Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sometimes History Just Gets in the Way of a Good Story!

I'm working (very infrequently) on my second book. This morning while I was walking, I plotted out the events of the new second chapter (I decided to add some stuff at the beginning of my original draft.) A really pivotal element in what I plotted was the store owned by Walter Webber in Cherokee country in early nineteenth century Arkansas.

Tonight I finally sat down to do a little writing after finishing all my chores (although I really should be getting a sheet ready for the first day of my speech classes tomorrow). As a warmup to help me get in the necessary mindset, I searched for Walter Webber and his store on Google. And I ran head-first into a writing problem. Here's what was published in the Arkansas Gazette on March 9, 1824, about six weeks before the events of my story:

Major Webber’s Fire Loss Estimated in the Thousands
We regret to learn that the store of Major Walter Webber, in the Cherokee Nation, was destroyed by fire two or three weeks since, together with all its contents. Major Webber is a Cherokee Chief, and has amassed considerable wealth by his industry and enterprise (sic); and his loss by this calamity, we understand, is estimated at not less than ten thousand dollars.

There's no store for my characters to go to. So now instead of writing, I have to figure a way out of this hole.

I can hear people saying, "Oh, who cares? 99.9 percent of the people who read your book have never even heard of Walter Webber, much less his store." But that's not good enough - I want things to be right, even if this is a fictional story.

(Sigh. I guess I'll just go to bed. Maybe I'll dream a way out of this hole.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

My Favorite Woman in History Is.....

That was the prompt posted on Twitter a couple of weeks ago by The History Channel. Probably because I was immersed in reading Loula Grace Erdman's The Edge of Time at that point, my immediate response was, "I don't know her name."

What I meant by that is that I most admire the women who were like the ones in The Edge of Time,  the wives and mothers who helped to settle the frontier. The book focuses on the story of one woman, Bethany Cameron, a young wife who came from a civilized town in Missouri to settle a claim in the Texas Panhandle with her husband. But we meet other types of women on the frontier, as well, through Bethany's interaction with them.

There's Eva Newsome, who can't stand the Western frontier. Like Bethany, she came from a town, but unlike Bethany, she could never reconcile herself to the rough life of a frontier woman. There's Lizzie Dillon, who is the archetypal pioneer woman, always moving with her husband on the leading edge of the surge of settlers. And finally, there's Millie Finch, who is small and afraid but tries not to be. I liked the way Erdman's story incorporates all these women. Sometimes I think we tend to paint all pioneer women with the same brush and to forget there would have been many different kinds of reactions to the hardships they faced, not just brave and strong responses.

While sometimes it goes a little overboard with its metaphors (in my opinion), The Edge of Time does well in reminding us of what those hardships were. The most overwhelming one Bethany faces is loneliness. I hadn't really thought about it, but being a woman on the frontier would be a lonely thing, especially in the West, where farms and ranches covered a lot of territory. A woman living on a claim wouldn't have many opportunities to socialize with or even see other women. Most of her days would be spent with no company other than that of her husband and children, if she had children yet. For some women (like Eva Newsome), that would be a nearly insurmountable challenge. I can see how it would be easier to bear up under the other hardships like drought or having to live in a dugout if you had someone you could commiserate with.

So, yes, Madame Curie and Queen Elizabeth I and Susan B. Anthony were all awesome women in history. But I still really admire those women whose names we'll never hear in a history class. If there had been too many Eva Newsomes and not enough Bethany Camerons, this country's story would be very different.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Higher Type of "Right"

Seeking Eden was on my mind this morning. I had written a post about it earlier this summer, but that post was all about me and not about the book (shame on me). The book deserves to have its own post. 

(There will probably be spoilers below...)

I once wrote a post about another of Ann Turnbull's books, saying Alice in Love and War should be required reading for teen girls because it shows the consequences of falling for the first guy that comes along. Well, Turnbull has done it again - Seeking Eden should be required reading for teens, both boys and girls, because it says important things about doing what's "right." It's kind of like that book about raising teens' expectations for themselves (Do Hard Things, by Alex and Brett Harris), but in a narrative, which I think makes it more effective. Sort of a "stealth" lesson, ha ha!  

