A bit of a loaded word, isn’t it? But a label that American anti-slavery activists would have felt entirely comfortable with, in the first half of the 19th century. Such was the knowledge that taking up the cross of a cause could be hazardous, indeed – but the fight was for the right, and the eventual prize was worth it and more; the promise that every man (and by implication, every woman as well) had a right to be free. Not a slave, as comfortable as that situation might be to individuals – but to be free, answering only to ones’ conscience, as was expressed in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, never mind that one might have varying degrees of success in that pursuit – one had the right to decide how to go about it, in whatever method and manner than one chose. One had the right to not be property, as if an ox or a horse.
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So this is what I get for being a ‘seat of the pants’ plotter – having to set aside some really nice scenes and conversations, just because my research into the time-line of the movement to abolish slavery in America in the decades before the Civil War suggested that my lead character would be coming really late to the party, in developing serious abolition sympathies if I started in the year that I tagged for the first draft. Miss Minnie Vining, blue-stocking Boston intellectual, abolition lecturer and war nurse (as was suggested in Sunset & Steel Rails) would rightfully have been marinated in abolition sympathies from about the 1830ies on. Having an epiphany and coming to the abolitionist fray in the mid-1850ies would have been … not quite credible. In other words, very late to the party … so I had to adjust that epiphany back about fifteen years, which meant going back and tweaking certain details to make everything fit. Ages of characters, even the existence of a character, development of technologies, topics of conversation to do with current events – like before the Mexican-American War, instead of after, way before the Gold Rush, instead of after, ascertaining that certain developments were in place … (note to self – Richmond-Fredericksburg Railway; check on that, too…)

All this plot points also must jibe with what I had briefly about the Boston Vinings mentioned in Sunset and Steel Rails, and in Daughter of Texas and Deep in the Heart also. This is a hazard of ‘pantsing’ background elements – of throwing in relatively unconsidered details for a bit of color and corroborative detail – and then after having to make a well-developed narrative out of those casually-mentioned little scraps. I did not sit down and write the Texas Barsetshire series chronologically from earliest (1825) to the latest (1900, with brief afterwards set in 1918), mapping out the lives of each and every character, nor did I particularly plan to have minor characters in one book take front and center later on in another. The Texas Barsetshire novels grew organically – from the middle, and in both directions, backwards and forwards in time – starting with the two German emigrant families (the Steinmetz/Richter) and the American-established Becker families. The Vinings – both the Boston and the Texas branches were grafted on later, when I needed to establish the marital woes of Margaret Becker. And now this latest WIP means that I have to expand on the Boston Vinings, along with lashings of materiel leading up to the Civil War … and keeping in mind that the next book after that, which is just now beginning to take shape, will reach back to the Revolution, and the doings of the Boston Vinings and a young Hessian soldier named Heinrich Becker …

Yes, it would be sensible to write it all in chronological order – but it’s much more fun this way. Complicated, but fun!

