Sunday, October 13, 2019

Marley by Jon Clinch provides dark backstories for characters in Dickens' A Christmas Carol

In his highly acclaimed Finn (2007), Clinch crafted a prequel to a literary classic, expanding upon its characters while adding a daring, historically relevant twist. His latest follows in grand form by developing backstories for Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Here, Scrooge’s miserliness is a quality that emerges from his circumstances. Marley, however, is deceit incarnate, beginning when they meet at a boys’ boarding school in 1787. Their unpleasantly codependent association continues into adulthood, when they establish a shipping company enmeshed in secrets, including trading in human cargo.

Bright but emotionally detached, Scrooge prefers working with numbers, leaving the business’s nasty aspects to Marley, but to win Belle Fairchild’s hand, Scrooge must extricate himself from the slave trade. Thus begins the pair’s all-encompassing, self-destructive rivalry.

Clinch gives us a full-fledged late-Georgian London, with its shadowy lanes and increasing commercial growth, and his female characters, namely Belle and Scrooge’s sister, Fan, are convincingly developed. This smoothly written, insightful tale should prompt people to reread its inspiration with fresh eyes.

Jon Clinch's Marley is published this month by Atria/Simon & Schuster.  I reviewed it for Booklist's September 1 issue from an Edelweiss e-copy. While it's the prequel to a holiday classic, its themes (greed, slavery, family ties, the possibility of redemption) are of perennial contemporary interest.

Read also the recent NYT review of Marley, written by Simon Callow.

Also related to A Christmas Carol is Samantha Silva's Mr. Dickens and His Carol, from 2017, which stars Dickens himself and imagines the circumstances behind its writing.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Thoughts on the similarities between the two Kentucky Pack Horse librarian historical novels

Regarding the Buzzfeed News article making the rounds in the historical fiction world, citing eight commonalities between two new releases: I read Jojo Moyes’ The Giver of Stars as an ARC over the summer. (My review, written for November's Historical Novels Review, is forthcoming.) I haven’t read Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek yet, though had bought a copy for my library.

While many people on social media are calling plagiarism based on the “alarming similarities” in these two books, and the citations were written to persuade readers of this view, I’m not convinced. This is why.

First, it’s not surprising at all that two authors would be publishing historical novels about the Kentucky Pack-Horse Librarians now. The articles about them in the Smithsonian Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and on NPR were circulating heavily in the past couple of years, so it was a natural topic for novelists writing about strong female characters in 20th-century settings.

Some of the cited similarities are plot devices I’d expect to see in any commercial fiction on the subject: for example, librarians getting accosted by suspicious/religious men of the hills in an isolated woodland setting. Novels need conflict, and in a situation where women are obliged to travel alone, such a character is an obvious choice as antagonist or villain. Today’s historical novelists seek to diversify their cast, and so the choice of a black librarian as a secondary character isn’t surprising either, even if it wasn’t historically documented. Both of these elements, in other words, aren't as unique as it may seem at the outset.

There’s a JSTOR article about the Pack-Horse Librarians* that mentions the Women’s Home Companion as a popular choice of reading material in these remote residences, and that child care was a popular topic in it. This is a core research resource, the top search result in Google Scholar on these librarians.  This article also says that the librarians met initial resistance from some of the mountain dwellers they served. And of course if you’re looking for folksy elements to include in fiction in a rural setting, home-made quilts are a good choice. I received one as a wedding gift myself. Many of the mentioned similarities aren’t significant plot elements of The Giver of Stars, but details sprinkled in to make the novel feel authentic.

There’s always a hope for an author that they’ll be the first, or the only, novelist to write on a unique topic. The truth is that, with the strongest market for historical fiction being a narrow band of female-focused 20th-century history, there is often a race to see who can be the first novelist to lay claim to a historical personage or subject. I can understand authors getting upset when that doesn’t happen, and if they feel like they’re competing for attention with another book.

Readers interested in historical subjects appreciate having multiple perspectives, though, particularly when each author has a unique angle. Both books made it to the LibraryReads list for their respective release months; was there ever any doubt?  From what I’ve read about Book Woman, the protagonists and underlying plot arcs of the two books are very different.

Both authors are experienced historical novelists, meaning that they know their genre (and its conventions) well. Both did considerable research on site, at around the same time, and likely used some of the same research material. Giving modern readers what they expect in a story about the Pack-Horse Librarians means tapping into common details and tropes, and going by the material provided, I suspect that’s what happened here.

