Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Writing the Forbidden, an essay by Ann Weisgarber, author of The Glovemaker, set in 1888 Utah Territory

I'm happy to welcome award-winning historical novelist Ann Weisgarber back to Reading the Past. Her atmospheric latest, The Glovemaker (Skyhorse, Feb. 2019), focuses on Deborah Tyler, who resides with her beloved husband, Samuel, in Junction, a tiny Mormon community set amid the cliffs and canyons of remote Utah Territory in 1888. While this is excellent character-centered literary fiction, its plot feels as taut as a thriller, with slow-building external and internal tensions. Samuel, a traveling wheelwright, is late returning home, worrying Deborah, and leaving her to face the consequences of helping a desperate stranger. The presence of the man, a suspected polygamist on the run from federal marshals, would throw her community into danger. The Tylers and other Junction families, who don't believe in plural marriage, are already feeling pressure to conform to standard Mormon practices. The Glovemaker stands out for its well-wrought setting and its portrait of faith, independence, and courage at a pivotal historical moment. Read more about the background to the novel in the essay below, and I hope you'll pick up the book yourself to learn what happens next.


Writing the Forbidden
Ann Weisgarber

When I was a kid and company came to dinner—and this especially meant relatives—we were forbidden to discuss politics and religion. If the conversation ground down into an awkward silence, the weather was a safe bet. So was the latest home repair adventure that went awry. But politics and religion? Absolutely not.

So what have I done? I broke my family’s rules and wrote The Glovemaker where, gulp, the novel takes place in Utah Territory during 1888 when the federal government had cracked down on men with plural wives.

In other words, a novel with characters who are influenced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, polygamy, and politics. I didn’t set out to do this. But when I was on vacation at Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, I stumbled across the name of a married woman who owned twenty acres of orchards.

I was fascinated by her since her husband had disappeared from census records. I tried to find his death certificate but didn’t have any luck. I searched my favorite website, www.findagrave.com, and couldn’t find his gravesite or a marker.

There was very little information about the woman other than the land deed was in her name, she didn’t have any children, and she was marked as married in the census records rather than widowed. What had happened to her husband? Had she waited the rest of life for him to come home to her?

I read books and articles about the area hoping to find clues about her. To my surprise, I learned that during the 1880s the federal government was determined to banish polygamy and federal marshals tracked down men with plural wives. Some of these men attempted to evade arrest by hiding at a place called Floral Ranch. The ranch was close to the woman’s home.

The story began to haunt me. A woman whose husband has disappeared. Men charged with the felony of polygamy hiding at an isolated ranch. Federal marshals hunting for them.

But wait. Write a novel that deals with religion? And in a subtle way, write about politics? Neither are polite dinner talk. They’re controversial. People have strong opinions about one or both. I could upset readers.

Yet, religion and politics are part of our everyday lives. Aren’t there times when one or both shapes people’s lives? How can someone write a novel about Harriet Tubman and not bring in the political climate of her day? Imagine a novel about Henry VIII that doesn’t refer to his split with the Catholic Church. Or The Scarlet Letter without the Puritans’ code of conduct.

Books are meant to make us think even as they entertain us. They are meant to shake us up. But most important to me was the woman who owned twenty acres of orchards whose husband had disappeared from all records. She was a Mormon who lived during perilous times for the church. Her life wasn’t easy or safe.

Even so, I was uneasy about writing a novel that dealt with religion. To help me decide what to do, I went to Utah and visited her grave. She wasn’t buried near other family members but was alone.

I didn’t want her to be alone or forgotten. So I broke the rules and wrote The Glovemaker.


Ann Weisgarber was born and raised in Kettering, Ohio. She has lived in Boston, Massachusetts, and Des Moines, Iowa.

In addition to The Glovemaker, she is the author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree, which was longlisted for the Orange Prize and shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers. She lives in Texas.

For more information, please visit her website at https://annweisgarber.com.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Song Peddler of the Pont Neuf by Laura Lebow, a mystery of 1788 Paris

Paul Gastebois, a “confidential inquirer” in Paris of 1788, usually avoids taking on missing person cases. “People in Paris are lost all the time, sometimes on purpose,” he says. Still, he can’t resist the challenge of finding Gaspard Bricon, an elderly man who spent his days singing and selling copies of his songs on the Pont Neuf, the city’s oldest bridge.