18. September 2019 · Comments Off · Categories: Geekery, Literary Good Stuff, Local

This last weekend was the start of the fall book market season; I spent three days in Giddings, Texas, as one of the local authors invited to participate in the yearly Word Wrangler Book Festival – which is sponsored by the local library, and supported by practically every civic institution in Giddings, including the local elementary and high schools. Last Thursday, the first day of Word Wrangler, certain of us authors volunteered to go and visit schools for readings, or to just talk about writing. This year, I visited three middle-school classes, to talk to sixth graders about writing, the stories that they liked, and what they could write about. I like doing this with fifth and sixth grade students, by the way – they are old enough to read pretty well, but not so old as to be jaded by the whole ‘visiting writer/storyteller’ thing. The kids were lively and responsive; it helps that they were being taught about plotting, about the narrative voice, and how to create a story. In each class of about twenty or thirty kids, I would guess that two or three are terrifically keen on creative writing, another eight or ten are interested, and the remainder are not completely indifferent. I went around and asked each student what they liked to read the most; adventure stories seemed to be most popular, followed by mysteries. Two boys in separate classes were enthralled by World War II stories. Horror and fantasy seemed to be about equally popular; and there was one girl with quite gruesome taste in exotic forms of murder. Well, it takes all kinds, and I am not her analyst; she’ll most likely grow out of it, once puberty really takes hold …
Then I went around again, asking each one what they would write about; what story would they want to sit down and write. For those who couldn’t think of one, I gave them a character and a situation, and encouraged them to go to town. And one more thing I told them – it is perfectly OK for a writer starting out to venture into scribbling fanfiction. You like a certain movie, book, TV series, videogame, are interested in that world and those characters? Take the characters you really like or identify with and write them a new set of adventures in that fictional world. Saves the time and trouble of building a whole new world from scratch … and isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery? Go and do it; practically every writer I know did the same. I certainly did; and the reams of juvenilia is something to eventually be consigned to the shredder by my literary executor. Just be careful when unleashing revised fanfiction into the world – chose the venue carefully and file off all the identifying serial numbers. Otherwise, it’s excellent practice, I told the kids; the literary equivalent of training wheels when learning to ride a bicycle.
I’ve been publishing independently since 2007; the first big wave of independent writers, although there were a small number of specialists in the decades before that. There were always writers publishing their works in a small way, mostly through arranging a print run with a local printer and bookbinder, but that method usually cost more money than was available to those of us in that big wave in the mid ‘Oughts’. The development of publish on demand, the ability of printers to do small print runs at a reasonable cost, the rise of Amazon, the popularity of eReaders, and the disinclination of the establishment publishing houses to continue backing midlist authors while pursuing only huge blockbusters … that all left the field wide open to indy writers like the ones I spent last weekend with. It astounded me all over again how very good, and professional the books at Word Wrangler looked. The covers of most books – and they covered the range of kids’ books through adult fiction; adventure, mystery, western, historical – all looked as good as anything produced by mainstream publishers. There is such a wealth of good reading available, through independent and small publishers, and readers in places like Giddings know it very, very well,

08. August 2019 · Comments Off · Categories: History, Literary Good Stuff

(Miss Minnie Vining, spinster of Boston, is visiting relatives in Richmond, Virginia – and acting as a chaperone for her very much younger cousin, who is being courted by none other than the very raffish Pres Devereaux. On an excursion out into the countryside to look at the summer wildflowers, they are involved in a dreadful carriage accident.)

She couldn’t breathe. All the air was sent from her lungs by the force of that fall over the side of Mr. Devereaux’s Tilbury gig. A constellation of exploding stars blotted out the sky overhead, and Minnie felt herself suspended between not being able to draw a breath and a white-hot agony exploding up to her shoulder and down to her hand, and from her head, which had struck the road with cruel force. Somewhere, a woman was crying out in alarm. She sounded very young, panicky – Minnie felt herself lifted, as limp and powerless as a rag doll in the grip of something. She couldn’t think, only felt – and what she felt was pain, pain and more pain.
“Miss Minnie! Wake up, open your eyes – speak to me!” a voice begged – a somehow familiar voice. A man. Authoritative … and for some curious reason, frantic in concern.
Minnie obeyed the command to open her eyes, although her sight was somewhat baffled by … oh, yes, the brim of her bonnet, now crushed and disarranged, and a flood of something sticky and warm on her face, wetting the collar of her dress. And this was the countenance of … oh, yes – she fished in her dis-jangled memory for a name. Mr. Devereaux, the handsome and raffish adventurer … presently courting the very young Charlotte Edmonds.
Yes. She was supposed to have been their watchful chaperone.
Minnie struggled to recall – yes, an aggravating and contrary man, a whirligig of opinions posed for nothing more than to harass and torment … but he … he was a man … and Minnie fished for knowledge and insight in her present torment.
A man who waged a war on a chessboard and was the most gallant when losing to a mere woman.
“She’s bleeding so awfully!” the younger voice exclaimed in horror – Charlotte; yes, that was Charlotte, daubing ineffectually at Minnie’s forehead with a dainty handkerchief smeared horribly red. Mr. Devereaux replied,
“Her head struck a large rock on the ground, I believe – and it is well known that such injuries always bleed out of all proportion … Miss Minnie, please speak to us!”
“Wha … h’ppened?” Minnie stumbled over the words. It hurt to speak.
“A runaway team, on the road!” Charlotte exclaimed. “The driver could not control them – he had fallen from the wagon, and the wagon struck Mr. Devereaux’s gig … they kept on going! And now the wheel is utterly smashed! What are we to do, Mr. Devereaux? What are we to do, since we are all this way from town? Surely, Cousin Minnie needs a doctor at once!” More »

It was not part of their blood,
It came to them very late,
With long arrears to make good,
When the Saxon began to hate.

