In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I am working on book #3 in the Winds of Freedom series, a teen adventure series set in the 1850s in North Danville, Vermont. My 1852 Vermont adventure THIS ARDENT FLAME is scheduled for June 2021 publication with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you updates and early order information as soon as I know! I'm also writing a memoir; revising a mystery; in the midst of a novel about a grandmother and her granddaughter; and always writing poems. Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Miss Exley began, "Patience is a virtue ..."

One of the delights of being a historical fiction author is, I can confess what a large percentage of my life is spent mining the past!

Photo from the North Star Monthly, June 2006

For 16 years I lived in Barnet, Vermont (I've now lived in Waterford, Vermont, for almost 15), and my best friends there included a retired teacher named Miss Karlene Exley. One day I noticed that when she'd tell stories of her own mother, she referred to herself as "Kay." I asked her whether she'd like me to use that name with her, and she said yes. I felt so honored to be included that way!

Every historical novel I write has a bit of Miss Exley in it. (She is long gone, in person.) Today I'm thinking of her chant, clearly from her own childhood: "Patience is a virtue, Virtue is a grace, Grace is a little girl with dirt upon her face."

And I am so glad to say that the need for PATIENCE around getting ebook access to The Darkness Under the Water and The Long Shadow is almost over ... Speaking Volumes expects to make these available in October. (Yes, October of this year!)

I'll let you know just as soon as it's really real.



Friday, August 21, 2020

Mark Doty's 2020 Book on Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Much More

 

Visions are not as far from ordinary life as we sometimes think, and artists need to live as if revelation is never finished. (Mark Doty, What Is the Grass, p. 31)

 WHAT IS THE GRASS: WALT WHITMAN IN MY LIFE has been called one of the most anticipated books of 2020. And for anyone who knows the writing of poet and memoirist Mark Doty, that's certainly the case. I caught a Zoom (virtual) interview that he provided this summer and promptly ordered a copy of the book -- and knowing the book would probably devour hours when I "ought to be working," I waited a little longer.

Then gave in. So, fair warning: Be ready to clear six to eight hours from your schedule to savor this book.

I had two reasons for particularly wanting to read this, beyond being a fan of Mark Doty's poetry. First, I'm writing a series of novels set during the prelude to the Civil War, and since that's the time Walt Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass, every scrap of detail on that time and the emotional life of a vivid speaker then can be golden. I need these.

 Second, I'm wandering in the land of memoir, trying to find the very personal balance of telling enough — because there are things that I did that, even now, look adventurous and intriguing and worth talking about — and not telling too many things that are best left unsaid. Since Doty has managed this before, most powerfully in My Alexandria but also in his poems, I wanted to learn more. (See some reviews I've written that circle around some of Doty's work, here.)

What I found is a book that walks several journeys at once: Whitman's into becoming the first "American poet" (leaving behind European fuss and feathers); America's in developing its own language; and Doty's braided experiences of both love and physicality that celebrate (eventually) his love of other men. But the book is also a langorous paddle along the river of life itself, from childhood to maturity to the contemplation of the dead.

The dead are not lost, but in circulation; they are involved in the present, in active participation. Bits of them are streaming through your hand and mine, just as language is circulating through us. Lexicon and materiality forever move onward and outward in the continuous wheeling expansion this world is. This is no mere philosophical proposition on Whitman's part, not an intellectual understanding but a felt actuality. We are alive forever in the endless circulation of matter. Nothing luckier, stranger, or more beautiful could ever happen. There is no better place.

Doty probes Whitman's own coming of age in the 1840s, in an era when the words "homosexual" and "heterosexual" weren't yet available. He touches on the warmth and affection that was customary among young adults of the time, men with men in particular. More, he fingers the period when movements and associations to better the lives of humans were exuberantly rising. For Whitman, writes Doty, "Either his character was shaped by the decade or happened to be a perfect fit; the expansive, optimistic curiosity of the times was superbly suited to his own."

