’ just as it says.” Mr. Brown leaned over and kissed his wife which got all the young ones giggling.

“Mr. Brown, you surely do taste sweet as ever,” she said. Giggles gave way to pure laughter.

With bowls and dishes flying up and down the table, the meal was the richest feast many had seen in months. For the Welty twins, it was a little reminder of meals taken at their grandmother’s table back in Texas. Those memories were growing faint, especially as their new life filled in voids and emptiness with laughter, good stories and new friends. Later, around a campfire, the grownups talked while the children ran about in a game of hide and seek. The talk was quietly shared over coffee and a bit of brandy in some cups. The Tomlins and Browns expressed regrets for not getting to know the Welty parents before the raiders came and killed the parents while the children watched from nearby.

“I surely wish those young’uns had known where to come to us for help. That walk across the desert had to have been awful,” said Mrs. Tomlin. She was gently bouncing her newest child in her arms.

Jim spoke up. “Yes, ma’am, it was hard on them, but I don’t know if we’d have caught up to the murderers without Blake here recognizing them from the twins’ description.”

“The marauders were blabbing about what they did at that place in Bisbee, so somebody would have gone to check, I’m sure,” Blake answered.

Mr. Tomlin added, “Maybe so, but by the time the sheriff could do that, they’d have been long gone.”

“You got that right,” said Jim.

“The important thing is for them to grow up believing the Good Lord will keep watch over them from now on.” Mrs. Brown said this with an emphasis in her voice.

“Yes’m,” said Blake. He silently renewed his vow to protect them with his life, if need be. “And they need a mother,” Mrs. Brown added

                                                  Blake squirmed in discomfort and thought of Elise Jacks for the umpteenth time that day.

A quietness settled on the adults as the sun moved to the west and the shadows of the Huachucas descended into the canyon. Birds were twittering the last songs of the day just as the children drifted closer to the fire. One by one they sought its warmth. Three year old Benjy Tomlin climbed into his father’s lap while his two older sisters found comfort nearer to their mother and Mrs. Brown. Rose and Jacob squatted on the ground between Blake and Jim with Rose resting her head against Blake. He settled his arm on her shoulder.

One of the ladies started to hum the old hymn “Now the Day is Over.” Soon, everyone joined in, singing the words.

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FROM MY READING CHAIR

THE TELLING OF LIVES, PART III 

Previously in this series, I have explored biography and autobiography as ways in The Telling of Lives.  Now, I want to turn your attention to fictional autobiography.

Clara Estby, the real-life protagonist in Jane Kirkpatrick’s The Daughter’s Walk, had no understanding of her mother’s farfetched idea to walk across the United States in hopes of winning a $10,000 prize that would save the family farm near Spokane. Helga was a very determined Norwegian immigrant, a believer in women’s right to vote and even to wear the “reform/bicycle dress” that the backers of the contest were putting forth. In near financial ruin after her husband’s disabling accident, the family was in desperate straits. 

In May 1896, mother and daughter set off on a journey of 3500 miles, a multitude of hardships and some kindnesses along the way. Their destination was New York City by December 13. Their route went along railroad tracks. It was to be a test of feminine stamina. It was also seen by Helga as a means to protect Clara from making a mistake in falling for the son of her rich employer. Clara’s plans for college and a life different from the farm literally fell by the wayside. 

The story draws on truth from the many newspaper accounts and records of the day, on interviews with descendants and on interpretation or speculation from those facts to fill in the unknown parts of the story. Two weeks late at their December arrival and losing the challenge, mother and daughter are left to make their way back home nearly penniless. On arrival, desperation greets them. Two of the younger children have died and the family is in quarantine. Helga collapses and Kirkpatrick catches the emotions of grief eloquently and succinctly:

“Grief has many siblings. Anger, isolation, sadness, guilt, and, yes, distraction, avoidance, pretense. I met them all in the weeks that followed. So did our family.”

 Feeling detached from the only family she has known, Clara leaves, assumes another name and is befriended by two older women. They offer her employment and the fulfillment of her college dreams. The women are furriers and have many contacts in New York as well as overseas. As Clara is drawn into the business, she is also drawn to the company’s salesman. Clara moves from bookkeeper to business owner/manager; she seldom turns away from a challenge, including learning to trap and going out by herself into the wintery woods.