I have often jokingly wished that some kind of secret sign existed, like a Masonic emblem or peculiar handshake by which those of us conservatives who do not go about openly advertising our political affiliations to all and sundry might discretely identify a kindred spirit. Those of us in the real world have friends, neighbors, and co-workers who range across the political spectrum; Traditional good manners and consideration for those who didn’t share your beliefs once dictated a degree of ambiguity regarding political leanings, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs. This sense of discretion owed more to conventional good manners rather than cowardice, although a disinclination about being bashed about the head by a member of the Klantifa, harassed out of a restaurant, or a Twitter campaign to get one fired from employment are lately a very real possibility as a result of overtly advertising ones’ conservative sympathies.
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02. July 2019 · Comments Off · Categories: Literary Good Stuff

(Miss Minnie Vining is about to venture into the district in old Richmond where the slave markets were held, accompanied by Elizabeth Van Lew, and a pair of male cousins who are friends of the family she is visiting: Captain Shaw, and Preston Devereaux, who has promised Miss Van Lew that he will purchase two slaves for her … slaves that Miss Van Lew will free. Much discussion of the “peculiar institution” ensues.)

The carriage arrived before the Edmonds’ door just before the hour of nine. Annabelle, waiting with Minnie in the front parlor made one last attempt to dissuade her from the excursion.
“It might be dangerous!” she insisted. “You heard what Cousin Peter said – about being recognized as being of abolitionist sympathies, among those whose livelihood depends on perpetuating the peculiar institution.”
“I have no apprehensions, ‘Belle,” Minnie replied. “We will be accompanied by a gallant soldier, and a gentleman who recently returned from the California gold mines; I am certain that both Captain Shaw and Mr. Devereaux have faced such dangers as would make a set of slave-driving ruffians a mere annoyance in comparison.” Outside in the street, the sound of carriage wheels carried to her ears. “I believe that will be the coach … if we do not return for dinner at midday, make my excuses to Susan, dear.”
“Is there nothing I can say?” Annabelle dropped her embroidery hoop into her lap and clasped her hands together. “Nothing to make you consider turning aside from this course?”
“No, nothing,” Minnie gathered up her reticule and tied the strings of her mantle at her throat, as she heard voices at the door – Susan’s housemaid, and that of Captain Shaw. “Not once my mind is set on a course which I have determined.”
“Be most careful,” Annabelle whispered – or that was what Minnie thought she heard, as she left the parlor. Outside, an elegant dark-grey berline carriage awaited, drawn by a pair of matched, dapple-grey horses, whose reins lay in the hands of a coachman – another black slave, in a fine dark grey coat and starched white stock, the elegance of whose attire rivaled that of Captain Shaw himself.
“Miss Vining! Good morning!” Captain Shaw took her arm, going down the steps. “You know, this is not considered an acceptable outing for a lady… But Pres insisted, and he’s a hard man to gainsay.”
“I have been assured of this, solo and in chorus,” Minnie replied, with some asperity. “But I will not be deterred!”
“No, I was afraid not,” Captain Shaw sighed, as he assisted her to step from the ground, onto the narrow carriage step. “You and Miss Van Lew are of a kind, I perceive. I should warn you, though – ladies do not generally attend the auctions. You see … umm … it is the practice among prospective buyers, to assure themselves of the health and fitness of a male slave they are interested in … that they remove their garments, in order that their bodies may be closely inspected.”
“Good heavens!” Minnie exclaimed. “Surely they do not require that of females in public! Why, that is barbaric!”
Preston Devereaux took her other hand, with a mocking grin, and settled her onto the seat next to Miss Van Lew, observing, “Barbarism is in the eye of the beholder, Miss Vining – as I have good reason to know.”
“Not … in that portion of the auction,” Captain Shaw replied, and Minnie could have sworn that the man’s countenance reddened – but that was in the relative dimness of the carriage interior. Captain Shaw tapped on the glass of the window nearest the driver’s perch, and the berline lurched away from the Edmonds’ front door. “But – it is my understanding that such is required now and again, in … a private viewing of the … um… merchandise. Well before the auction and bidding begins.”
“Of a high-yellow fancy, most usually,” Mr. Devereaux, suave as ever. Minnie would be willing to swear that the gentlemen were as determined to discourage herself and Miss Van Lew from the proposed excursion, only that they had chosen a more subtle means of going about it. The carriage rocked gently, as the black coachman in elegant livery clucked to the horses.
