Category Archives: Historical Fiction

No Small Potatoes

Map of Idaho potato

There has been a movement afoot in literature to focus on one commodity, and make a book of it. People have written about salt, wine, and chocolate. I wondered if anyone has written about what the great state of Idaho is known for, namely, the potato.
How did this come to pass? How is it that when a person from Idaho travels, he or she is inevitably asked about potatoes. It turns out that Idaho was a trailblazer in this regard when in 1937 the Idaho Potato Commission was founded. This body, funded by a tax paid by potato farmers, set out to advertise on radio and later television, to create a brand identity from a single crop. With a seal fashioned, the customers were encouraged to look for that mark when purchasing what was to become our famous potatoes. Lots of other states grow the crop, but the affection and identity formed by the commission created a market for thirteen billion pounds of spuds, one- third of all those sold in the United States.

Galway Bay

On a past St. Patrick’s Day, a dear friend by the name of Mary, told me about a book she had just read by Mary Pat Kelly. Entitled, Galway Bay, the novel is an actual oral history passed down from one generation to the next. Told primarily through the women, it is the tale of one immigrant family and their travails from Ireland to Chicago. While it is not about the potato famine, called An Gorda Mor in Gaelic, it is the great catalyst of the tale.

“They tried to kill us, but we didn’t die.” The thread of this story, handed down through the ages, is one of incredible hardship and then survival.

When I was in school in Toronto, I recall the day the teacher told us that the famine was caused by a lazy population who stupidly lived on one crop because they could not be bothered to grow anything else.

“When that crop suffered a blight they starved,” she told us, with the implication that they should have known better hanging in the air.

I remember looking out the window, trying to sift through her facts with what I knew about my own family, all of whom are avid gardeners and farmers. At home, I asked if the story were true and heard that food had been exported to England all through those dark days. Imagine having to take the harvest to market, load a ship and return home to a house of desperate want. As the “croppies” were only given a scant bit of land to cultivate for private use, the “pratties” gave the highest yield and provided the greatest nourishment.
These are the facts: 750,000 were confirmed dead of starvation. Bearing in mind that many more died in the coffin ships landing in Montreal and Boston, this would be a severe underestimation. Without the hospitals, or the manpower necessary to deal with the influx, the sick passengers arriving in Quebec were put on an island in the St. Lawrence and left exposed to the elements. Promised, land, cash and food upon arrival, they arrived to find nothing and no way home. The bit of land they left behind on the dear, old sod had been exchanged for the price of their passage. Cecil Woodham Smith reported that during the famine years, 257,000 sheep were exported to England from lands held by absentee landlords. 480,827 swine went over as well as 186,483 head of cattle. Not even mentioning other crops, the picture is clear.
There is a happy ending to this tale. The Irish flourished in both the United States and Canada. Reading Galway Bay prompted me to look up the history of my maternal grandmother, Rose Cahill Gaudette. One of ten children in her family, I learned that her mother was the oldest in a family of ten. Examining records found on Ancestry.com, my blood ran cold when I saw the date. In 1848, Thomas Cahill arrived in Montreal. Famine. Coffin ship. Most of the passengers died, and their bodies were tossed over. Of the living, it was decided to send the Irish on a barge to Toronto. The sun blazed and the fair skins burned. Once again they were placed on an island off shore. Yet the good people of the city rowed out in small boats and volunteered to tend the sick, risking their own lives in the process. The Cahills made their way to the gorgeous Ottawa valley, carved a life in the wilderness, and flourished.

From one noun a great story may unfold.

Finding Character

“Characters are not created by writers. They pre-exist and have to be found.” Elizabeth Bowen

200px-Elizabeth_Bowen
This is true. I have no authority to make such a statement, but there it is. Actors speak of finding characters. It is much more than saying the lines, or putting on the costumes. They try different things, talk in front of a mirror, obsess about it, work it, and then one day they will arrive at the set and describe how they found their character. They speak of the precise moment when it happened. It may have sprung from tying scarves around their heads as when Johnny Depp became Jack Sparrow, or it could be something that happened with the walk. Somewhere along the way, they become inhabited. That is how I would describe the experience.

In Madeline L’Engle’s case, she woke up from a nap and saw him, Charles Wallace Murray. He was sitting in her room. Other accounts describe dreams or even visions. In my experience, it is dialog. The character starts talking. I am only doing the typing. When this happens, I can barely contain my excitement. I fear that to stifle my imaginary friends would be wrong, so I let them run on. They may have accents, wear funny clothes, or seem a bit strange, but I assume it is not my place to question anything. They may take the story in a new direction. They will be full of surprises. In some cases they will take over, shove me out of the way and tell the story themselves. That is the greatest gift. Every word will flow like a river.

madeleine_lengle_2    Madeline L’Engle

Years ago, a young friend who wrote songs told me that the Creator likes creating. He said that he felt well in his soul when the tunes came to him. It is a strange unknown impulse that drives us all. So if what Elizabeth Bowen said is true, how do we go about this process of finding our characters? I wish I had the answer. It would be a great boon to all kinds of creative people if the method were that simple. In all disciplines, it seems that getting in the mode is the key. Even stage performances will vary from night to night, and when the magic occurs, it will be very fleeting. Those who happened to be at that performance, or at that game, or in that moment, will know it. The greatest characters in all of literature did not start when the author attempted to describe a middle-aged white man or a beautiful young girl. I would hazard a guess that those fantastic beings arrived fully formed. Maybe great souls have a desire to jump back into life this way. If it isn’t happening, don’t worry because if you stick with it for long enough, I am convinced that someone will show up.

