Best-selling author Pamela Schoenewaldt's new book tells the story of a German-American girl whose life is changed forever by the outbreak of World War I. In a guest blog post, Schoenewaldt shares five surprising facts about the German-American experience on the homefront during WWI.
My writing and research process for Under the Same Blue Sky (Morrow) was flavored by stories of relatives who came from Germany between 1870 and 1900. I was curious about their experience during World War I, when their native country and culture was vilified as the home of Huns, brutes and monsters. My great-grandparents, quietly harvesting corn in Iowa, must have been so astonished, so perplexed.
Naturally, my research went beyond family tales, but here are a few surprising facts about German-Americans during World War I.
German-Americans are the largest self-reported ethnicity in the United States
In 1910, nearly 10% of Americans were born in Germany or had German parentage. In much of the Midwest, German-Americans made up more than a third of the population. Most major cities had a significant “Germania” neighborhood. Assimilated and widely respected, German-Americans were spared much of the discrimination suffered by other immigrants. All that changed during World War I.
Immigrants were encouraged to let go of the past to become American
We all know the story of how our national identity was founded on the idea of a nation of immigrants, a golden gate typified by the Statue of Liberty, dedicated in 1886. By 1910, for various reasons, the mood had changed. Ever-more restrictive immigration policies were put in place. German-Americans, like Greek, Italian, Polish or Scandinavian-Americans, were often regarded with suspicion by many whose parents or grandparents had themselves been immigrants. President Wilson warned that “true” Americans give up their heritage. They close the door behind them. They forget where they came from. Imagine how that felt.
A telegram sent the U.S. into the war
The U.S. stayed neutral for the first three years of World War I (while making huge profits in munitions sales). Many German-Americans were even convinced that we’d ultimately side with the Kaiser. Then came the Zimmerman Telegram of 1917, a coded message from Arthur Zimmerman, the German foreign secretary, to the German ambassador to Mexico, offering to support a Mexican attack on the U.S. In return, Germany would reward Mexico with the return of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
In retrospect, the plan seems hardly credible: Mexico didn’t begin to have that kind of military power, and Germany was a tad busy in Europe. Still, the effect was electrifying. Suddenly, people looked at their German-American neighbors as potential traitors and enemies. Within weeks, we were at war.
Thanks to war propaganda, German-Americans became suspect
Newspapers, posters, schoolteachers, songs and speakers whipped up the public against “the Hun.” Speaking German in public was suspect, sometimes illegal. German-Americans were forced to demonstrate their loyalty by buying war bonds, sometimes bankrupting themselves. Some were made to crawl across factory floors to kiss the American flag. Patents by German-American inventors were taken away. Business were ruined, people beaten up, tarred and feathered, run out of town, sometimes killed. It’s an ugly story, repeated so often in human history, when public policy shatters peaceful communities.
The German-American cultural community and identity were in many ways devastated by the war
Nearly 1 million German-Americans “disappeared” in the 1920 census because they claimed other ethnicities. Many German newspapers, community and cultural organizations never reopened, or never regained pre-war status. Music by German composers had been banned. Bach and Beethoven only slowly returned to repertoires. Yes, we won the war, but included in the collateral damage was a huge cost in cultural diversity and the richness in our communities.
Author photo by Kelly Norrell
Samantha Norman didn't plan to be a novelist, but when her mother, the best-selling writer Ariana Franklin, passed away in 2011 and left a half-finished manuscript, Norman felt called to carry on her mother's legacy. In a guest blog post, she reveals what it was like to finish The Siege Winter.
Guest post by Samantha Norman
When my mother, the best-selling historical novelist, Ariana Franklin, died suddenly and unexpectedly four years ago, she left a great big hole in my life and a half-finished novel.
Although she’d always nagged me to start writing novels of my own—convinced somehow that I’d inherited her talent—I never got round to it. I’d written features, lots in fact, for newspapers and magazines but never anything longer than about 1,500 words and had no particular desire to, either. Writing is hard—I’d done enough of it to know that much—and, what’s more, I’d seen my mother—both parents actually, my father is also a novelist—sweating blood over their work and I just didn’t feel that that sort of hard labour was for me. And yet all of a sudden my Mum was dead and there was a novel to complete and I was suddenly imbued with a zeal I’d never felt about anything before, absolutely determined that I was to be the one to finish it.