From the corner of the closed carriage, Miss Van Lew remarked, as if making a note of the weather, “That would be a woman with a bare minimum of African blood, Miss Vining. Such is the tendency for owners of female slaves to engage in congress upon their bodies. After generations of such conduct … one cannot really tell free from slave. It requires the judgement of a veritable Solomon to tell the difference between a free white woman and a black slave.”
“I see,” Minnie retorted, although she didn’t … not entirely. But untried waters were to be ventured upon, and hopefully without fear or favor. “I perceive that you gentleman both have experience with the matter of holding Negroes in the condition of bondage. I suppose that you both hold slaves.”
“We do,” Captain Shaw admitted, through suddenly thinned lips. “But I can assure you that we treat our people well and fairly. None of Marylebone Hill’s people have ever been sold down the river, not in my lifetime or that of my father.”
“My own family, alas, does not own as many slaves as formerly,” Pres Deveraux admitted, with an exaggeratedly tragic sigh. “The reversals of the cotton trade made it necessary that we dispense of the excess in recent years; they will multiply naturally, you know. Conditions over the last few years were desperately unfavorable for Deveraux crops – insufficient income to support the family and our dependents at the current market price of cotton and tobacco. Do not look so horrified, Miss Van Lew, Miss Vining – our agent arranged private sales, and specified stringently that families would be sold entire, and only to purchasers of whom he approved. Otherwise – what are we to do? In the North, one may merely fire workers superfluous to momentary needs, and one is relieved of all further responsibility for their welfare. Is that not a cruelty, according to your Christian lights? Are we not our brothers’ keeper, after all?”
“But free men possess the inalienable right to order their own lives,” Minnie retorted. “To work at whatever they chose, to travel where they will without hinderance, to contract marriage to a woman of their own choosing …”
“To starve in a gutter, if that is their choice,” Pres Devereaux agreed, smoothly. “Without any notice being taken of their situation. Is it not kinder, Miss Minerva – in the situation of a lesser breed, when sick or old, no longer able to work – to be taken care of? Housed, clothed, fed, to have the attention of a doctor when ill? It is a great responsibility, even greater than that of being a father with children. Children grow up and take charge of their own lives, eventually – but the responsibility for your field hands and house slaves never, ever ends.”
“I admit of no fair comparison,” Minnie was indignant. “Between a slave, subject to the whims of an owner, and the condition of a free man or woman. We are God’s creatures, of His creation, every one of us – and no matter what our native capabilities may be, all deserve that freedom.”
“The African race are like children,” Pres Devereaux spoke with infinite patience – nearly as irritating to Minnie as open condescension would have been. “Would you allow a small child do as they wish, in every respect? That would be careless, irresponsible, unfitting…”
“Mr. Devereaux is provoking you deliberately, Miss Vining,” Miss Van Lew interjected. “Did I not warn you yesterday of his habit of being a dancing whirligig, assuming attitudes merely to tease and provoke?”
“You did, indeed, Miss Van Lew,” Minnie replied, and scowled behind her veil at Mr. Devereaux. The berline, meanwhile, had left behind the relatively smooth streets of Church Hill, and descended into more crowded – and therefore more rutted and pot-holed thoroughfares closer to the river. Minnie craned her neck, at the familiar shriek of a locomotive steam whistle – yes, they were passing very close to the railway lines which threaded Richmond like a ragged spider-web. Here was the hubble-bubble of commerce, of loud voices, the grinding of cartwheels and cracking whips. Over it all floated a distant vision of the white-pillared state capitol building, a classic Roman temple set in a grove of young trees, floating above it all like a white-sails of a distant ship, above a vista of common warehouses, narrow side lanes and a tumbled wasteland piled with trash threaded through by a muddy stream.
“I told Rufus to take us past Lumpkin’s, first,” Captain Shaw murmured to Mr. Devereaux, who absently stroked his narrow mustache, as he nodded in agreement with this itinerary.
“Ah, yes,” he continued pleasantly to Minnie. “Robert Lumpkin – keeper of the most notorious slave-jail in Richmond, familiarly called ‘The Devils’ Half-Acre.’ A man equally notorious for his riches accumulated in his chosen trade as for the brutality he exercises in the conduct of it. Low breeding; such always shows. Although, he has made his slave concubine his legal wife, for what that might be worth, socially.”
“The peculiar institution encompasses curious complications, on occasion,” Captain Shaw murmured.