For poetry lovers, Doty's explanations of how Whitman's lines, repetitions, and stanza breaks created and nurtured the energy of Leaves of Grass and especially of the poems "Song of Myself" and "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" provide the detail and illumination of perhaps an entire term (or more) of a wonderful literature seminar. For those who love plot more than the words that tell it, the binding of Whitman's life and Doty's can fascinate -- because, as in his earlier books (even the ones focused on dogs), Doty writes love stories. Not soppy ones, but surprising, inventive, redemptive ones in full chest hair or leather harnesses, in risky interludes, in committed long-term discoveries. And this book, dedicated to Doty's husband Ethan, is first to last a love story, "It's a matter of magnitude, of what leads one to step into one's largest self, and to enter into experiences that inscribe themselves so deeply into us as to become benchmarks in a life, unforgettable. ... I have never loved anyone in quite the way I do Ethan. We spent a long time coming to know one another physically, in the present tense, and from our bodies all else has proceeded."

Indulge yourself with this book. It will surely inform and shape how I write my own next novel, or next poem (it already has done the latter). May it enrich your season ahead, and bring this powerful writer into the circle of the people you enjoy listening to.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Finding Prime Resources for Historical Fiction/Mysteries

Some of the best historical resources seem to arrive here by chance: a letter postmarked nearby in the 1800s (I have three from the postmaster of West Waterford to his son, located at a postcard show), a local inventor's identity (the "improved egg case" opened up research into Edward Everett Bishop of Waterford, Vermont), or a photo album that suddenly surfaces as a gift to a local group (thank you, Jamie Ide, on behalf of the Waterford VT Historical Society!).


Last Tuesday evening, that Muse of Historical Research -- to the Greeks, that would be Clio -- tapped my shoulder during a virtual panel of mystery authors "at" the Tewksbury (Massachusetts) Public Library. Tewksbury is one town east of Lowell, the marvelous center of fabric mill invention that anchored the Northern profits from Southern enslavement. As of 1840, there were 32 mills in the city. Readers of Katherine Paterson's historical fiction may have pictured the lives that the "mill girls" led there (see Lyddie); those who've pursued history tourism in New England may have visited the remarkable National Park that now embraces some of the remaining mill structures and stewards their history. American freedoms, gender roles, Labor as a force in politics, all these and more can be embraced in the history in Lowell.

But I hadn't known about Tewksbury. One of the people attending the author panel mentioned "the old library" and the librarian moderating the panel sent me a link to some photos that reminded me of the libraries I haunted in the 1950s and 1960s.
The "old" Tewksbury Public Library.
The "old" Tewksbury Public Library.

Then, of course, I began to explore what this urban library offers in the way of historical collections, and here's what I found in the town public history collection there:

Tewksbury History Topics

  • Anne Sullivan and the Tewksbury Hospital
  • Captain John Trull (Tewksbury Minuteman)
  • King Philip's War
  • Lowell Mill Girls and Women
  • Merrimack River
  • Mico Kaufman (local sculptor)
  • Tewkesbury, England (Town namesake)
  • Town Anniversaries (including 200th Anniversary Time Capsule)
  • Tewksbury State Hospital (State Almshouse)

Link to online historical patient registers
Visit the Public Health Museum at Tewksbury Hospital

  • Town of Tewksbury Annual Reports (1878 - present)
  •  Wamesit Indians
Any one of these could slip into the books I'm writing, set in Vermont in the 1850s and 1860s, when Vermonters still saw Massachusetts as the place where the War of Independence began, rather than a traffic nightmare or a set of distant museums and restaurants. I also discovered that Tewksbury was struck by a devastating tornado in 1857 -- something that may go directly into Book 4 of my Winds of Freedom series.

Most of all, I get the sense that Clio the Muse is always ready to alert me to "something old, something new" to learn. You know, I used to feel a little guilty that I took the writing path, instead of going boldly abroad for adventures. But it occurs to me now -- every time I find another prime resource like the Tewksbury Public Library, I'm having an awesome adventure. Just wait and see what comes up in the next couple of novels I've got rolling! (Don't you love being able to share the adventure, too?)

Monday, July 27, 2020

Writing for Readers: The Big Story, the Essential Connections

On Tuesday July 28 ("tomorrow" as I write this), in the evening, I'm joining other authors for a virtual panel discussion at the Tewskbury, Massachusetts, Public Library. The title of the event is "How To Publicize Your Book."

