Sunday, April 30, 2023

A short trip to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in the early 18th century

There’s a strange magic to Holy Island, to Lindisfarne; a strange magic that sustains her.  
(quote from In Darkened Corners)

In 2014, as part of a driving trip from London up to Northumberland and back, my husband and I spent a day on Lindisfarne, an island off England’s northeast coast which is accessible by causeway from the mainland at low tide. We visited the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, the site of an ancient monastery attacked by Vikings in the late 8th century, as well as the 16th-century castle.

It's a place steeped in historic atmosphere. We did a lot of walking and looking out at the sea, and we’ve always wanted to go back. In the photo below, you can see Bamburgh Castle in the distance: another landmark perched at the edge of the water, further down the coastline.

Holy Island, looking at Bamburgh Castle
On Lindisfarne, looking out to Bamburgh Castle in center 
(Photo by Mark Johnson, 2014)

So when I read about Johanna Craven’s new historical fiction series set on Holy Island, as it’s called, I knew I had to read it, and the author recently offered a prequel short story, In Darkened Corners, as a free download. I read it in between longer novels.

Lindisfarne’s proximity to Scotland is important in the story, which takes place just prior to the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion. Julia Mitchell (her surname isn’t mentioned until halfway through) runs a curiosity shop on Lindisfarne while raising her young son, Bobby, the product of a brief liaison with a Scotsman. Her father had disowned her after discovering her pregnancy, but Julia has made ends meet with her brothers’ support, by selling unusual vintage items, and by taking in a lodger. But when her three brothers reach a political tipping point – now that there’s a German-born monarch on the English throne – and leave the island to join the Jacobite cause, Julia refuses to get involved. Events quickly make it clear to her, however, that she may not have a choice.

The author packs considerable character development and setting details into this shorter format, evoking the sounds of the sea, the majestic patterns of light and shadow in the sky, and the overwhelming sense of remoteness. The deliberate pacing and secretive atmosphere add to the sense of foreboding. One caveat: when Julia finds herself in uncomfortable circumstances, she doesn’t put up much resistance. The situation resolves too quickly, and I would have liked more explanation.

Lindisfarne Castle
Lindisfarne Castle (photo by Mark Johnson, 2014)

During the story, Julia comes across Highfield House, the abandoned home of the wealthy Blake family, gone now for twenty years. According to the blurb for Firelight Rising, the first full-length book in the series, which comes out in June, the Blakes return to Holy Island and get caught up in new conflicts. I have the book preordered and hope to see Julia again there too, if only as a secondary character.

You can download In Darkened Corners for free via the author’s website (PDF) or via BookFunnel (various other formats). Both books have beautifully designed covers, too.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Writing and researching a novel inspired by Irish family history, a guest post by Marian O'Shea Wernicke

Please join me in welcoming novelist Marian O'Shea Wernicke, who has a guest post about the research (including travel!) necessary for her to create her newest work of historical fiction, Out of Ireland, which is published today.


Writing and researching a novel inspired by 
Irish family history
Marian O'Shea Wernicke

Authors of historical fiction usually enjoy doing the research for their novels. After all, one is reading about a place and time she has never seen or experienced and is not writing yet! So authors may spend months, even years, reading history, novels, examining photos, newsreels, if possible, looking at films set in the period until they feel they have a grasp of the time period as well as the setting.

But research shows that readers do not read historical fiction to learn history; they read to be entertained! A second reason they read is to be immersed into a time and place not their own by means of a story. So the trick for the writer is to weave the knowledge gained by research ever so delicately into the fabric of the story one is telling.

When I set out to write a novel inspired by the few facts I knew of my great-grandmother, Ellen Hickey Sullivan Jewett, an Irish immigrant born around 1850 in Bantry, Ireland, and who died in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1933, I realized quickly that I had to do a ton of research before I could even begin to tell the story. My most important source of knowledge about her early life in Ireland came from two letters exchanged between her daughters, my grandmother and her sister, my great aunt.

