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Articles by " Bev Scott"
10 Oct
2018
Posted in: Book Reviews
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Book Review: “Before We Were Yours” by Lisa Wingate

 

Book reviewed by Bev Scott, Author

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa WingateBefore We Were Yours, in the words of the author, was “formed from the dust of imagination and the muddy waters of the Mississippi.” It also recounts experiences similar to those of real children taken from their families during the 1920’s through the 1950’s and who were victims of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

Families Torn Apart

Countless children taken from loving families without cause or permission were never seen again by their biological families. Yes, some children were unwanted or rescued from dire situations. Many children, adopted out to families all over the country, were taken off the porch, kidnapped in broad daylight or removed from families using lies and deception. They were not given enough food or proper medical care. They were beaten, tied to beds and chairs and locked in dark closets. Undesirable or problem often children disappeared. Adoptive families were sometimes blackmailed for more money. Paperwork vanished leaving no record of the children’s prior lives. Georgia Tann brutalized these children with the support of the family court system, police and other corrupt officials.

Two Stories

In alternate chapters, Lisa Wingate tells two stories which ultimately come together at the end of the book. Avery Stafford is one of the daughters of Senator Stafford from Aiken, South Carolina. She is a lawyer practicing in Washington, D.C., engaged to her childhood sweetheart and being groomed to take over her father’s Senate seat. At one of her father’s events staged at a nursing home, Avery is confronted by a new resident, May, who has glimmers of recognition in seeing Avery who looks like her grandmother. May claims the dragonfly bracelet from Avery’s arm and appears to know Avery’s grandmother. Avery is intrigued by the mystery of May and begins to investigate the potential relationship with her grandmother fearing there is some scandal involved that would cause damage to the reputation of the Stafford family.

Alternately, we learn of the five children Rill, Camellia, Lark, Fern and Gabion who live on a shanty boat on the river with loving but unconventional parents, Briny and Queenie. The children are left alone when Briny takes Queenie to the hospital for medical care for a difficult delivery of twins. They are “kidnapped” from the boat by the police and taken to the house of horrors managed by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. After weeks of uncertainty and fear yet hoping that Briny will come for them, they discover the brutal truth of their situation. Camellia disappears, perhaps dying from injuries suffered from a beating. Rill, the oldest at twelve, is told that Camellia never existed, that there were “only four of you.” Lark and Gabion are the first to be adopted out followed by Fern and Rill.

Summary

Wingate provides gripping descriptions of horrors the children suffer. Avery’s search for clues to solve the mysterious connection between her grandmother and the enigmatic May is compelling.  Alternating chapters to develop the characters and the plot of the two stories is well done. The character of Avery seems a bit shallow in contrast to the depth of the shanty boat children. Perhaps it is her rationale for her search that is shallow, the reputation of the Stafford family. I couldn’t help believing that Avery had some additional personal motivations.

I recommend this impactful book. For several days, I shuddered thinking about the horrors these fictional, as well as the real children, suffered at the hands of a greedy, manipulative, and unscrupulous woman. Fortunately, for some children, there were “happy endings.”

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2 Oct
2018

A Book Tour in Nebraska

Sunrise in Thedford, Nebraska

Sunrise in Thedford, Nebraska (2018)

We are standing at the intersection of US 83 and Nebraska Highway 2 reading the highway sign about the Sand Hills outside Thedford, Nebraska when I see the Dollar General Store across the Highway. Then I remember what the volunteer at the Historical Museum said about the land my great grandparents homesteaded. We found the homestead on an old plat map with Irvin Russell’s name. She said it was at this intersection where the Dollar General Store was built!

This was just one of the highlights of my fabulous 10 days on a book tour in Nebraska…yes Nebraska!  Readers will know that a section of Sarah’s Secret takes place in Nebraska. And others will know that I was born in Nebraska and have many family roots there. I traveled with my spouse who served as my driver and my very able assistant. This trip was a great opportunity to tell my genealogy story Searching for Family Secrets and read from Sarah’s Secret.