There was an uncomfortable silence in the coach as the coach continued on, down a rough and rutted alley; Miss Van Lew silent behind her veil, and Captain Shaw looking out from his side of the coach as if he wished to be anywhere else but here. Only Pres Devereaux appeared to relish the company and the occasion. Really, what an appalling man! Minnie thought to herself. And Susan wishes to match hers’ and My-Dear-Ambrose’s Charlotte with him as a husband!
“Ah, yes, there it is; that fortress with a stout wall all the way around.” Pres Devereaux announced, cheery as a cricket with a happy song. “Not as scenic as the Tower of London, or as romantic as the prison of Chillon in Lord Byron’s cheery ditty, is it, ladies?”
Minnie could hardly bear to look upon such a scene of misery: yes, a stout plank wall, encompassing a foot-trampled yard with a single rambling brick building within, farther down the sloping hillside. Iron bars set into every window made it plain that it housed prisoners. Three other buildings stood somewhat closer to the rutted lane in which the berline had paused; buildings which had a look of domesticity about them, especially since there were no bars in the windows.
“As for famous inmates in this place, I daresay you have heard of the escaped slave Burns? He was apprehended in Boston, was he not? And returned to his master by order of the magistrates – backed up by Army troops?”
“Yes, I have heard of that matter,” Minnie replied truthfully – for the matter of Anthony Burns, escaped slave, being arrested in the street, and forcefully returned South to his owner had been the means of metaphorically setting Boston aflame with abolitionist passion all that spring. Her brother George had been suffering his final illness, or he would have struggled up from his sickbed to join with his fellow abolitionists in protest.
“It was a mystery to all good Southerners,” Pres Devereaux confided, “Why those who championed Burns willingly defied the law. And it is the law – that stolen property be returned to the proper owner.”
“There is the law which is written by men, who are not perfect – and those higher laws instituted by our creator,” Minnie stated, for she was truly rankled by Pres Devereaux’s bland self-assurance. “Those fugitive slave laws were created by such imperfect men – who compound the insult to freedom-loving citizens of the North by insisting that we endorse the brutality of slavery. It’s not enough that slave power confine itself to those places which have willingly chosen to endorse the practice – that we could endure and have for decades! But now to demand that we in the North who object to fellow human beings treated as objects to be bought and sold in the marketplace must go against our own conscience, and cooperate with slave-takers on free soil? Is it not as the great Luther himself advised – to go against one’s conscience is neither right nor safe!”
“Bravo, Miss Vining,” Pres Devereaux applauded. “A fine piece of oratory, I must say! You might almost convince a man such as myself to the cause of abolition – almost; but that I am a Southerner, and our fortunes here depend upon exercise of the peculiar institution.”
“Ah, your fortunes,” Minnie nodded – yes, a momentary concession. That would disarm an opponent in the legal hustings, Papa-the-Judge advised, when he had guided Minnie in her studies of his old trials and in his volumes of Blackstone’s Commentaries. “Fortunes which are based primarily on agriculture and the export of cotton. But what of industry? Where are your armories, your factories – why must the raw materials produced in your plantations be shipped wholesale to the mills of England? Why must your fortunes depend on forced labor of Africans, imported under great hardship and cruelty? It is said that a sound tree will bear sound fruit, but a tree with roots in poisoned soil will bear naught but poisoned fruit. I would hold that slavery is the most poisoned soil of all!”
“We do have industry in the South,” Captain Shaw spoke vigorously for nearly the first time in this exchange. “Behold – the chimneys of the Tredegar Iron and Locomotive Works! That must count for something, Miss Vining!”
“And that would be your only example?” Minnie tempered her exasperation, did her best to sound conciliatory. “Has the South nothing to equal the fabric mills of Lowell and Fall River, the Armory of Colonel Colt, a long-ranging transport project such as the Erie Canal, the iron works of Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey? The Tredegar works are a fine one, indeed – the canal and basin for river commerce here in Richmond – but when the North has five or ten such enterprises for every single one in the South, you will forgive me, Captain Shaw, for not being entirely convinced of the advantages of the peculiar institution.”
“Miss Vining’s mind is made up,” Pres Devereaux interjected. “And will only admit such facts as those which confirm her existing prejudice. We should drive on – I had it in mind to see the auction at the Old Fellows’ Hall on the hour of eleven.”
Minnie opened her mouth to object to this – she was perfectly capable of exercising reason, when a sensible reason applied for admission, but at that moment, she recalled again Miss Van Lew’s warning; that Pres Devereaux lived to be provoking.