It was an enormous responsibility. My mother had a large and devoted fan base whose members were vociferous in their admiration of her beautiful prose and unrivalled attention to historical detail and accuracy. Therefore, to do her justice—I should point out here that mum was an absolute pedant when it came to research and getting things absolutely right—and to continue her remarkable legacy without public outcries of “Shame!” I had to do a crash course in the medieval history she so adored, and in a matter of mere weeks—I had a fairly punishing deadline—assume a knowledge of 12th-century English history which she had carefully garnered over more than 35 years.
Not only that, but I also had to assume her writing style. I had always loved, envied even, the way she wrote, the seemingly effortless almost mellifluous way in which she strung words together, but could I emulate it? Well, only you can be the judge of that. The book’s out now and I’m terribly proud of it and I hope, I really, really hope that my mum would be too.
Author Jennifer Chiaverini is no stranger to research—she's included historical elements in many of her 23 novels. In her latest, Mrs. Grant and Madam Jule, she goes back to the 19th century to explore the life of First Lady Julia Grant and her slave, Jule. In a guest blog post, Chiaverini shares five of the most memorable tidbits from her extensive research.
guest post by Jennifer Chiaverini
In March 1865, only a few weeks before the end of the Civil War, the tempestuous Mary Lincoln accompanied her husband on a visit to General Ulysses S. Grant’s military headquarters at City Point, Virginia, where she had a very public meltdown. In the thankless role of Mrs. Lincoln’s hostess, Julia Grant tried to calm her, only to bring Mrs. Lincoln’s wrath down upon herself. Mrs. Lincoln angrily accused the general’s wife of coveting her place in the White House, a charge Mrs. Grant calmly denied—little suspecting that four years later, her husband would be sworn in as the 18th president of the United States and she would become First Lady.
This astonishing altercation between Mary Lincoln and Julia Grant has gone down in history thanks to the many eyewitness accounts recorded in letters and memoirs, but most people today don’t know these five other surprising things about the famously friendly and admired First Lady Julia Grant:
1. Julia Grant was afflicted with strabismus, more colloquially known as crossed eyes.
Her vision was so impaired that she could read, write or sew only briefly before the strain exhausted her, so Ulysses often read aloud or wrote letters for her. She was self-conscious of her appearance, and whenever she was photographed, she almost always sat in profile in an attempt to disguise her condition. As Ulysses’ fame grew and Julia became more of a public figure, she inquired about corrective surgery so that she “might not be so very, very plain.” She was disappointed to learn that nothing could be done, for the operation could have succeeded only if it had been performed in childhood.
2. Julia claimed to experience prophetic visions and dreams
She was correct so often that her family learned to trust her intuition. In her memoirs, published 73 years after her death, she describes several unsettling premonitions that she later learned coincided with moments her husband had been in grave danger on the battlefield. In Washington a few days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, she was seized by such intense, overwhelming dread that she begged Ulysses to depart for their home in New Jersey immediately. A few hours after their train left the capital, the actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.
3. Although Julia and Ulysses enjoyed a long and happy marriage, when they first fell in love, their families did not want them to wed.
Although Julia’s mother thought highly of Ulysses and supported the match, her father argued that Julia’s constitution made her poorly suited for the arduous, roving life of a military wife and suggested Ulysses marry her younger sister instead. When Ulysses rejected this proposal, Julia’s father insisted on a long engagement while the enamored lieutenant was off serving in the Mexican War. For their part, Ulysses’ staunchly abolitionist parents were appalled that their son intended to marry the daughter of Missouri slaveowners, and they refused to attend the wedding.
4. Throughout the Civil War, rather than remain safe at home, Julia often lived with her husband at military headquarters.
Ulysses hated to be away from his family, and as the army moved, he would summon Julia to join him as soon as he established a secure location. According to historian Candice Shy Hooper, during the four years of the Civil War Julia traveled more than 10,000 miles to be with her husband, sometimes through enemy territory. In an era when long-distance travel was difficult and exhausting even when the trains ran on time, the weather was fair, and the roads weren’t thick rivers of mud, Julia—and her four young children, who often accompanied her—risked disease, death and capture whenever they journeyed between home and headquarters.
5. Although Julia was married to the commander in chief of the Union armies in the war that would end slavery in the United States forever, she herself kept slaves.