One of Gaspard’s good friends is worried, and Paul feels touched by his concern. Besides, Paul’s well-paying gig of tailing a rich young Austrian diplomat around Paris for the police is pretty dull, and this new case fires up his curiosity. His search takes him to Gaspard’s lodgings, where a piece of crumpled parchment leads him to assume the song peddler was involved in high-level political blackmail.

The author’s skillful plotting keeps readers guessing as the mystery expands and transforms during Paul’s investigations through many Parisian neighborhoods. Our detective’s background is equally interesting; his younger sister Aimée is an apprentice seamstress, his brother is a churchman, and Paul had evaded his late father’s plans for him to join the butcher’s trade, preferring a career independent of the guilds (and smelly animal carcasses).

Lebow sets her series opener not in the popular French Revolutionary era but the less familiar time beforehand, and she incorporates the details to good effect. Louis XVI has agreed to convene the Estates General for the first time in over 170 years, and the commoners—who have grown more numerous and prosperous—place their hopes in finance minister Jacques Necker for fair representation and tax reform. Despite some people’s guarded optimism, there’s a fierce underground trade in scurrilous pamphlets, and Paul gets enmeshed in learning more about that risky business, too. Multifaceted characters, abundant local color, and dashes of wit (one of Paul’s disguises is laugh-out-loud funny) add to the appeal of this diverting mystery.

The Song Peddler of the Pont Neuf was published by Settocento Press in 2018; I reviewed it for February's Historical Novels Review.  Fortunately, it appears to be first in a new series.  The author's debut novel, The Figaro Murders, also stands out for its well-depicted original setting of 1780s Vienna.

Monday, February 11, 2019

A gallery of forthcoming 2019 historical novels set before the 20th century

What I've been finding lately: new historical novels set earlier than the 20th century are getting to be rare beasts. WWII (and to a lesser degree, WWI) is still trending, and fiction evoking the 1950s and '60s is blossoming, too. One advantage of 20th-century settings is that they can seem modern enough to hook in contemporary fiction readers, thus reaching a wide audience beyond the historical fiction crowd.  But what about readers who enjoy, even prefer, an earlier time frame?  This post is for you. 

Here are ten upcoming historical releases, with US publication dates in the first half of 2019, and set at least 119 years in the past.  (Also note: small press and indie novels do a great job of covering pre-20th century eras.  As in past years, I'll be doing a special focus on them in March.)

The Irishman's Daughter by V S Alexander

A young woman and her farming family face hardship during Ireland's Great Hunger in 1845 County Mayo.  Kensington, Feb 26th. [see on Goodreads]

The Almanack by Martine Bailey

In looking into the mystery of her mother's drowning death, a young woman in 18th-century England discovers curious notes she'd left in her almanack.  Severn House, May. [see on Goodreads]

Courting Mr Lincoln by Louis Bayard

A literary portrait of the young Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, in the 1840s, seen through the eyes of his future wife, Mary Todd, and his best friend, Joshua Speed.  Algonquin, April. [see on Goodreads]

An Unconditional Freedom by Alyssa Cole

The third book in Cole's award-winning Loyal League series follows a newly freed Black man, an enterprising young woman, and their dangerous lives as covert spies for the Union during the Civil War. Kensington, February 29. [see on Goodreads]

The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadgnino

Mary Ballard, a lady's maid to wealthy Charlotte Walden in 1820s New York City, holds many secrets, including her Irish heritage and her secret passion for her mistress.  Atria, March. [see on Goodreads]

Woman 99 by Greer Macallister

A young woman in late 19th-century San Francisco goes undercover in an insane asylum to rescue her sister, who their parents had unjustly placed there.  Sourcebooks, March. [see on Goodreads]

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

Heading further back in time, Kate Mosse's newest epic, set in mid-16th-century France during its religious wars, opens as a young woman receives a mysterious note. Minotaur, June. [see on Goodreads]

Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

This debut features two ambitious young women in the Spitalfields district of mid-18th-century London, where Huguenot silk-weavers ply their trade and seek to perfect their designs.  Blackstone, May. [see on Goodreads]

The Lost History of Dreams by Kris Waldherr

A Victorian gothic mystery set in the world of post-mortem photography, romantic poetry, ghosts, and lost love.  Atria, April. [see on Goodreads]