Why?

Readers (and new writers) often think publishers take care of getting the word out about good books. After all, the words seem tied together: publisher, public, publicity.

But the "new world" of book publishing began at least a decade before the pandemic turned things upside down. Letting readers know about a book and its exciting revelations is now, for most authors, part of the writer's responsibility. True!

Let's face it. Promotion isn't usually what a writer has polished and practiced. For me, writing a great story, with details that intrigue readers about American history (especially the Vermont version) and celebrate the growth of the protagonists -- mine always tackle some injustice -- is where the effort has to be invested. Write a good story!!

So promoting that story, once it's in print, needs to be direct and effective. For me, that means starting where my heart is: at "home," whether that's geographic, or in the circles of friends on social media, or among other writers as we connect with each other.

You'll hear about my new research and writing projects here first: on the blog, and on my Facebook writing page, and even on my personal Facebook page.

And the closer we get to publication on a project (This Ardent Flame is scheduled for June 2021, even though I turned in the writing in February 2019 ... there's a pandemic affecting everyone, right?), the more I ride those circles of connection outward.

With that in mind, here are some tips for writers, and for readers who love to promote a good story (I'm hoping you'll include the first title of the Winds of Freedom series, The Long Shadow, which came out in 2018 -- have you read it yet?).
1. Keep your friends informed and engaged. Reveal surprises in research; share a bit of a struggle about how to shape a character; describe milestones in writing and publication of your work.

2. Ask friends to pass along word when they enjoy something. Your circles overlap other circles. Let them spread.

3. Celebrate and rejoice. We all need support and cheering up, whether in a pandemic or not — name the reasons for joy and satisfaction in your writing life and share them, with virtual balloons, so to speak!

4. Value your circles. Sure, time may be tight (you want to start writing the next scene), but if you're checking your own social media posts, make sure to check those of friends also, even if what you can give is five minutes of adding "likes" and smiley faces and "Wow!"

5. Remember the world is connected in ways that astonish and refresh. Introvert type happy to be at the desk solo? You can still take a couple of steps toward the "windows" and nurture the connections around you. This is how we make it a better world. And for me, it's part of how I keep "growing" my soul, so that the next book I write is even better than the one before.
Takeaway: Promoting your work in the best ways can make you a stronger, more responsive and resilient writer. Which makes it worth the effort.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Fourth of July in America's Past—and Today

Daniel Webster in 1835, portrait by Francis Alexander, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
An 18-year-old country boy studying at Dartmouth College in 1800 was asked to give a speech at the Hanover, New Hampshire, Independence Day ceremonies. His words and his passionate delivery rocked the crowd, and the speech began his national career of service to the nation and summoning vivid language and performance, to in turn call people to action. Here is a bit of Daniel Webster's first public speech:
It becomes us, on whom the defence of our country will ere long devolve, this day, most seriously to reflect on the duties incumbent upon us. Our ancestors bravely snatched expiring liberty from the grasp of Britain, whose touch is poison... Shall we, their descendants, now basely disgrace our lineage, and pusillanimously disclaim the legacy bequeathed to us? Shall we pronounce the sad valediction to freedom, and immolate liberty on the altars our fathers have raised to her?
My second book in the Winds of Freedom series, This Ardent Flame, reveals how Vermonters took on this challenge after Webster betrayed their abolitionist goals, in forging the Compromise of 1850. It's fair to say that his legal maneuvering that year cost America dearly, in delaying the end of chattel slavery in the nation.

But the impact of giving speeches on the Fourth of July has been embraced by many another American leader. I reflect today on Abraham Lincoln's proclamation of war on behalf of the Union of American states -- which he gave on April 16, 1861, after Fort Sumter was seized by the Confederacy forces. Knowing the strands among the states were ever fragile, Lincoln deliberately called Congress to gather on July 4 to endorse his action.

In hindsight, it can feel like an intolerable delay, from April 16 to July 4. But Lincoln, portrayed by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin as a master in politics (giving, giving, and giving, until he'd call all to gather and get a task done), calculated that the patriotism of the Fourth of July would move the fragmented Congress to stand together. And he was exactly right.