Her favorite maid—a woman also named Julia but usually called Black Julia or Jule—often accompanied her mistress when she joined Ulysses at military headquarters. Both women risked certain danger as they journeyed to and from the field of war, but for Jule, the hazards of travel also brought knowledge and opportunity, and she eventually made a daring bid for freedom. Though historians debate whether Julia or her father was actually Jule’s legal owner, there is no doubt that the future First Lady benefited from the enslavement and exploitation of other human beings for almost 40 years.
author photo by Steven Garfinkel
Author Sarah Kennedy set her thrilling new series during one of the most intriguing eras of British history—the Tudor era. It stars an "everywoman," Catherine, a former nun who has lost her vocation due to Henry's shift from Catholicsm to Anglicism. More than 400 years after this dynasty died out, why do they continue to fascinate? In a guest blog post, Kennedy—who holds a PhD in Renaissance poetry—explores this idea.
Guest post by Sarah Kennedy
Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn. “Bloody Mary” Tudor. Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare. Who doesn’t love the Tudors? Or love to hate the Tudors? Lust, power, betrayal, the church, the state—they embody it all. The Tudor era still looms large in our imaginations, from The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall to Shakespeare in Love and Anonymous. We love to follow the intrigues, romances and betrayals of these glamorous historical figures. But why?
Henry VIII’s six wives have always intrigued us, partly because there were so many of them and partly because each woman was different and had her own impact on the politics and religion of the time. How many times have we watched Anne Boleyn win the king then lose her head? We know what has to happen, but those of us who admire her pluck and daring are usually hoping, somewhere deep inside, that she’ll make it this time, that she’ll have that son or that she’ll somehow escape to the countryside with her daughter. Those who favor Katherine of Aragon see her as the tragic heroine who led her people into battle and tried valiantly to be a successful queen over a foreign country—and with a husband who grew to despise her. Jane Seymour, of course, died providing the desired heir, who didn’t live to be an adult, and she was followed by poor Anne of Cleves, destined to be known as the “mare of Flanders” because the king found her unattractive. Catherine Howard, the girl-queen who clearly didn’t know what she was getting herself into, was summarily executed for misbehavior that the court seemed to wink at, and Catherine Parr, that strong-minded widow, managed to survive by playing to the aging king’s ego.
It’s the very stuff of drama—human personalities clashing and contending while the country reels from one religion to another. The royal characters of the Tudor era are both larger than life and real. They fight and they kill and they lie . . . and they love and dedicate themselves fiercely to their beliefs and their families.
And then there is the second generation: Edward the son, who suddenly falls ill in his teens and tries to “give” the crown to the tragic Jane Grey. The outcast older daughter, Mary Tudor, or “Bloody Mary,” was the first real queen regnant in England, and her half-sister Elizabeth ruled over the island’s “golden age”—but refused ever to marry.
The Tudor era was a time of massive change in Europe, but the family didn’t last long, which is another reason we go back to them. The 16th century in England is dominated by Tudors, but after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, they’re gone. In a hundred years, everything has changed, and the Tudors almost immediately become the family of legend. Henry’s break from Rome caused an upheaval in his country that rocked the very foundations of everyday life: the Church. Like us, people in Tudor England struggled with fundamental questions of belief and authority. What is the right relationship between religion and politics? What moral authority does the king have? What moral responsibility do people have to follow a leader they see as ungodly?
My first novel, The Altarpiece, tried to provide some possible answers, and the Cross and the Crown series follows a young woman who tries to make sense of her world and her God as she navigates the tricky waters of the Tudor court. Catherine Havens is a kind of everywoman. Like us, she wants to follow her conscience . . . and she wants to live a “good” life. And like us, she is trying to figure out what that life might . . . or must . . . or can be. Will her own intelligence be her guide? Or will she follow the dictates of her king?
It’s a question we all still ask ourselves, and the Tudor era continues to offer a dramatic stage on which writers, filmmakers, and playwrights can play out these human spectacles. I also wanted to consider the particular problems for women, who were seen as inferior to men—but who governed and taught and led both king and country. My Catherine is strong-willed and educated: a true Renaissance woman. But she is still a woman, who must take care not to seem smarter than the men close to the king—or than the king himself.
Why the Tudors? They are close enough to us to show us versions of ourselves, but also far enough away in time that the picture comes more sharply into focus. We know what they should do, but we also know what they will do, and our pleasure come both from hoping that things will go better this time around and watching the tragedies and triumphs play out as we know they must. And when we close the book or turn off the film, we’ve learned more about our past—and more about ourselves here in the present day.
