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.

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The First Lady and the Rebel