* Boyd, Donald C., "The Book Women of Kentucky: The WPA Pack Horse Library Project." Libraries & the Cultural Record, 42(2): 2007.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Interview with historical novelist Susan Higginbotham, author of The First Lady and the Rebel

I'm pleased to have had the opportunity to ask Susan Higginbotham some questions about her new historical novel, The First Lady and the Rebel (Sourcebooks Landmark, Oct. 1), which delves into the complex relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her half-sister, Emily Todd Helm, whose husband fought for the Confederacy (as did several of Mary's half-brothers).  It's a smoothly written account of a family whose political sympathies were sharply divided. As always, Susan's research is thorough and her plots well-informed by her characters' real-life actions and personalities.

The idea that Mary Lincoln had a half-sister married to a Confederate general will likely be eye-opening to many readers. Do you recall where or when you first came across this information, and then decided to write a novel about their relationship?

While the bare fact of Mary's divided family generally rates a few pages in biographies of the Lincolns, and most novels about Mary include Emily's visit to the White House, I think it was Stephen Berry's House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, a Family Divided by War, that spurred me to learn more about Emily. Although my first few novels are set in medieval and Tudor England, my previous novel, Hanging Mary, left me with a taste to do another novel set in the 1860s, especially since the primary sources were so much more accessible and since I had moved to Maryland, within an easy drive of so many Civil War sites. (No Norman French! No Latin! No more trips to England—oh, wait a minute.)

I've been fascinated by the Lincolns since I was a child, and it occurred to me that Mary's relationships with her siblings, especially the half-siblings who supported the Confederacy, was a topic that had been ignored in historical fiction. Since I like to write about actual historical figures, but like to take a fresh approach to their stories, the idea was a good fit.

Since Mary and Emily were born 18 years apart, did this create any initial writing challenges, in terms of plotting and structure?

It made for an awfully long first chapter! Originally, I had planned on a couple of more Mary chapters, including her time in Washington during Lincoln's term in Congress, before I introduced Emily, but after a couple of false starts and some stagnation I decided to fast forward through the early years of the Lincoln marriage and move on to Emily's story, which turned out to be the momentum I needed.

I appreciate how you do considerable research using primary sources. What were some of the more important or interesting discoveries you made using archival documents or photos?

Emily Todd Helm
Many students of women's history during the Civil War have heard of Phoebe Yates Pember, who wrote a memoir of her service as matron of Richmond's Chimborazo Hospital, but I don't think any historian has noted her connection with Emily Todd Helm. It wasn't something I noticed myself until I was scrolling through my scans of Emily's papers at the Kentucky Historical Society and saw a faded letter signed "Phoebe Y. Pember." To my surprise, I learned from reading the letter that not only did the women know each other, but Emily stayed in Phoebe's rather contentious household in Marietta, Georgia, at some point before Phoebe decamped for Richmond. Having learned that, I couldn't miss the opportunity to give the sharp-tongued and sharp-witted Phoebe a cameo appearance in my novel.

One discovery I made, however, was entirely by accident. A researcher in Madison, Indiana, where Emily lived after the war, wrote a pamphlet about Emily, and when my copy arrived I found that included with it was a photocopy of a typewritten transcription of a letter Emily wrote to Frank McCawley after his brother, George "Mac" McCawley, who had been one of Benjamin Hardin Helm's staff officers, was killed in battle. It's a very raw, emotional letter in which Emily dwells on her own loss in Mac's death rather than the McCawley family's, and I came away from it convinced that had Mac survived the war, Emily might well have married him after a respectable interval. At the very least, the letter—preserved by the McCawley descendants in a family Bible—was evidence of the strong friendship between Mac and Emily, and gave Emily a confidant at certain points in the novel.

As you mention in the notes at the end, Lincoln's life has been very well documented, but I particularly enjoyed seeing his home and family life depicted on the page in The First Lady and the Rebel. Were there any lesser-known qualities about Lincoln that you especially wanted to bring to life?

I did enjoy throwing some of my favorite stories about Lincoln into the novel—like the incident where he was so lost in thought he failed to notice that the child whose wagon he was pulling had fallen out of the wagon—but what I was striving for more than anything was to show the Lincoln marriage as a loving one, albeit one with its ups and downs (like most marriages). Even some historians, often relying on secondhand and even third-hand accounts, have fallen into the trap of painting the marriage as an unrelievedly miserable one, with Mary inflicting most of the misery.