The Back Story

In 2011 when I was searching for information about my mysterious paternal grandfather, we visited the Thomas County Historical Museum in Thedford. My great grandparents, Irvin and Lydia Dodd Russell homesteaded there. My grandmother, Ellen Russell married Harvey Depew Scott in Thedford in 1892. One of the museum volunteers, Helen White, was very helpful in my search. When my book came out, I sent her a copy to thank her. She encouraged me to come to Nebraska. This spring she connected me to Terry Licking, President of the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway, who seems to know everyone across the state of Nebraska. Through Terry’s connections I was booked across the state into Historical Museums and Libraries to tell the genealogy story of Searching for Family Secrets and to read from Sarah’s Secret.

Scotts Bluff, Nebraska

Scotts Bluff, Nebraska

The Experience of Nebraska

I learned even more about Nebraska. The historic Oregon, California and Mormon Trails dug into the Nebraska sod across the state and are memorialized at the Scotts Bluff monument just outside the town of Scottsbluff where I was born. I learned at the Legacy of the Plains in Gering and the Knight Museum and Sandhills Center in Alliance about the challenges of the early pioneers trying to survive by farming and discovering the Sandhill grasslands were better suited to raising livestock.

We learned about the valuable water from the Ogallala Aquifer a vast underground reservoir which lies under almost all of Nebraska and parts of six other states. The survival of this valuable source of water is threatened, but Nebraska has put protections in place. We heard a story about Ted Turner and Jane Fonda blowing a multi-million dollar ranch sale because Jane preferred bottled water over the fresh water from the Ogallala Aquifer.

We had some great meals, often steak and chops. We found a gourmet restaurant in Scottsbluff that even carried California wines. The Emporium was so wonderful we had dinner there twice. In Broken Bow the restaurant at our hotel, the Arrowhead was excellent and my favorite meal was the walleye pike. We enjoyed fascinating discussions and a good meal at a gathering of neighbors when we visited friends in Lincoln.

Mullen Nebraska sign

Did you know that there is one of the 100 Best Golf Courses in the little town of Mullen? It is one of the most natural golf courses, ranked ninth in the best of the world.

In many of the places we visited, it was clear that those pioneers who settled Nebraska were mostly of white European descent. And because it is very white, we were conscious that it was much easier for us to travel across the state than if we were of color. But we were interested to learn about DeWitty, the largest and longest-lasting African American settlement in rural Nebraska. The settlers many from Canada were lured by the opportunity for free land after the Kincaid Act was passed in 1904 offering homesteaders 640 acres instead of the 160 acres of the first Homestead Act in 1864. The town was settled in 1907 and grew to 82 residents in 1910. The last resident left the area in 1936. The history of DeWitty reports that white and black settlers in the area treated each other as neighbors, helping out in times of need.

Custer County Museum, Nebraska

Custer County Museum exhibit

Genealogy and Book Readings

I met wonderful people some whom have moved into town, others who still ranch and raise cattle. The audiences in my sessions included people interested in genealogy who have intriguing and mysterious stories in their families, too. They asked many questions about the facts I uncovered about my grandfather and the missing information I was not able to find. They were interested in how I turned my family story into fiction. Others liked to read historical fiction and were intrigued by the story I had created. And they left the sessions with a book under their arm!

I took advantage of my visits and conducted more genealogy research, looking for additional information about family members who settled in the Thedford area. I not only found the plat map to identify the family homestead but I also found a copy of my great grandfather’s will from the County Court House. My maternal great grandparents also homesteaded in Nebraska near Broken Bow. Although I had visited before, I spent time looking for more information at the Custer County Historical Museum, too. I followed up on suspected related families and found the will of my great, great grandmother in the Custer County Court House.

Sunflowers, Nebraska

Back Home

I returned to San Francisco appreciating our natural air conditioning; In Nebraska, it was 85 to 95 degrees most days of our trip. Driving west to east and back, I appreciate the rolling hills, the green prairies and the flashy yellow sunflowers. Nebraska isn’t dramatic but it is a very pretty state. I am proud to claim it as my birthplace. I plan to go back to visit again.