Anna of Kleve by Alison Weir

A new look at Henry VIII's fourth queen, and the newest in Weir's Six Tudor Queens series; the title refers to her as she would have called herself. Ballantine, May. [see on Goodreads]

Friday, February 08, 2019

The Valentine House by Emma Henderson, an Alpine family saga set in 20th-century France

The Valentine house, a wooden chalet overlooking the valley of Hext in the French Alps, is given the Greek name “Arete” (meaning excellence or virtue) by its owner, Sir Anthony Valentine, who built it in the 19th century. Sir Anthony loves the classics, and he also loves the Haute-Savoie region with a near-erotic passion evoked in his private journals. He and his large family travel to Arete to spend their summers, and local farmers greet their British eccentricities with a mix of fascination and resentment.

Their exploits are recounted through the eyes of a French teenager, Mathilde, who becomes a servant at Arete in 1914. A bright peasant girl, her narrative voice is sharp and self-aware. She knows she owes her position to her unattractiveness – Sir Anthony’s wife only hires “uglies,” supposedly to deter his wandering eye – but Mathilde cares “not a jot.”

She’s a delight to spend time with, as she observes the Valentines, befriending their granddaughter, Daisy, and accompanying them on hikes. During her duties, she comes upon a peculiar love letter whose impact she doesn’t recognize until six decades later.

The chapters set in 1976, told in the third person from the viewpoint of George, Daisy’s grandson, lack the liveliness of the earlier sections, but Mathilde carries the story there also. Now a stubborn widow in her seventies, she faces a tough decision. American developers seek a foothold in the region, and Mathilde’s son, Luc, takes their side – but Mathilde holds a secret that may deter his plan. The two timelines eventually join.

The family saga aspect is entertaining, if somewhat drawn out, but it’s a treat to spend time in this remote, beautiful area of France. Mathilde is a great character, and Francophiles will applaud when she cheekily carves a circumflex (arête means “sharp mountain ridge”) into the Valentine house’s written name.

The Valentine House was published by Sceptre (UK) in 2018; I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review from a personal copy.  I bought it purely based on the historical setting, which turned out to be a good choice.

Monday, February 04, 2019

The Hundred Wells of Salaga examines women's lives and internal slavery in late 19th-c Ghana

Told with the poetic simplicity of a folk tale, but with the rich detail and scope of an epic, The Hundred Wells of Salaga is a memorable read about a little-known historical subject: indigenous slavery in pre-colonial Ghana, and how it affected the lives of two young women and their families. The lives of Aminah, a teenager from the village of Botu, and Wurche, the only daughter of a lesser chief of Kpembe, begin worlds and many miles apart, but their stories come together midway through.

Both heroines are proud and resilient, qualities that carry them through considerable personal turmoil. Aminah, who had used to spend her time daydreaming, selling maasa (millet porridge) to people on the caravan when it passed through Botu, and caring for her younger twin sisters, is taken captive by horsemen along with her siblings and forced to march far from home. The pain and loss she experiences along the way are addressed plainly.

Although she’s part of the Gonja royal family and is accordingly self-assured, Wurche also experiences a loss of freedom after she agrees to marry a prince of Dagbon to seal an alliance. After Wurche’s father sees an opening to seize power for himself, infighting among the Gonja people further destabilizes the twin towns of Kpembe and Salaga, which had already been thrown into chaos due to the disruption of the local kola nut trade.

In the late 19th century, Salaga, as we learn, is a center for intra-African trade of all kinds, including that of human beings. The novel’s title alludes to this fact; the water from Salaga’s many wells was used to wash the many slaves brought there for sale. In a Q&A at the end, Attah reveals that her great-great-grandmother had been enslaved and sold at the market at Salaga, but little else is known about her. Aminah’s story is the author’s imagined version of her life, while details about royal women such as Wurche are better documented.

Their journeys are recounted without cliché or stereotype, and the secondary characters are well-rounded also. These include Moro, a slave-trader who seeks a way out of the terrible business, and Helmut, a sympathetic German man. The novel also includes insightful detail on the land’s spoken languages, foods, and religions, including how Islam (which Wurche’s family observes) can be used to establish both order and control over women’s lives.

The novel is just 230 pages long, but it has the heft of a work of much greater length. I recommend it for its insight, smooth readability, and its power of bringing an important aspect of the history of the slave trade to light in fiction.