Thanks, Sarah! The second book in the Cross and the Crown series, City of Ladies, goes on sale today (BAM | B & N | Indiebound | Amazon) and the third book will be published in 2015. Find out more on her website.
Connecticut writer Kristen Harnisch brings a little-known portion of women's history to light in her compelling first novel, The Vintner's Daughter (She Writes Press). Set in 1890s France and America, it follows one woman's relentless quest to become a master winemaker—something that only a handful of real-life women have managed today. In a guest blog post, Harnisch explains the inspiration behind her remarkable heroine.
Sara Thibault is my hero. She fights against a rival to reclaim her family’s Loire Valley vineyard, sails across the Atlantic to bring herself and her sister to safety, and then journeys to Napa, California, determined to follow in her father’s footsteps as a master winemaker. Sara is passionate, principled and self-possessed, and although she leapt from my imagination onto the page, Sara’s spirit was inspired by the women winemaking pioneers of the late 1800s.
Three wine women in particular served as the inspiration for Sara’s character. A Frenchwoman, the Duchesse de Fitz-James, was the first to tout the benefits of replanting French vineyards with American rootstock to combat the devastation wrought in the 1870s by the phylloxera. This pale yellow louse attacked nearly 40% of France’s vineyards, sucking the vines dry of nutrients. The Duchesse’s French neighbors refused to try her idea, but she persisted, citing the recent success she’d had replanting the resistant rootstock in her own vineyard. Although it took years, the French winemakers did eventually replant, saving most of the vineyards that had been affected.
During the 1880s, California women were beginning to trade their kitchen chores for increasingly important roles in their family-owned businesses. The wine men of the region generally ignored their efforts. In 1886, after her husband’s suicide, Josephine Tyschon finished the winery they had planned to build on the 26 acres of land they’d purchased along Route 29 in St. Helena. The Tyschon Winery (now the site of Freemark Abbey) opened with a capacity of 30,000 gallons. By 1891, Tyschon had cultivated 55 acres of zinfandel, reisling and burgundy grapes. However, when the phylloxera struck in 1893, she lost 10 acres to the bug, and soon sold the winery and vineyard to her foreman, Nels Larson.
Josephine Tyschon’s neighbor, Mrs. J.C. Weinberger, also took over the family winery after her husband’s death. Weinberger’s operation was much larger than Tyschon’s, boasting eighty acres of grape bearing vines and a first-class winery with 90,000 gallons of capacity. Mrs. Weinberger won a silver medal at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris for her wine, and was the only woman in California to bring home this coveted award.
What compelled these amazing women to create such fine wines? Every bottle of wine contains nearly three pounds of grapes and the vulnerability of this fruit is striking: over the last century and a half, grapes have fallen victim to pests, rodents, frost, mildew and Prohibition in the United States. Still, with a precise blend of hard labor, science and art, winemakers continue to perfect the wines that fill our glasses.
According to the American Association of Wine Economists, as of 2011, only 12% of winemakers in Sonoma and 12% of winemakers in Napa, were women. In an industry long dominated by men, I raise my glass of Cabernet to these adventurers, and to the wine women of long ago who sparked the inspiration for The Vintner’s Daughter.
Author’s Note: William Heintz’s California’s Napa Valley (Stonewall Associates, 1999), and Sherry Monahan’s California Vines, Wines & Pioneers (American Palate, A Division of the History Press, 2013), were particularly helpful in my research of this topic.
Author photo by Alix Martinez Photography.
In 2010, attorney Ronald H. Balson self-published his first novel, Once We Were Brothers, a haunting, fast-paced tale originating in Nazi-occupied Poland. The book opens in 2004, though. Philanthropist Elliot Rosenzweig is accused of being former SS officer Otto Piatek. The accuser is Ben Solomon, whose family took in the orphaned Piatek as a child, only to be brutally betrayed by him during the war.
Inspired by Balson's travels in Poland, Once We Were Brothers became a runaway hit, selling more than 120,000 copies. Three years later, the film rights have been optioned, and St. Martin's Press has published a new edition—released today—that will introduce this enthralling page-turner to an even larger audience.
In this guest blog post, Balson discusses how he was originally inspired to write the book:
In the early 2000s, I was hired by a small Chicago company that had an exclusive license to install telephone service in the Nova Sacz province of southern Poland. Unfortunately, they couldn’t deliver the project on time, and they lost their license. They, in turn, sued the manufacturing company. Although the lawsuit was filed in Chicago, the witnesses, the documents and all the evidence were in Poland. So, off I went. Many times.