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6 Sep
2018

National Read a Book Day

National Read A Book Day

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today is “National Read a Book Day.”

Most of us are busy working, looking at our phones, exercising, watching our usual TV programs.  We put off reading until vacation or “when I have time.” Many of us have a stack of books beside our bed but we fall asleep before we read more than a paragraph.

Today, take a book off your stack of “books to read.” Or if you need a good book, go to your local library, visit your neighborhood independent bookstore or go on line at Hometown Reads to choose a book by a local author.

Today is a day to skip exercise, put off watching TV and ignore your phone. Instead, find a comfortable chair, your favorite beverage and open a book in your favorite genre. Take a deep breath and enjoy reading!

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16 Aug
2018

Seeing Clearly

Cataracts, Seeing Clearly

“I would say they are ready. I am going to refer you to the best in town. He will exam your eyes and decide.”

My optometrist, who has carefully provided eye exams each year, had warned me a few years ago that I had cataracts growing slowly, not yet ready for surgery to remove them. Now he was telling me that he thought it was time to consider cataract surgery.

Another sign of the years slipping by when I try not to notice. I talked to friends and did a little research to learn more.

What are Cataracts?

In a healthy eye, the lens is transparent and focuses the light on the retina. Over time, the lens becomes more opaque or cloudy as the lens loses its ability to let light in. Cataract surgery entails removing the cloudy lens that has grown in the eye and replace it with an artificial lens. I learn it is very common for aging eyes and reputed to be one of the easiest surgeries to have. Sources on the internet proclaim that 98% of the surgeries are completed without complications. Many I spoke with raved about the positive outcomes of resolving their vision problems and reducing their dependence on glasses.

Seeing Clearly, CataractsThat is encouraging.

I make my appointment with the recommended surgeon who is both friendly and thorough. With healthy eyes, I have several options including: simple cataract removal and continue wearing my glasses; have my astigmatism addressed; change my vision to either near-or far-sighted; or mono-vision where one lens is for distance and the other is for close work such as reading.

Making a Decision

I take time to think about my options. When I was younger, wearing contact lenses not only gave me better vision but it also supported my vanity.  When I needed to give up my contact lenses and wear glasses, they concealed some of the signs of aging on my face. Do I really care now? Am I still vain?

When I wore contact lenses I had mono-vision lenses for a period of time. It is appealing to consider not needing glasses. I am warned that there is no guarantee that I won’t need glasses either for reading small print in low light or driving at night on unfamiliar dark roads. I remember that carrying multiple pairs of glasses for different vision needs, was annoying and provided one of the advantages to one pair of glasses with progressive lenses.

The doctor also advises me that some people have trouble adjusting to their eyes seeing differently, but since my brain adjusted to mono-vision contact lenses he believes I will adjust again. I decide on mono-vision and schedule my surgeries a month apart. I am hoping I won’t have to be bothered with glasses.

The Unfortunate 2%

Just before the date for my left eye, I talk with a colleague who just had his own cataract surgery. He exclaimed, “I am part of the 2% that have complications!” His simple cataract removal resulted in cloudy vision and he was very disappointed. His story increased my anxiety but I determined to proceed.

My early morning surgery was easy with no complications and twenty-four hours later when I removed the eye patch I could read with my left eye without glasses! How exciting! And the world was clear and bright when I closed my right eye.

However, seeing in general during the ensuing month was challenging. I could read with my new left eye, but with my right eye still compromised and with glasses created for my old vision seeing distance was difficult. I muddled through seeing the world through the yellow wash of the cataract, avoiding driving and asking others to explain what was blurry at a distance. I was even more hopeful for vision without glasses.

I talked with another friend who had cataract surgery shortly after my first eye. I learn that he, too, was part of the 2 % and could only see blurry images. I was grateful for the clear result in my left eye and held hope for a similar result in the right.

Seeing Clearly, Cataract

No Complications

A month later the second surgery was also easy and without complications. When I removed the eye patch my vision was clear and bright. I could see long distance and I could read. I cheered!  But there was a reservation. I discovered intermediate distance was blurry. Seeing items on my computer screen or reading the sub-titles on television was a definite problem. The doctor had not raised that issue. I was disappointed.