Jane Kirkpatrick writes strongly of human relationships in the characters she depicts. The author shows us the attitudes, values and mannerisms of her characters:

            “Design doesn’t interest me,” I said.

            “To humor you: where would we trap?” Franklin asked. He wasn’t scowling now. He  looked more curious, surprised even.

             “I’d buy land. The right kind of land, where I’d trap.”

            “It’s not women’s work. You’re already thin as spaghetti,” Louise said.

             Franklin shook his head.

            “Women’s work is defined by women doing it,” I said.

 

The issue of Clara’s estrangement from her family is woven throughout the story and explains or accounts for twenty years of silence. This, too, is a source of grief and it seems Clara relies on relentless work to stave off its “siblings.” Reconciliation eventually occurs.

A talented writer like Jane Kirkpatrick takes the tiniest thread of a story and weaves it into a whole with fact and fiction.

* * *

At her website, Susan Vreeland writes on the origin of her book The Forest Lover, a biographic novel of the Canadian artist, Emily Carr. Vreeland poses and answers a question: “Then what are the differences between biography and fiction on a historical person? A biography reports while a novel shows. A biography is read in order to become informed about a person’s life. A novel is read in order to feel what it might have been like to live that life.”   

Do you agree with Vreeland? 

Do you have a preference in form?

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Conferencing and This Writer

What did the ancient poet say to the historical novelist?

 “Fancy meeting you here!”

 

            I have written about the importance of writer conferences in my life and that of others, here and elsewhere (Redwood Writers June  newsletter.) Today, I am just barely off the boat from the seaside San Diego fourth bi-annual conference of the Historical Novel Society in the United States. The Society began in Great Britain some fourteen years ago and has spread its wings to varied parts of the world as historical novels have flourished. This was my third conference, having missed the 2007 in Albany, NY.  Like Topsy, the sessions have grown in number and relevance.

Invariably, HNS attracts the likes of Susan Vreeland, Diane Gabaldon, Cecilia Holland, and Harry Turtledove. With sessions devoted to a multitude of topics, some may be thought to favor male writers (who attended hugely!) but were found to be attractive to both sexes: World War II and Naval History. Sessions included: Historical Fiction Goes Digital with Women Writing the West’s Michelle Black, Ann Parker(also of WWW) and others spoke of Keeping a Series Fresh, and Persia Woolley (of WWW and Redwood Writers) spoke of Second Harvest: New Life for Your Earlier Works…a smattering of the 25 meetings available to 300 participants in thee days.

Famously published, debut writers, the “pre-published” met, dined and socialized with agents and editors looking for new clients. Then, there were the Friday Night Fight Scenes readings after the dinner and Turtledove’s keynote. Saturday evening’s comments by Cecilia Holland with gorgeous display of period costumes from ancient Rome to 19th century Americana found me ” too tired, dear,” to stay for the Saturday Night Sex Scene Readings.

What purpose did the conference serve me?  Persia as a charming friend and roommate; meeting the incoming president of WWW, Pam Tartaglio; chats with Ann Parker, Brigitte Goldstein,  and new acquaintances; immersion in the gifts and energy of other writers; free books(10?) and those I purchased.

I also gained the interest in my work by one agent and two editors. Not a bad ratio out of three pitches, hmm?

Readers: sorry I haven’t mastered the use of photos or this page wouldn’t be so gray. I will keep writing until I build that skill.   Next up: travel tales and book reviews. Watch out world, Arlettawrites is back!

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WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH

Women’s History Month has its roots here in Sonoma County, CA. In 1978,  the local Commission on the Status of Women called for a week in March to be set aside to acknowledge the struggles and accomplishments of women. By 1980, the Women’s History Project was underway and Congress declared March our month.

Many women have influenced my life but in this day of attacks on the labor movement and hard-won labor rights I want to honor one woman who led the way, often with controversy. I hope you enjoy this tale. 

Excerpt from HUACHUCA WOMAN     Benson, Arizona   July 1917

Wiping her face of rivulets of sweat, she walked away from him and took a shady bench seat under the eaves of the station house, right alongside me. She was a smallish woman, getting on to thirty or thereabouts, fine featured with a full head of soot black hair, her crowning glory. She had the look of too many miles, too few good nights’ sleep and too much bad food. Her color was off and dark circles pooled under her gray blue eyes. She gave a faint smile.

