Monday, April 24, 2017

Elizabeth Ashworth's The de Lacy Inheritance, a standout medieval novel

Having some free time in between review assignments, I decided to pick up a novel that had been on my TBR for years (it was published in 2010). Then, after finishing, I regretted having waited so long.

Elizabeth Ashworth's The de Lacy Inheritance, which includes real-life figures from late 12-century Lancashire, should suit readers who seek out fiction with authentic medieval atmosphere, characters, and scenarios.

The physical book has been handsomely produced by Myrmidon; it's a pleasure to hold and flip through. One of the novel's two viewpoints is male, but if the damsel on the cover (depicting Johanna FitzEustace, the teenage heroine) and lace edging works to get the book into more readers' hands, then it's done its job.

In 1193, Richard FitzEustace has returned from Palestine, where he had accompanied King Richard on Crusade and had, sadly, contracted leprosy. In the opening scene, Richard (presumably a man in his twenties) kneels while his family's priest recites the Mass of Separation, which forbids him from entering a church, touching any well without his gloves on, or claiming his birthright. And more besides. It's a terrible fate even on top of his itchy affliction. In accordance with the mindset of medieval times, Richard accepts it, knowing that it's God's punishment for succumbing to temptation in the Holy Land: he'd fallen in love with an "Infidel" woman there.

Before leaving Halton Castle forever and taking refuge in a leper house, though, he's asked by his grandmother to visit her childless cousin, Sir Robert de Lacy, at Cliderhou Castle in Lancashire, to persuade him to name her as his heir. This way Sir Robert's lands will be kept within the family. Meanwhile, Richard's absence from Halton leaves his headstrong 14-year-old sister, Johanna, vulnerable. Her mother and uncle want her to marry an older man she finds repulsive.

I enjoyed seeing the warm friendship that develops between Richard and Sir Robert, and the ways in which villagers treat Richard with kindness while acknowledging his outcast status: they leave warm bread for him outside the hermit's cave near Cliderhou where he's taken up residence. The novel's conflict comes not just from Johanna's desperate situation but also because another man believes that he should be Sir Robert's rightful heir, rather than Richard.

Following a few intense, demanding reads, The de Lacy Inheritance was a welcome palate-cleanser of a book. There's nothing showy about it – it doesn't involve royalty or large-scale historical events – but the story moves along nicely throughout. I've noticed that British writers seem sparing in their use of commas when compared to Americans, which made for many seemingly run-on sentences, but I got used to the rhythm after a while.

This was Elizabeth Ashworth's first novel. Fortunately she's written many others since, all focused on medieval or Tudor times, and they're now on the TBR as well.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Writing about history: Making the leap from non-fiction to novels, a guest post by A.J. MacKenzie

The authors who write as A.J. MacKenzie are visiting the blog today with an essay on their experiences as historians now writing historical fiction. Welcome!

~

 Writing about history: 
Making the leap from non-fiction to novels
A.J. MacKenzie

Between us, we had more than twenty published non-fiction books and numerous articles and conference papers under our belts before we published our first novel. So, how hard was it to make the transition from fact to fiction?

The answer – inevitably – is that it was easy in some ways and hard in others. A lot of our non-fiction work is quite narrative – for example, our book about the Battle of Crécy in 1346, The Road to Crécy, or our forthcoming book on the Poitiers campaign of 1356, or Morgen’s business history works – so we are still story-telling; just moving from one kind of story to another.

There’s no doubt that fiction is a lot more freeing to write. Of course historical fiction has to be historically accurate. Details like clothing and food and firearms and means of transport have to be got right. Actual historical events need to be reflected as people at the time would have seen and understood them. But within that framework, you can do anything you want. If there is a quiet period in the story, you can invent some incidents and accidents to fill the gap. And you don't have to provide footnotes for every event or conversation in the book!

No such luck in ‘real’ history. One of the constant problems when writing military history is, how to fill in the gaps. Someone famously observed that warfare is about 5 per cent terror and 95 per cent tedium, and from our observation that is just about true. How do you hold the reader’s attention when all the army did was march for fifteen miles from one place to another very similar place and make camp for the night?

One of our answers is to fall back on details of the daily routine. What did the country they marched through look like? What was the weather like? What obstacles, physical or otherwise, did they have to overcome? What food did they eat and how was it provided? Answering those kinds of questions puts the reader into the position of the marching soldiers and helps them to understand what those people were seeing and experiencing. And actually, as novelists, we are often doing much the same thing. The major difference is with non-fiction you have to have hard evidence of the conditions, weather, food and so on to back up your hypothesis.

Character is another area of difference, though again the gap is not so large as you might think. As historians, we have to form opinions of the characters we are writing about. Sometimes the ‘heroes’ of our narratives are unpleasant people. The Black Prince may have been brave and inspired loyalty in his men, but he was also an arrogant spendthrift who burned and plundered everywhere his army marched (the plunder probably helped pay his bills at home).

On the other hand, historical characters are often more ‘real’ than fictional ones, and you don’t have to work so hard to invent them. When we wanted an officer of Volunteers for The Body in the Ice, should we take the time and trouble to invent one? Or should we just import a real figure, Jane Austen’s brother Edward, who lived not far from Romney Marsh and was a captain of Volunteers? The decision was easy. Welcome aboard, Captain Austen; help yourself to a glass of madeira, and join the cast of characters.

We will probably always write a mixture of non-fiction and fiction. Writing fiction makes us better story-tellers; writing non-fiction keeps our research skills up to scratch. There is a boundary between the two types of writing that must be respected; but at the same time, like good neighbours, each type of writing reinforces and strengthens the other.


~

Christmas Day, Kent, 1796.

On the frozen fields of Romney Marsh stands New Hall; silent, lifeless, deserted. In its grounds lies an unexpected Christmas offering: a corpse, frozen into the ice of a horse pond.

It falls to the Reverend Hardcastle, justice of the peace at St Mary in the Marsh, to investigate. But with the victim's identity unknown, no murder weapon and no known motive, it seems like an impossible task. Working along with his trusted friend, Amelia Chaytor, and new arrival Captain Edward Austen, Hardcastle soon discovers there is more to the mystery than there first appeared.

With the arrival of an American family torn apart by war and desperate to reclaim their ancestral home, a French spy returning to the scene of his crimes, ancient loyalties and new vengeance combine to make Hardcastle and Mrs Chaytor's attempts to discover the secret of New Hall all the more dangerous.

The Body in the Ice, with its unique cast of characters, captivating amateur sleuths and a bitter family feud at its heart, is a twisting tale that vividly brings to life eighteenth-century Kent and draws readers into its pages.