The Ardent Flame was scheduled for autumn publication this year, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the release until June 2021. Even so, I'm already grappling with book 3, Kindred Hearts, set in 1856 in "North Upton" (a pen name for North Danville, Vermont). In every page, in every shift of plot and character, is my own awareness that the nation was a mere five years from the war that would devastate it, far beyond any initial guesses. And I am walking with my protagonists, especially the teenagers, as they wake up to the cost of having deferred the abolition of slavery.

We, like they, are challenged to take action to address the damage done. It's a good thing to ponder on this 246th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. May God bless our efforts to unite this land and people in liberty and justice for all.
This portrait by Joseph Alexander Ames, believed to also be of Webster, hangs a mere 6 miles from my writing desk, at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

When Is Your Writing a Calling?

“It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” 
― Frederick Douglass

Sometimes lately, I'm just bowled over by all the things I'm being offered within this pandemic.

It's actually a bit off target to say that writers get a gift of solitude from the lockdowns, isolation, and masking. Most of us need a rhythm of writing time (usually private but not always ... I've written some good things while trying not to hear the "kids" of whatever age) and interconnecting. The surprises and frictions of human contact help move the pieces of thought and emotion around, to the point where "we have to write about something."

But wrestling with meditation, deliberate choices, and targeted insight have been my "sports" lately. I've learned how my family of origin shaped and shapes my fiction and poems, in ways I hadn't realized before. I've gone back in time way farther than the catastrophic house fire that I usually see as the trauma marker for my novels. A memoir's been slowly taking shape, one often-painful realization at a time, as I confront how I've threaded the loom of my woven life.

The isolation of the coronavirus pandemic has also taken me to lectures via Zoom that I wouldn't otherwise have attended (too far to go, too long in the car, too costly) and to discussions I might back out of in person. It's thrown me face to face with my reluctance to take political action, and challenged me to find ways I can act effectively from my desk. It's shown me how frivolous a lot of my expenditures of the past have been -- fun maybe, but now it's time for a serious stage, testing whether each concern relates to a First World Problem (many do) and laughing more often about those.

There are some things I know I'm "called" to write. Let's not try to name the Caller. Let's pay attention instead to writing as the next right action. There is a form of worship and music named call-and-response. That's what I'm hearing, and singing, and if my throat gets a bit scratchy now and then, there's always a spoonful of honey waiting. And a glass of iced tea with mint.

Because when it's a calling, my only answer is yes.

What about for your writing life? How are you uplifting the world -- and how is it cradling you today?

Monday, May 11, 2020

Acceptance Can Take Time

Dad, around 1965.
One of the gifts of history is understanding.

I say this today with a lot of gratitude. It's an intense writing time for me, working on several books at once, with each one approaching Life from a different angle. The most directly personal is a memoir that I'm gradually building, each chapter created when I have time for it, in an online publication called Medium. It has a "pay wall" but you can access quite a few items before it will ask you to ante up. (So far, my biggest paycheck from writing there was $1.09, for a month of labor. I guess I'm not one of those wealthy writer types. But I love being able to share the material.)

You already know that writing changes with time -- the hope of any writer is that it gets better, gets more "worth reading." Maybe we forget that it also has to be worth writing. And that's where yesterday's writing surprised me with an enormous gift:

I adored, and still deeply love, my dad. As a kid, I never questioned his opinion; as a teen, I wrangled with him about the Viet Nam War, but his knowledge always overswept mine (though my sense of what was wrong and right grew in power).

When, at midlife, I found myself in recovery from alcohol abuse and trying to clean up some major messes, I tried to hold my dad to account for some things he'd taught me about being a woman, that had resulted in, to put it kindly, an Epic Fail. He laughed at me and made a rude joke. It was one of those unforgivable moments that life hands out sometimes: someone I idolized, making me smaller.