             “Don’t think I’ll ever grow accustomed to the Arizona sun,” she said, fanning at the heat waves with her bit of the El Paso Herald.

            “I’m Arizona born and bred,” I said. “I’m still not used to it. Name’s Josephine Nichols.”

            “I am pleased to make your acquaintance. I am Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.”

            “The one they call ‘the rebel girl?’”

            “My main claim to fame,” she answered.

            “Believe I’ve read about you. You went out and made speeches for those lady silk workers in New Jersey about three, four year ago. Newspaper picture didn’t do you justice and I ‘spect they didn’t do so well by your speech either.”

            “You have that right. The newsies tend to intentionally garble what I say most of the time. Fortunately, the workers heard my message for themselves. It was a time.”

            “Is that what you do?  I mean, travel around the country and talk folks up?”

            “That and some writing,” Elizabeth answered. “What are you doing in this god forsaken place?”

            I laughed. “That’s my machine and trunks they’re trying to get loose. I’m heading back to my folks’ ranch with my boys.” I watched my sons horse around, in their usual fashion, and smiled when I caught Willy’s attention. He waved back. “Their daddy has gone off to the war.”      

“A soldier?  You’d think men would learn from their women to gather over the back fence or a cup of coffee and settle their differences before rushing off to kill one another.”

            “You sound like my Peter. He’s spent the last year or so saying that to anyone that’d listen. When the United States joined in the fray, he studied on it some more until he found a way to help. He’s gone off to drive ambulance for the Red Cross.”

            “Good for him. I hope he returns safely to you. And soon.”

            Wanting to shift the discussion away from Pete, my constant worry, I asked, “Who’s that man y’all were talking to? Your husband?”

            “No, no. He’s Big Bill Haywood, chief organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. Some call us ‘Wobblies’ or the IWW. Some call him a ‘rabble rouser.’ There’s no one quite like him for getting the attention of working folks and management alike.”

            “Where y’all headed?”

            “There’s been some ugly business in Bisbee.”

            “Land’s sakes, those mines are so dangerous that it’s big time news when a month goes by without an accident,” I told her.  “Makes the headlines hereabout.”

             “They‘ve been saying the IWW down there is full of traitors and immigrants, people who don’t belong here.”

            “I’ve heard it said,” I responded. “Along the border here, most Mexican laborers come over for a time but go home when they want, and take their money with them.”

            “You might be surprised. The mining companies, at first, recruited Cornish, Welsh and German Austrian miners for their skills.” She took off her jacket and undid a few buttons of her blouse.  I followed suit and found some relief from the heat. “Now, these folks are a long ways from home and, for most, there’s no going back. They’ve settled here, become citizens, own land, have bank accounts, kids in local schools.”

            “German friends of ours just got chased out of El Paso a couple of months ago.”  I could see their sad faces as we saw the Kohls off at the station. “You’re right, there’s no going back to Germany for them. Just back to New York to be with more German Americans, to spare the children not fitting in.”

            “It’s a sad time for some, no doubt about it. Most of us have only a generation or two to look back to for immigration stories. My own family is lace curtain Irish.” She looked blankly into the distance as if seeing her ancestors.       

            “True enough,” I said. “Though to hear some talk, you’d think their people built and rowed the Mayflower across all by theirselves.”

            We both shifted in our seats as the sun moved further west and the shade slid off the bench. We fanned ourselves with more vigor. Late afternoon was coming on quickly toward dusk, still the heat held on. Shimmering light danced off a rock wall across the tracks. Flies hovered over horse patties on the parallel trail while a lizard, long and lean, scurried from under the station platform to begin its trek along the rails.

            Willy and Jim-boy, tired of supervising the repairs, collected coins from the crowd and went in search of cool drinks at the drug store down the road.  I felt drowsiness come on me. Elizabeth’s head lolled to her shoulder, causing her to shake awake. She shifted again in her seat and offered an embarrassed grin.

            “Your sons are quite a nice twosome.”

            “They’re good boys. Do you have children?”

            “I have a son, Fred. We call him Buster,” her face lit up. “He’s seven and spending the summer at the shore with the family. Mama and my sister Kathie look after him since I am away so much.”

            “It must be hard to be so far from him. I mean, if he were to get sick or something.”  I felt I had blundered badly here.