About the author: A.J. MacKenzie is the pseudonym of Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, a collaborative Anglo-Canadian husband-and-wife duo. Between them they have written more than twenty non-fiction and academic titles, with specialisms including management, medieval economic history and medieval warfare. The original idea for The Body…series came when the authors were living in Kent, when they often went down to Romney Marsh to enjoy the unique landscape and the beautiful old churches. The authors now live in Devon.

See also the authors' previous guest post about the atmospheric Romney Marsh.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A visual preview of the summer season in historical fiction

The area where I live in Illinois has suddenly become very green, and warm, and the spring semester's almost over.  It feels like summer's almost here at last. If you're like me, your mind's been turning not just towards vacations and barbecues but also summer's crop of historical novels. Here are 12 books set to be released between May and August this year that looked especially enticing, and which have settings spanning four continents. The books themselves are published in the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia. This time, too, I remembered to add the Goodreads links!



The Ohio River, 1838: A young seamstress becomes enmeshed in secrets and deception when she's blackmailed into participating in the Underground Railroad. Touchstone, June 20; note that the UK title is The Floating Theatre. [see on Goodreads]



A multi-period novel, set in 1884 and a century later, about two women, a host of secrets, and the elegant New York City apartment residence known as The Dakota. Dutton, August 1.  [see on Goodreads]



Forsyth, an Australian author, has recently specialized in re-imaginings of classic fairy tales, which are presented in a well-researched historical milieu. Her latest novel sets "Sleeping Beauty" amid the circle of pre-Raphaelite artists in Victorian times. Vintage Australia, July 3. [see on Goodreads]



Described as reminiscent of Possession and People of the Book, Kadish's newest novel tells the intertwined stories of women from two centuries: a Dutch immigrant serving as a scribe for a blind rabbi in Restoration London, and a modern historian specializing in Jewish history. HMH, June 6th. [see on Goodreads]



A sprawling story of politics, culture, and heritage focusing on the Ugandan people, beginning in 1750 and following a man's descendants as they try to evade a curse affecting their bloodline. Transit, May 16. [see on Goodreads, which also has reviews of the original edition, from Kenya.]



Part of McCrumb's Ballad series, set in the Appalachian region, fictionalizes the events behind the Greenbrier Ghost in late 19th-century West Virginia, happenings which have passed into American folklore. Atria, September 12. [see on Goodreads]



This second novel in the Kate Clifford mystery series is set in 1399 in York, England, a city on the brink of civil war. Meanwhile, Kate's mother shocks people by returning to town soon after her husband's mysterious death. Pegasus, June 6. [see on Goodreads]



Ross's debut novel fictionalizes the life of one of Canada's best-known pioneers and early memoirists, Englishwoman Susanna Moodie, in the Canadian wilderness of the 1830s. HarperAvenue, May. [see on Goodreads]



This novel of WWII begins in a Texas internment camp, where a Japanese diplomat's daughter first meets and falls in love with a young German-American man whose parents were unjustly imprisoned. The story later moves to Japan and the war in the Pacific. Washington Square, July 11. [see on Goodreads]



This family saga, the author's second novel after Daughter of Australia, follows a German immigrant family as they move from Pittsburgh to a farm in rural Pennsylvania in the early 20th century. Kensington, June 27. [see on Goodreads]


I enjoyed Wells' previous historical novel (The Wife's Tale) so much that I'm eagerly awaiting this new novel, a multi-period Gothic about an abandoned old house, WWII espionage, and a woman investigating her grandmother's hidden past. Penguin Australia, May 1st. [see on Goodreads]



First in a new mystery series set in the colony of Singapore in 1936, this novel features a young Chinese woman who turns sleuth after murder visits the country's Governor House.  Constable, June 1. [see on Goodreads]

Monday, April 17, 2017

Wilderness gothic: Sarah Maine's Beyond the Wild River

There was a beauty to this place, wild and unspoilt, vivid and sharp. Between the roar of the rapids there were stretches of exquisite calm water where the river widened along its course to form narrow lakes which sparkled with a piercing clarity...

Sarah Maine's work pays homage to the world's wild, remote places. Amid the forests of northwestern Ontario, thousands of miles from their home in the Scottish Borders, the characters of her second novel commune with nature: breathing in the scents of spruce and woodsmoke, catching and cooking fish for their suppers, and sleeping in tents along the banks of the Nipigon River.

Their relative isolation from all things familiar and safe heightens the sense of discovery but brings considerable risks. Several members of the expedition have unfinished business from five years ago that’s brought back into the open, and this time there's no running from it.

One might call this novel "wilderness gothic." As appropriate to the genre, we have a young ingénue as the heroine: Evelyn Ballantyre, age nineteen in 1893, relatively sheltered, and “lovely” (as we’re told a few times). Recently Evelyn’s father, a prominent Scottish philanthropist and investor, had misinterpreted an innocent act of hers – it appeared she was becoming too friendly with a servant – and she’s been paying the price.

Rather than continue to keep her cooped up at home as punishment, Charles Ballantyre decides to bring her on an excursion he'd planned to North America, to see the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and then to points north, across Lake Michigan and past the frontier town of Port Arthur (which will later become the city of Thunder Bay). There, they’ll fish in the “world’s finest trout stream.” Evelyn yearns to see more of the world, and for the chance to prove that she deserves to be treated as an adult.

To the surprise of both, one of their guides in the frontier turns out to be James Douglas, the former Ballantyre House stable hand who was accused of killing a poacher on their land five years earlier, and who had fled for parts unknown to save his neck. Back then, James and Evelyn had been good friends. Ever since, the sense of injustice toward him had weighed on her mind.

Their unlikely meeting isn’t the only coincidence in this atmospheric novel, whose story flows in a leisurely fashion for most of the book, then amps up the suspense toward the end – rather like waters in a peaceful stream gaining speed as they edge toward a waterfall. There are flashbacks here and there, and they’re not always smoothly inserted. However, the mystery itself is complex and interesting, with distinct aspects revealed little by little. Both Evelyn and her father know more about that night of the poacher’s murder than they dare reveal, to each other or to anyone else – including the friends accompanying them.

Maine crafts breathtaking turns of phrase that brings her settings alive. She recreates the era with a fine hand, too, with the Industrial Revolution bringing a revolution in technological developments. Scenes at Chicago’s White City explore these transformative changes. The author also offers period-appropriate commentary, through Evelyn’s eyes, on the land’s native peoples, who feature in exhibits at the World’s Fair – a shameful episode – but who negotiate with intelligence and foresight as their “old ways” are encroached upon.

Ironically, in this female-centered historical novel, it proves to be the men – James and Charles – who have the most layers to their personalities. But for readers with a yen to explore the “wild and unspoilt” lands depicted here, it takes a worthwhile journey.

Beyond the Wild River will be published tomorrow by Atria/Simon & Schuster in trade pb/ebook (I read it from an Edelweiss e-copy).