Yesterday's memoir piece, which dealt with my college escapades, also framed some "life instructions" my dad provided. How amazing it was to discover that I'm no longer enraged at what he taught and said! Learning more about his life, especially his childhood as the Nazis overtook his birth country and turned him into a refugee (an identity that I never associated with him when I was a kid, honestly; he was just smart, educated, funny, and all-powerful of course) ... well, I have learned what History does to people's thinking and to the soul. And somehow, in all that learning:

I learned to accept and forgive my father.

Looking back, I don't think that was on the goals list for Advanced Placement History class. Guess I learned something more this week. Glad to be paying attention.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Always a Blue Sky Just Ahead

It's an April Showers week according to the forecast here in northeastern Vermont, but there have been long stretches of blue sky anyway, and I'm touched by delight many times in each day.

For me, it's also a writing week. I'm working on a memoir at the online site Medium, trying to forgive and enfold the past and see how its tough moments made room for the delight of 17 years with my beloved, my b'shert (meant to be), Dave. Now that I've walked into the second year of mourning, I spend fewer minutes in pain, and more in appreciation. That's a good trade.

I'm also writing a couple of novels (they are very different from each other; one historical, one present; one YA, one much older characters). And of course the poems. Mostly I post the poems in "second draft" form on Facebook. Please stop in to visit when you can.

I wish you solace today, and joy in the small lovely portions. Love your neighbor as yourself -- which means, start with yourself. It's time to put the kettle on again.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

"Wrap Yourself Up in Art": Clarinet, Accordion, Percussion, Voices, and a Father's Love, from David Chevan

This letter reached me recently, and the video gave me such joy that I figured I'd better share it! So, with permission from David Chevan, here you are (don't worry about the YouTube link looking like it's to a very long piece -- it's actually cued to a shorter portion):

LETTER:
Since you can’t go out to hear live music, I thought I’d share a live music recording with you.

Last year I premiered a new work that I composed using letters written by the artists Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro.  What I’m sharing with you is a song I composed from a couple of letters written by Camille Pissarro. 

One thing that attracted me to Camille Pissarro was how many of his letters were about his love for his family. He and his wife, Julie, had 8 children, one died at childbirth, while two others, his daughter Jeanne and his son Felix both died at relatively young ages. I was moved by a series of letters he wrote to his oldest son, Lucien, as he shared with him first the news about Felix contracting tuberculosis and then only a few days later a letter about his brother dying from the illness.  If that wasn’t enough, Lucien was, at the time of his brother’s death, recovering from a brain illness that had almost cost him his life.  In those letters I saw a father struggling to console his son while dealing with his own grief.  And in those letters and in this song, I see a parallel to our own moment.  How do we deal with our sadness and our love when we cannot be with one another?  For Camille Pissarro the answer was art.  Pissarro urged his son to use his art as way to recover from his illness and as a way to deal with the death of his brother.  “I want you to wrap yourself up in art,” he wrote.  I was so taken by this that I shaped those words into the chorus of one of the songs of the work. 

Singing the words of Camille Pissarro is Cantor Malachi Kanfer.  He’s accompanied by members of the Afro-Semitic Experience including Adam Matlock on accordion, Will Bartlett on clarinet, Jocelyn Pleasant on percussion, and Alvin Carter, Jr. who both plays drums and has the part of the narrator.  If you’re interested, you’re welcome to watch the whole work (which means you’ll also get to see Cantor Martin Levson who sings the words of Edgar Degas), but this link is cued up to the song, “Wrap Yourself Up in Art.”

https://youtu.be/XL2Uipt05lQ?t=1878

I hope you are staying safe. I hope you all stay healthy. And I hope you can find something meaningful and satisfying to do with this time apart.  “Wrap yourself up in Art.”

Looking forward to seeing you all on the other side of this.

All my best,

David

www.davidchevan.com (http://www.davidchevan.com)

Saturday, March 28, 2020

It's All About Exposure (to What?)


I went grocery shopping this morning.

Context: The Covid-19 pandemic has not yet peaked here in northern New England, but we have reached the point where it's personal -- I know a family that's battling the infection, and they live about 10 miles from my place. At least two in our nearest shopping town have tested positive.

So I made a mask from a pleated paper towel and rubber bands and staples (thank you, Internet), added a pair of reading glasses for eye protection and nitrile gloves left from nursing my husband last year, and headed to a town where there's a friendly "food cooperative."