Photo of the author's great-grandfather

Written when they were in their 80s, the letters revealed what my grandmother remembered “about Mama’s life in Ireland.” She said she thought her mother had been born in Bantry, near the sea, that at times they had only fish and black bread to eat, that she had been forced to marry an older man she did not know or love, that they’d had a child and decided to emigrate to America. Even closer to me, my mother had known her, this Irish grandmother who’d lived with them until she died at the age of 87 when my mother was thirteen, and my mother told me stories of jumping into bed with her grandmother during fierce thunderstorms when she was a child. Her grandmother was her best friend as she was growing up in a house full of older brothers. Her real name was Ellen, but in the novel she is Eileen.

My next area of research was life in Bantry, Ireland, in the late 1860s. I am fairly well-versed in Irish literature and history, but now I began serious research into the Irish struggle for independence from the British at that time and place. My second main character is Eileen’s brother Michael, who would be involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an outlawed group of Irish dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland. I decided I needed to go to Bantry, so in June of 2017 my husband and I flew to Shannon Airport, rented a car, and drove the winding, lonely road south to Bantry, where we had splurged and booked ourselves into two nights at Bantry House, the ancestral home of the Earls of Bantry.

Bantry House, seat of the Earls  of Bantry
Bantry House, seat of the Earls of Bantry

Our stay there gave me the idea of having Eileen’s family, poor Irish Catholics who were forbidden to vote or attend a university, working on such a grand estate both in the fields as tenant farmers and in the house itself as a servant. As the guide showed us the beautiful house and explained its long history, I was imagining Eileen in such a house as a maid. Later we explored the lovely small town, and I could see Eileen being baptized and married at St. Finbarr’s Catholic Church.

Doing research at mouth of Bantry Bay
Doing research at mouth of Bantry Bay

Next I had to study the whole process of immigration in 1870 as many Irish were fleeing poverty and lack of opportunity in Ireland for America. People left from what is today Cobh although at the time under the British it was called Queenstown, and my characters would make the voyage on a steamship which also would have sails. I scoured the internet for the price of tickets, the supplies the steerage passengers were asked to bring, for the conditions in steerage versus in salon class on these ships, and the diseases rampant in such close quarters. I also read Joseph O’Connor’s powerful novel Star of the Sea for a wonderful fictional treatment of life at sea for immigrants. Drawings of the time, often in newspapers, were another important resource in picturing anguished scenes at the docks as families left, usually forever, all that they knew and loved for a murky future in America or Canada.

In Bantry town facing St. Brendan’s Church
In Bantry town facing St. Brendan’s Church

In my novel, Eileen and her husband land in Holyoke, Massachusetts, after a brief stop in Manhattan. I had lived and taught high school in Holyoke, so I was familiar with its history of Irish immigrants, many of whom worked in the mills along the river. In poking around the visitor center there on another research trip, I discovered a newspaper story of a terrible accident at a dam there and was able to use this as an important plot point.

Finally my research led to St. Louis, Missouri, my hometown, and the actual place my great-grandmother and one of her brothers ended up. My research there was most surprising. I had never heard of the Irish gangs active in the city in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some of these gangs justified their illegal activities with the claim that they were raising money to send to the rebels in Ireland who were gearing up to fight for their freedom. In the novel, Michael is involved in one such gang, so I read several accounts such as Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish-American Gangster for background. I examined maps of the city in the 1870s, and even found and photographed the house on St. Louis Avenue in North St. Louis where my grandmother was born. It is battered and worn, but it is still standing 139 years later!

After at least three years of research which I greatly enjoyed, it was time to start writing. Now I had the much harder task of weaving just enough of what I had learned into a story of young people that would entertain readers today as well as immerse them in a place and time they would never know except in the pages of a story.

