A Necessary Inspiration

By Marsha Nash Sultz

Sometimes inspiration sneaks up behind you and whispers in your ear. Sometimes it knocks you over the head with great vigor. In my case, frustration once drove me to create a solution for the unknowable.

Years ago, I was interested in family genealogy to the point of obsession. Where did I come from? Whose genetic oomph propelled me to become me? I was hip-deep in Ancestry.com when I discovered that my great-grandfather’s information ended abruptly. He was born during the Civil War in a small town in Tennessee and raised as an orphan. The courthouse records, and the courthouse, were destroyed by the townspeople to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Yankees. 

What? Who destroys their own records? 

After searching to no avail for another month I sat back, dumbfounded and upset. I wanted to know the beginning of Great-Grandpa Sam’s life. The only thing I knew from my Aunt Margie was that he was a sweet man, an orphan who was raised by neighbors. That wasn’t enough for me.

What does a writer do when confronted with a bad ending? She writes a new one.

I took the bare bones of setting, time period and characters and created my own small town, Benson’s Furnace, Tennessee. I led with a skirmish set during the Civil War in which a wounded Confederate captain is forced to remain behind, in secret. What ensues is forbidden love, betrayal and misunderstanding between certain female citizens of the town and our Captain. Twenty-five years later, he decides to return to Benson’s Furnace to atone for his past behavior.

My story becomes a saga of Southern post-war life in a small town where no one wants to talk about the past. Unfortunately, the captain’s appearance brings up memories of southern defeat and shame and the unthought-of parentage of Sam, an unintended result of the captain’s liaison with the wrong woman.

This story is wildly different from Sam’s real life. He married a local girl, fathered three children and moved to West Tennessee to become a cotton farmer. 

Do I owe Sam the truth? Did my imagination bend reality to the point of denying the existence of an authentic life? 

I can’t help but think that I’ve improved the story while paying tribute to a relative whose history remains a blank in the record book. As they say in bad detective movies, names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Besides, everyone needs a satisfying ending – to a story, to a novel or to a life.

Threads of DNA

By Janice McCaffrey

I’ve been a genealogist for over forty-years. When I began there were no computers. I wrote letters to government registries, cemetery offices, and church personnel asking for help. Even enclosing the SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) didn’t guarantee a reply.

With the onset of online digitized records, books, family trees, and photos, I felt like a kid in a candy store. And most of the goodies were free!

Then Genealogical DNA testing came into vogue. First I had my son send his saliva off for three tests: 1) his ethnicity 2) his fathers, fathers, fathers DNA matches and 3) his mothers, mothers, mothers DNA matches. Years later I sent my own sample to a different organization. I like to imagine how my ancestors might have lived through the centuries.

Long before the DNA results I’d learned that there is no royal blood coursing through my veins. My ancestors were hard working farmers and tradesman (blacksmiths, weavers, saddle & harness makers, teachers, telegraph clerk, and prison turnkey). They migrated from the United Kingdom to Canada and eventually my father to the US moving to better lives. But, yes, we had bastards born out of wedlock, alcoholics, gamblers who lost fortunes, and some say insanity (though not proven).

A couple years ago my daughter and I visited Marseille France. The first day we strolled along the rampart of Fort Saint Jean beside the vibrant blue and green hues of the Mediterranean Sea. IMAG0457We stayed in Panier, the mysteriously ancient looking Old Town, and soaked up its ambiance. Then riding in a rental car keeping up with speeding traffic I caught a second’s image of a handsome bearded man standing on the sidewalk laughing with friends. He wore the traditional Moroccan jabador—mid-calf, off-white, cotton tunic worn over baggy trousers—and Muslim taqiyah cap.

I fell in love!

And a story began to weave itself through my brain. My protagonist, Madge a sixty-something widow, visits Marseille and finds herself on a quest. She must travel back in time to 12 century BC Lebanon to save the Phoenician civilization from the marauding Sea Peoples (see Ancient History Encyclopedia online for historic background).

Every few weeks I check my DNA results because people’s names are added as new DNA results match mine and as the organization’s DNA bank grows they tweak individual ethnicity reports.  Recently I noticed that my ethnicity percentages had been recalculated a smidgen. Geographic areas are listed with descriptions of its peoples and their migrations. The West Middle East region had been added to my report. I clicked on it and read the history. At first I sat silent—in awe.

Then in delight—I laughed out loud.

Traces of the ancient DNA I proudly carry match Phoenician remains. Threads of my DNA are telling me stories to share.

 

Hope & Joy in a Classic Tale

By Janice McCaffrey      a christmas carol

While pondering the upcoming holidays my stream of consciousness meandered over past memories and future dreams. A few quiet moments of reflection led of course to Dickens’ ghosts.  My favorite version is The Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine.

I love the little mice bookkeepers working dutifully and diligently in the cold office under the supervision of the kind-hearted Bob Cratchit performed by Kermit. Best of all though is the interplay between Rizzo the Rat acting as sidekick to Gonzo while he narrates the story as Charles Dickens himself.

My thoughts bumped over the moral of the story and what it means in today’s world. I got stuck on ‘don’t be stingy’ but wanted more. So what else is Dickens telling us?

On enotes.com’s website where they proclaim “We’re the Literature Experts” I found an article by Christian Themes (literary essentials: Christian fiction and nonfiction) titled     A Christmas Carol Themes. Let me paraphrase:

Scrooge’s initial penny-pinching reflects the values taking hold during the Industrial Revolution. Dickens illustrates what happens when individuals view relationships and other people through their financial worth. The author exposes the tremendous gap between the rich and the poor.

