Monday, August 06, 2007

Interview with Jane Kirkpatrick, part 1

Jane Kirkpatrick's Change and Cherish Historical Series traces the life of Emma Wagner Giesy, a German-American woman who became one of Oregon's earliest pioneers. Both the Wagners and the Giesys, Emma's parents and in-laws, belonged to the Bethelite colony, a utopian religious group in Bethel, Missouri, whose members believed in simple and communal living.

The first novel, A Clearing in the Wild (named a 2007 WILLA finalist last week), begins in 1851 and sees Emma's marriage to Christian Giesy, a kind man of her father's age who assists Wilhelm Keil, the Bethelites' founder, with the colony's leadership. Then Keil, believing that the outside world is encroaching too much on their lifestyle, decides to send a group of scouts, Christian included, on a mission to found a new settlement in the Pacific Northwest. Strong-willed Emma, who has always chafed against the restrictions against women in their sect, demands to accompany the group.

A Tendering in the Storm begins in 1856 and sees the Giesys settled with their young family along Willapa Bay in Washington State. Conflict arises when Keil arrives at Willapa with a second contingent of Bethelites, insisting that the land they have come to love is inhospitable. While Keil's group moves south to Oregon Territory to found a new colony, called Aurora Mills, the Giesys informally break away from the Bethelites. Then tragedy strikes, leaving a pregnant Emma to raise her family alone -- which makes her vulnerable to bad influences, including her husband's cousin, Jack.

All of the main characters are historical figures; character lists and maps are included. Both novels are lyrical, compelling, and inspiring reads, bringing to life a little-known woman from the mid-19th century who sought balance between her need for independence and her desire for community.

Jane, who like Emma is a native Midwesterner who settled in the Pacific Northwest, is an award-winning author of many historical sagas, mostly based on early women pioneers. A Clearing in the Wild was published by WaterBrook Press ($13.99, 370pp, 1578567343) in 2006, and A Tendering in the Storm ($13.99, 383pp, 9781578567355) in April 2007. Visit Jane's website at and her blog,, for more information.

You mention that you first found Emma's name in a quilting book. With so little information to go on, how did you begin researching her?

I contacted the author of the quilting book to find out where she got some of her information as a place to start. She sent me to the Aurora Colony. But the society was in a huge remodeling project, and it wasn't convenient to have me explore their archives then, so I pursued the Bethel angle. I located articles written about the colony, some in German, that my local librarian helped me get a translation of. I made contacts in Bethel, Missouri, found there was a historical society there as well, and posted on some genealogy sites that I was seeking information. That led me to Willapa Bay in Washington State, where the scouts of which Emma was a part first settled.

Census records were a gold mine. Territorial records gave me more details. At the Washington historical society, I gathered up copies of correspondence from the 1920s between descendants trying to identify all the scouts of this colony. Emma wasn't even included in the discussion! Well, that just encouraged me to go deeper, as she'd been overlooked in my mind. A passing comment to a photographic archivist at the state historical society introduced me to a specialist in communal studies who happened to live in the community Emma eventually moved to, the one with the remodeling project. He got me into the archives. The society ran an article about my interest, descendants contacted me, and from there... the rest is history, as we say.

Did you find the research process for this series any more challenging than for your other novels, given that the Bethelites were a German-speaking community?

Because the community lasted for more than twenty years and were the only communal society to really survive that long in the West, there were several non-fiction books that included sections about them. Some of these were written in German but had been translated into English already. When I located some descendants, I learned that they had many letters, in German, that they'd slowly been translating. There was a great day when we had a huge dining room table of some of the translated letters lying around. I happened to pick one up, read it and discover it was signed by Emma herself! Her great-nephew hadn't realized he had that letter... he'd been looking for letters from his great-grandfather. But overall, their German-speaking was less of an issue than researching my Tender Ties series based on the life of Marie Dorion, a Native American woman! Now that research had its challenges!

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Christmastime at the Wagners' home in the beginning of the first book. Where did you learn about these and other German-American traditions?