Seeking Eden is the last book in Turnbull's Quaker trilogy. The two earlier books, No Shame, No Fear, and Forged in the Fire, dealt with important issues, but the main focus of those two books was the relationship between Susanna and Will. I guess I expected Seeking Eden to be another love story with history as a backdrop; there is a romantic relationship at the heart of the story, but it seems to me to be secondary to the historical and social aspects. What takes center stage in this story is Josiah's journey of conscience.

Josiah starts out as a rebellious son who rejects everything about his father (Will, the "star" of Forged in the Fire), but it didn't take me as a reader long to realize Josiah's really a chip off the old block, so to speak--an honest young man struggling to find the right thing to do. For Will, the struggle was to maintain his integrity in the face of persecution for his faith as a Quaker; for Josiah, the struggle is to maintain his integrity when others around him--who share his religious faith--are accepting and even participating in the terrible institution of slavery. Josiah is faced with a situation in which he can either turn away and avoid conflict, or act to support the ideals of his faith and suffer the consequences.

Specifically, Josiah is apprenticed to a Quaker merchant who occasionally deals in the slave trade (which wasn't illegal in the early colonial period). Turnbull lets us see through Josiah's eyes and through the parallel story of Topka (a young slave) the inhumanity of the slaves' conditions (a perfect example of the value of showing vs. telling, btw). When Josiah's master brings Topka and his girlfriend back to Philadelphia and sells them to separate owners, Josiah is faced with a real dilemma: should he do the "right" thing by maintaining his apprentice contract and obeying his master, even though it means Topka will be separated from the one he loves, just as Josiah loves Kate, OR should he do the "right" thing by allowing Topka to escape, so there is at least a hope that Topka can reunite with his love and escape to freedom?

In my PR class, we talk about ethical dilemmas, and the textbook we use defines a "dilemma" as a situation in which there are definitely, unavoidably, going to be some undesired consequences. I like the way Turnbull shows Josiah struggling with the potential consequences, and I like even more the way she shows his thinking once he knows what he will do. I like Josiah's response to the consequences he faces; he doesn't try to wiggle out of them or seek an exception. (OK, here's the big spoiler...) He chooses to follow the higher version of "right," the one that stays true to the principles of God's word and affirms the humanity of the slave. What a guy of integrity. It's a powerful story.

Teens face so many situations in our society in which there aren't going to be easy answers. I think about the political elections coming up here in the US, I think of the random violence of the shootings in public places, I think of the overwhelming issues of poverty and quality of education and (put your favorite social issue here). They are going to face situations in which there will be competing versions of what is "right." How are they going to respond? I know reading a single novel can't replace a lifetime of experiences that help build integrity, but at least it's a starting place. 

If you want to read this book or to encourage teens in your life to read it, it's not going to be easy in the US--the book isn't easily available here (you can order it through third-party sellers on Amazon). I suggest asking libraries to order it or suggesting it to English teachers; they can order it through Amazon.co.uk . Or contact Candlewick Publishing and demand they ask them nicely to pick it up for their young adult fiction list!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

I'm Still Here!

I realized it's been a while since I posted anything. Things have just been so, so busy! My husband started his pre-school marching band practices this week, which means the start of school is coming up very quickly.

Tonight my daughter came into the kitchen while I was washing dishes and told me she's getting ready to read Julie of the Wolves. I suggested that she sit down and make a list of what she's read this summer so she can use some of those books for her reading requirements this year. So far, she's read 14 books this summer. That means she's completed nearly all of her reading requirements for the whole first semester before school even starts. Of course, she hasn't done reading in some of the right categories; as usual, she hasn't done her historical fiction. Oh, how that hurts! ha ha

I'll say one thing - she has me beat....