22. June 2019 · Comments Off · Categories: History, Literary Good Stuff

Shockoe Creek was a creek emptying into the James River – a creek now mostly channelized and paved over. It lay between two substantial hills upon which the city of Richmond, Virginia, was built; in the earliest days of the city, it was the market district; convenient to the waterfront, the main roads, a transshipment node where goods from deep-water cargo ships were transferred to smaller boats, to wagons, and warehouses. Commerce was the lifeblood of that part of Richmond, within sight of the grand white neo-classical building which was the state capitol. Here was the shipping basin and canal which led to it, the market building housing venders of meat, produce and other comestibles. Nearby was the bridge which crossed the James, the Haxall mill which ground fine white flour for shipment throughout the Americas. Up-river a little way was the Tredegar Iron Works complex, the pride of the ante-bellum industrial South.

And another kind of commerce was centered in the Shockoe Bottom – the trade in slaves. In the decades before the Civil War, Richmond was the second-largest wholesale and retail market in the South: the offices of brokers, agents and traders in slaves, auction houses, and holding-pens – known as slave jails, all were situated in a quarter-mile square area. I have discovered all kinds of curious things about the slave trade as practiced in Richmond – curious to me, that is. I wasn’t raised in the South, the ancestors of my one American-born grandparent was a fire-eating abolitionist; frankly, all I knew about the matter was what there was in the generalist history books pertaining to the Civil War. Nothing much about the nuts and bolts of actual practice, as it were.

I have had to become acquainted with all of this, as I am working on the next historical novel – and this involves a heroine, Minerva Templeton Vining, a spinster of independent means and thinking, who becomes an active campaigner for abolition in the 1850ies, and then a volunteer battlefield nurse during the war itself. The catalyst for all of this is a visit that she makes to Richmond to visit kinfolk – and while she had to that point been of abolitionist sympathies, she is radicalized by what she sees in the course of that visit. So I have to write about what she sees, and create the conversations that she would have had, dealing with what was termed the ‘peculiar institution.’ I don’t think that she would actually have witnessed a slave auction first-hand; so far, all the accounts and pictures that I have found have only men attending the auctions. It seems that male slaves were often asked to strip entirely, so that their state of health and soundness could be judged – I have read one account of a woman slave being stripped for a prospective buyer in private, but not at the auction location. Both male and female slaves often had to show their bare back and shoulders, though, to determine if they had been whipped. The degree and age of scarring would indicate a discipline problem, and downgrade market value in the eyes of a potential purchaser.

I did go into this project knowing that for most Southerners, a slave was a luxury good. A first-rate young field hand was worth $1,500-2,000; something on the order of $25,000 to $30,000 in today’s dollars. A slave who was trained in a particular skill might command an even higher price.
A particular curiosity – which makes sense, once I thought about it – was that the dealers in slaves who kept a slave jail (basically a warehouse/boarding house/dormitory) took every effort to make their sellable human merchandise look good upon being put up for auction, although the actual conditions in the slave jail may not have been very good. Those slaves being held for sale were provided with decent food, medical care if required, and a period of recovery from any particularly grueling travel. On the day of auction, they were provided with means of bathing, were groomed and dressed in new clean clothes. There is a painting by an English abolitionist who made sketches of an auction on the spot and later produced a then-well-known painting: five female slaves, clad in grey dresses and white aprons, with red bows at the throat, with one man, in trousers, white shirt, tan trousers and a red waistcoat. One of the women has a small child in her lap; they sit patiently in a row. They are luxury goods – of course, the vendors want the merchandise to look good. I think that is the most unsettling aspect of it all; not outright cruelty (of which there was some, although not quite as much as the campaigners for abolition would have had it) but the fact that it was just business, the business of selling and buying human beings.