A book written in the late 1800s, in English, about several colonies included some of these tidbits. Another descendant wrote about the Bethel Colony as recent as the 1990s included a few more. I was fascinated that they celebrated Christmas so early in the morning or that they etched eggs with great beauty for Easter or other occasions such as births! And because their musical instruments were so unusual, the state historical society had done an article some years back about those. There were actual letters from the leader, too, that identified some of the traditions. Websites about German-speaking people offered up clues. I had German friends who own a B&B and taught me about German dishes and traditions.

My own heritage is German-American, and when I read about women recording their daily activities in those little almanacs "Bessie had her calf today" or "Rained four inches. Rivers flooding" I remembered my aunt doing that when I was a child. It's how the women kept their stories and often those almanacs of treasured data are not kept when a woman dies the way a journal might be. But for many busy women, those were her journals.

What made you decide to write this series in the first person, with Emma as principal narrator?

My own need for variety, I think in part. I'd done my last seven books in third person. Then, too, as I learned about how women's voices weren't often heard in this colony, I felt a greater need to explore what kind of a woman would be remembered through the generations and how she might have thought. First person allows a little more intimacy with the reader; but then the character has to be able to sustain that intimacy and fascination, too, for a first person trilogy so it was a challenge. I wanted people to like Emma, and yet she made some pretty puzzling decisions, or at least they seemed puzzling until I dug deeper into the historical records.

While A Clearing in the Wild is told exclusively from Emma's viewpoint, A Tendering in the Storm alternates between Emma, Wilhelm's wife Louisa, and Emma's sister Catherine Wagner. What made you decide to include two new viewpoints in the second book? Will we be seeing more of Louisa and Catherine in the third?

I wanted a way to tell about the trials of both women as wives of leaders and their challenges in two different sites. Since the story was being told through Emma's eyes, I couldn't put her 150 miles away in order to share what was happening in that offshoot colony in Oregon while she was in Washington Territory. And since some of the tension came from the reluctance of the Missourians to sell the property back there and join the leader in Oregon, I needed a way for Emma and Louisa Keil to know about that and used the epistolary format for that from Emma's sister, Catherine. In the draft, I actually had many more letters from Catherine, but my editors suggested we cut some of them back.

Plus, I knew that eventually all three women end up in Aurora, so I wanted to introduce the other two women's points of view in the second book to prepare for the final book, coming out in the spring of 2008. I also thought that three different people exploring the same events can remind us that the way we see the world is not the only way to see it.

Over the course of the two books, Emma is forced to reevaluate her feelings about the Bethelites, and Wilhelm Keil in particular. In the course of your own research and writing, did your feelings about either change from your initial impressions? Did you learn anything about either that surprised you?

Yes. I was pretty much not liking Wilhelm Keil during most of the first book. Then while writing the second I discovered the divorce petition Emma had filed thirty years after she left Washington State and the letter I mentioned earlier. That petition answered some family stories that had been confusing -- which included her first husband's death, then her remarriage to a cousin of his with the same last name! Both of these suggested that Wilhelm Keil had befriended her later on and made a safe haven for her. He even had a house built for her in Aurora. I also learned of the death of four of his and Louisa's children of smallpox, and some of his behavior after that softened me to him. And I saw Louisa as a strong woman in her own way, and she stayed with him so there had to be something there.

I had made him a pretty hard person in the first book, so I had to find a way to make him less so, or Emma would not have rejoined the main colony. She didn't do so for several years, and that needed an explanation too. And then there was one final surprise I had to weave in for the third book that I won't reveal here. It was another puzzle I had to work out.

Part 2 of the interview with Jane Kirkpatrick will be posted tomorrow!

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:15 PM

    I am in awe of Jane Kirpatrick. I stumbled upon 'All Together In One Place' several years ago on a rainy day in a public library. I've been hooked since. I admire so many of her female characters for their strength and the historical aspect of the books make them so special and memorable to me. I am reading 'A Tendering In The Storm' now, and was not aware of a third book in the series. I can't wait for it.