I had read a lot about Poland during World War II, but I didn’t really know what to expect on my visits. I knew that Hitler had bombed 80 percent of Warsaw, and I knew the city had been rebuilt under the Soviet regime. But I failed to anticipate how much of the landscape would still show the wounds. Bullet holes remain in buildings. Plaques on brick walls commemorate ruthless murders that took place there. And the monuments. So many monuments, statues and memorials. Memorials to the fighters of the Polish Uprising, the Warsaw Ghetto, the Polish airmen and even the code breakers. And then there are the heartbreaking memorials to the camp victims.
Poland never stood a chance. It was facing the world’s largest, most menacing war machine. Yet, here and there, all across Poland, are glorious monuments in praise of heroism—to those who resisted, to those who fought in the uprisings and in the underground, and to those ordinary families who just tried to carry on and maintain their dignity in a time of insanity. They were heroes, all. That’s what the monuments tell us.
I became fascinated by the monuments and spent more time than I should have thinking about the people to whom they were dedicated. It was an easy step from there to Once We Were Brothers. My novel opens dramatically: A prominent philanthropist, Elliot Rosenzweig, is accused of being a former Nazi SS officer known as the Butcher of Zamosc, Poland. His accuser, Ben Solomon, claims that they grew up together in the same household, only to be betrayed by Rosenzweig during the war.
The underlying message of Once We Were Brothers, though, is one of heroism. Like the monuments, it lies in praise of the ordinary families of small-town Poland, who tried to live their lives in the face of the Nazi scourge. When their dignities were stripped from them, piece by piece, they did their best to carry on. The book’s message is also praise for the courage of those who resisted and those who served in the Polish underground.
An important section of the novel concerns a Catholic priest who risks his life to save the Solomon family. In a time when many averted their eyes and showed moral indifference, others, in the face of extreme consequences, displayed extraordinary courage. They are the ordinary folks—families, clergy, businessmen—who are honored at Yad VaShem as the “Righteous Among Nations.”
Ben Solomon seeks the help of a young lawyer, Catherine Lockhart, to bring Rosenzweig to justice. Over a series of interviews, he narrates the moving story of his family and of Rosenzweig’s betrayal. Although overmatched by Rosenzweig’s powerful team of lawyers, Lockhart must find the courage to confront them. To do so, she draws strength from Ben and his story. And isn’t that akin to the residual effect of the monuments? They are there to remind us of courage and moral conviction. Do we not draw strength and resolve from remembrance of these heroes?
If Once We Were Brothers entertains and informs, I am pleased with the result. But if the message of heroism is conveyed as well, then I have accomplished something that was born out of my visits to those emotionally powerful monuments several years ago.
Thank you, Ronald. Readers, will you be adding Once We Were Brothers to your TBR list? To learn more about Balson and the book, visit his website.
Marlen Suyapa Bodden was working at the Legal Aid Society in New York when she stumbled upon the story that would turn her from a lawyer to a novelist. She first published The Wedding Gift herself, but intense reader interest led to it being picked up by St. Martin's Press, who will re-release the novel next week. In a guest post, Bodden shares the inspiration for her compelling debut.
In 1999, I was reading a nonfiction book on runaway slaves and came across a few lines and an endnote about an Antebellum divorce case from the Circuit Court in Talladega, Alabama (the city’s lovely courthouse, built in 1836 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is still in use and is the oldest working courthouse in the U.S.). A slaveholding man sued his bride for divorce because the child she gave birth to was not his. The court ruled in his favor and granted him all the property his wife brought to the marriage, including a young slave woman, who was a wedding gift from her father.
The fact that a person was given to another as if she were china or a tea service is shocking to our 21st-century minds, but what I learned while researching slavery, historical and modern, is that dehumanization is the chief tool that slave owners have used throughout time to control people and keep them enslaved. It was common for wealthy Antebellum slave owners to give their daughters maids as wedding presents, so the brides would have familiar faces in their new homes.
Though the Talladega case captured my imagination, I did not begin drafting The Wedding Gift until 2003, when another real-life story shocked me into action. A social worker at a women’s homeless shelter in New York City contacted me about a resident of the shelter who wanted to sue her former employers for unpaid wages. I found out that she had been brought from an Asian country to New York as a slave, and eventually escaped with the help of police. It occurred to me then that, like most people, I had thought slavery was in the past—but there I was, looking into the eyes of a former slave.