Author Bio

Born and raised in an Irish Catholic family in St. Louis, Missouri, Marian O’Shea Wernicke is the author of the novel Toward That Which Is Beautiful, a finalist in both Literary Fiction and Romance Fiction in the 2021 Independent Book Awards, and a finalist in Multi-Cultural Fiction in the 2021 American Book Awards. The Catholic Press Association awarded the novel Honorable Mention in Fiction in 2021. She is also the author of a memoir about her father, called Tom O’Shea: A Twentieth Century Man.

A nun for eleven years, Wernicke worked in Lima, Peru for three years. After leaving the convent, Wernicke taught English as a Second Language in Madrid, and later became a professor of English and Creative Writing at Pensacola Junior College. Marian married Michael Wernicke, and they are the parents of three children. After living in Pensacola for many years, the couple moved to Austin, Texas, to be near their children and grandson. Michael died this past December, but he lives on in their children and grandchildren.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

The Weeds unveils fascinating lost history in a feminist multi-period tale set around Rome's Colosseum

In centuries past, Rome’s Colosseum was home to abundant varieties of plant life. Returning to the Eternal City with another multi-period novel, Smith (The Everlasting, 2020) takes a creative approach, organizing her chapters by botanical family, with narrative sections introduced by plant species.

Two unnamed young women alternate viewpoints. In 1854, an assistant to Richard Deakin, an English botanist who cataloged the Colosseum’s flora, surveys the greenery while recalling her penchant for thievery and missing her female lover, who married a man.

In 2018, an American graduate student with an unsupportive advisor investigates which plants from Deakin’s book still remain on site. Through their observant, witty accounts, the protagonists contend with potential romantic partnerships and family pressures while pursuing achievements in male-dominated spaces.

One might worry that the structural concept would overshadow the plot, but this doesn’t happen; in fact, the novel exemplifies the importance of storytelling in science. The tale diverges from history in places. Erudite, playful, and filled with fury about gender inequality, it’s recommended for readers of cli-fi and feminist literary fiction.

Katy Simpson Smith's The Weeds was published by FSG last week. This is the review I contributed for Booklist, and an edited version appeared in the magazine's March 1 issue.

Some other notes:

The history behind this novel is absolutely fascinating!  Read more in Paul Cooper's article for The Atlantic, "Rome's Colosseum Was Once a Wild, Tangled Garden."  Also read more in Paul Cooper's Twitter thread from 2017, which has images from Deakin's catalog of flora and paintings of the Colosseum over the centuries. Many rare species were found there.  Deakin had hypothesized they'd been carried in seed form within the fur of the African animals transported to fight in the arena in Roman times, since the plants weren't recorded anywhere else in Europe.

View of the interior of the Colosseum, by C. W. Eckersberg (1815)
View of the interior of the Colosseum, by C.W. Eckersberg (1815).
ublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Richard Deakin is a historical physician and botanist who compiled Flora of the Colosseum of Rome (1855). The book has been digitized at the Public Domain Review, where you can also learn about the background to the "charming volume," as it's called there. Deakin's presence in The Weeds has been fictionalized. It's easy to disappear down a rabbit hole for hours in researching the background to this book.

The structure for The Weeds is ingenious. Among the joys of reading is anticipating how each plant will fit into its section. Some are examined directly, with physical descriptions and details on their use, others metaphorically or tangentially.

Because there are no section headings indicating whose viewpoint is being shown, you have to pay close attention at first so that you're not lost. Between that and the women's lack of names, at times they feel interchangeable, which is probably deliberate on the author's part; the marginalization and diminishment of women persists over time.

One line in my original review ("The tale diverges from history in places") was edited out, maybe for space reasons, but it's nonetheless important in my overall take on the book; it would have been too spoilery to give more details.  

The Weeds definitely offers much to reflect upon, from a variety of perspectives: feminist, literary, historical, and more, and it's not one I'll easily forget (I read it last October).

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Review of Katie Lumsden's The Secrets of Hartwood Hall, an innovative Victorian gothic novel

Please pardon the blog silence from the last week and more. Things have been extremely chaotic at my workplace (the EIU faculty union went on strike for six days), and reading was close to impossible under the circumstances. A tentative agreement has since been reached, and classes began again last Friday, so everyone’s taking this weekend to relax, though the situation is not yet fully resolved.

