It’s been an exciting Tuesday morning! THE ROAD HOME and RETURN TO LOVE
won gold medals in the Readers’ Favorite Contest. TRH won in the Fiction-Historical-Personage category and RTL won in the Romance-General category.
AND… HOME AGAIN won silver in the Short Story category. Thanks to all the readers who are reading and enjoying my work!!
I’m going to take a look over my shoulder, back into 1890 when The Compendium of Cookery and Reliable Recipes was written. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am sharing some of the research I’ve done in order to shape the character and plot of The Road Home and The Garden Promise.
While this cookbook covers every imaginable type of food preparation known at the time it was written, it includes other topics for homemakers as they cobble their lives into pleasant existences, encouraging women to make the most of their circumstances no matter what they are.
There’s a section on “How to be Handsome.” And as you can imagine, the authors, Mrs. E. C. Blakeslee of Chicago, Miss Emma Leslie of Philadelphia, and Dr. S.H. Hughes of Boston, weren’t referring to how a man might keep himself attractive. It was the housewives they were speaking to.
“… the power of beauty has controlled the fate of dynasties and the lives of men. How to be beautiful, and consequently powerful, is a question of far greater importance to the feminine mind than predestination or any other abstract subject.” (Page 299)
I suppose this perspective explains the need to actually address a woman’s appearance in a book mostly devoted to caring for one’s home. As I first read this section I was surprised to find that the authors suggest “The first step to good looks is good health, and the first clement of health is cleanliness.” (Page 299)
Cleanliness! As germ theory was further developing, the idea that bodies needed to be fresh became more and more important. “Keep clean—wash freely, bathe regularly.” (Page 299)
I know that women have always taken care with their appearance, but I knew that “life circumstances,” like no running water, spare wardrobes, lack of money, no feminine products might have kept women from keeping “clean” as we think of it today. I had also been under the assumption that people bathed less—years less over a lifetime less—than we do. This then had me primed for surprise to see that this cookbook included instructions on how to bathe and its importance. “It is well to use a flesh-brush, and afterwards rinse off the soap-suds by briskly rubbing the body with a pair of coarse toilet gloves. The most important part of a bath is the drying. Every part of the body should be rubbed to a glowing redness, using a coarse crash towel at the finish. If sufficient friction can not be given, a small amount of bay rum applied with the palm of the hand will be found efficacious.” (Page 299)
I thought this was all very interesting (especially the use of Bay Rum which is a type of cologne/deodorant/astringent/ made originally in St. Thomas from bay leaves and rum.) even if it seemed a bit aggressive for self-care. I assume the scrubbing to redness perhaps had to do with the relative filthiness that 19th century women contended with on a daily basis (coal heat, industrialization without any pollution controls, making every blessed thing from scratch). But then I read this sweet little, gentle bit of information and it did indeed floor me, then inspired me to include elements of this in my work… hold onto your hats, dear readers…
“Ladies who have ample leisure and who lead methodical lives take a plunge or sponge bath three times a week, and a vapor or a sun bath every day.” (Page 300) Sunbath? Vapor bath? A little time in the fresh air sounds nice, doesn’t it? A little tea on the veranda or coffee on the back porch while the servants toil in the kitchen garden… sounds reasonable, sounds like something that fits the 19th century, American way of life… but then there was this:
“To facilitate this very beneficial practice, a south or east apartment is desirable. The lady denudes herself, takes a seat near the window and takes in the warm rays of the sun. The effect is both beneficial and delightful. If, however, she be of a restless disposition, she may dance, instead of basking in the sunlight. Or if she is not fond of dancing she may improve the shining hours by taking down her hair and brushing it, suing sulphur water, pulverized borax dissolved in alcohol or some similar dressing…” (Page 300)
Naked dancing at noon, brushing hair while clothed in nothing but the midday sunrays! Prudish Victorians? My naked, sunbathing ass, they were! I love, love, love that this is in a source that I can use without worry that I’m being anachronistic. There is nothing I love more than stumbling across research that flies in the face of what we believe about a certain era or class of people.
This is what makes the work so much fun for me. So… what kind of vapor bath girl (or guy) are you? Dancing, lounging, brushing your hair, something else? I think if I’m vapor bathing I’m going all out dancing. Perhaps that’s where that quote “Dance like no one’s watching,” originated? Oh, how I love this cookbook.