When I started writing The Wedding Gift, I was not predisposed to write a novel that cast White people as villains and Black people as heroes. As a novelist and reader, I think characters who are either complete demons or saints are boring. Sarah Campbell, the young slave who is given to her half-sister as a wedding present, is a heroine, but she is not perfect. Similarly, Theodora, wife of master Cornelius Allen, may be kind to Sarah, but she remains a slave owner. Even Cornelius, the villain of the novel, engages in acts of kindness, although he is motivated by keeping his slaves in good health so they can reproduce.
I first went to Alabama in 1997 to work on a civil rights case (I am also a lawyer) and since then have traveled throughout the state, including Talladega, Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile. The people of Alabama, of all races, have Southern charm and could not have been kinder to me. In The Wedding Guest, I hope to have done their complicated history justice—and to have given voice not only to the more than 27 million slaves of today but also to my own ancestors who, beginning in the 16th century, were kidnapped from Africa and enslaved in the New World.
Thanks, Marlen! For more on The Wedding Gift, on sale September 24, visit her website.
I am so excited to share news of The Plum Tree with readers of The Book Case. This is a historical novel by debut author Ellen Marie Wiseman, a first-generation German American who was inspired by her mother's experiences in Germany during World War II. The book is on sale now.
In the novel, Christine lives in a German village and works for the Bauermans, a wealthy Jewish family. She falls in love with son Isaac Bauerman—but their lives are complicated in very painful ways when Isaac is arrested and sent to Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp opened in Germany. But Christine is desperate to be with him as she's left on the home front.
Ellen's publicist shared with me why the author had to tell this story:
Ellen grew up listening to her German relatives tell tales of poverty, hunger, bombings, and constant fear—a time when the country was made up of women, children and the elderly struggling to stay alive while the men were drafted and sent off to fight. In writing the book, Ellen’s hope was to put a face on the countless destitute German women and children who lived and died under Hitler's regime, most often as victims of their government’s actions.
Here, you can see how the author's family history inspired the book. These are her own family photos and the captions and explanations are in her voice.
This photo was taken to send to Opa while he was off fighting on the Eastern Front. At one point during the four years Opa was gone, he was captured by the Russians and sent to a POW camp in Siberia. For two years my mother and her family had no idea if he was dead or alive until he showed up on their doorstep one day. Opa and his stories were the inspiration behind Christine’s father in The Plum Tree.
For years, Oma rang the bells every day to call the farmers in from the fields for Mittag Essen (the midday meal); every evening for prayer; and every Sunday morning for church service. During the war, the army took the bells down to be melted into bullets, a bomb hit the steeple, and the congregation, afraid to assemble without fear of being labeled traitors, met secretly in their homes. In The Plum Tree, this is the church were Christine attempts to expose an SS camp guard during the first service after the war was over.
My aunt’s face is bandaged because she tried to swallow fire after watching a fire-eater at a carnival. In The Plum Tree, Christine remembers her sister, Maria, doing the same thing.
My mother is wearing one of her best dresses; the rest were made from printed cotton sheets. The tall door behind them led to the goats’ indoor enclosure, which shared a wall with my great-grandparents’ first floor bedroom. The neighbor’s house (to the right of the tall door) shares a roof with my mother’s childhood home. This is the setting for Christine’s home in The Plum Tree.
In her debut novel, Kelly O’Connor McNees imagined the life of Louisa May Alcott. It was "a compelling, heart-wrenching story about the difficult choices women face," wrote reviewer Susan Schwartzman back in April 2010, and a "bittersweet, stirring debut."
More than two years later, McNees is back with her second book, another historical novel about extraordinary women. Called In Need of a Good Wife, this book takes place in the American West of the 19th century and stars Clara Bixby, a woman who works as a broker of mail-order brides. (How's that for an unusual profession?)
One of my favorite aspects of good historical fiction is that it drops us into situations and eras that seem very unusual to us today. Have you ever wondered why women from New York would have shipped off to Nebraska as mail-order brides? Here, McNees shares fives reasons why a woman would go down this path.
by Kelly O’Connor McNees
Before match.com there was the Matrimonial News, where, for about a quarter, prospective brides could place an ad describing what they were looking for in a husband. In the aftermath of the Civil War, many young women had lost a sweetheart to the battlefield and others still waited for their first chance at love. For the starry-eyed, nothing was more romantic than the idea of a lovelorn man sending letters from the prairie. Of course, things didn’t always work out quite the way these young brides hoped.