I need glasses after all. It was confirmed at my final eye appointment.

But as disappointed as I am, I remember the complications experienced by my friends. I am grateful for my clear sight and improved vision. I will need glasses for computer work and watching television but I have improved my vision. And my appearance with or without glasses no longer matters. I am happy.

 

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8 Aug
2018
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Book Review: “The Search for My Abandoned Grandmother” by Mary Ames Mitchell

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Search for My Abandoned GrandmotherMary Ames Mitchell describes in detail her search for her English grandmother’s grave or burial site. The author’s mother, Betty May, last saw her mother, Eileen Maude, when she was seven in 1932 as she boarded a train in London with her brother to spend the summer holidays with her father in France. Betty May’s parents had divorced and the partings had become customary but this last time Eileen Maude acted differently and said goodbye with tears in her  eyes. Shortly after this parting she became sick and died. Betty May grew old in the United states, not knowing what happened or where she was buried.

Mitchell, interested in genealogy, decided to travel to England to search for her grandmother’s grave, and meet or connect with remaining relatives from her grandmother’s extended family who might help her search. She prepared for her first trip by contacting English cemeteries, reviewing scrapbooks, photo albums, talking to her mother’s brother and a step sister, conducting an internet search on the British National Archives site, visiting the local Family History Center, and contacting her English relatives. What she calls her “grandmother-search project” ultimately included three trips to England and two-trips to Scotland to visit cemeteries, churches and official record sites. She visited Betty May’s first cousins, her own second cousins, second cousins-once-removed and step cousins.

In addition to the detailed search for Eileen Maude, Mitchell very smoothly intersperses the biographical details of her grandfather’s extraordinary life and what she knows of her grandmother and their marriage. Although the details of her search are occasionally tedious, I found the story compelling. Like the author I was disappointed when she hit a “brick wall” and elated when she discovered additional clues. I recommend this book if you are interested in genealogy and family history as I am.

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27 Jul
2018

“What About Your Mother’s Family?”

Sod house Bev Scott Author

My grandparents and their sod house in Nebraska (Solomon Butcher photo)

“What about your mother’s family?”

“…Oliver was a man who knew his own mind.  He had two daughters (one was my mother) who were never allowed to attend school. Oliver was sure that they would learn too many things at school that weren’t included in the curriculum. Mrs. Moody was a former school teacher, so Mr. Moody bought the books that were necessary and the girls studied at home. The law stepped in and tried to force the issue. But Oliver was adamant:  he’d go to jail first! So, they let him have his way, and those girls had the highest grades in the county when it came time for eighth grade commencement in Broken Bow. Their father allowed them to go to high school and college thereafter.” (from Clear Creek Echoes)

Custer County, Nebraska

Recently I decided to take up where I had left off several years ago, with learning about my maternal lineage. In 2001 I went to Custer County, Nebraska where my maternal great grandfather, William H. Moody, homesteaded in 1885, to explore the Custer County Museum. I found newspaper articles, quotes from my grandfather and obituaries. I discovered the story quoted above about my grandfather, Oliver H. Moody, shared in the book Clear Creek Echoes which recorded memories of the area between 1878 and 1978. It gave me insight into the man I knew only when I was a child.

My grandmother, Grace, was a school teacher until she was married in 1902. The state of Nebraska frowned on married women teaching school so she left the classroom when she became Mrs. Moody. My grandfather served as the school superintendent until he had to take over the family farm. Among the files I inherited from my mother are teaching certificates from the 1890’s demonstrating Grace’s competence to teach first and second grade and teacher’s contracts dating from 1896 to 1900, some of which are signed by Oliver Moody.

While I was in Custer County, I took a nostalgic drive out to view the land where my great grandfather homesteaded outside Broken Bow, Nebraska and met the current farmers. The one hundred and sixty acres of the homestead seemed like a lot of land to farm with a horse and plow! I researched the deeds for this land at the county courthouse. The “patten” by William H. Moody was filed in November,1885 under President Cleveland. Since my grandfather was the only boy in the family, the land was passed to him. I was very sad when I discovered that my grandparents lost their farm in the Depression after they had mortgaged it and couldn’t meet the payments.

farm, homestead, Bev Scott Author

Farm homesteaded by great-grandfather, viewed from location where farm house once stood.