            “You’re right for he’s a thin one and has been sickly. He gets the bronchitis in his lungs and he had appendicitis last fall. Fortunately, I was home at that time. We kept him out of school for the rest of the year, fearing he’d get the infantile paralysis. It’s really bad back in New York.”

            “So I’ve heard. I had a brother die of lung disease,” I said. “Most of the lung problems out this way comes from the mining, but William Ebert didn’t have a chance to burrow under even if he’d a wanted. My first husband was a rock hound, but mostly on the surface.”  She asked after him and I repeated that sad story.

            We talked more of our families and their beginnings. Elizabeth much admired her well-read mother who inspired her daughters to go out into the world and make their mark. She spoke of her son in a wistful way, like a fancy doll she could take off the shelf and hold on special occasions, but didn’t dare get dirty. She worried that Buster would grow to resent her work for keeping her from him. I had no answer to that for I’d never had that particular fear, despite my own work.

            Talking of this and that, in the way women will do, I was interested in how she had traveled all about the country. In my limited experience, few women traveled alone. She had been in the Minnesota mines, the Mesabi Range, that summer, to Seattle and Boston and points in between. I thought she was very brave and told her so.

            “I don’t know that it is bravery, but I thank you. It’s just the way I am. I guess I’ll be fighting for better wages and working conditions until the end of my days. How about you, what do you see for yourself?”

            “I don’t rightly know,” I answered slowly for in contrast, I felt my life to be of  little social worth. “For now, I want to work the ranch. Get up before the chickens, ride the fence line, go on roundup with my daddy and sons, gossip with Mama and be pampered some by her. All the time praying that Peter comes home safe and sound.”

            “I’d say you have your work cut out for you.” She smiled warmly at me, as if knowing my doubts. “What’s Bisbee like?”  Elizabeth asked.

“It’s not hardly like any place else you’ve been, I ‘spect. There’s scarcely a level plain in the whole town. It’s all hillsides and topsy-turvey buildings, a bowl of a town with the houses barely stuck to the sides. And dominating it all are the mines with their sulphur fumes, dust, noise and saloons.”

            “Sounds lively,” said Elizabeth.

            “It’s had fire and floods and horrible epidemics, but it just keeps on thrivin’ and survivin’. One thing about Bisbee, you never know what’s gonna happen next. But something will. That’s Bisbee.”

            “Did you know the miners at the Copper Queen went out on strike?”

            “I been so busy packing up my household, I didn’t get many details,” I said, apologetically. “Is it settled yet?”

            “Far from it. Two thousand good citizens of Bisbee, including company men and spies from the Justice Department, took it upon themselves to run some twelve hundred men out of town, county and state.” Elizabeth stood up and paced on the platform in front of me. “Dragged them out of their beds, and crammed them into boxcars. By sizzling hot noon, they were out in the middle of the desert, at some place called Hermanas in New Mexico. Kept locked up overnight, with little water or bread and no sanitary facilities.” She turned and stared at me.

“Good heavens,” I said. “I’ve heard of pogroms in Europe where they gathered up the Jews and run them off like that. Who’d have thought that could happen right here to home. What’s happened since?”

She took a big breath, came and sat with me again. Her shoulders slumped, perhaps in sorrow, perhaps in fatigue.

            “A few were able to make it back to Bisbee, including our IWW lawyer who was caught up in the transport. Most, though, are sitting it out at the Army base near Columbus with no funds or way to get back here, and under a death threat if they do come.”

            “Now, that ain’t right. I imagine there’s family men amongst them?”

            “Absolutely. Most are citizens. Maybe half registered for the draft, have families and property. There’s even local businessmen caught up among the deportees.”

            “I’m shamed. War or no war, that ain’t right. But you still haven’t said what you’re doing out here, so far from New York.”

            A red capped porter was waving folks to board the branch line, the flatcar affixed in place. Willy and Jim-boy had long since settled down on the platform to wait and were now jumping on board and calling to me. We gathered up our satchels and climbed onto the train.

            “I was headed back east when I got a telegram from Big Bill, asking if I’d come down and speak to the strikers, try to give them heart,” Elizabeth said. “I’ll do that and then be on my way.”

            “All I can say is, you got grit, girly, and out here, that’s saying a mite.”