Slaves Waiting for Sale - 1861 - Eyre Crow

Slaves Waiting for Sale – 1861 – Eyre Crow

Finally – an interesting curiosity: one Robert Lumpkin, who kept a slave jail of such notoriety that the compound was called “Hell’s Half Acre” was formally married to a slave woman, who had five children by him – including daughters who were sent to a finishing school in the North. When he died, at the very end of the Civil War, his wife inherited the property … and sold it to a Baptist minister who founded a school for blacks – the Richmond Theological Seminary. The site is half-under a freeway, now; the half that isn’t is an empty lot with an outline of some of the buildings in the compound.

(Minerva “Minnie” Vining, a spinster of independent means, is visiting relatives in Richmond, Virginia, in the early 1850ies)

On her return to the Edmonds house, the maid who opened the door for her whispered,
“Ma’am is in de parlor with Ma’am Vining an’ de girls, Miss Minerva…”
Susan called from the parlor, obviously having heard the bell, and the door open and shut. “Minnie, is that you, dear? You must join us – Mrs. Van Lew just sent a boy with a note saying that she and Miss Elizabeth would be here momentarily …”
“Allow me to change my dress, Sue,” Minnie replied, and hastened up the stairs to the room that she and Annabelle shared, to discover that someone – either Annabelle or one of Susan’s housemaids had already laid out one of her afternoon dresses; a simple gown in the s pale violent of half-morning, with a lacy fichu – all with the creases from having been packed in a trunk neatly pressed out by the unseen hands of Cousin Susan’s Negro maids. Minnie hastily unbuttoned the skirt and bodice of her walking costume and exchanged her stockings and high-buttoned boots and for clean white stockings and plain dainty slippers. By the time she had effected this change, and hurried downstairs, the maid was already opening the front door to admit two ladies. Minnie fairly scampered into the parlor, and settled onto the divan next to Annabelle, who whispered,
“You’re late! We were beginning to despair! Did you lose track of the time?”
“The gardens of Church Hill are so splendid,” Minnie gasped. “I confess that I did – I am sorry, Susan – I was admiring certain of the trees; those with white flowers, of four or five petals.”
“Dogwood trees,” Charlotte piped up, and Susan chided her.
“Dear, speak when you are spoken to. Yes, the dogwood trees are particularly splendid this spring, although you have missed the jonquils at their best. But the magnolias are soon to bloom…Yes, Sadie?” That last was addressed to the maid, deferential in her dark dress, white apron and turban, lingering in the doorway.
“Mrs. Eliza Van Lew, Miss Elizabeth, Ma’am,” she murmured, and stepped aside from the doorway as Susan rose from her chair.
“Eliza, my dear!” she exclaimed to the older lady; a pleasant-faced matron with pink cheeks and very white hair, dressed as modestly as a Quaker in a grey walking dress bereft of any additional adornments. “And Lizzie – we are so pleased to see you today! Come in, come in! I must introduce you to my cousins, visiting from Boston: Mrs. Annabelle Vining, and Miss Minerva Vining – they have come to celebrate Lydia’s marriage with us and then to stay the summer over … the gentlemen will join us shortly.” Susan and the Van Lew ladies exchanged brief social embraces – the older lady with more open affection than the younger. “They traveled by train, all of the way,” Susan added, and the Van Lew ladies chorused their wonder and approval.
“From Boston!” Exclaimed Eliza Van Lew, as she turned her attention towards Minnie and Annabelle. “And on the train – what a marvel the railway has become. Now, I was brought up in Philadelphia, and my daughter attended school there, and now the matter of travel has become so much less onerous than it once was … how welcome you are to Richmond!”
“We have been received with every fond courtesy,” Annabelle replied, while – unobserved – Minnie regarded Miss Lizzie Van Lew, recognizing as if with a secret Masonic handshake, another stubborn spinster of her ilk. Yes, Miss Elizabeth was pleasing in her aspect and person, and fashionably-clad; a perfect blonde rose of the South, with the flaxen hair, unearthly blue eyes, and that fine complexion lauded by every sentimental novelist and fashion-paper … and yet, Miss Van Lew defied that convention, for her nose was a perfect beak and those eyes reflected a piercing and unsettling intelligence.