Solomon Butcher, Prairie Photographer

I discovered at the Custer County Museum that the photo I have of my great-grandparents and their children in front of their sod house, is a Solomon Butcher photo. As a young man, Butcher decided he wasn’t up to the rigors of homesteading. Instead, he began to chronicle the photographic history of pioneer life. He gave one photo to the family and kept one himself. Between 1886 and 1912 he took more than 3000 photos many of them in Custer County. Many of those photos which adorned the walls of homesteading families in Custer County, were donated to the Custer County Museum.  Today the Museum has as one of its missions the preservation of his photos.

Back on the Genealogy Trail

Families are often filled with stories and rumors which may or may not be true. My mother’s family story was that we were descendants of William Brewster of Mayflower fame. But, did it have any basis? With my renewed focus on my maternal ancestry, I not only reviewed my notes from the 2001 trip to Nebraska, but I also rummaged through files that my mother had left me. I discovered a one-page document describing her mother as a descendant of William Brewster! However, there was no documentation. The piece of paper was just as good as the family story.

Many people have heard or read the story of my journey to find information about my mysterious paternal grandfather who was born in 1840. I combed cemeteries, libraries, county courthouses, historical museums and the US Census.  I searched online, on genealogy sites and requested documents from government agencies.  My quest ultimately took me to seven states in the Midwest.

Bev Scott, Author, Nebraska school

My grandmother Grace was a teacher in a school on the Great Plains in Nebraska.

I learned a lot about my paternal grandfather, John Howard Scott, aka Harvey Depew Scott. I discovered the family rumor about him was true.  However, there were twelve to fourteen years when he disappeared from the records. I was dedicated to the pursuit, convinced I would uncover where he was during those years. With the curiosity and passion for that search, I neglected the exploration I had begun of my mother’s family.

Now, refocused on my mother’s side of the family, I was curious to find the records of my maternal ancestry. I turned to Ancestry.com to see if I could use the names and relationships on the page from my mother’s files to find documentation. I was amazed at how easy it was to find marriage, census, death and historical records which documented the relationships for thirteen generations from William Brewster to me. Although the whole family tree is not yet complete, I am thrilled that I had the luck to easily find the information to establish this branch of my maternal ancestry.

It is such a contrast to the long journey and search for small clues about my paternal grandfather. I had begun that search in the paper files over twenty years ago at the National Archives. Since my grandfather fought in the Civil War I used the only information I had about him, his enlistment information given to me by my aunt. Those paper files gave me many clues, confirmed the family secret and launched me on the journey I described above.   It is now much easier to search for records online. I recently checked online again to see if I missed something in that journey. There is still no information about my grandfather during the times he disappeared.

The Records Reflect Stability and Disruption

What does the difference I describe between my two sets of ancestors suggest? My conclusion is that a stable family life, permanent residence and several generations of the pursuit of learning and education on the maternal side makes it easier to find records and documents. In contrast, losing a father at an early age, moving constantly and the lack of education characterizes my paternal grandfather’s story and leaves fewer records to pursue.

I am excited to be back involved with the genealogy of my mother’s family heritage. Although it is not mysterious, perhaps it will stimulate me to write some of the stories that I have uncovered and find quite fascinating.

Have you traced your family heritage?  What have you learned?

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17 Jul
2018
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Book Review: “Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers” by Sara Zeff Geber

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Book Review by Bev Scott, bevscott.comThis book is introduced by the gerontologist Harry “Rick” Moody, who reminds us all that we are all “solo agers” if we live long enough.  He says, “Successful Solo Agers have learned how to age alone and they have lessons we all need to learn.”