In The Last Letter Jeanie and Frank Arthur had a son named Tommy. He and his twin, Katherine were ten-years-old when the book opened in 1887 timeline. Tommy was a bit of a curmudgeon who felt the weight of losing his pampered boyhood to the mean prairie lands that brought fire, famine, and death as often as it did an edible crop. Tommy turned to Bible verses in times of trouble, but he really took a backseat to his siblings Katherine, James and even baby Yale who was born later in the novel. In the 1905 timeline, Tommy arrives on scene, an unhappy man whose life has not gone the way he wanted. He’s an ordained minister, yet he can’t seem to find the smallest sliver of forgiveness for his mother or peace for himself…
So, as I planned The Road Home and The Garden Promise, I wanted to have Tommy play a more primary role than he did the first book and I wanted his character to change. Part of bringing a more fully realized Tommy to life involved the family letters. So much of Jeanie Arthur’s correspondence centered on her second son’s (Gale) mischief, “I don’t know whether Gale will ever write to you or not… he won’t do much of anything only what he pleases. I hope he will act better after Jamie Coman goes home, he is always teasing him and bossing and fussing with somebody. I hope I will get a rest when they are all away to school I feel on the border of nervous prostration now. I won’t be boarding any more children while Gale is around he would make an angel disobedient and unruly.” In addition, Jeanie often noted sixteen-year-old Gale lacking ambition as she referred to him being “…a first class loafer.”
As Jeanie chronicles Gale’s attempts at finding and keeping a good job, she describes her son as he was hired on at the Savery Hotel. “(Gale) started today to work at the Savery Hotel as a bellboy but the elevator boy quit then they put him on the elevator. He says he does not like it as it is an old elevator, runs hard and the strands of the cable were breaking today so he is afraid of it. He is going to tell them tomorrow that he had rather be bellboy so he may get fired. On the elevator you get fifteen dollars a month and board, bellboys get twelve dollars, board and tips. He works from 7 until 7.”
This little elevator strand of information came in handy when I was looking to thread historical flavor into the novel when employing the character of Tommy. Research revealed why an elevator boy would make so much more money than a bellboy—it was dangerous. Gale’s discomfort with the hard-running elevator and unreliable cables was a legitimate concern at that time in history.
While the facts about the jobs that my great uncle won and lost over the years were helpful in crafting the plot, I found that I wanted to steer away from my great, great grandmother’s characterization of her son as only lazy. And yes, that is the primary “theme of Gale” throughout the body of letters. And that was similar to how Tommy was portrayed in The Last Letter as a young male living up to his golden-boy, brother James. But in writing The Road Home, I wanted Tommy to embody the complexity that all people do. Part of Tommy’s transformation involves his attempt to be the man his father could not be for his family. In the 19th century a fourteen-year-old boy would be much more like an adult than a child. However, I knew I could use elements of Gale in Tommy as he took two steps forward into adulthood and slipped one step back into boyhood…like any teenager would.
Be sure to pick up your copy of The Road Home and check out the “Evolution of Tommy Arthur!”
In The Road Home, the character of Tommy is fourteen in the 1891 plotline. His character was inspired in part by my great uncle, Frank Gale Arthur (son of Jeanie and Frank), and in part by my great-grandfather James. In the real family letters that were written after Jeanie and Frank divorced, Frank, Jr. was never referred to as Frank. I don’t know if that’s because Jeanie didn’t want to have the name Frank on her lips each day or if they had always called him Gale to cut down on name confusion around the house.
It turns out Gale’s personality apple did not fall far from his father’s tree. In reading 500+ pages of letters the mentions of Gale far outweigh that of any other sibling. Because I have few letters from Frank, it’s hard to tell if he was as difficult a person as he comes across as in the divorce papers, but if Gale’s behavior is any indication I would say it’s likely.
My great-grandfather, James O. Arthur, became a minister like the character of Tommy. But I infused great-Uncle Gale’s wanderlust and unreliability into Tommy as well. At the time this set of letters was written the roles of the children are fairly clear—James and Margery were reliable, intelligent, independent and content with living away from their mother and siblings. They were about twenty and eighteen-years-old when the letters began. Gale was fifteen or sixteen and the star of nearly every letter Jeanie writes to James. Here’s a simple breakdown of the family:
Jeanie: single mother busting her ass to keep their house from the tax collector and salivating foes who wanted the property.
Frank: sent occasional letters to kids… claimed to want to be in their lives, but never actually appeared… always broke
Alice: died at age of 2 on the prairie
James: the rock
Margery: absent but independent
Gale: an emotional and economical worry if not a drain—hoping for an invite from his father to go live with him—the invite never comes.