On the way, I stopped at the transfer station (what we used to call the dump), to drop off a bag of roadside trash. (Farming keeps Vermont green; picking litter up helps you be able to SEE the green, without cringing.) And things had changed. A lot.

"The dump" is where many of us count on a few minutes of old-fashioned socializing. Retired men in hunting jackets or ball caps exchange news. Fussy individuals drop their recycling into the correct bins and pull out the mistakes made by less fussy ones. Town trucks are parked nearby, at the town garage and the fire station.

And everybody smiles and says "how's it going" and "what a day!" and "I hate to let go of this old lamp but we're moving, know anyone who might want it?" Sometimes the school kids collect redeemable cans and bottles to fund end-of-term trips. Once in a while there's a lost dog poster.

Today: A stop sign. Directions to form a single lane. "Social distancing," one vehicle at a time, for those bringing bags of trash to the big compactor. And the young man watching over the recycling shed wore a bright green mask over his mouth and nose.

When I'd delivered my blue bag to the compactor, an older man in charge, with bristling winter beard and mustache, exchanged smiles with me from a safe dozen feet away. He called out, not "stay warm" or "keep out of trouble" (to which one may either grin wickedly and say "who me?" or nod and say "will do"), but "Stay safe!"

Things change.

Then I drove more back roads toward the food cooperative, and along the way I passed a few couples walking along the edge of the road. Eager to add a little cheering up to the usual "I see you" wave that a polite driver offers around here, I waggled my brightly gloved hand and beamed a big smile at each.

One couple didn't even look. The other pointedly gazed the other way.

I want to guess they were among the folks who mostly live out of state and have come to their "summer place" in Vermont this month, seeking safety from the virus, seeking a place where they won't be exposed to how tough life can be, and how scary it is to be ill. I want to be kind and tolerant, and not picture how they'll react if they "have to" call for emergency services, which around here are often staffed with highly trained, compassionate volunteers as well as EMTs. I want to call "Stay safe!" out the car window.

But those folks are more than a little lost, "sheltering in place" in a Vermont that's hardly what they expect: no green grass yet, no pretty gardens, no festivals. It's March, it's mud season, and it's pandemic season.

Besides, they haven't had much exposure yet to how we all depend on each other and come through for each other up here. And I don't want to scare anyone. So I park at the food cooperative, pull my paper-towel mask into position, and wish I'd drawn the smile onto it that I pictured this morning. Nope, on second thought, next time I go shopping, I'll take a red crayon and write words on my mask. "Stay safe! And keep out of trouble. Smile!"


Thursday, March 19, 2020

It's Been Almost a Year Since -- Well, I Love Him Always

There isn't a way to measure mourning, the long process of missing someone vital, important to your heart. At least, for me there isn't. And with each day closer to March 23 -- the Jewish calendar 1-year mark since Dave's death -- and to April 3, the calendar date last year when the husband I adored gave his last breath, I become more of a spashing sea of saltwater. Be careful, this week I weep or holler at the drop of an emotional moment, and I don't expect to "get over" it. But on April 4, I promise to take a deep breath and focus on what's ahead more than on what's unreachable to hands and lips.

Just for perspective, here's the electric company's graph of how the year has gone. No dueling TVs drawing power as Dave keeps tabs on the 24/7 news cycle. No air conditioning. One person's lighting use, minimized as much as possible. Still bread being baked, but far less laundry to wash and dry.

So here's my wish/prayer/petition of the day: Let me take all that "saved energy" and all Dave's love that I know is still with me, and infuse it into some darned good writing coming up. To life. L'chaim.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Irish Soda Bread, and Some Vermont Irish History

The best of St. Patrick's Day to you! And may your luck be cheerful and in all the right directions on this fine March day.

It's a day that I like to celebrate by making Irish soda bread, and this year, just for the fun of it, I tried out the whole-grain boxed mix provided by King Arthur Flour, one of our Vermont-focused businesses. Very tasty, and it didn't cut much into my work time this way!