While writing My American Eden, I wanted to bring Mary Dyer’s story to life. Since she was the only female inhabitant of Boston in 1635 that Governor Winthrop attempted to describe in his journals, I learned that she was “comely and of no mean estate.” Years later, on Rhode Island, the Governor wrote that she could converse with any man, as well as any man on any topic.” That was my start. I searched and begged for more clues. One night at The Best Food Ever Book Club in Spokane, I was elaborating on my research to date when a great friend said, “Mary Dyer? I am a direct descendant of Mary Dyer.” Next I learned that the model for Sylvia Shaw Judson’s statue commemorating this rebel saint who gave her life for the cause of religious freedom was none other than my husband’s paternal grandmother. The list goes on, but I still yearned to see her. To really meet her. While obsessing about Mary and writing the first draft I had to choose between internal dialogue, what I imagined she was thinking while alone in her house, or show her conversing with someone. Of course, who would have been alone in their house in 1635? I added an indentured servant. Not even beginning to create any sort of picture, she was there. By the fourth draft I had gone from nine hundred pages to four hundred and fifty, and switched from third person omniscient to first person. Only it was not Mary’s voice in my head following the discipline of the narrative; it was Irene, the servant, the one who arrived fully formed. I started getting a better look at Mary through her eyes.

count of monte christo

A fully formed character could be anyone. What they are is visible and memorable. The Count of Monte Christo. Tom Sawyer. Scarlet O’Hara. Jane Eyre. Harry Potter. Romeo of the House of Montague. Portia. The list goes on and on. You can’t name a great classic without a memorable character, or several coming to mind.

Thoughts for Thanksgiving

 

 going to the execution

What happens when you are interested in a particular period in time? If you like to read, you will be drawn to books about that era. When I was writing My American Eden, I was tasked with researching Colonial America between the years of 1635-1660. It began when I found a tidbit in a history book about a woman who walked into Boston with her shroud in hand. She walked to the hanging tree twice, had the noose around her neck twice, and her face covered with her Pastor’s handkerchief twice. A last-minute reprieve by the Governor spared her the first time: the second resulted in death. This story struck me as one that every American should know. Because a law was passed banishing Quakers on pain of death, Mary Dyer challenged it with her life. As I began researching the event, I quickly realized that history is far from simple.

Amazon Link to mae

I found that perspectives differed depending on the author. Then something else came to light. The story tended to change over time. Quaker historians had one perspective, British authors had another, and then American academia added more confusion to the mix. I began to wonder if history is based on myth or fact and wondered how to find the truth. Official court documents, dates and times, all came up with discrepancies. Initially, I was obsessed with every detail. My first draft ballooned to eight hundred pages. When I learned that Mary Dyer traveled back to England and spent seven years there, I had to accept the challenge of understanding the English civil war. The Puritans and the Roundheads, the rise of Oliver Cromwell, and his destruction of Parliament were vague recollections from high school. I turned to my favorite historian Sir Winston Churchill. It was his description of a rising merchant class gaining sufficient power to challenge the established ruling class that piqued my interest. The more deeply I delved into the conflict, the more understanding I gained of what unfolded decades, and then centuries later. I learned of that the roots of the American Civil War stretched back to the events of the 1650s. One side, the Royalists, eventually gravitated to Virginia and the southern United States while the Puritans sailed to Boston. The events in New England also had an effect on the American Revolution and the founding fathers. Mary Dyer’s protests did not go unheeded. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, he immediately passed a law forbidding such discrimination.

JFK the Unspeakable

As we watch history unfold, try as we might, it is often difficult to find the truth. When asked if history would be kind to him, Winston Churchill replied that it would indeed because he intended to write it. As a child growing up in a military family in the post-war fifties and sixties, the shadow of war hung over the conversations by the adults. Watching the first reports of the news from Dallas, fifty-two years ago today, I had nothing but questions. At that point in time, I was obsessed with the Nancy Drew series. Even in the midst of the emotional wallop that hit us all regarding the assassination of the President, I sensed a murder mystery. People crave a simple explanation, but I feel we must be sleuths. What could be murkier than the events of November 22, 1963? One book leads to another; facts are disputed, and some facts are indisputable. The deeper one delves, the more confusion one is likely to find until at last the truth emerges. Should we accept the fact that we will never know? I have never thought so. The Unspeakable by James W. Douglass and The Devil’s Chessboard, by David Talbot have shed new light. Both books are thoroughly researched and beautifully written.

The final paragraph of the speech President John F. Kennedy was to deliver in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963:

We in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility — that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint — and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal — and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”

SOURCE: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Two statues in front of the Massachusetts State House: One by Sylvia Shaw Judson depicts Mary Dyer, and the other is Isabel Mcllvain’s President Kennedy.

bigger statue of Mary Dyerjfk statehouse

This week we will gather with friends and family remembering those first families who came to the New World seeking freedom. Some of us will pray for those around the globe who are fleeing terrible circumstances and conflict. Hopefully, we will all give thanks for the simple things: a roof over our heads, a warm house and a bounteous feast on the table. I hope we will all remember to cherish freedom too.