Added 4/19: Read more about Sarah Maine's inspiration for the novel in a post for the H is for History site, Researching the Nipigon River.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Georgia Hunter's We Were the Lucky Ones, an unlikely WWII survival story

This debut novel recounts not only one but multiple harrowing tales of unlikely survival. It’s also an amazing piece of historical reconstruction, expertly translated into fiction.

As Hunter reveals at the start, fewer than 300 of the 30,000-plus Jewish residents of Radom, Poland, remained alive after WWII. Her grandfather and his four siblings were among them. Learning about her family’s Holocaust past as a teenager, she set out to uncover their stories: interviewing older relatives, tracing their paths across Europe and elsewhere, poring through archives for relevant facts.

Knowing the ultimate outcome, one may wonder whether the novel offers any suspense. In short, yes. The circumstances her characters endure are excruciatingly traumatic; that they manage to survive is thanks to a combination of resourceful planning, split-second decisions made under tremendous pressure, and random luck.

Also, there are numerous other people they care deeply about, and readers will anxiously hope that they survive as well. Many chapters end with a mini-cliffhanger, which seems over-the-top initially but does heighten tension.

The story has impressive breadth, spanning over six years and many countries around the globe as the Kurcs pursue separate quests for safety through a Nazi-darkened world. One can sense the terror faced by Mila, forced to hide her two-year-old daughter, Felicia, in a paper sack of fabric scraps when the Gestapo invades the factory where she works—and feel Felicia’s claustrophobic fear as well.

Genek and his wife Herta endure near-frozen conditions in a Siberian gulag, where their baby son is born. The author’s grandfather, Addy, an affable, talented musician, leaves Paris early on, but his planned voyage to Brazil is held up, and he remains consumed by worry over his family.

The novel is full of tangible details but has thriller-style pacing. Reading it is a consuming experience.

We Were the Lucky Ones was published by Viking in February and was reviewed in February's Historical Novels Review. The UK publisher is Allison & Busby.  Read more about the author's background and multi-year quest to track her family's story at her website.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Kathy Lynn Emerson's Murder in the Merchant's Hall, a detailed portrait of Elizabethan-era daily life

Back in 2015, I wrote a post, Tudor Fiction without the Famous, that collected Tudor historical novels about lesser-known or fictional characters, and which didn’t take place at court. As Kathy Lynn Emerson mentioned in the comments, her Mistress Jaffrey series fits this description. Book two, Murder in the Merchant’s Hall, has sat on my virtual TBR for too long, and I’m glad I finally had the chance to read it.

The heroine, Rosamond Jaffrey, was called upon in the past to do some work for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster, and he appears briefly in one scene. Primarily, though, the novel concerns itself with life among the gentry and merchant class in greater London and Kent, with a brief sojourn to Cambridge, where Rosamond’s husband is a student.

In London in autumn 1583, Godlina Walkenden stands accused of murdering her brother-in-law, mercer Hugo Hackett. She had discovered his body the night after arguing with him; she’d refused to marry the elderly Italian merchant Hugo wanted for her, claiming her would-be husband was “steeped in vice.” Lina’s half-sister Isolde wants her to suffer for her crime, but Lina claims not to have killed Hugo.

Lina quietly makes her way to Leigh Abbey in Kent, the residence of Susanna, Lady Appleton, where she’d been educated as a young girl. She hopes Susanna and her foster daughter, Rosamond, Lina’s childhood friend, can prove her innocence. (For those not in the know, Susanna was the heroine of another long-running mystery series by Emerson.) As Lina thinks: “Rosamond always knew what to do. Sometimes it was the wrong thing, but she was never at a loss when it came to making plans.”

That’s a fair description. A young woman of means whose past decisions have caused trouble for her family, Rosamond can be hard to take at times. She’s multilingual, very clever and knows it, and a master of disguises, which she uses a-plenty in her sleuthing. Rosamond also doesn’t value her devoted husband, Rob, as much as she should. She has some maturing to do, so it’s rewarding to see the scenes with their growing closeness. Lina’s a flawed character herself, and as the plot unravels, her foolish decisions become more obvious. For one, she’s infatuated with her would-be husband’s smooth-talking nephew, Tommaso.

If liking your protagonists is a necessity, you may not warm to this novel. That’s not a deal-breaker for me, though; characters’ realistic attitudes and behavior are more important, and I did find Rosamond and Lina realistic. The novel’s best part is its rich portrait of Elizabethan daily life. If you’ve ever wondered about various modes of transport during this era, requirements for the attire of Cambridge undergraduates, or the benefits of being a silkwoman in Tudor-era London, you’ll thoroughly revel in the atmosphere of this book.

Murder in the Merchant's Hall was published in 2015 by Severn House (I received access via NetGalley).

Friday, April 07, 2017

Book review: Stacia Pelletier's The Half Wives, set in late 19th-century San Francisco

Jack Plageman would have turned sixteen on May 22, 1897. However, tragically, he'd died in his crib on his second birthday. His parents’ lives haven’t been the same since. The observance of the sad anniversary takes the form of a ritual – an annual visit, timed precisely for 2pm, to San Francisco’s city cemetery, preceded by the replanting of a small garden around his tombstone. Nobody dares to change this.

That is, until this year, when the patterns are disrupted. All the characters come together at last, and long-concealed secrets spill forth.

The chapters in this finely tuned novel about grief, interpersonal connections, and the long journey toward independence revolve among four viewpoints. Henry Plageman, Jack’s father, is a former Lutheran minister turned hardware store owner. Stuck in the Golden Gate police station overnight after disturbing the peace at a local meeting, he needs to get himself out before 2pm, when he’s due to meet his wife. The cemetery where Jack’s buried sits on prime California real estate, overlooking the Golden Gate strait, and it’s a potter’s field: mostly immigrants and the destitute are interred there. When locals had proposed that the graves be moved elsewhere, Henry had made his objections loudly known.

Henry’s wife, Marilyn, who’s emotionally estranged from him yet tied to him via Jack, tries to drown her grief in endless charity work, but never succeeds, and doesn’t really want to. The third and fourth perspectives are those of Lucy Christensen, Henry’s secret lover, who misses him greatly but needs to break things off for her own sanity; and her lively eight-year-old daughter, Anna (nicknamed Blue), Henry’s only living child, who adores her father even though he sees them only rarely.

The Half Wives has three aspects that may take potential readers aback, even those who seek out literary fiction. The dialogue uses dashes instead of quotation marks;  the plot of this 320-page book spans a mere six hours; and the perspectives of Henry, Marilyn, and Lucy are told in the second person. (Still with me?) This latter choice is startling, and I found it difficult to process at first. Fortunately, the pronoun difficulties mostly fell away after the first few chapters, and the use of “you” served to enhance the effect of characters going through the motions, rather than actively participating in their own lives.