The Hundred Wells of Salaga is published tomorrow in the US by Other Press, with the beautiful cover art above; it was previously published in Nigeria by Cassava Republic.  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC at my request.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Historical fiction award winners from ALA Midwinter 2019

Greetings from the frozen Midwest!

On Sunday and Monday, a number of literary awards were announced at the American Library Association's Midwinter conference in Seattle. Although I wasn't in attendance, I was following along as best I could on Twitter.

Here are the historical novels that were honored at the conference (and please let me know if I've missed any). Links go to the ALA press releases.  I had reviewed some of them, too, and will link to the reviews where applicable.

On the 2019 Reading List, which selects the best in genre fiction for adult readers:

In the Historical Fiction category, the winner was Amanda Skenandore's Between Earth and Sky (Kensington), which focuses on a woman, her childhood friendship with a Native American man, and the forced assimilation taking place at Indian boarding schools in the late 19th century.

On the shortlist for Historical Fiction were:
The Butcher’s Daughter, by Victoria Glendinning, set in Tudor England;
Circe by Madeline Miller, a retelling of the Greek myth;
Dear Mrs. Bird, by AJ Pearce, about a young woman who becomes an advice columnist in wartime London; and
A Well Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts, by Therese Anne Fowler, about Alva Vanderbilt.

In the category of Horror, the winner was The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, a creepy and unusual haunted house story set in 1860s England.

In Mystery, The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey, a mystery about the first woman lawyer practicing in 1920s Bombay, was the category winner.

The winner of the 2019 Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature was The Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas, a multi-period novel about a university student discovering his family history in Cairo, Egypt.

On the 2018 ALA Notable Books list were two historical novels:
Esi Edugyan, Washington Black, about a young boy's flight from slavery; and
Michael Ondaatje, Warlight, literary fiction set after WWII.

Among the Alex Award winners, for adult fiction that appeal to teen readers, were Madeline Miller's Circe and Naomi Novik's historical fantasy Spinning Silver.

Both Newbery Honor books, geared toward young readers, were historical fiction:
Veera Hiranandani, The Night Diary, a middle-grade novel set during the Partition of India in 1947;
Catherine Gilbert Murdock, The Book of Boy, a medieval adventure novel.

... and the Margaret A. Edwards Award, for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults, went to M. T. Anderson, who has written many historical novels for that age group, including The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.

Which ones have you read?

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

A Love Letter to Houston: a guest post by Dawn Adams Cole, author of Drops of Cerulean

Dawn Adams Cole is stopping by today with an essay about the historical background to her new novel, Drops of Cerulean, which is published today.  Set in Houston over seven decades in the 20th century and beyond, the novel is a family saga with a reincarnation theme.


"A Love Letter to Houston"
Dawn Adams Cole

"A love letter to Houston” is how I describe my novel, Drops of Cerulean. And true to form as any good love letter, memories and a spirit of hope permeate the family saga that spans 1930-2014, highlighting the city as both the setting and a prominent character in its own right.

The 1930 start date served as an intentional nod to the city’s ethos. The Houston Metropolitan Research Center, an archival branch that focuses on the history of Houston and located in the Julia Ideson Building of the Houston Public Library, offered a wealth of resources, including newspaper articles, photographs, and letters relating to prominent city events. Although the novel begins in 1930 at the onset of the Great Depression, research confirmed Houston’s unique reaction to this tumultuous time. Before the crash, many Houstonians remained optimistic regarding their future, oil and the Port of Houston serving as indicators of the city’s resilience. Jesse Jones, prominent Houston businessman and philanthropist, brought together city leaders to ensure that no banks in Houston failed during the Great Depression. While the city was not unscathed from the financial crisis, the city was spared the full devastation.

1930 marked the opening of the Merchants and Manufacturer’s Building, now known as the University of Houston Downtown, a building that helped inspire the narrative. Originally planned as a multi-use, commercial building, it welcomed retail, offices, suites, clubs, restaurants, and lounges. Located at the meeting of White Oak Bayou and Buffalo Bayou with railroads bordering the first floor of the building, the structure was amenable to rail and water commerce.

Records of the initial details are limited, but I found the original tenant list and real estate advertisements, which corroborated the aspirations for the building. I embraced the skeletal findings as an opportunity for creative freedom while keeping with the intended spirit – a place that embodied hopes and dreams of a generation, a place that failed in its original aspirations but experienced redemption, albeit decades later, as an educational institution. In this way, the building mirrors the reincarnated souls of the narrative in that it finds resolution and purpose in the next stage.