I picked up and abandoned several books over this time and finished another, but with a lesser focus than usual. Eventually I turned to a new book in a subgenre –  gothic mystery – which I’ve found to be a reliable distraction from real life, and it got the job done.

You’ll know the pattern: in Victorian England, a young woman without prospects travels to a large, remote mansion to become governess for a family with a mysterious history. Servants and local villagers whisper about ghostly sightings late at night. Our heroine falls for a handsome man, but can he be trusted?

All this holds true. But the heroine of Katie Lumsden’s debut, The Secrets of Hartwood Hall, set in 1850s Somerset, isn’t a wide-eyed innocent but a 29-year-old widow, and this isn’t her first posting. Margaret Lennox had worked as a governess before wedding a clergyman who died three years into their marriage. Their union was unhappy. Margaret admits in an aside, “… but it was not as though I had ever been a good wife” – one among several hints of scandal in her past. She’s also deaf in one ear, which has made her search for a new job a challenge.

Margaret’s employer is also atypical: Mrs. Eversham, herself a widow, travels to London often on business. Margaret is directed to never let her pupil, 10-year-old Louis Eversham, out of her sight, and her mistress panics after learning Margaret took Louis, a curious and lonely child, to church in the village. Why?

To write in this subgenre, authors must know the tropes: when to incorporate them, how to invert them, and Lumsden does both very well. The novel presents an enticing mix of familiarity and the unexpected, all encased in a well-rendered Victorian milieu. As a governess, Margaret occupies an uneasy social space between servant and family member and searches for an understanding ear. She finds that – and more – in the arms of gardener Paul Carter, who adores Hartwood Hall and reassures her that there’s nothing to be frightened of. She wonders how he can possibly know that. The abandoned east wing sure sounds creepy, though, and Margaret gets a sense she’s being watched.

With so many secrets pervading all the characters’ lives, there are revelations aplenty, all brought forth at the appropriate time. My only complaint deals with one aspect of the ending, although I did understand why the author chose that route.

The Secrets of Hartwood Hall was published in the US by Dutton in late February.  Michael Joseph is the publisher in the UK.  Thanks to the publisher for approving my access on NetGalley.

Thursday, April 06, 2023

Anywhere You Run by Wanda Morris is a tense thriller of the 1960s South

Whether you’re seeking a cracking thriller, an empowering portrait of sisterhood, or a story steeped in the Black experience in the 1960s Deep South, Morris’s second novel delivers. Violet and Marigold Richards, women in their twenties, both need to flee their hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, for different reasons.

After shooting the white man who assaulted her, Violet knows justice won’t take her side, so she grabs her late mother’s carpetbag, a .38 pistol, and her white boyfriend’s wallet and escapes by bus, landing in the small town of Chillicothe, Georgia, where her cousin lives.

Forced to defer her law school dreams after an unwanted pregnancy, Marigold, who works with the Mississippi Summer Project to register Black voters, feels she has no choice but to marry her longtime admirer and move with him to Cleveland, where African Americans are supposedly treated better. She comes to regret it.

Plus, there’s someone on their trail: a man with escalating determination who pursues one sister to track down the other and reclaim an item belonging to the person who hired him. He isn’t a cardboard villain—he’s lured by money to help his wife and ill son—and this multidimensional view heightens tension.

Like all skilled historical novelists, Morris creates an immediately graspable period atmosphere while illustrating its impact on her characters. Despite the Civil Rights Act’s recent passage, Violet (who calls herself Vera to hide her identity) sees for herself how little has changed. Chillicothe does have its problems, but Violet finds a home there.

While telling a galvanizing story with present-day relevance, Morris slows the pace down when needed to explore the sisters’ quest to flee their pasts—and the men who don’t deserve them—and claim their rightful place in the world.

Anywhere You Run was published by William Morrow in 2022; I reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review.  It was named one of the year's best crime novels by the NY Times.