Dorothy: difficult and nearly as troublesome as Gale
Jeanie: Not mentioned much, but appears to be an easy child
Jessie: youngest child—always heading into or out of an illness
And so, as Jeanie worked multiple jobs (more on that soon!) and juggled her children so that some were boarded out to families who needed extra hands and the oldest contributed to the family in every way possible. She was met with frustration at Gale’s tendency toward wanting the life of a “gentleman” but not really up for the work that it would take to actually be one.
It’s with this framework that I will offer some of Jeanie’s attempts to parent her children alone. And by parenting, it seems as though that meant:
keep everyone healthy and alive
require each child to contribute to the family even if living somewhere else
press for education that would ensure a better/easier life and again—eventually to help to keep the family house in the Arthur name.
1907 was a very different time in America when it came to raising children. Gale who was 16 at that time held at least twenty-two jobs between August 1907 and November 1909. While still attending (begrudgingly) school, some of these were formal jobs like:
Wagon/Team driver for Mr. Fitzgerald
Folding Hides at packing plant
Bellboy at Savery Hotel
Elevator man at Savery Hotel
Book and newspaper salesman on a train route to Denver and back
Bellboy at Chamberlain Hotel
He also contributed money by holding these informal jobs as well:
Selling his bike for cash
Work at County Fair
Chores for Aunt Alice
Chores at the Carpenters
Firing furnaces at various homes
All of these informal jobs that Gale performed were referenced along with him being paid to do them. Jeanie often expressed frustration at Gale not being willing to do these jobs and then also help more at home. To this 21st century mom the exchange of room and board–the way Jeanie discusses it–feels more like business dealings with strangers than the raising of a child. This is an astonishing list of jobs to have held between the time Gale was sixteen and eighteen, yet it was never enough.
Jeanie writing to her son, James, “The children are fat and healthy looking. They eat hazel nuts every day and I guess they don’t suffer though Gale said the other day I was getting stingier every day.”
This idea that Jeanie is stingy is an important theme in the letters especially in the ones that were written in 1914 near the time of Jeanie’s death.
In another letter Jeanie says, “Gale does not do anything round home, only milk the cow, get coal and kindling. He makes a first class loafer.” Her exasperation is clear.
“Gale started doing the chores at Carpenters when Father (her father) quit. Last night the dogs held him up so he wa afraid to go to the house to get the milk pail so he came home without milking and won’t go back. He spends all his time trapping gophers for the bounty ($1.10 for eleven). He sent to Chicago for a 22 revolver so I expect somebody will be getting killed. I have it locked up at present…” In the next letter… “Gale has not got a job yet, has given up his paper route too. Grandpa has promised him a dollar if he will clean out his potato patch.” And then a truly illuminating passage:
“I think I told you (James) last week that Gale was driving one of Fitzgerald’s teams for him on grade work for the city. He gets a dollar a day. Margie and Dorothy have mowed the yard a couple of times so it does not look bad. I have not had time to touch it. Gale won’t do anything at night after he gets home, says he does his days work and pays his board, that’s all he is going to do, so I have to keep my garden as clean as I can myself…”
And a couple of weeks later to James… “Gale has been out of work for a week. Fitzgerald had one of his teams laid off… Gale has spent all of his money beside what he paid me for board for a bicycle so he has not saved a cent. If he does not get any work soon he won’t be able to pay his board and I have been counting on that money to help on the mortgage. I want to pay off Shope this fall if possible… Will you have enough for interest and taxes?”
Yes, times have changed all right. So let’s talk… What do these little snippets tell you about time, place and people?
Coming soon… a deeper look at how details like this informed the characters and events in The Road Home.
I had the opportunity to re-enter the lives of the characters that I had created in The Last Letter. This chance was fantastic and daunting at the same time. I hadn’t expected The Last Letter to end up being book one in a series so when I realized I needed to write books two, three and four, I was a little stymied about how to proceed.
As usually happens when faced with a writing problem, I experienced something that provided the clarity I needed to proceed with the project. In this case it was when I saw the play, Wicked. There was so much happening on the stage that I had never imagined for the characters I first met in The Wizard of Oz. As I watched Wicked unfold, I suddenly knew—it didn’t matter that I hadn’t mapped out four books of The Letter Series before writing the first. As with most people we know in life—we usually only know certain sides of who they are. Like real people, I could allow the characters who were introduced in The Last Letter to have aspects of them that they and others had forgotten, hidden, or altered. I suddenly understood I could keep the essence of each character, but invent the “rest of their stories,” in a full Letter Series.
