Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Guest post from Kathy Leonard Czepiel: When History Comes to Life

Did you know that at the end of the 19th century, New York's Hudson Valley was known as the violet capital of the world?  I grew up not far from the region, but this is a bit of history I'd never come across before.  Kathy Leonard Czepiel, author of A Violet Season (Simon & Schuster, July 2012, $15.00), has contributed a thought-provoking essay about her research, and about the moments when we realize how history has touched us personally.  Welcome, Kathy!  For additional stops on her blog tour, visit http://a-violet-season.blogspot.com.

When History Comes to Life
I grew up in the 1970s on a spur of the old Albany Post Road that had been cut off from the highway when it was straightened. There, off the beaten path, is a hamlet that dates to the eighteenth century and is still a little bit older and quieter than the world around it. At one end of what was known as Old Post Road, I grew up in the Victorian parsonage of the church where my father was the minister. At the other end, among the many neighbors we knew, lived Mr. and Mrs. Brenzel, an older couple who were members of our church. In my child’s memory, they are both smiling, friendly people. They must have enjoyed children, though they had none of their own.

I mention the Brenzels because Mrs. Brenzel played an important but entirely unintended role in the research of my novel, A Violet Season. The novel is set in 1898 on a violet farm in my native Hudson Valley and tells the story of a fictional family, the Fletchers, and their struggles to save their share of the family farm. In the course of my research, I wanted to know what hymns might have been sung in the church at that time, so my father loaned me an 1897 hymnal. Its brown cover was embossed with a chancel design and the pages retained a decorative red edging, but the cover of its spine was missing. Most of the hymns were surprisingly unfamiliar, and difficult to read because the music was separated from the lyrics. Inside the front cover was a penciled list of names, which my father speculated might have been the names of the members of the choir. Among them was the name “Miss Grace Lasher.”

Grace Lasher was born in 1884 and grew up at the Eureka Hotel on the Village Green, a small, triangular piece of land at one end of Old Post Road. A 1901 photograph shows her standing on the hotel steps with her sister Margaret beside her, a hand resting on Grace’s shoulder. Their parents, dressed in black, sit in chairs at the foot of the steps, and standing to their right are their sister Fannie, her husband and their little daughter in a smocked dress with ribbons in her hair. At the age of 21, Grace fell in love with and married 54-year-old neighbor Will Knickerbocker and moved across the street to his family homestead, which he had recently repurchased. By all accounts, they were happily married until his death in 1922. He was 70, and she was 38. Three years later, in 1925, she married Raymond Brenzel, who was fifteen years her junior, and became Mrs. Brenzel. I knew her through most of her eighties; she died when I was eight years old.

The moment when I realized who “Grace Lasher” in that century-old hymnal was, I also realized for the first time what I was doing. I wasn’t writing “historical fiction.” I was writing about people just like the people I had known, people whose lives had begun in the nineteenth century, but intersected with my own. My characters, though creations of my own imagination, were no longer from a distant, imagined time. They were part of my time.

It is like this for readers as well. We sometimes imagine we are reading fiction from a distance, peeking through a keyhole at a world beyond us. In truth, we are all living in the same world, part of one continuous time that overlaps with our own. Holding that hymnal in my hands reminds me of that fact. It reminds me that I am not just playing a make-believe game. I am telling the story of not only a place, but of a time that in many ways belongs to me.

Kathy Leonard Czepiel
(credit: Chris Volpe)
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is the author of A Violet Season, a historical novel set on a Hudson Valley violet farm on the eve of the twentieth century. She is the recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals including Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, CALYX, Confrontation, and The Pinch. Czepiel teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters.

Learn more about her at www.kathyleonardczepiel.com, like her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter at @KLCzepiel.


  1. Sarah, thanks for hosting Kathy today for a truly awesome guest post that I think historical fiction fans are going to enjoy.

  2. What a wonderful post! And what a thrill to find a remnant from the past of someone she knew. It is so interesting to think how the stories from the past connect with our stories now. We all overlap in some way, and its easy to romanticize it and feel like the things in history happened so long ago they couldnt be touched. I love hearing about the life of the woman she had knows, the photo sounds beautiful too!~

  3. What a beautiful post and so true.

  4. I loved this post as well and have often felt the same thing when coming across old photos or letters written by family members, like my great-grandparents or other relatives I only knew when they were elderly. What seemed like long-ago history becomes very real.

  5. Thanks, all. I enjoyed writing this post. I actually learned more about Mrs. Brenzel myself from a local history book written by my father. Apparently, it's in our gene pool...