It's a good moment to remember that being Irish once meant a great deal in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Just a few decades ago, the town's residents in response to the Census notched up 30% with Irish heritage. Significant in the area was the presence for decades of two Catholic churches: one "French" (mostly French Canadian, with Mass provided in both Latin and French), and "Irish" (Mass in Latin and English). The "Irish" church was St. Aloysius, pictured here; after the "French" church, Notre Dame des Victories, burned (yes, arson), the congregations merged and renamed the new church group St. John the Evangelist. Here's the building, from one of my late husband Dave Kanell's postcards.

The most recent available Census data, from the 2017 American Community Survey (the newer name for this batch of Census detail), showed 10.1% of Americans mentioning Irish heritage; 17.3% of Vermont residents; and 14.4% of those responding in Caledonia County (where another 14.4 percent mentioned French, 11.1% French Canadian -- should we add those together? -- and 18.2% English heritage; yes, Scottish comes in at 5.9%, and Italian at 5.5%). That's about one-seventh of the county with Irish heritage!

When I visit my New York City grandsons, I like to step across to their neighborhood's amazing Irish Hunger Memorial. Here are two photos of the structure, taken by Wally Gobetz and shared on flickr (thank you!); there's a description of the memorial added below, and if you don't have time to read it all, just keep this in mind: It's built from an actual stone cottage from Ireland, like the ones people lived in at the time of the potato famine there. I imagine the mud and stone and starvation made these homes feel terribly, frighteningly cold.




In fact, we have some great descriptions of exactly that, from Asenath Hatch Nicholson, a woman originally from Chelsea, Vermont, who left what comfort she'd found in New York City to go and see the starvation conditions for herself back in 1844. See my earlier discussion of her work here.

Now, before I go spread some good Vermont-branded butter on my next chunk of Irish soda bread, one more important history item: The first to use "baking soda" in bread recipes were not the Irish, but Native Americans, says noted food writer Gillie Houston -- see her explanation here -- and the recipe drifted to Ireland, as that region adopted agriculture and recipes for locally grown "soft" wheat.

You just never know what you'll come across, when you start digging into history. Or baking!

***
[memorial explanation originally published at https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/irish-hunger-memorial]

A winding path is lined with blackthorn, foxglove, and ling heather, marked with 32 rocks each engraved with the name of an Irish county. The quarter-acre of Ireland on the edge of Manhattan is a memorial to the over one million Irish who died during the Great Famine of the 1840s, as well as those who continue to suffer from hunger.

Designed by artist Brian Tolle, the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park incorporates a Famine-era stone cottage brought over from County Mayo, Ireland, and reconstructed as the heart of the monument. Visitors can enter directly from the street up a path through the suspended field, or through a tunnel lined with granite and words behind glass remembering worldwide hunger crises, while a ghostly recording plays voices recounting famine.
Room has been left for more words to mark new hunger crises. From the top of the field at 25 feet in the air, there is a view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the first stop for many of the over two million Irish immigrants to the United States.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Bats in My Belfry

Little brown bat, photo from Wikimedia Commons, by Enwebb.
Today's research, for both a history article and a set of poems, took me from the wooded summit of Burke Mountain in northeastern Vermont, to reading of cave explorations in China. I was fascinated to follow the interview with the "bat woman" in Wuhan,* and concerned for the future of her career. And I spent time looking at bat faces and remembering the first bat that I saw up close. It's a dreadful memory.

I was eleven years old, a sheltered suburban child, oldest of five and used to responsibility for the other kids ("You're the oldest, you're supposed to keep an eye on them!"). Incredibly, because my mother knew the camp director, I had been signed up for three weeks at a girls' camp out in the green forested part of New Jersey, among quiet mountains and clear blue lakes. If I'd known more of what would take place—archery lessons, modern dance, first taste of musical theater, the mystic power of singing around a campfire—I wouldn't have understood any of it. Facing the three weeks, the notion of swimming lessons (I hated getting my face wet) and sleeping away from home (I'd never been away from Mom for more than a few hours) terrified me. My mother, ignoring the emotions, made lists, stitched nametags into T-shirts, counted off stamps for me to write to her. And dropped me off with nearly a hundred people I'd never met, and one that I had: the camp director. Call her Lee.