Sara Zeff Geber provides the guide book for that learning.  She covers the preparation needed to enjoy the second half of life, deciding how and where to live and ensuring care in one’s oldest age.  The information she covers is essential for aging as singles, married couples with or without children.  It is a rich resource and one all of us will use as reference as we ambivalently approach the tasks of preparing and making decisions for retirement.  Utilizing the worksheets and thoughtfully answering the questions can help us discover what will give us joy and fulfillment as well as care, comfort and financial security.

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9 Jul
2018
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Book Review: “Prairie Fires – The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by Caroline Fraser

Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser, book review by Bev Scott Author

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Reading and preparing this summary and review of Prairie Fires has been a long-term endeavor. Caroline Fraser has done a brilliant work describing the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder in the historical context of the time. She won both a Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Award. She begins the historical detail before Laura Ingalls was born in 1867 and describes the nine decades of Wilder’s life. Wilder died in 1957 but Fraser also gives us a postscript, describing the controversies which surrounded her estate. Fraser draws on letters, diaries, land and financial records filling in gaps in Wilder’s biography. As an amateur historian especially interested in American history, I was engrossed with the setting and the detail Fraser provided; and it took time for me to absorb it all.

Laura Ingalls was born after the US Army had devastated the Dakota Indians. The Homestead Act gave white settlers official permission to take the land in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Dakota Territory once occupied by Native Americans. She and her family lived through the natural disasters of drought, extreme heat, locust swarms and blizzards. Her father was unable to make a living for his family as a farmer. The family lost everything and literally skipped out of town to escape debts. Often overwhelmed with responsibilities and anxiety, Laura worked to help support her family, running errands, serving as a companion and seamstress, turning all her earnings over to her parents. At fifteen, she passed the exam to become a teacher of small children at a little school a few miles from home.

Almanzo Wilder came each weekend to pick her up in his wagon. She agreed to marry him in 1885 when she was 17. Although their first year of marriage was a magical one, Laura worried about money and the debt that Almanzo had accumulated to provide her a handsome house. In 1886 a baby girl, Rose was born adding another worry. Fraser points out that the economics were impossible. After expenses and setting aside seed for the next year, there was a little more than $40 to live on for another year. Even imagining that living on $40 was possible, disasters seem to stalk the Wilders: drought, cyclones, failing crops, fire, diphtheria, Almanzo’s crippling stroke. The title of the book, Prairie Fires refers to one of the disasters they confronted. They ultimately decided to leave.

Ingalls Family photograph

The Ingalls Family

Chicago and North Western Railway Company poster c 1870 encouraging immigrants to move to Dakota using their railroad

When they finally settled in Mansfield, Missouri in 1894, Laura would “step by cautious step, sieze control of their circumstances” proving herself adept to find ingenious ways to earn income, live frugally and manage their meager assets.  Fraser paints a picture of the grit and determination of Wilder’s struggle to survive. This was the beginning of their journey back from the brink of ruin. As Fraser describes, Laura Wilder’s life was a “titanic struggle to tame yet another wilderness alone with her crippled husband and a seven-year-old.” Because he was disabled by his stroke, Almanzo could not work a full day on the farm. They moved into town and he began a business making deliveries and hauling passengers. Laura worked keeping books for the oil company.

When her father died, Laura wrote an essay about her earliest memories of him. She described his greatest gift was his contentment with what he had. It was a powerful essay, remembering all of the songs he played, passionately describing everything about him. It was a beginning of her writing.

Her daughter, Rose, also began writing. At twenty-two after following a beau to San Francisco in 1908, she began writing newspaper stories. She shed her sense of inferiority and feelings of being unwanted and adopted a “belief in her superiority, a self-assured rejection of authority and those who wielded it.” She endeavored for the rest of Laura Wilder’s life to be her writing instructor and guide. The former strict matriarch, acknowledging her own insecurity, took her daughter’s hand and launched into a new career. This new relationship between mother and daughter lasted for the next forty years. (For a deeper look into Rose and Laura as collaborators, see article in The New Yorker, “Wilder Women.”)