Mary Todd Lincoln
I found it difficult to write Lincoln, as he is a hero of mine, so I hope readers find a few flaws in him. As for Mary, there are so many black-or-white portrayals of her, even in nonfiction—she's either the termagant who made Lincoln's life a living hell before she went crazy, or she's a proto-feminist without whom Lincoln would have been nothing and who was shoved into a lunatic asylum by her greedy, ungrateful son after she proved an embarrassment to him.

She's a complex, fascinating woman who fell in between those extremes, and I wanted to present a more balanced view of her. (That being said, she could throw a spectacular hissy fit when she chose to—I actually cut some of the scene at City Point, because the editor thought it went on too long. Imagine what it must have been like to live it!)

What appeals to you about writing historical fiction about people who once lived? Are there qualities you look for in deciding which historical characters to write about?

Well, for one thing, with historical figures, there's a ready-made plot—which comes in handy for someone like me who prefers drawing characters to creating plots. For another, I really enjoy the research that comes with writing about a historical figure. And it's a pleasure introducing readers to the little-known aspects of a prominent historical figure or to a famous person's lesser-known friends or relatives.

In choosing characters to write about, I gravitate toward women who have been misunderstood by history or overlooked by history. I'm drawn to strong women, but to quiet strength, not to the showy type displayed by the "kick-ass heroine." Resilience is a quality I particularly value, which might explain why so many of my female characters, who as a group have terrible luck in keeping their husbands alive, are called upon to exercise it to such a large degree.

Thanks so much, Susan! 




About the Author

Susan Higginbotham is the author of seven historical novels, including Hanging Mary, The Stolen Crown, and The Queen of Last Hopes. The Traitor’s Wife, her first novel, was the winner of ForeWord Magazine’s 2005 Silver Award for historical fiction and was a Gold Medalist, Historical/Military Fiction, 2008 Independent Publisher Book wards. She writes her own historical fiction blog, History Refreshed. Higginbotham has worked as an editor and an attorney, and lives in Maryland with her family.

Giveaway

During the Blog Tour, we are giving away a paperback copy of The First Lady and the Rebel! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules

– Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on October 15th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Paperback giveaway is open to the US only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud will be decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– The winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen.

The First Lady and the Rebel

Monday, September 30, 2019

Thoughts on Philippa Gregory's new saga of 17th-century England, Tidelands

Enthusiasts of Philippa Gregory’s Tudor novels may call her latest a departure, but the atmospheric Tidelands is more of a return to her former style and era. As in her Tradescant novels, she sets her tale in the 17th century, during England’s Civil War, and while her focus remains on the lives of women, it's shifted to ordinary working-class folk. There’s a strong thread of royal intrigue, but one (mostly) seen from a distant viewpoint. After reading the critical Entertainment Weekly review and the reasoning there, I guessed that Tidelands would suit my tastes, and it did. In fact, I enjoyed it more than any of her novels since The Other Boleyn Girl.

Gregory obviously loves her setting – the “neither land nor sea” marshy regions of Sealsea Island, off the Sussex mainland – and lingers over descriptions while her heroine, Alinor Reekie, navigates her way through the hidden traps in its sands and tides. Twenty-seven-year-old Alinor, healer and midwife and sister of the local ferryman, is among the poorest residents of her tiny coastal community. Her husband has vanished, leaving her with two children moving into adolescence.

She ekes out a living as best she can, hewing to a straight, narrow path even as her neighbors hint she must have mystical powers. Her greatest treasures, besides her son and daughter, are the remnants of old Saxon coins she finds on the beach. Early on, Alinor reflects on having the “sight,” as her female ancestors did before her, but Gregory doesn’t make much use of this supposed ability: Alinor’s not Jacquetta or Elizabeth Woodville.

Alinor’s life takes a sharp turn when she encounters James, a traveling priest in disguise, late on Midsummer Eve and guides him across the tidelands to the home of the local lord, a known royalist supporter. Through the intertwining stories of Alinor and James, Gregory shows how the political divide reaches out to affect even isolated Sealsea Island. James grows entranced by Alinor’s beauty and kindness, marveling at having found “a woman like you, in a place like this.”

Different meanings of this phrase echo throughout. Gregory’s tendency to repeat bits of dialogue for emphasis can sometimes aggravate, but here it works well. Alinor and James fall in love, of course, though there are hints that, even with his expensive clothes and greater education, she’s of stronger moral fiber than he.