Then he illustrates a solution, individual redemption. The world becomes a better place almost immediately after Scrooge changes his outlook. The story implies that a renewed connection to humanity is, in fact, the very essence of redemption. His change is not introspective and personal; it is outward-looking and social.

While the results of Scrooge’s change didn’t alter the social structure itself, the compassion he showed to individual people did change the social relationships they shared. Despair turned to hope. isolation to belonging, and unhappiness to joy.

Wow! And I thought it was just fun to watch.

Yes, it’s a Christian based tale, but certainly can be applied to all of us no matter our beliefs. Let’s follow Scrooge’s example, enhance our relationships, and join Tiny Tim in his prayer.

tiny tim 2

 

“God bless us, every one!”

 

Besides Having More Money: The Rich in Fiction

By Karen Wills

There’s a famous, though perhaps apocryphal, exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald says, “You know, the rich are different from you and me.” Hemingway responds, “Yes. They’ve got more money.”

I’ve been pondering wealth and its effects and just how authors have depicted very rich characters in fiction. Pat Barker’s novel, The Silence of the Girls, silence of the girlsis set during the Trojan Wars with characters out of Homer’s Iliad. One of her characters, Agamemnon, is a nasty, boundary-ignoring king who never learned to share. He possesses vast wealth and vast power. He takes Briseis, a high-born captive woman awarded by the army to Achilles, away from him. He is brutal to Briseis, lacks honor in his dealings with Achilles, mistreats the powerless, and lies to his soldiers. But he pays a price in his greatest hero Achilles’ refusal to fight,  the scorn of his Greek officers, and the costs of prolonged war. Although we don’t see it in Barker’s story, which centers on Briseis, Agamemnon comes to a bad end in spite of all his gold, concubines, and power when he returns home to his wife.

Move ahead to Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, in which a plain governess discovers that the wealthy, brooding, yet attractive master of the mansion has a mad wife kept in the attic. It appears to Jane that our tortured hero is an innocent victim of fate. jane eyreBut wait, in the sixties another British author, Jean Rhys, started puzzling over the madwoman. The result was a new novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea. Since reading it neither I, nor many others, have been able to see Mr. Rochester as anything but a money and power-hungry monster. His naïve first bride loses freedom, fortune, and sanity at the hands of this now rich and powerful villain. He even eventually gains smart, loving, caring Jane as his wife. But before that, the madwoman/victim inflicts some serious damage of her own.

Now back to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, that story of wealthy scofflaws pursuing an amoral version of the American Dream. I’ll focus on Tom Buchanan, great gatsbyborn into the upper class with an ego-fed sense of entitlement and an Agamemnon-like disdain for those less privileged. When Tom’s wife commits a hit and run, he buys them out of trouble that threatens to upset their lives. As the story ends, fate hasn’t seemed to exact a price for his corruption and carelessness with the lives of others. But I take comfort in the fact that The Great Gatsby was written and set in the mid-twenties. We all know what happened at the end of that decade.

These three characters, arrogant and immoral, are three different authors’ depictions of the very rich, written and set in three different time periods. They tend to be villains and authors find them useful antagonists. I’ve been trying to think of any wealthy character who challenges these recurring character types.

Can you think of any?

river with no bridge

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What Our Characters Keep

By  Karen Wills

“All these items you’re safeguarding are, in essence, the relics of your life’s defining moments.”                   Chip and Dan Heath, The Power of Moments

Authors can depict and clarify fictional characters by their keepsakes. Sometimes such objects are discovered and loved in a protagonist’s childhood because they’re connected to influential adults.

overstoryIn Richard Powers’, The Overstory, Nick Hoel, destined to become an artist, is fascinated by a series of photographs taken every month since 1903 of the sentinel chestnut on his family’s farm in Iowa. He keeps the stack of photos intact throughout his life which becomes as singular as the chestnut itself. The tree and the photographs ultimately shape Nick—his values, his devotion to one woman, and his fate.

In another of my favorite novels, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, gentleman in moscowthe aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced during the Russian Revolution to life under house arrest in the Metropol, Moscow’s most luxurious hotel. Moved to a cramped attic room, he must choose only a few possessions to take with him. One choice is a portrait of his deceased younger sister, Helena. He loved her, and her portrait also evokes memories of Idlehour, his family’s country estate. He associates the painting with his idyllic boyhood as part of a refined, privileged, and noble family. The siblings’ history shows the foolishness and sometimes cruelty of the old life as well. Both Helena and Idlehour are part of the beloved lost past. But our charming Count might still have a most surprising future.

In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, thirteen-year-old Theo rescues a precious painting following a terrorist attack on the museum where the work by the Dutch master Fabritius is part of an exhibit. The attack leaves Theo’s mother dead. He carries the little painting with him for years, never revealing that he has it. Its beauty sustains him through grief, loneliness, and one of the most interesting friendships ever created by an author. At the novel’s end, he ponders everything that has happened, and realizes that he kept the painting first and foremost because it is so touching and exquisite.

goldfinchHe thinks, “And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them…while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”

What our characters choose to keep safe can help define them. If we accept that a bit of ourselves exists in each of our characters, perhaps their keepsakes help define us, too.

river with no bridge

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