The Niels Esperson Building appealed to me from the time I was a child frequenting downtown, the bronze color and cupola marking it from its peers. Mrs. Mellie Esperson’s story of boldly erecting the building in her late husband’s name provided a sharp contrast to Ilona’s story as a reticent soul tethered to the memory of her disgraced late husband. While there are an abundance of supporting articles in the archives, a tour of the private building served as the highlight of my research. Jano Nixon Kelley, Director of Marketing for Cameron Management, graciously indulged the request, which included a tour of Mellie Esperson’s private office suite, the floor redesign belonging to an architectural firm, the floor that was intended to serve as a private apartment for Mrs. Esperson, and a vacated 2-floor law office on the top floors. The stories shared and the personal experience of the tour itself supported and enriched the family saga.

author Dawn Adams Cole
Confirming and learning more of the history of the city supported the lore and historical record of my family’s Houston roots, a history infused by the ethos of the city. My great-grandfather immigrated to Texas and founded a machine shop in East Houston in 1929, around the time Jesse Jones helped spare the city from full impact. Although I never met my great-grandfather, I grew up hearing stories of his work ethic and grit. I only knew the machine shop as its location a block from the interstate, but I recall my grandfather sharing his recollections of the time before the interstate when the streetcar ended in East Houston at Wayside. My family’s bold move to continue pursuing their dreams despite the times folded into the spirit of the Petrarkis and Doyle families, a sentiment not unusual for optimistic Houstonians of the time. Personally, this spirit struck a different chord from my paternal side of the family who were once well-to-do New Yorkers prior to the economic crash.

The intentional starting point of 1930 anchored the timeline, and while I knew the general course, struggles, and sentiments of the characters, I enjoyed researching historical and cultural influences to compliment the story. The Flood of 1935 offered a striking setting for Cadmus’ birth, a narrative that lent itself to his father being an active part of the delivery, which was unusual for the time. Researching popular songs during the early '60s provided inspiration to Ilona’s reincarnation as Delphina, and I was pleased with the connection that the Broadway hit Cats debuted around the time Delphina received her First Communion, her struggle on committing to a faith she doubted accented the rebirth she intuitively sensed. Similarly, the James Turrell exhibit in 2013 created the symbolic context for Robert’s passing and supported the idea that there is no death.

While a part of me regards the cultural findings as serendipitous, I believe artistic pursuits mirror our innate, universal desire for hope and redemption. The search may take different forms in different times and different cultures, and perhaps there are periods when the drive is more pronounced. Connecting the dots between the cultural representations during the course of the narrative proved reaffirming and rewarding, and it fueled my belief in our interconnectedness.

In “Love Letters,” an article featured in the Saturday Evening Post, Nina Sankovitch states, “The qualities of a good letter are also the qualities of a good relationship. Letters are the tangible manifestation of the singularity of our kinship, the importance of our shared experiences…” If Sankovitch’s thesis is a litmus test, then I hope my novel fits the bill. I believe Drops of Cerulean embodies the historical ethos of Houston, with the memories and sentiments of the characters a reflection of what we, as humans, continue to experience.

About the Novel:

Spanning the years 1930–2014, Drops of Cerulean (on-sale January 29, 2019; Greenleaf Book Group Press) chronicles the lives of Ilona, the daughter of a Greek restaurateur, who marries into a prominent Houston family; her son, Cadmus, who becomes a professor and then moves into a retirement home after his husband passes away; and Delphina, an anxiety-ridden woman with a mysterious recurring dream.

Ilona and Cadmus have a falling out when Cadmus is a young man, and before they are able to reconcile, Ilona dies. Cadmus is plagued with guilt and feels responsible for the death of his mother. Two worlds collide when, years later, Delphina comes to understand that she had been Ilona, Cadmus's mother, in her previous life.

Set in Houston and revolving around the city's ever-changing skyline, Drops of Cerulean is an amazing debut from a gifted writer.

About the Author:

Dawn Adams Cole was born and raised in Houston. She received her BA from the University of St. Thomas and her MEd from Harvard University. She lives in The Heights with her husband, Burton, and her daughters, Caroline and Elizabeth.