Tidelands is indeed more of a “slow burn” than an epic read full of juicy excitement. That said, Alinor’s character is richly developed, with many subtle shadings. Because her meager income depends on others’ goodwill, she can rarely act on her desires. James’s presence throws her into disarray, but she can’t let it show. With her inner turmoil, I found her among the most complex and intriguing among Gregory’s heroines. When Alinor’s covert act to help James is rewarded, and her children’s fortunes improve, her neighbors’ whispers about her increase. Meanwhile, James, forced to conceal himself among Parliamentarians, continues his secret, dangerous mission for his king.

The way Gregory handles her “abortion subplot” goes contrary to what one might expect of the people involved, and I found this puzzling. But otherwise, Alinor’s character falls in with her status as an impoverished woman all too aware that she sits on the margins. As such, she possesses a strength imperative for survival, one which her social superiors hardly recognize. When a higher-ranking man, speaking of the political chaos engulfing Britain, calls it a fight “between men… It was about our country, our war,” Alinor's reply has a quiet, firm insistence on her place in the world: “‘My war, too,’ she observed. ‘My country, too.’”

Tidelands was published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in August; I read it from an Edelweiss copy (and also bought a print copy for the library's bestseller collection).

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera, 1920s-set fiction about three distinctive Southern women

Spera’s debut novel brims with grim authenticity as she recounts the unexpected bond between three women in the small town of Branchville, South Carolina. Her own great-grandmother and grandmother came from this same place, enduring grinding poverty while raising their families as best they could, and her deep familiarity with the land and people seeps into the pages.

In 1924, five years before the Great Depression’s official start, hard times have already hit. The boll weevil infestation has devastated local cotton production, and the region hasn’t recovered. Married at thirteen, Gertrude (Gert) Pardee has an abusive alcoholic husband, four growing daughters, and no money to properly feed or clothe them. When she sees a dark way out, she takes it and doesn’t look back. When Gert arrives at the home of Mrs. Annie Coles to ask about a job and a place to live, she speaks first with the Coles’s black maid, Oretta (Retta) Bootles, and their three lives converge.

Their voices are unique and distinctive, and their personalities transcend what seem at first to be stereotypical roles. Gert sees the Missus a “fine old lady” whose house is “pure white and grand as the entrance to heaven,” but something terrible is clearly eating the Coles family from the inside. Annie is seventy, with two sons who struggle to emerge from under their father’s controlling thumb, two estranged daughters, and a beloved son who committed suicide years ago (she doesn’t know the reason). Her voice and painful journey are sadly believable. Retta, the middle-aged daughter of former slaves, is rough-edged but compassionate; she runs Miss Annie’s house while going home each night to her husband in their black neighborhood, “Shake Rag.” Their plot arcs aren’t equally satisfying (it would be a spoiler to say why), but the novel succeeds in evoking Southern women’s survival during tough times.

Call Your Daughter Home was published by Park Row/HarperCollins; I read it from a NetGalley copy.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Bits and pieces of historical fiction news: critical reviews, bio-fiction, HF for new readers and WWII

Here's a roundup of historical fiction articles I found on the web recently.

Negative reviews can be dismaying for authors, but they can hold value for readers trying to decide whether a novel is worth their time. Sometimes I'll read a critical review that persuades me to read a book, and the review of Philippa Gregory's Tidelands in Entertainment Weekly did this for me. In contrast to the reviewer (staff journalist Maureen Lee Lenker), I'd grown steadily more lukewarm about Gregory's Tudor series and didn't read the last two, figuring I'd had my fill of Tudor drama and angst. I'm predicting that a novel that avoids juicy subplots in favor of something less obvious, more of a "slow burn" in other words, may be more to my taste. The comment about Gregory's handling of an "icky" abortion subplot (no spoilers if you've read it, please!) concerns me a bit, but the observation that this situation isn't handled in a way that echoes modern politics does not, since this is a novel set in the 17th century.  I'll be reading Tidelands soon and will post my review then. For more background to Gregory's writing choices, she did a separate interview with EW about it.

For the History News Network, novelist Gill Paul discusses writing fiction about real people: the motivations, pitfalls, techniques, and occasional surprises (like if a person upon whom you've based a character reads your book and emails you).  I liked this comment: "The best novels about real people make us re-evaluate the subject and perhaps alter our preconceived ideas."

