Tag Archives: historic fiction

Civil War not Watergate

I was pawing through boxes of historic fiction at the Schenectady Library book sale not long ago, when one of the volunteers sidled up to me and said, “This one’s really good.”  Of course I bought it.

(Don’t you love volunteers? Better yet, volunteers that read? I suppose I don’t need to tell you that she was grey-haired, shorter than me, and about ten years older?)

“My Name is Mary Sutter” by Robin Oliveira* tracks the experiences of a headstrong midwife from Albany who volunteers as a nurse in Washington during the Civil War. Not only was it a good read (a downright page turner, in fact), the novel also offered a provocative model for my own writing.

Oliveira manages to include tons of vivid historic detail without ever letting the story falter. I learned so much about medical training/procedures of the era, the war, the physical state of the capital at that time, and the limiting expectations foisted upon women in the mid-nineteenth century. Even so, the story and the characters drove the narrative, start to finish. I couldn’t put it down.

Hospital wards for the wounded are a grim landscape, of course, and Oliveira does not spare us. There are descriptions of grotesque amputations, filth, fever, and the suffering caused by inadequate supplies and staff. The sense of national loss is overwhelming. Personally, Mary Sutter suffers one loss after another herself and is tormented by the notion that she has her ambition to blame.

Though unrelentingly dark, the themes of forgiveness and redemption also run through these pages. It’s a tale of striving, grief, and resilience — on both personal and national levels.

I didn’t expect to find relevant political wisdom within, but did.


These words take my breath away. Not surprisingly, they describe Lincoln’s sense of urgency in a moment of crisis — his awareness of how much was at stake.

“A country’s imminent failure should
rouse even the stars to fainting.”

Wow.  They have stayed with me for days.

I’d like to tattoo them on Nancy Pelosi’s forehead. Or, email them to the Newton City Council, which seems poised to shoot down a House Resolution on Impeachment at a hearing tomorrow for various lame reasons.

The quote wakes me up to the fact that the Civil War is a far better historic reference for our current catastrophic government than Watergate. Then as now, it is not at all clear that we will survive as a nation.

Enough!

 

Afternotes: 
More about the local impeachment resolution on my Tumblr blog here.

*The author describes the fascinating genesis of the novel and her research here.

The B&W photo is mine from Climate Science March, Boston, 2017

Feedback on chapter five

Yesterday was my day to get feedback on some manuscript pages. Much was very positive (always nice to hear) — the prose was “vivid” “raw,” “transporting,” with credible characters. The rapes described: ‘disturbing without being gratuitous’ (but would they have used the word ‘rape’? –  good question).

The more critical feedback addressed some of the ongoing difficulties. These difficulties are listed below in no particular order:

1). It’s my first attempt at writing a novel. 2). There’ve been some ongoing (sometimes heartbreaking) caretaking responsibilities during these same years. 3). Voice. Voice. Voice. 4). Race. Race. Race. 5). Tempo (is this section too interior? have I spent too much time describing the light?)

Voice goes to research and it goes to structure and it goes to race (including but not limited to problems of cultural appropriation) and it may be the single biggest ongoing challenge I face. If I ever dump the project (and believe me, I consider it often), this will be the reason.

To put it another way:  How, as a white suburban Yankee in the 2000’s, do I craft a southern landscape with authentic (or at least not mortally offensive) white and black characters set in the mid-eighteenth century? 

I chose to tell the Eliza Lucas Pinckney chapters in first person and the bondwomen sections in third person close. I didn’t think I could pull off first person for the enslaved characters, a decision that seems alternately respectful and cowardly. Even third person close is very very hard. Until a professional asks me to revisit these two overarching decisions, I’m sticking with them.

But, can I rethink the complete absence of an omniscient narrator? Not having one means that historic conditions have to be explained vis-a-vis the characters. It can be cumbersome. Plus, I’m denied any opportunity to make modern observations about human bondage (which, in the thick of things, believe me, I do really want to make).

Some historic junk I’ve assimilated so thoroughly that it flows into the narrative easily and then the issue is — does my reader understand what I’m talking about? (what’s a ‘factor’? is a ‘Guinea’ a ship? why say ‘rigger’ when ‘sailor’ would do? I know what a ‘mulatto’ is, but what’s a ‘quadroon’?) Other times, the insertion of historic detail is clunky and it’s hard to tell if it’s essential to the story or something better left out.

“working in the brakes… certain winds over Barbados brought the smell of a slaver long before its sail appeared on the horizon… Noah was a quadroon… the cutter monkeyed to the ground, hand still clutching the machete”

Anyway, when the idea was floated to allow myself the occasional insertion of an omniscient narrator, I was very open to it. And, guess what? I’ve been hearing this new voice talk all day and it’s not at all who I expected (i.e., white, female academic). Instead, he’s a sly and humorous bondman. I suspect his forceful commentary will ‘lay some learnin’ on me way before he does on you. I don’t think he’ll get a name. We’ll see. I’ve also kept the Barbadian cane grower who rapes one of my main characters (Sally aka Melody) nameless.

Tomorrow: how what I learned about accountability at the Organizing on (Safety) Pins and Needles anti-racism training on Wednesday applies to manuscript feedback.

(Note next day: Nope. Can’t go there yet).

Photographs were taken February 2017, at MacLeod Plantation on James Island.