The novel moves smoothly among the four viewpoints, and between present-day events and people’s memories about their moments of happiness and heartache. Pelletier provides poignant insight into the odd dependent relationship between Lucy and Marilyn that directs their lives, even though they’ve never met, and Marilyn doesn’t know of Lucy’s existence. Henry can’t bring himself to leave either woman, though it’s clear that his avoiding that decision has wrought its own set of consequences.

Henry’s also oblivious to the reality of Lucy’s situation, which she knows.

He loves your humble cottage by the sea. He used to call it home. Even though he never spent a full night inside. He adored its cleanliness, its unpretentiousness. Its separation from the everyday. 
His everyday. Not yours. He never saw you scrub a floorboard. But you did scrub them. 

The questions of whether Lucy can get up the courage to leave him, and how, create some compelling moments.

Although the characters are the focus, the historical setting, the “Outside Lands” of northwestern San Francisco – stunning yet remote, decades before the Golden Gate Bridge’s construction – is critical. The story emphasizes how the city treats its orphaned and poor residents, from childhood until after death.

Recommended for literary fiction readers who don’t mind taking their time or making some mental adjustments to the unusual style. It’s well worth it.

The Half Wives was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Tuesday in hardcover and ebook; thanks to the publisher for sending the review copy.

Monday, April 03, 2017

My Last Lament by James William Brown, a novel of 1940s Greece

Aliki, a teenager in a northeastern Greek village in the 1940s, has an innate talent for singing dirge-poems honoring the deceased. After her father is executed by German soldiers, she’s taken in by Chrysoula, a neighbor woman with a son, Takis, who may be mentally ill.

Aliki grows close to Stelios, the young Greek Jewish man Chrysoula hides in her basement with his mother, and their bond makes Takis jealous. Then their household is betrayed, and violence erupts, forcing the trio into political chaos as civil war tears the country apart and Communist guerrillas roam the streets.

Because their characterizations are rather flat, Aliki and Stelios’ love story doesn’t attain the emotional heights it reaches for; the book’s gripping final chapters, however, have undeniable power. Aliki’s dry humor is entertaining as she records her life story on cassette for a modern American ethnographer.

Full of details on folk traditions, like shadow-puppet theater and ritual laments, Brown’s novel should entice readers curious about Greek history and culture and WWII enthusiasts seeking a new angle on the era.

My Last Lament is published tomorrow in hardcover and ebook by Berkley, and this review was submitted for Booklist's 3/1 issue.

Some more notes:

- It's a great concept for a novel. Even though the epic love story aspect didn't quite deliver for me, I appreciated the unique setting and all details on Greek culture. The WWII era is still immensely popular as a historical fiction setting, yet few authors have written about its effects on Greece and its people.

- This is Brown's second novel. His debut, Blood Dance (see the review from Publishers Weekly), published in 1993, focused on the women in a Greek village in the early 20th century. According to his bio, he lived and taught in Greece for a decade.

- Gorgeous cover!  It's one of my favorites for the year: simple yet effective.

Monday, March 27, 2017

A storyteller at work: Brian Doyle's The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World

In 1880, after following his lady-love, Fanny Osbourne, halfway across the globe, Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson lives in San Francisco, waiting for her impending divorce from her unfaithful husband and hoping the money he earns from his scribblings will support a wife and family.

John Carson, his landlady’s husband, is a longtime maritime man, and as they warm themselves by the fire and amble along the hilly streets, Carson recounts episodes from his adventurous life––a subject the historical Stevenson had planned to write about, but never did.

With abundant wit and mellifluous prose, expressed using generously long sentences, Doyle transports readers to diverse lands, including the Borneo jungle, Sydney, war-torn America, and a haunted Irish village. He also perceptively imagines the young Stevenson, a man soaking up new friendships and life lessons while sharpening his talents.

It’s a wondrous sort of paradox that a fiction nested inside another fiction can convey many poignant truths. Doyle’s irresistible novel, which practically begs to be read aloud, is a triumphant ode to the power of storytelling.

The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World is published tomorrow by Thomas Dunne, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, in hardcover and ebook.  I wrote this review for Booklist, and the final version appeared in the 2/1 issue.

Some other notes:

- This review assignment arrived last October, at which point I hadn't heard anything about the book. I don't always have the best luck with novels about explorers or adventurers, so it was a pleasant surprise. There's a lot of story and wisdom included in this comparatively short novel (it's 240pp long).

- Unfortunately, I don't find the cover art all that inspiring; maybe the paperback will be an improvement.

- This novel would be a good fit for admirers of Stevenson's own works, as well as anyone who enjoyed Nancy Horan's Under the Wide and Starry Sky, which covers his relationship with his wife, Fanny Osbourne.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Book review, with notes: David Vann's Bright Air Black, a retelling of Medea

Any reimagining of the Greek myth of Medea, she who helped Jason acquire the Golden Fleece from her royal father and killed her children in revenge after Jason betrayed her, will never be a cozy read, yet Vann’s version is darker, edgier, and more discomfiting than most. It’s made up of prose incorporating both mesmerizing sentences and concentrated fragments.

A priestess of Hekate with no use for kings, Medea must depend on them and other men for her survival, to her frustration and fury. While ambitious, Jason still needs constant prodding to fulfill the destiny Medea creates for him by means of sorcery, cunning, and blood.

The Argo’s sea voyage from Colchis to Jason’s homeland of Iolcus feels overly drawn out, yet it allows for multiple opportunities to rework the traditional mythos in inventive ways—which often involve the characters indulging in their atavistic natures. The setting has an otherworldly feel at times, which heightens the sense of the tale’s ancientness.

Sensual and violent, often simultaneously, Vann’s novel evokes the primal force of women’s power.

Bright Air Black is published this month by Black Cat (the trade paperback imprint of the independent press Grove Atlantic; $16, 250pp). I reviewed it for Booklist, and the review was published in Booklist Online on February 3rd.

Some notes:

- It's hard to tell from the image above, but the cover shows a ship with a full crew of oarsmen plying their way through dark waves, as seen from above.

- If you haven't yet gotten the impression that this novel will be a challenging read due to the subject matter, let me repeat that. It is poetically written, though, so I found myself simultaneously admiring the prose and recoiling from the imagery in some scenes. I haven't read Vann's other novels but, from reviews, I understand that this is typical of his style.

- The novel's set in the 13th century BC, and the author has made a good effort to re-create the atmosphere of that long-ago time.

- Would I recommend it?  If you're a literary fiction reader up for something daring and different (and you have a strong stomach), then by all means give it a try.

Monday, March 20, 2017

New and upcoming historical novels for Small Press Month and Women's History Month

In the United States, March has been officially designated as National Women's History Month, with many bookstores, libraries, websites, and blogs offering celebrations of women's contributions to history. Also, up until 2013, when funding for the project unfortunately ran out, Small Press Month was observed nationally during March.  This focus acknowledged the valuable contributions of small and independent presses to a thriving and diverse literary marketplace. With an ever-increasing number of mergers among the major players in the publishing industry, small presses play a more important role than ever in providing authors with greater opportunities and readers with more choices... always a good thing.