            She gave me a wide open smile and a pat on my arm. We said our goodbyes as I headed to the forward car and my boys, and she moved to the rear with her escort and the men he’d gathered to him. The boys and I wouldn’t be going as far as Bisbee, but unload at Hereford and head to the ranch. Pity was, I liked that young woman. I think we’d have been fast friends, given the chance.

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FROM MY READING CHAIR

Writing gurus have said over the years, “write what you love and love what you write.”  That comes easily for me for Historical Fiction is what I read and write. Of course I depart on both counts from time to time. I love a good mystery/suspense/adventure story or a biography, usually of  a writer.  Then, there are the mainstream novels I should read but barely get to a smidgen of them. Since this is my Blog, from time to time, I will share with you my impressions of books I read.  Today, it is a batch of historicals.

Child of the Northern Spring: Book One of the Guinevere Trilogy (Paperback) published (re-issue) 2010 by Sourcebooks, 545 pages

Persia Woolley has walked the walk in her research on King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere. She brings the times (6th century Britain) alive with poetical visions and imaginings of the people and characters of Camelot and its origins. Accurate in detail and filled with the tone, habits and customs of the day, we are thrust back into an historical time coated with mystery and mythology. More than this, Woolley develops stories of what might have been the early lives of Guinevere and Arthur, drawing on legend, history and extrapolations of her imagination. The characters come alive as people with strong feelings, dreams and hopes…and flaws. The reader is granted a glimpse into the strife, political and religious, that was the emergence of a united Britain. Woolley is, indeed, a gifted writer and Arthurian specialist. Sourcebooks is to be commended for re-issuing this wonderful trilogy.

Dina’s Lost Tribe (Paperback) published 2010 by iUniverse, 402 pages

Brigitte Goldstein holds a PhD in history and I am tempted to say it doesn’t show; by that I mean that her story is not a thesis, a lecture or dry accounting. It abounds with heart and the lyricism of poetry. The story is complex, weaving its way from the 13th to the 20th centuries. A secret village and culture hidden in the Pyrenees for centuries is gradually brought to light through the codes of its founder and the interpretations and fears of its successors. When historian Nina Aschauer seeks her mysterious birthplace, she meets the love of her life and fades from view. On finding Dina’s codex, Nina enlists the help of her scholarly friend Etoile and cousin Henner. The unraveling begins. Rich in the history of Judaism and of French culture, Dina’s Lost Tribe offers a unique worldview from an author well-versed in both…and captivating adventures well-told.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany (Hardback) published 2011 by Random House, 397 pages

Susan Vreeland gained access to a treasure trove of Clara Driscoll’s letters that reveal a 21st century truth about a 19-20th century icon. The amazing output of work that came from the Louis Comfort Tiffany studios nearly always carried his name with seldom a nod to other designers. The letters to her family came to light in 2005 and, with them, Clara Driscoll’s design history of Tiffany lamps and windows emerged. Vreeland has drawn a dynamic sketch of Clara, her loves, her skills and her turmoil. As she leads the Women’s Department strike for equity of wages with the Men, she is magnificent.  In love, she is tragic and vulnerable. In dealings with the genius who is her boss, she is both timid and brave. The book coats a vivid picture of the times as well as the characters.

The Shanghai Girls (Paperback) published 2010 by Random House, 314 pages

Lisa See writes passionately of her Chinese heritage no matter the era or place. In this, perhaps the darkest of her books, we see two sisters mired in the falsity of the glittering life that was Shanghai of the 1930’s. As “beautiful girls,” they are ill-prepared for their father’s fall into ruin or the invasion of the Japanese army; their arranged marriages to two “American-Chinese” helps them in their flight but confounds them in their new reality that is Angel Island and Los Angeles. This is a book of relationships, the ins, outs and twists of sisterhood, parenthood, marriage and extended family. As the book draws to a close, the sisterhood that has dominated the story evolves into a new understanding and depth. Can a sequel be far behind, one that marks the return to 1970’s China?

All of these books are available through Amazon or your favorite independent bookstore.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Opinion

CLARA’S AIR

For thirty-five years, February has been National Black History Month.  Celebrations, rallies, and special events happen across the country in schools, parks, churches and other venues.  I wrote the poem, CLARA’S AIR, on a warm spring evening four years ago and it was published online by Janet Riehl on her blog site www.riehlife.com that summer. To commemorate the sacrifices, endurance and accomplishments of Black Americans, I offer it up again.