At Book Riot, Jeffrey Davis has an essay called 5 Historical Fiction Books to Read if You Don't Like Historical Fiction. For several years, I was a regular guest presenter in an English class examining the reading interests of adults, and historical fiction was a tough sell for most of those students, too. I always enjoy reading other takes on the genre and noted the author's realization that while WWII is the most popular setting, historical fiction encompasses a broader period than that one era. Check out the recommendations there of "gateway" books for newcomers to HF.  A couple of them take place in the '80s -- that is, my high school and college years, which does seem like a distant place at times.

Continuing with this theme, writing for Parade Magazine, author Kristen Harmel (The Winemaker's Wife) analyzes why WWII Fiction Is So Hot Right Now, providing some good reasons and also some fiction recommendations. Among them, the ones I've read are Kate Quinn's The Huntress and Ann Mah's The Lost Vintage, both of which I recommend as well.


Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Diversity in the Ancient World, a guest post by Zenobia Neil, author of The Queen of Warriors

Author Zenobia Neil's newest historical novel, The Queen of Warriors, is published this Thursday, and today she's stopping by with a guest post about cultural diversity during the Hellenistic Period as part of her blog tour. Welcome, Zenobia!

~

Diversity in the Ancient World
Zenobia Neil 

Alexander the Great represents many things to different people. When I first started researching the Hellenistic period while writing The Queen of Warriors, I was curious about ancient Persian perfume. I started reading a blog post about perfume in Hellenistic Persia. I learned that my main character Artaxerxes of Rhagae could indeed wear sandalwood and musk. And then I read the comment section, which quickly devolved into an argument between two strangers about if Alexander the Great was accursed or a hero.

I think many figures in history can be both good and evil. No one is just one thing. All too often historical figures are taken out of context of their time and place. Enough books have been written about Alexander, and I have no interest in weighing in on his crimes and crowning glories. What fascinated me was the sheer intensity of feeling people still have about him. I want to talk about something else he did—or that he helped to do: by invading Persia and conquering basically all of Asia Minor and India, Alexander brought a flood of diversity throughout the land.

The Hellenistic Period (323 BCE - 31 BCE) saw a wave of cultural exchange. Alexander conquered Persia, but he also adopted Persian customs (despite the disapproval of his men). Greek culture, language, and art spread throughout Asia Minor, Egypt as far as Northeast Africa, and to part of modern India. (I should also stress that there wasn’t a unified Greece. Each polis or city-state had their own way of doing things, but I’m going to simplify and call Macedonians, Athenians, and Spartans “Greek.”)

When I first read about this time period in Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, one of the aspects that interested me the most was the diversity of the people of this time period. Not only was I intrigued by the Persians—perceived as feminine by the Greeks because they wore leather trousers—but also by the Bactrians with their camel hair vests, and the Medes. I was enthralled by these ancient people I knew so little about.

Since I chose to write about a fictional Spartan woman warrior who becomes the leader of a mercenary army, I had characters from many different lands. Alexandra, the Queen of Warriors, has an army composed of Spartan commanders as well as Ionian, Nubian, and Median factions. Later in the book, her army adopts Persian squires.

Though I did not base my character on a known historical figure, we do know that Xenophon and his ten thousand were Greek soldiers in Persia, fighting for a Persian prince. Alexandra and her men find themselves in a similar position, fighting for a Macedonian king to keep Alexander’s tattered empire intact. In The Queen of Warriors, these diverse factions follow Alexandra for different reasons; one is her reputation as a fearless leader and the strength of her Spartan warriors.

Alexandra’s troop also includes Mithra, a Babylonian former concubine, a girl whose beauty has been its own curse. Mithra was raised in the pleasure houses of Babylon and has learned to become a warrior in her own way. When she’s given her freedom, she finds a place for herself in Alexandra’s household. Two other characters who sprang almost fully formed into the book are Silent Shadow, a Nubian marksman who lost his tongue when he refused to give away a secret, and Judah, a Judean slave who gains his freedom by risking his life.

The ancient world is often portrayed as one group of people battling another. Writing in the Hellenistic world gave me an opportunity to show the diversity and cultural exchange that existed thousands of years ago and continues to this day.

~

About the Author

Zenobia Neil was named after an ancient warrior queen who fought against the Romans. She writes about the mythic past and Greek and Roman gods having too much fun. She lives with her husband, two children, and dog in Los Angeles. The Queen of Warriors is her third book.

Visit her at ZenobiaNeil.com. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Giveaway

During the Blog Tour, we are giving away 2 eBooks and 2 paperbacks of the author's first two books, Psyche Unbound and The Jinni’s Last Wish! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on October 4th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to the US only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud will be decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– The winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen.

The Queen of Warriors