In honor of both observances, both official and not, here's a gallery of 10 new and forthcoming historical novels by female authors, and focusing (at least partly) on women's stories, which are (or will be) published by small presses. It was fun finding books that fit all three categories.  No doubt there are more!



Chessman, best known for her art-inspired novel Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, looks back on Degas' 1872 visit to New Orleans through the viewpoint of his Creole cousin Estelle (Tell), who has lost her sight. Outpost19, March 2017.



Craig's second novel intertwines the personal and political in a work about mid-20th-century Burmese history that focuses on her own family; her mother was a former Miss Burma, and there's plenty more to her story. Grove, May 2017.



A young Roman woman, exiled to distant Britannia after bearing Emperor Nero's daughter, tries to adjust to her new situation in a land torn between the Roman rulers and rebellious Celtic tribespeople. Hadley Rille, February 2017.



Troubled 20th-century artist Pamela Bianco was a child prodigy and the daughter of Margery Williams, most famous for her children's book The Velveteen Rabbit.  The intertwined stories of these two complicated women are revealed in Huber's debut novel. She Writes Press, July 2017.



This novel in the form of a fictional memoir, by Irish-Iraqi author Hughes, takes as its subject the influential Nurbanu Sultan, Queen Mother of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Delphinium, August 2017.



In 1960s Ecuador, a young woman undertakes a deception to discover the identity of her long-lost mother, who she knows is one of four sisters, all of whose names begin with the letter A.  Skyhorse, July 2017.



This second in the Da Vinci's Disciples series (after Portrait of a Conspiracy; see my interview with the author) continues the story of six women of Renaissance Florence who dare to create art at a time when it was illegal for women to do so. Diversion, April 2017.



This autobiographical novel set in 1950s Sweden and the United States is a coming-of-age story about a young woman who navigates difficult emotional territory (her parents' shaky marriage) with the help of literature. Other Press, June 2017.



Shimotakahara's multi-period novel examines the lasting aftereffects of the Japanese internment in North America through her story about a daughter who learns about the painful past that her mother had refused to acknowledge. Dundurn, May 2017.



First in a new mystery series, The Wages of Sin features a female medical student in Victorian Edinburgh who turns sleuth after recognizing the female corpse on a dissection table. Pegasus, March 2017.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Mary Miley's Renting Silence, a mystery of old Hollywood and vaudeville

Miley’s third Roaring '20s mystery delivers more zippy entertainment that taps into the spirit of the time when Hollywood’s silent film stars had audiences swooning and vaudeville acts traversed the country via rail.

Fresh from her previous investigation, Jessie Beckett, assistant script girl at Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, gets asked to solve another Hollywood murder. It seems an open-and-shut case: in her dying moments, Lila Walker had pointed twice to her friend, actress Ruby Glynn, who was found clutching a bloody knife.

However, Ruby insists on her innocence. A studio cameraman who sat on the jury that condemned her to death regrets his vote. Observing his tormented conscience, Mary Pickford asks Jessie to look further into Ruby’s situation, because the police won’t. Jessie can’t refuse her longtime idol, so she gathers her street-smarts and ingenuity and delves into Lila’s background.

What she uncovers sends her back to her old haunts, on the vaudeville circuit across the Midwest, where she meets a variety of talented performers, shadows from her own family’s past, and hateful prejudice in the form of the KKK. Jessie also worries that her lover, David Carr, has returned to his old bootlegging habits.

Renting Silence makes good use of historical characters, from Miss Pickford and her debonair husband to the young Leslie Hope, a former amateur boxer turned song-and-dance man who debates changing his name to something more American-sounding, like Bill or Bob. Jessie’s travels bring to life the fascinating, vanished world of vaudeville, and it’s a lot of fun, but the investigation driving Jessie is quite serious and dangerous.

The title refers to blackmail; as one person tells Jessie, “But you don’t buy silence. You only rent it. And the rent kept going up.” The novel makes plain how much people stand to lose if they don’t fit society’s norms.

Renting Silence was published in December by Severn House in the US and UK. This review first appeared in February's Historical Novels Review.

I really enjoy this series and previously reviewed books 1 and 2, The Impersonator and Silent Murders, which explain more of Jessie's background.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Downtonesque, but with a difference: Kate Williams' The Storms of War

During the long, golden summer of 1914, members of a wealthy British family spend their days at leisure on their expansive Hampshire estate. While the eldest daughter, beautiful Emmeline, dreams of her wedding to Sir Hugh Bradshaw, her mother, Verena, directs the servants in planning their annual summer party, to which the village children will be invited. Son Michael, home from Cambridge, has brought his American friend Jonathan to stay for a short visit. The youngest, fifteen-year-old Celia – her father’s favorite – spends time with her beloved horse and with Tom, the family’s groom, a secret friendship her friends and parents would find inappropriate.

Before long, as readers know, war will be declared, the social order will crumble, and life at Stoneythorpe Hall will be forever changed.

So far, so familiar. The basic scenario has played out in numerous historical novels and at least one iconic TV show. However, this outline omits a few important facts that helps Kate Williams’ The Storms of War carve out an original niche in this well-worn turf. The de Witt family patriarch is a tradesman, and he was born in Germany. The middle-aged Sir Hugh, who takes snobbery to rude extremes, looks past his fiancée’s background because he needs her family’s money, which comes from canned meat production.

Furthermore, the de Witts had purchased Stoneythorpe from an elderly aristocratic lady five years earlier, and their new neighbors resent them. To be more specific, the townspeople hate them, a situation that becomes cruelly obvious after war breaks out and anything (and anyone) German is shunned. Despite their loyalty to England, their connections to Germany affects each of them in ways that are sometimes predictable, sometimes the opposite.

The Storms of War, first in a proposed trilogy about the de Witt family, spans the five years of WWI and narrows its focus to the viewpoints of Celia and Michael, mostly the former. We know from the prologue that Michael will find himself at the Somme, forced to lead his men “over the top” despite shell-shock and crippling anxiety. What he endures overseas is as harrowing as expected but isn't without elements of surprise.

Even more penetrating, though, are Celia’s experiences driving ambulances in France (and yes, she’s underage, so how she achieves this is a story in itself). Basing Celia’s wartime service on primary source accounts, Williams makes readers feel Celia's utter terror as she drives the unfamiliar vehicle in the pitch dark, exhausted, with wounded soldiers wailing at every bump in the road. How she accomplishes Celia’s transformation from naïve adolescent unable to conceive of a servant-free life to disillusioned, war-weary veteran over the course of 500 pages is masterful and convincing.