 CLARA’S AIR

 Old Mom-Mom told her,“it’s a track without a train,

a railroad running north and, sometimes, underground.”

In the dead of night,with more stealth than wealth,

they slipped onto the barque of a Louisiana swamp.

Three dark panthers melding into the shadows’ thin cover,

where a white man at the helm did hover.

Fear and quiet made the slither of pole on green water

seem to shout upon the wild river.

Near to dawn, they put in at land, there to await,the next helping hand.

In a slimy cave they rested, in Mom-Mom’s lap, Clara’s head softly nested

Sullied water and moldy bread,a wormy apple or bright berries,

it was on these they fed.

Night two or was it more?

Gators snapping as carefully they stepped in mud and gore.

Sounds of tiger growls rent the air,

when the tree snake reached down to dust Clara’s curly hair.

Dawn found them on a sandy beach,

here to hide and keep watch all day against the sound of dogs at bay!

When Clara’s feet began to bleed, Mom-Mom tore her turban

to wrap those tiny feet beyond the scent of any breed.

Night after night, they traveled on. Hiding again at first light,

always searching for guide or clue to carry them from all they knew.

Until Clara wondered at seeking more, hiding from the searchers,

 their dogs and gun, when hope itself had nowhere to run.

Hiding in cramped attics or soured hay, behind a secret wall,

under a bed or up a tree, caused them often to pray.

A thin soup, a crust of bread, an ear of corn to chew, where came the next meal, they seldom knew.

Drained of hope by pain and sorrow, their next stop caused them to burrow.

To Illinois-land they came, trackers’ hounds at their heels.

A house, a barn, a cellar, promised respite from their flight.

Thin, tired to the bone, with blistering feet and soul,

they fell into a restless sleep.

Awakened too soon and pressed below ground,

no light by which to see,  the shifting dirt drifted down.

Clara, Old Mom-Mom and the others, too,

huddled against a sudden outcry,when a critter ran across a foot,

fear doubled and took root.

On and on they sat in silent dream, thinning air adding to their sleep

sending them into a well too deep.

Clara shuffled close to Mom-Mom’s ear,

“Air’s there. See the mole mice at they’s mother’s teats?”

“Hush, child. You wants the mens to hear?”

Old Mom-Mom’s voice faded,her lungs stretched thin.

“Y’all gots to smell the air,” Clara wanted  to scream.

Tugging and pulling, she made Mom-Mom’s face fit the hole.

A gasp, another and then a whisper,“I declare, child, you’s right.

Dem moles is drinkin’ they’s mama’s milk, sure as we kin drinks the air.”

And so the time passed, each had the luck

to suck of Clara’s air until the last of the slave-seekers left.

The lid popped open from above and the whites declared,

“A miracle from God” that all still lived.

But, Old Mom-Mom and the others knew, it was Clara’s air

that saved the day and them, too.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Poetry

Excerpt from BY GRACE

 In my last post, I showed how journaling becomes a writer’s tool. This time, I want to share how journaling finds a place in the content of my historical fiction. In this case the book manuscript is BY GRACE , the second book in The Huachuca Trilogy. Can you find the journaled material I’m referring to?

Characters: Sam, a trail guide in her 30’s; Glenda, 19, heroine on the run, real name Grace; Hiram,  Orphan Train boy,6, adopted by Grace/Glenda

Setting: Idaho, 1900

 They continued south, meandering over the prairie with its thin array of spring grasses, watching for access to waterways and shade. Sam gave them stern warnings that hard times awaited as they approached the lava beds. Before heading across the rocky and ankle-breaking terrain, they filled up every possible container with water. A burlap sack was wetted and then expanded to hold a goodly amount of water. Canteens, empty cans collected over the last few meals, pots, and feed sacks were all filled to insure the safety of the trio and their beasts. Hats and neck scarves were similarly soaked against the heat of the day.

Sam got them moving well before dawn. A weak moon shone down just enough to guide them. With Sam in the lead, the others followed with their reins loose to let the horses find safe stepping. The mules, Bruno and Sarry, were let to follow as they would. By now, Bruno was very attached to Sarry and tended to follow her actions. Sarry, for her part, was so accustomed to traveling with Sam that she never faltered from her path behind or alongside the woman.