By 1916 Wilder was a columnist for the Missouri Ruralist. She developed her voice and themes through her involvement and activism as a clubwoman, member of a Masonic organization, farm activist, secretary-treasurer for the Mansfield branch of the federal Farm Loan Association as well as a prolific columnist for the Ruralist. Wilder’s first national magazine article came through her daughter’s connections and marked their first collaborative clash. Using her former husband name, Rose Lane had a burgeoning career as a celebrity biographer by 1917. She was also a talented and insightful line editor. She wrote several pages of suggestions for a project Laura was working on urging her to pay attention to the rules of good writing, show rather than tell, stick to a narrative voice, provide colorful details and pay close attention to transitions.

Laura Wilder was working on her autobiography and writing children’s stories. Rose Lane discouraged her from writing children’s stories as trivial with no opportunity to make a name. Initially, her autobiography was rejected despite Rose’s revisions but was ultimately accepted, and she was asked to re-write it as a children’s story. Her first book, Little House in the Big Woods sold strongly during the Depression. Wilder was already hard at work on another book. Her books ultimately were listed in the top twenty bestselling children’s book of all time!

Prairie Fires, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Caroline Fraser, reviewed by Bev Scott Author

Laura Ingalls Wilder on her porch, home in the town of Mansfield, Missouri, early 1900’s

Laura Ingalls Wilder became one of the most significant influencers of our American culture. She showed children how to be poor without shame, demonstrated the heroism of endurance, celebrated the simple pleasures and how to make the best of what you have. She spoke against government intervention and opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal believing everyone could and should support themselves. She never acknowledged, perhaps never recognized, that the homesteading both her parents and her own family took advantage of was a gift of the government.

In Fraser’s biography of Wilder, we come to see that her autobiographical novels are stories that transform the brutal hardship she experienced into the American myth of stoicism, a romantic idealism of poverty and the ethos of individualism. We see the contradictions in her strength, perseverance and grit as a woman to aggressively pursue survival without debt with her belief that women belonged at home and in the kitchen. We also see the influence of her cultural times when we use today’s lens to identify the racist language and stereotypes in her books.

Prairie Fires, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, reviewed by Bev Scott

Farmer at the plow, “breaking” prairie sod.

Fraser not only writes a detailed story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life and the historical times in which she lived, but she also chronicles the life of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Lane was Wilder’s editor, instructor and guide who revised and rewrote her work frequently without either of them acknowledging Rose’s contribution. Rose had no compunction to expanding the truth and including creative additions to the story that never happened. Wilder apparently saw nothing wrong with Rose’s fictional reporting. Neither of them heeded the strict standards that emerged at the time from the journalism school at the University of Missouri. Wilder accepted Lane’s practice of merging truth and fiction, publicly claiming that her books were true when at least some of the story was fiction.

Prairie Fires is a detailed, carefully crafted historical work. Fraser places the life of Wilder in the cultural context of the events on the American Plains of the nineteenth century and social forces and seismic shifts of the first half of the twentieth century. These events and social forces molded and shaped Wilder’s voice and philosophy which are embedded in the Little House stories. This cultural context helps us understand their enormous influence. Despite my frustration of so much attention given to Rose Wilder Lane, I highly recommend this book.

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History vs. Genealogy vs. Historical Fiction

“History and genealogy…are two radically divergent views on the past.  The first says ‘This matters.’ The second says, ‘This matters to me.'”  John Sedgwick in the New York Times

History, Genealogy, Historical Fiction

Historians such as John Sedgwick tend to scoff at genealogists’ efforts to track down their ancestors by pouring over demographic records and old newspapers, using on-line services to trace family connections or spitting into DNA collection tubes. Historians have a “so what?” attitude. Until, as Sedgwick reports, he learned that an ancestor of his, was involved in a historic event for the Cherokee Nation. Then the civil war which erupted over the issue of the Cherokee Nation’s removal to the Oklahoma Territory became not just something that mattered historically but something that mattered to Sedgwick personally.

Writers of historical fiction see an obligation to present their stories in an accurate historical context and frequently do extensive research to learn the accurate details, scenes and key events of the historical time. Having done this extensive research, writers become engaged and committed to the historical context of their story. This sometimes tempts them to provide several pages of historical description and background which fascinates them but which tends to bore the reader. Historical fiction writers, then must continuously ask the question, “Does this background matter to my story?”