As several characters relate on occasion, the British royals are also of German origin, but comparisons to their country’s highest-ranking citizens don’t benefit the de Witts in the least. While these reminders provide additional context for the times the characters are living through, the royal genealogy gets a bit garbled (the Kaiser was Queen Victoria’s grandson, not her nephew). It also feels odd for the de Witt children to refer to their parents by their first names at times. Although their perspectives aren’t shown firsthand, the novel shows how Rudolf, Verena, and Emmeline are changed by the war as well.

This is a hefty, epic read, but the confident storytelling makes it easy to get carried into the de Witts’ world. For those who enjoy it and want more, the sequel, The Edge of the Fall, is already out.

In the UK, The Storms of War is published by Orion.  In the US, the publisher is Pegasus, and HarperCollins published it in the UK.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Book review, with notes: Kate Alcott's The Hollywood Daughter

Alcott (A Touch of Stardust, 2015) returns to mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles with her novel about a young woman’s emotional and cultural awakening.

Jessica “Jesse” Malloy, who narrates in a vibrant voice, feels awkward growing up as the daughter of a fun-loving Selznick Studio publicist and a reserved Catholic woman who resists Hollywood’s sinful influences. Jesse has always hero-worshipped Ingrid Bergman, and when the beautiful Swedish actress stars in The Bells of St. Mary’s, which is filmed at Jesse’s convent school, Catholics’ admiration for her seems boundless. However, when Bergman’s affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini is discovered, the situation horrifies Hollywood’s morality police and shatters Jesse’s illusions.

Alcott uses a fast-paced, efficient writing style and creates a believable portrait of a teenager navigating high school, potential romances, and her complicated world during the McCarthy years. The portions set in 1959, as Jesse returns home after a long absence, provide emotional closure. Jesse’s parents, teachers, and Bergman herself are all sketched with subtlety. Another honest look at the real stories behind Hollywood’s glamorous veneer.

The Hollywood Daughter is published today in hardcover and ebook by Doubleday. This review was submitted for publication in Booklist's January 1st issue.

Some other notes:

This novel will work well as a YA crossover title. In fact, I can't recall reading another adult-level historical novel that placed so much emphasis on its heroine's school experiences, which include Jesse's relationships with her teachers (who fortunately aren't stereotyped) and her participation on a debate team. I think it could have been categorized as YA if not for the sections at the beginning and end. Sarah Hunter at Booklist  recommended the book for YA readers and appended a note to that effect at the end of the review. If anyone else has read it, I'll be interested to hear your thoughts.

For a perspective on how the novel's themes relate to contemporary times, see Kate Manning's review in the Washington Post, which was published yesterday.

Friday, March 03, 2017

A devilishly Bohemian thriller: Dana Chamblee Carpenter's The Devil's Bible

The Devil’s Bible is a real book. Known more formally as the Codex Gigas (giant codex), it measures 36” tall and 20” wide. Believed to have been produced at the Podlažice Monastery in what’s now the Czech Republic, this immense medieval manuscript received its nickname because of the eerie legend behind its creation, and because it contains a full-page color drawing of the devil, in all his maleficent glory.

In her second historical fantasy novel, Dana Chamblee Carpenter uses the actual history and folklore surrounding this strange text to imagine the circumstances that led to its writing. It needs to be said that The Devil’s Bible is a sequel to Bohemian Gospel, and readers starting with book two will miss many nuances and won’t feel the full impact of events as they unfold. The first book introduced the character of Mouse, an orphaned young woman in 13th-century Bohemia whose unusual gifts and ability to harness supernatural powers caused people to fear her – for good reason, as it turned out.

Bohemian Gospel was an impressive debut, but I like this sequel even more; it’s more smoothly paced, and while the first book felt almost unremittingly dark, this book offers many moments of light and hope that counterbalance the bleakness.

The story is split between two time frames. In the year 1278, Mouse, who refuses to cause more unintentional harm to others than she already has, has herself walled into a cell at Podlažice Monastery and inscribes the book that will become the Codex Gigas. Unfortunately, the source of her occult talents, her father, finds her there and insists on making his own contributions to the book.

Then, in the present day, we find Mouse employed as a Nashville university professor calling herself Emma Nicholas. Fearful of becoming close to anyone over the last 700 years, she holds tight control over her gifts and hopes her father won’t find her again. That is, until a former student claiming expertise in the Devil’s Bible catches up with her at a conference. The power she unleashes in her defense naturally attracts her immortal father’s notice.

With its combination of speculative religious history and high-stakes thrills, The Devil’s Bible may feel thematically similar to The Da Vinci Code, but the writing is more sophisticated, and it takes a more original spin. For Mouse, who struggles to come to terms with her nature, the Church and the devil are both strong adversaries, for different reasons. Her twisty relationship with her father kept me guessing (what does he want from her?). I also appreciated the scenes juxtaposing past and present and the continued focus on less trodden historical ground.

While at the Vatican, Mouse encounters a likely enemy and finds a surprising ally who accompanies her on her mission. In their quest to evade her father and find clues from the book she inscribed centuries ago, she revisits many sites from her past: the crypts and monuments of medieval Prague, the crumbling ruins of Podlažice, and several others. Also, although Mouse is fictional, her depiction as the original scribe of the Codex Gigas fits neatly with its legend.

The Devil's Bible will be published in hardcover by Pegasus next Tuesday.  Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Lucy Foley's The Invitation, set along the Italian Riviera in the '50s

Cruising along the Italian Riviera in the 1950s sounds like a luxurious experience, and this feeling is conveyed to readers of Lucy Foley’s second novel. For the lovers at its center, the journey also entails revisiting their hidden pasts. Journalist Hal Jacobs first meets the glamorous Stella at an Italian contessa’s party in Rome in 1951. Escaping the crowds in a rooftop garden, these lonely strangers form a connection and later spend a single, memorable night together.

They encounter each other again two years later. Both are invited by the Contessa along on a publicity tour via yacht from Liguria to Cannes to promote a film based on her sea-captain ancestor’s diary. Hal is hired to document the trip for an Italian magazine, while Stella is married to the film’s major funder. Hal is dismayed not only by this unpleasant revelation but also because Stella appears diminished in her wealthy husband’s presence. As she and Hal are drawn together amid the high-profile social circle aboard ship, he yearns for her true personality to emerge—and to recapture their lost intimacy.

Stella’s traumatic history unfolds in steady flashbacks to the Spanish Civil War, while a painful episode in Hal’s past is revealed much later, with dramatic impact. Hal’s reading of the diary, which he recasts in narrative form, strangely seems to parallel what he sees. Among the stylish secondary characters who accompany and observe the couple—many have hidden pasts of their own—the elegant Contessa stands out for her understanding wisdom.