The fifth night? Maybe. Supper in the dining hall, songs at the tables, some evening activity that kept us out among the stars and fireflies. I followed my cabin mates back, aware now of each one's name but still uncertain whether any of them liked me. A scream erupted from the first stacked bunks where a girl named Carol slept on the bottom bed, her best friend Michelle above her. It was Michelle screaming, waving her arms toward the ceiling. "A bat! A bat!"

Three counselors told us to each grab a sweatshirt, pull our hoods up over our hair, wait out on the porch. Armed with brooms, they struggled to shoo the flying mammal out the door, but it kept going back up into the eaves. Finally one counselor struck it with her broom and, stunned, the little winged body tumbled to the floor. Someone wrapped it in a towel. Ugh.

Who summoned the director? I don't know. But she brought a large lidded jar with her, maybe a gallon size, and deftly dumped the bat into it. And vanished into the night.

I woke early the next morning and, newly curious, trotted down the slope to the back porch of the director's house. I saw her sitting there, and called out, "What did you do with the bat?"

"I'll show you, if you want," she offered, eyeing me sideways.

What else could I say? "Yes, please. I want to see."

She fetched the jar, where she'd punched holes in the lid. That seemed familiar to me—at home, we also punched holes in jar lids when we held fireflies overnight, admiring their flashing.

But the grotesque furry face with its exposed needle-shaped teeth made me shudder, and the wings, cramped inside the jars, looked leathery and ugly. I asked, "What will you do with it?" I suppose I was thinking it would get released someplace else, away from the camp.

"Watch," the director replied. She took the jarred animal to one of the big sinks we used for cleaning up after crafts (already one of my less successful areas of learning), and turned on the water. Placing the jar under the tap, she let the water stream into it through the holes in the lid.

I only managed to watch until the jar reached about three-quarters full of water, the winged animal inside drowning in the process.

Maybe I said something. I can't recall now. But I remember running, running, and finding my cabin empty, and racing to the dining hall, late to join the others at the long table, gasping, unvoiced.

Now that I look back, I'm amazed I finished the three weeks. And I sing the camp songs. Sang them to hush my first and second babies when they were colicky and I sat in the rocking chair for hours, struggling to stay away enough to keep rubbing the arch of the warm little baby's back, waiting for a burp or a long fart and relief. I don't believe I thought about the bat, as I sang.

But now, as the virus from Wuhan spreads across the globe, and my grandson has suddenly reached the age when I went to camp ... I remember. May he never see a bat killed that way, even in this frightening pandemic. May his fears be small ones, easily comforted. May they be shared.



* https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-chinas-bat-woman-hunted-down-viruses-from-sars-to-the-new-coronavirus1/

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Publication date for THIS ARDENT FLAME (Winds of Freedom Book 2)

Five Star/Cengage tells me that as of now, the publication date for THIS ARDENT FLAME is December 16, 2020.

Let's figure out how best to celebrate the book in Vermont, so everyone who wants copies for holiday gifts and holiday reading will be able to get them!

And the next big step will be the cover design, so ... watch for it!

More news on other topics, tomorrow.

PS: A taste of Chapter 1:

North Upton, Vermont, October 1852

Chapter 1
A cold wind off the ridge followed me as I trudged down the worn path, the pack basket of late apples heavy against my back. Dark clouds scudded from the west. When the first small raindrops struck my cheek, I tried to tug my woolen shawl forward, to keep my dark hair dry. But the weight of the apples and their off-balance shift in the pack meant I needed to grip the shoulder straps with both hands, so I couldn’t arrange the shawl any better.
            “Drat. Drat, again.” Had I spoken aloud? Well, nobody would hear my unladylike words. Cutting down through the field from my brother William’s home, toward the center of the village, wasn’t exactly ladylike, either. Pfui.
            Since I’d been a little girl, I’d taken this track. Of course, back then, the house beyond the mill belonged to my father’s older brother, Uncle Owen. Jerushah, my best friend, used to walk with me to visit Uncle Owen and Aunt Lina.
            Jerushah. I shivered.