Guiding me in the process of reinventing the Arthurs were two things:
The second set of family letters that my great-great grandmother and her family wrote AFTER Jeanie’s marriage to Frank dissolved in 1903.
The 1905 and 1887 timelines I set up in The Last Letter. I will talk about these timelines in the coming days, but in the next few posts I want to use the letters to discuss how they helped to shape characters, events and plot in The Road Home.
Having five hundred pages of letters to read may seem overwhelming but this volume of writing at my disposal revealed clear patterns of behavior within the Arthur family as reported mostly by Jeanie and her firstborn son, James. Here is the birth order of the real Arthur children born to Jeanie and Frank:
Alice Mabel, b. 1884
James Osborne, b. 1887
Margery Wilder, b. 1889
Frank Gale, b. 1892
Dorothy, b. 1894
Jeanie Gillespie, b. 1896
Jessie May, b. 1899
It wasn’t long into the writings (most letters are from the time-span of 1907-1910) to see:
James (approx. 20 years old—he is away for work and school) is Jeanie’s rock after her marriage fell apart.
Margie (approx. 18) has a wonderful personality, but writes infrequently (she is reliable in other ways and self-sufficient though away from home to teach school).
Frank Gale, Jr. is referred to as Gale… he is a substantial thorn in Jeanie’s side (approx. 16—lives at home, but then boards out at turns) and appears most frequently in the letters.
Dorothy (approx. 14) causes almost as much trouble as Gale does.
The younger girls are mentioned much less and normally when something is wrong.
Beyond reports on family happenings, the family economy is the primary topic in the letters.
Life was exceptionally hard as the 19th century turned into the 20th. However… readers of The Last Letter already knew that!
There are moments of redemption and joy amidst all the trouble…
The letters provide a view into a life of an educated, but just-barely-scraping-by family. They illuminate the best of the human condition as mother and children come to grips with choices made and the subsequent consequences.
To begin this journey through the letters and behind the book (The Road Home) we’re going to take a look at Gale (one of the real Jeanie Arthur’s sons) and how the information about Gale helped to provide some of the layers that are evident in the character of Tommy in The Road Home… Coming soon…
Madhu Wangu kindly invited me to have a conversation about writing on her blog at Madhubazazwangu.com. Madhu, an artist and author, has a wonderful collection of stories out called Chance Meetings. It’s a must read for anyone who adores rich, character-driven, truly unique stories. Take a look at the conversation Madhu and I had and get to know know of us better!
Giveaway! Stay Tuned for details on entering the contest!
Here’s a little teaser for the upcoming giveaways that will usher THE ROAD HOME into the world… These are just two of the treats that will be included in several sets of goodies… These handmade travel journals (by Charlotte @judgedbyaBOOKScover https://etsy.me/1Rv2Uqe) will call to mind the past and make your future wanderlusting even more special as you can use it to capture the best (and funny worst) of the trip! The journals were made especially for THE ROAD HOME launch and contain travel quotes from the book and other sources! More info to follow…
Before I researched The Road Home and The Garden Promise I thought I had a better grasp of 19th century fashion than I did. In The Last Letter, fashion wasn’t as important as was survival. Though Jeanie, Lutie, and Katherine may have lamented certain elements of clothing they lacked on the prairie (pretty silken shoes!), minute-to-minute survival took precedence over the dream of a proper bustle to lift one’s skirt to just the right height and angle.
But it wasn’t until I was describing Katherine getting dressed in a particular scene in The Road Home that I realized I had no idea what I was talking about when it came to her underthings. Suddenly I was aware that the hoop wasn’t right for 1891. The pouffy look of the 1830’s differed from the looser early 1800’s appearance and the mutton sleeve look of the 1890’s was vastly different than the billowy shape of 1835.
In every era there was a dominant sleeve, bodice, and skirt shape that represented the ideal look of beauty. In my mind I had sort of lumped all the “old-fashioned” looks together and really had to begin the work of sorting through how it was a woman achieved a certain “fashionable” shape. These original prints by Henri Boutet show some of the silhouettes, sleeves and necklines that were popular over time. The first drawing that shows the woman in black is outfitted in a walking costume–the height of 1885 fashion. The next three from left to right depict the fashions of 1808, 1835, and 1892.
As I researched the underpinnings of these clothing styles I also began to consider how these “ideals” of fashion fit into Katherine and Jeanie’s world. Just because these were examples of how women should dress it didn’t mean they had the means to dress that way. And it certainly didn’t mean that a woman who was tasked with tending a farm dressed like the woman with a staff to tend her home…
I think the 1808 dress looks most comfortable… how about you?