Each scene in this lyrically written novel is laden with emotion, and although the story glides along leisurely, the details are worth savoring. The Invitation is a perfect read for those who love traveling via fiction. Foley evokes the character of each city and village along the sun-drenched voyage, from the contrasting decadence and industrial grime of Genoa to the verdant cliffs of Cervo and beyond.

The Invitation was published by Little, Brown in the US last summer, with the gorgeous cover above. This review first appeared in February's Historical Novels Review.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The 2017 Walter Scott Prize longlist, and the WSP Academy's recommended titles

The 13-book longlist for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was announced yesterday, and I've listed the judges' selections below.

Entries are limited to books published in the UK, Ireland, and the Commonwealth.  The original publisher was provided, and I've added notes with details on their US publisher, if it exists, as well as the historical setting.  Plus I posted some of my favorite covers.  The winner will be announced at the Borders Book Festival in Scotland in June.

Have you read any, and if so, what did you think?  I've only read one so far.

The longlist:

Jo Baker, A Country Road, A Tree (Doubleday) - also Knopf, 2016.  WWII-era Europe.

Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time (Jonathan Cape) - also Knopf, 2016.  The early 20th-c Soviet Union.

Sebastian Barry, Days Without End (Faber) - also Viking, 2017.  The US Civil War and American West.

Richard Francis, Crane Pond (Europa) - same US publisher. The Salem witch trials.

Linda Grant, The Dark Circle (Virago).  Post-WWII London.

Charlotte Hobson, The Vanishing Futurist (Faber).  Russia under the Bolsheviks.

Hannah Kent, The Good People (Picador Australia) - also forthcoming from Little, Brown, Sept. 2017. 19th-century Ireland.

Ed O’Loughlin, Minds of Winter (riverrun) - also Quercus, March 2017.  Victorian-era Arctic exploration.

Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent (Profile) - also forthcoming from Custom House/HarperCollins, June 2017. Late Victorian-era Essex, England.

Dominic Smith, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos (Allen & Unwin Australia) - also FSG, 2016. Three centuries: 1630s Amsterdam, 1950s NYC, and Sydney in 2000.

Francis Spufford, Golden Hill (Faber) - forthcoming from Scribner, June 2017. 18th-century New York.

Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday (Scribner) - also Knopf, 2016.  20th-century England.

Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata (Chatto & Windus) - also FSG, 2017. 20th-century Switzerland. This is the only one of the thirteen that I've read and reviewed.

~

In addition, the newly formed Walter Scott Prize Academy issued an additional list of recommended titles, and both this list and the longlist have international representation.

The WSP Academy's Recommended List:

Carol Birch, Orphans of the Carnival (Canongate) - also Doubleday, 2016. Carnival life in early 20th-century Europe and America.

Emily Bitto, The Strays (Legend Press) - also Twelve, 2017. Depression-era Australia.

Jessie Burton, The Muse (Picador) - also Ecco, 2016. The Spanish Civil War and 1960s London.

Tracy Chevalier, At the Edge of the Orchard (Borough Press) - also Viking, 2016. 19th-century Ohio and California.

Emma Donoghue, The Wonder (Picador) - also Little, Brown, 2016.  19th-century rural Ireland.

Susan Fletcher, Let Me Tell you About a Man I Knew (Virago).  Late 19th-century France.

Anna Hope, The Ballroom (Doubleday) - also Doubleday US, 2016. England in 1911.

Lauri Kubuitsile, The Scattering (Penguin South Africa). Early 20th-century South Africa; has US distribution.

Lynne Kutsukake, The Translation of Love (Knopf Canada) - also Viking, 2016. WWII-era Canada and Japan.

Eowyn Ivey, To the Bright Edge of the World (Tinder Press) - also Little, Brown, 2016. Alaska Territory in 1885.

Ian McGuire, The North Water (Scribner).  Also Henry Holt, 2016.  The 19th-century Arctic.

Abir Mukherjee, A Rising Man (Harvill Secker) - also Soho, 2017. Calcutta in 1919.

S.J. Parris, Conspiracy (HarperCollins).  Paris in 1585.

Steven Price, By Gaslight (Oneworld) - also FSG, 2017. Victorian London.

Ralph Spurrier, A Coin for the Hangman (Hookline Books).  1950s Britain.

Andrew Taylor, The Ashes of London (HarperCollins). Also HarperCollins US, March 2017.  The Great Fire, 17th-century London.

Natasha Walter, A Quiet Life (Borough Press).  Mid-20th century England.

A.N. Wilson, Resolution (Atlantic). 18th-century world exploration.

Alissa York, The Naturalist (Random House Canada). 19th-century America and Brazil.

Louisa Young, Devotion (Borough Press).  Pre-WWI England.

I like seeing award longlists even more than the final results -- more books to choose from!  And the "recommended" list provided by the Academy brings even more historical novels to readers' attention.  I've only read four, the ones with the reviews linked above, and enjoyed them.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Book review: The Confessions of Young Nero, by Margaret George

Does he fiddle while Rome burns? No, although he loves performing music. What about the extravagances, dissipation, and political murders? Let’s just say there are extenuating circumstances.  Once again demonstrating mastery of the epic fictional autobiography, George chronicles the rise of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, Emperor Caligula’s nephew, from sensitive boy to imperial heir to, finally, near-omnipotent ruler as Emperor Nero.

It’s a coming-of-age story like no other, and George’s Nero details the rapid shifts in circumstance that transform his character – not without many twinges of guilt along the way, He fears becoming like his mother, the ambitious, amoral Agrippina, but must play her game to survive.

An athlete and admirer of Greek culture, Nero is a consummate showman, and his entertaining narrative exemplifies this. With conviction and flair, George looks past two millennia of bad press about Nero to reveal an intelligent man of justice and religious tolerance who takes refuge in artistic expression.  This is the first of two novels charting his dangerous, outrageous life in first-century Rome; the second is eagerly awaited.

I read The Confessions of Young Nero last October, and the review above was submitted to Booklist for publication in February 1st issue. The novel, Margaret George's seventh historical epic, will be published by Berkley in hardcover ($28, 528pp) and ebook ($12.99) on March 7th.  The UK publisher, Macmillan, will publish on March 9th.

Her six previous historical novels are as follows.  Which is/are your favorite(s)?

The Autobiography of Henry VIII, 1986
Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, 1992
The Memoirs of Cleopatra, 1997
Mary, Called Magdalene, 2002
Helen of Troy, 2006
Elizabeth I: A Novel, 2012

For more information, see the author's website.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Johnstown Girls by Kathleen George, fiction about the 1889 Johnstown Flood, women's lives, and family secrets

“Is a hundred years long enough to keep a secret?”

A novel that mingles past reminiscences with a contemporary storyline, The Johnstown Girls centers on the traumatic flood that devastated the village of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889, killing over 2200 people.

