Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Secret Garden, Rapunzel, and The Milky Way: Books and a Tale That Shaped My Characters, an essay by Ann Weisgarber

It's an honor to be hosting Ann Weisgarber on my blog todayShe has written two historical novels that have been garnering accolades: The Promise, shortlisted for the 2014 Walter Scott Prize; and The Personal History of Rachel DuPree (see my earlier interview with Ann), which won the 2010 Langum Prize for Historical Fiction.  Ann has contributed a wonderful essay on a topic that I'm sure will resonate as strongly with you as it did with me: her own and her characters' love of reading.


The Secret Garden, Rapunzel, and The Milky Way:
Books and a Tale That Shaped My Characters
Ann Weisgarber

I read every chance I get and often carry a book with me. I read while I’m in line at the post office and when running the car through the car wash. Without a book, I’m the proverbial lost lamb desperately looking for something, anything, to read. Instructions on post office forms will do in a pinch. So will the car owner’s manual.

If reading means this much to me, then surely it’s important to my characters.

In my first novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, the narrator, Rachel, lives with her family on an isolated ranch in the South Dakota Badlands. It takes place in 1917 and her life, like many ranch women’s, calls for hard work. Money is tight and books are an extravagant luxury. Yet, while writing the story, I wanted books to be part of Rachel’s life. All I had to do was figure out how she acquired them.

I considered various ideas – second-hand books sold at the general store, a neighbor woman sharing her books with Rachel – but those didn’t push the story forward. Then, one afternoon I picked up my copy of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I read the inscription. To Ann with love from Mom. Mom was my grandmother. She gave me the book when I was nine.

Of course. The answer was Rachel’s mother-in-law, Mrs. DuPree, who lived in Chicago. She’d send a book to each of her grandchildren at the time of their births. This allowed me to show Mrs. DuPree’s relationship with her grandchildren, but just as important, I could use the books to say something about Rachel’s situation. Following this reasoning, in Chapter Two, Rachel tucks her children into bed and reads Rapunzel from a book of fairy tales Mrs. DuPree had sent when a child, now deceased, was born. This story about a woman locked in a tower waiting for rescue is a parallel story to Rachel’s life except Rachel eventually realizes she must rescue herself.

Books are also in The Promise, my latest novel that takes place in 1900 in Galveston, Texas. One of the narrators is Catherine Wainwright, a pianist caught in the midst of a scandal. She has a college education so it’s logical that she owns books. It’s also logical that when Catherine is shunned by family and friends, she turns to books for comfort. However, in Chapter Two she says, “I …. tried to read my favorite novels, but the stories that once enthralled now unnerved me.”

Although not stated, in my mind’s eye, these novels include Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Both remind Catherine what happens to women who break social norms, and her desperation increases.

Later, in Chapter Seven, Nan Ogden, the other narrator, refers to the one book that her employer, Oscar Williams, owns and keeps on a parlor table. The title is The Milky Way and includes illustrations of the galaxy. It’s an actual book published in 1883 that I have on my book shelf. Here’s what Nan says about it.

“I never could see the need for that book of his, not when the stars are right overhead, night after night, easier to look at than all that bitty print in a book. But that was Oscar for you, he liked to read.”

Those sentences, I hope, show something about Nan’s and Oscar’s characters and interests. They also imply why Oscar doesn’t see Nan as a suitable marriage partner even though she’s raising his son and as he puts it, “I am in need of a wife.”

Oscar’s The Milky Way reappears in Chapter Eleven when Catherine reads underlined passages that refer to “the truth.” Realizing this is so important to Oscar that he’s marked the lines, Catherine panics. She hasn’t told him about the scandal. Alarmed, this sets off a chain of behavior that reflects her determination to bury the past. In the last chapter, lives are changed, but Oscar’s and Catherine’s books are saved. They’re kept for the future when times are better. The stories will again enthrall and perhaps unnerve the characters.

I include books in my novels to help reveal character and to push the stories forward. But it’s fair to say that books do the same for those of us who are readers. We connect to specific eras, certain settings, and types of narrators. Stories make us snap to and see something about ourselves. They inspire us, guide us, and yes, sometimes they frighten us. Books help shape us, and that is the enduring gift of the written word.


Photo credit: Christine Meeker
Ann Weisgarber's first novel was the critically acclaimed The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. She was nominated for England’s 2009 Orange Prize and for the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. In the United States, she won the Stephen Turner Award for New Fiction and the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction. She was shortlisted for the Ohioana Book Award and was a Barnes and Noble Discover New Writer.

Her new novel, The Promise (Skyhorse Publishing, April 2014) is shortlisted for the UK’s Walter Scott Prize in Historical Fiction and is a Spur Award finalist in the United States.  Ann serves on the selection committee for the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction. She divides her time between Sugar Land, TX and Galveston, TX. Her website is


  1. Oh, I just loved this. What a wonderful post. I loved both Weisgarber's novels, and that thread of books/reading in both only helped.

  2. Lovely essay. Thank you!

  3. I really enjoyed The Personal History... I had no idea there was another novel. Thanks for this post.

  4. Thank you Sarah and Ann for this lovely post.I love Ann's writing and look forward to anything she writes!

  5. Thank you, Sarah, for asking me to be part of your blog. The essay was a pleasure to write and made me think about how I'll include novels in my next book.

  6. That was so interesting. Thank you! Though some of the coffee houses wouldn't have been described remotely as "humble," or so that's the impression I've received from reading about them in this era.

    Love, C.

    1. Got it, and agreed. I just amended my intro a bit to reflect that I was talking more about their status today, rather than back in that time.

      Pleased you liked the post!

  7. Oops, many apologies. That comment was suppposed to be in response to the history of coffee shops topic.

    Love, C.

  8. Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful comments on Ann's post, and thanks again, Ann, for sharing details on your writing process. Characters who love books themselves can create an immediate bond with readers, and I enjoyed that aspect (among many others) of Rachel's character. I have a copy of The Promise here and am looking forward to meeting Catherine and Nan myself.