“Now, I don’t want to have to shoot a horse or mule dead for a broke leg, so take it slow and easy. Don’t force any of ‘em to go one way or t’other. This lava is full of hidey-holes and is sharp as broken glass. If’n your horse goes down, jump clear to keep her from fallin’ on you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Glenda. She felt Hiram nod his assent into her back where he clutched tightly to her.

They pushed on for hours as the sun rose in the eastern sky and headed to its zenith. Radiant heat from the day before kept them warm in the cool of the very early morning. As soon as the sun climbed into the sky, the pumiced ground seemed to absorb and multiply in successive layers of heat that assaulted the senses. Warned ahead of time of the need to dress in layers and to keep as covered as possible, Glenda had made rough shirts for them all from the one gingham dress in her satchel. Removing their outerwear, their shirts of brightest white and yellow billowed around them and offered respite with a cooling effect. Hats dried quickly as did their lips and faces from the heat attack.

Mirages appeared as soon as it was light and haunted them in the long ride, always out of reach. Oddly, an occasional cactus or stray wildflower poked up from out of the harsh terrain, suggesting water somewhere below. The lava was crystalline black in some phases and a burnt red-orange in other areas. Several times, Sam called a halt, dismounted and checked the ground for crusty shelves that might collapse under their weight. Glenda was duly impressed by Sam’s expertise and knowledge of the vast country they had so far covered.

Mid-afternoon found them all panting, animals and humans alike. The relentless sun beat down and flashed back up at them in heavy curtains of undulating heat. Their eyes were dry and scratchy and no one had anything to say as their struggle continued. A brief stop had Glenda wetting Hiram down and tying him in front of her as he drowsed.

When Sam called a halt, Glenda was taken aback. “Are we to stay out here overnight?”

“Yup. Only we’ll be down there.” Sam pointed to a slim trail that led down to what appeared to be a cave.

As Glenda looked and listened, she thought she heard the gurgle of water. Shaking her head in disbelief, she followed Sam’s example and dismounted, bringing the sleepy Hiram down with her. The trail was short and soon brought them to the entrance of a huge cavern where shafts of light entered through funnel-like gaps overhead. The sound was stronger now and Glenda turned to Sam with a question on her face.

“It has hot and cold running water for that bath you been wanting,” said Sam. “’Course you might find the smell a bit strong. Them minerals are good for what ails you.”

Setting up camp proved a little unusual. Parts of the cave floor were studded with smelly bat guano. Finding a dry area and something to sweep it with was a challenge. Hiram was let off his usual wood hunting duty. The horses and mules welcomed the relief and soon were asleep. Sam filled their empty containers with the highly mineralized and smelly water, allowing it to cool overnight to offer succor the next day. Flurries of emerald green swallows flittered in and out of the cave.

Despite their great fatigue, all three were ready for the mineral baths soothing waters. Glenda was first in, with admonitions from Sam to be careful of drop offs and soft crusty flooring that might give way. Human footprints were evident in the sandy slope leading to the pool and remnants of animal bones, perhaps from a meal, lay scattered about.

“Hiram and Sam, come on in. The water is wonderful, so warm that it is taking my aches away.”

Tentatively, Hiram put a foot in, then another and sat down at the edge. He made his way to Glenda by inches until he was fully beside her.

“How does it stay so warm, Glenda?”

“Remember what I told you about the molten rock that exploded out of volcanoes to make the lava beds?  Well, some of that magma still roils around down in the depths of the earth, warming the water, sometimes to boiling, and then sending it to the surface.”

“Is that lava gonna get us,” the frightened little boy asked.

“Mercy, no, love. I didn’t mean to scare you. The water has traveled from way, way down in the earth and, by letting some of the heat escape, it serves to cool things down. In some places, the water would be too hot for us to bathe in, I’m sure.”

It took until late in their third day before they were clear of the volcanic lands and back onto high desert. Sam promised that the Snake River would soon show itself and the town of American Falls would be a good place to gather more provisions.

* * *

A visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument resulted in a journal piece that ultimately wended its way into the novel. Our cave was much smaller than depicted and the water cooler. Green swallows were plentiful and fearless as they swooped in and out of the cave, nearly alighting on us.

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Filed under Excerpts, Historical Fiction, Writing