One of the fortunate survivors of the disaster, Ellen Emerson is a spry 103-year-old in the year 1989. Although her parents and brother were lost to the floodwaters, Ellen miraculously stayed alive after a mattress bearing her and her twin sister swept them both to safety. Or so Ellen continues to believe. The siblings were separated in the chaos, and young Mary’s body was never found.

To mark the centennial of the event, Nina Collins and Ben Braddock, two reporters from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, arrive at Ellen’s home to interview her. Ben’s editor wants him to dig up some new angle on her story. The pair succeed in doing so, but the research process takes some unexpected turns.

Ellen and her long, eventful life are the highlights, and the sections recounting her perspective are easily the most riveting. Both natives of Johnstown, Ellen and Nina develop a warm friendship that comes alive on the page. Ellen tells her long-hidden secret to Nina and Ben early on, so it doesn’t drive the plot, but the details on her life as a career woman in big-city and small-town America easily hold readers’ attention. The aspects involving Nina and Ben’s romance just can’t compare, plus it has odd emphases and digressions. There’s an explicit sex scene in the first few pages, when we barely know the characters – why? Do we need to be brought into a marriage counseling session between Ben and his estranged wife? In addition, the story occasionally slips into other viewpoints (like that of Nina’s mother) that don’t feel necessary.

The novel offers a wealth of information for anyone interested in the Johnstown Flood, the circumstances that caused it, and its effect on the region and its residents a century later. Just be prepared to put up with some meanderings and quirks along the way.

The Johnstown Girls was published in paperback by the University of Pittsburgh Press last week ($18.95, 348pp). This is a long overdue review, which I based on a NetGalley copy from 2014, which is when the hardcover edition appeared.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Writing the Past: The Family Story Behind One Good Mama Bone, a guest post by Bren McClain

Author Bren McClain is here today with the moving family story that inspired her debut novel, as well as details on the research she conducted to make her novel's world feel authentic to the place, period, and characters.

~

Writing the Past:
The Family Story Behind One Good Mama Bone
Bren McClain


Understand this first – my daddy was a crusty, old-fashioned, Southern Baptist farmer in Anderson, South Carolina. He drew his life, all 89 years, from the land. Dirt ran in his blood. Be his little girl and find something funny while eating supper, start to giggle, and he’ll stop you cold and yell down in your bones, “You’re supposed to eat when you come to the eating table.”

Yet, ask him about this one day in March of 1941 when he was a fourteen-year-old boy, a photograph of him and his 4-H steer splashed above the fold and across the front page of his hometown newspaper, The Anderson Independent, and hear what he tells you. “Get your mind on something else,” his voice no longer yelling, but soft like it could break. Read the story below the photograph and find out the event is called The Fat Cattle Show & Sale and that my daddy’s steer, weighing in at 1100 pounds, was named Grand Champion. For that, he received 30 cents a pound, which totaled $330. He was a celebrity, of sorts, treated to free lunches all over town. Look back at him now, and see his eyes misted over.

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I had to find out why.

I wrote a novel, placed in it an innocent six-year-old boy, who enters the Fat Cattle Show & Sale for the big money it would bring him and his mama, if he won. The boy’s father has died, and the farm they live on is in danger of being foreclosed. They’re so poor, he’s lucky if he gets a pear to last him the whole day. I also placed in it another little boy, this one not so innocent, because his daddy forces him to enter, all for the glory of it.

But first, I had a ton of research to do. I chose to set the story in the early 1950s vs. the 1940s, because it better suited the story I was trying to tell. I wanted to give my antagonist, Luther Dobbins, enough time to establish a dynasty with his elder son’s long streak of winning, only for his son to age out and toss the family baton to his younger son. Let’s just say that the folks in the South Carolina Room at the local library got to know me. I put countless hours in front of a microfilm machine, where I fed in reels of The Anderson Independent and rolls and rolls of dimes for copying. Thursday papers were always terrific with their extensive grocery store advertisements that showed the prices of food and the name brands. One day, I ran across an advertisement for a product called “Retonga,” a tonic that I learned women, especially, drank back them, many for its high alcohol content (about one-third). I knew instantly that one of my characters, Mildred, the wife of the antagonist, would make a habit of consuming this liquid.

But the “find” that I loved to pieces was a notice of a weekly event in Anderson called “Shoe of the Week,” sponsored by Welborn Shoes, where women would visit the store, drop their name and telephone number into a box beside a featured shoe and then wait on Friday mornings for a call from WAIM Radio announcer, Marshall Gaillard, who would draw one name from the box. The lucky winner would get that shoe in her size. I gave this wonderful happening to my protagonist, Sarah Creamer, because I wanted something good for her and because shoes already were important in the story.

It was not only the time period that I needed to research, but also cows and the Fat Cattle event itself. Fortunate for me, every Monday, the paper carried a column by the county agent, H. D. Marett, called “Your County Agent Says.” I learned about the kind of grass to plant in pastures, when to put the steers on full feed, the best kind of grain mix, etc.

What did I do with all of this research? I organized it into 32 categories - for example, picking out a steer, feeding out a steer, cow biology and also by my character’s names. It was still too much to manage, so I cut out the salient information from each piece of paper, taped the info to 5 X 7 notecards and then organized them with tabs inside a box.


But the most important source of my research was my daddy. He finally came around to my writing this novel. In fact, I’d call him up on the phone and say, “I’ve got another question for you.” His answer? “Shoot.” That meant go ahead. I have a tab called Daddy’s Info. The brands of chewing tobacco, when the road in front of his house was paved, how to fit a burlap bag onto the down chute of a hammermill, how to crank a tractor with a flywheel, how to build a fence using cedar trees, how to kill a hog, the kinds of pistols.

And this one: What to do if a steer gets the bloat.


He had a steer with that condition once, when he was a boy, the animal bloating from eating too much grain. “You can try giving him a Pepsi Cola or two to see if it helps, but if it don’t, you’ll have to stab his stomach with an ice pick.” He talked of the triangular area between the animal’s hip bone and last rib, high up on its left side. “Rub your flat hand over it in little circles and get it all loosened up and then stab it right quick. And if you’ll put your ear right out from the hole, you’ll hear a little whistle when the gas starts to come out.” I followed daddy’s directions entirely when I wrote that scene.

Go back now and look at that first photograph and see the man wearing a hat standing behind the steer. Read the caption beneath and learn this is Bailey Trammel, manager of Ideal Super Market, “where the premium meat will be sold.” Therein lies the answer I had come seeking. Daddy had sold out his best friend, his steer. And I would come to know by reading about other boys, that he had spent a long year with his steer, feeding him, taming him, loving him. “Get your mind on something else,” he had told me.

But I couldn’t. I wrote a novel.

~

Bren McClain's One Good Mama Bone is published by Story River Books of the University of South Carolina Press today.  Read more about the novel at the author's website.