Here is an example of a slice of history that mattered in the pioneer West, mattered in the search for information about my grandfather and mattered in the development of my story.

Mattered to Me

As a lover of history, an amateur genealogist and a writer of historical fiction, I find these questions of “what matters” intriguing. In my genealogical research looking for information about my shadowy grandfather, I was searching for potential reasons why he might have abandoned his wife and family and where he might have gone. I hoped that information might give me clues about where I might find him in the public records. What mattered to me was finding places to look in public records in Texas; information about the “overland outfit” he worked for in the Dodge City area and how he might have ended up in Wyoming to marry my grandmother.

Historic scene, hand loom

Mattered to the Story

Unfortunately, I did not find my grandfather in the public records during a period of thirteen years. I could not find information to help me understand his disappearance nor how he got to Wyoming to marry my grandmother. I decided to write the story as fiction. I would need to creatively develop the story of my grandfather’s disappearance. I had a hypothesis that he joined a cattle drive and headed north from Texas based on clues in a deposition in which he said he “worked cattle.” Using that hypothesis, I researched the social and economic events of the longhorn cattle drives from Texas to Dodge City. What mattered to my story then were the perils of the cattle drive and the lawless character of Dodge City . Yet neither of these events had mattered to me in my genealogy research.

Mattered in History

In the history of the West, the cowboys leading cattle drives north and the lawlessness of Dodge City were infamous for a short period of time. They mattered in the history of settling the West, but they were soon diminished by the impact of the settlers claiming free land, often called “nesters,” cattle quarantines and the civilizing influence of families and women. These events historically had a much larger impact in the settlement of the west and really didn’t matter to me in my genealogy pursuit or in writing my historical novel.

Sedgwick says that as a historian he couldn’t take the story past the facts but as a genealogist he could imagine the feelings and physical encounters expressed in the conflict he describes. In my own experience, both the events of history and the documented facts of births, deaths and census rolls of genealogy are fact based. I found the facts are without the emotions of fear, sadness, frustration and joy or the insight from learning the motivation for abandoning a wife and family. Imagining emotions, motivations and creating dialogue makes a story more engaging to the reader looking for opportunities to understand history and identify with characters who made a difference in their time. It has been both a way to learn more history and to identify and understand my ancestors.

Exploring an example from my novel, Sarah’s Secret shows how history, genealogy and historical fiction are intertwined. I needed to use ideas from all three.

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30 May
2018
Posted in: Book Reviews
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Book Review: “The Black Rose” by Tananarive Due

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Black RoseThe Black Rose, by Tananarive Due. is based on the truly inspirational story of Sarah Breedlove Walker, Madam C. J. Walker. She was born in 1867 on a plantation to slave parents who died from yellow fever, “Yellow Jack,” when she was about eight years old. From abject poverty, unable to read but with drive and belief in herself Sarah Breedlove overcame incredible odds. She lost her first husband who was beaten to death by a mob. Then, she worked long hours to establish a successful laundry business only to be humiliated by a white client who found flecks of blood on the white table cloth Sarah had washed. She searched for a solution to her itchy dandruff scalp, the source of the blood flecks, but the existing products did not help. Experimenting with different concoctions in her kitchen, she successfully created a new formula that worked.

After she met C. J. Walker, an advertising wiz, she established a successful hair-care products business and hair schools for women using the Walker method. She was driven by her belief that her mission was to help African Americans to improve themselves and become self-sufficient. Her passion, tenacity and dedication contributed not only to her success, but also to her denial of the risks to her health and to the estrangement of C. J. and her daughter, Lelia.

Tananarive Due has done excellent work in turning a project initially begun by Alex Haley, who became fascinated by Madam C. J. Walker and had begun research for a major novel, into a fascinating and engaging story. She has created a vivid historical narrative of Madam Walker’s life. Although fiction, the book provides an inspiring portrait of America’s first black female millionaire, philanthropist and amazing pioneer.

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