Other brides were more practical. Women with few prospects for marriage in their own social circle had scant hope of financial security unless they found a way to make a match elsewhere. Many arranged marriages were little more than business compacts—a husband agreed to provide food and a place to live, and in exchange his wife would clean, cook, work the farm and give him children. Mr. and Mrs. aspired to be on friendly terms (there was the matter of producing those children, after all), but often love was a luxury neither of them could afford.
In 1867 the newly completed Union Pacific Railroad finally joined the east to the frontier and made rapid travel a real option for most Americans. Suddenly, places that had seemed impossibly far away were within a day’s journey. Women who had believed they had no choice but to spend the rest of their lives cooped up in the same old towns, trying to live up to the rigid standards of the day, found themselves with new prospects. They could escape and go west, in search of gold, in search of new vistas, in search of a new way of life.
These days people wear pajama pants to the grocery store, so it’s hard for us to imagine just how many rules governed the choices women made every day about their behavior and speech and dress in the well-established cities and towns of the east. But for women weary of these strictures, the frontier offered freedom. Homesteading required a great deal of back-breaking physical labor, and women worked right alongside men. They were dirty, calloused and sunburned, perhaps, but also free of stiff petticoats and corsets that kept them sitting uncomfortably on the edges of chairs back east. For those with the means to hire workers, the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed single women to claim land of their own, which meant they might not need a husband at all—a kind of freedom most women never dared to hope for.
Many of the men and women who traveled west to homestead hoped to leave the past behind and start again, or yet again. Failed businesses, blighted reputations, the unwanted destiny of a family name or a country or religion of origin—all of the disappointments of the past would stay there, in the past. These brave pioneers set out to write a new destiny for themselves, and for the nation, one hard-won page at a time.
Kristina McMorris' debut novel, Letters from Home (Kensington) is a World War II love story with a twist: It's based on McMorris' own grandfather's letters to his sweetheart—her grandmother. Here, the Portland author writes about the unique challenges this premise created for her work.
The challenges of writing historical fiction—when those who lived it are around to correct you!
guest post by Kristina McMorris
Finding inspiration to write my first novel, Letters from Home, was relatively simple. My grandmother had saved every one of the love letters my grandfather sent to her during World War II. Based on those beautiful pages, I imagined a Cyrano de Bergerac twist to their story, and voila! I had the premise of my book.
I brainstormed. I outlined. And then—oh, yes—I researched. A lot.
At first, my main motivation for accuracy stemmed from my fear of critics' feedback—namely from those ever-scary "anonymous" Amazon reviewers who supply their lengthy critiques in the form of bullet points. The deeper I delved into research, however, the more responsibility I felt to do justice to our humble veterans, whose sacrifices secured the freedoms we too often take for granted.
Writing historicals about any era poses a great number of challenges. In my case, I was featuring a period in which many of those who lived through it are still alive to call me a "nincompoop" over potential errors. (Not saying they'd use that word, precisely; but it's a great word, isn't it?)
On the upside, I eventually realized I had a wonderful opportunity that most historical authors don't: the possibility of hearing true accounts of the era firsthand. Before I knew it, my research process gained in-depth momentum. I had the pleasure of interviewing a wide variety of veterans, and even befriended a few members of the famed "Band of Brothers."
While I've gained an enormous amount of knowledge from textbooks, archivists, docents, and memoirs, no experience has compared to listening to tales from men who actually fought in the trenches. I'll never forget the Japanese-American vet who grew teary as he described the day that, unknowingly, he watched his own brother—an airman for the Japanese Empire—being shot down in a fighter plane overhead.
Sadly, two of the vets I met have passed away. Estimates claim we're losing a thousand of them daily, likely more. Hopefully, though, their amazing accounts and, perhaps more importantly, the lessons they've shared will live on through the written word. For that, I feel honored to contribute. And if, in the end, I still earn the label of a "nincompoop," it certainly won't be for lack of trying to get their stories right.
Kristina McMorris resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their two sons, bundles of energy who take pride in transforming any cylindrical household object into a weapon. She is a former host of "Weddings Portland Style" and a winner of the Golden Heart. Find out more on her website.