“Miss Vining,” she said, and her voice was pleasant and cultured. “May I sit with you and converse? I would adore to hear of how the abolitionist cause is progressing in the North. We hear so very little of the matter here in Richmond, you see – only fulminations against such wicked persuaders such as your Mr. Garrison, and the Reverend Slocomb – since he is of Boston, may I presume that you are acquainted with him?”
“But certainly,” Minnie answered, pleased and heartened at encountering a kindred spirit among Susan’s circle. “Mr. Garrison was a particular friend of my late brother, although they had fallen out over … some aspect of campaigning for the cause of abolition. I cannot recall the specific issue as Mr. Garrison is a passionate advocate and not easily brought to compromise. But he and my brother did eventually reconcile. Reverend Slocomb ministers to the congregation which I attend – and I have the privilege of a personal acquaintance with him, as well as a personally-inscribed volume of his sermons …”
“Indeed, I have a copy of that very same book!” Miss Lizzie beamed, radiantly, and Minnie laughed.
“I am reassured in making your acquaintance, Miss Van Lew – I had become convinced that such abolitionist sentiments are most rare in the South,”
“Alas, they are,” Lizzie Van Lew agreed, without rancor. “But I care little, nor does Mama, or my brother John. Among our circle of friends, it is considered – so far – merely an eccentricity peculiar to the Quakers of the northern States, and thus tolerated. My late father left us so considerable an estate as to shelter us well against that public opprobrium which might fall upon those of lesser means, otherwise …”
At that moment in their conversation, Richard and Cousin Peter joined what had become a most pleasant gathering: Susan fussed over settling her father into the most comfortable chair, and Richard took a seat on one of the spindly parlor chairs opposite the divan where Annabelle sat with Minnie and Miss Van Lew. No sooner was the introduction made, than Susan’s maid announced the arrival of another party.
“Captain and Mrs. Shaw, and Mr. Devereaux, Ma’am,” the girl said, and suddenly it seemed that Susan’s parlor was very full, although a large portion of that came from Mrs. Shaw’s fashionable crinoline as she leaned on her husbands’ arm, and the breadth of shoulder of the man who followed the pair into the parlor. Minnie couldn’t help that her eyes were drawn to him, as if by a magnet; tall and fair-haired, with rugged sun-bronzed features and eyes of a particular pale blue hue, a specimen of vigorous maturity, whom she judged to be about the age of her own. He possessed the same arresting quality as the Reverend Slocomb – that of an actor commanding the attention of an audience as he strode the boards.
“Why, Miss Elizabeth!” he exclaimed, in a gentle drawl which Minnie had begun to identify as that trait of those from the deeper south. “You mus’ do me the honor of acquainting me with your charming friends!”
Elizabeth appeared entirely unmoved by his courteous regard, even though it drew the interest of the other women in the room as a sunflower follows the sun. “These ladies are Mrs. Edmonds’ Boston relations,” she replied, in a voice devoid of the least scrap of flirtatious interest. “Miss Minerva and Mrs. Annabelle Vining. This gentleman is Preston Devereaux, lately returned from … where was it? I heard that it was traveling abroad; I cared little for where, although I prayed that it be far, far from Richmond…”
“My dear lady Tongue,” Preston Devereaux returned, seemingly much amused. “I thank you for your courtesy, Miss Elizabeth of Kate Hall. Ladies …” he kissed Annabelle’s raised hand, and then Minnies’, “Consider me to be at your most devoted service!”
Minnie and Annabelle briefly met each other’s eyes.
A rogue, indeed, was Annabelle’s unvoiced comment.
Yes, but an amusing one, Minnie signaled.
“I deduce from your manner of speech that you are from another place than this,” Minnie ventured, for yes, Preston Devereaux’s accent was the most deeply marked in Southern inflection that she had heard thus far.
“Charleston, Miss Vining,” he replied, with a smile which drew her – although not as deeply as it would have, if she had been as young as Charlotte Edmonds. “My family there is said to be descended from a latter sprout on the family tree of that Robert Deveraux, once the Earl of Essex and favorite of Good Queen Bess.”
“Charleston,” remarked Captain Shaw, from across the parlor where he had taken a seat next to Cousin Peter. Captain Shaw was dark of hair and yet had the same pale blue eyes as his cousin. His young wife was deep in converse with the Eliza Van Lew. “Where it is often said that the inhabitants most resemble the heathen Chinee – in that all eat rice and worship their ancestors.”
That bon mot earned a ripple of amused laughter from the ladies within hearing, and a chuckle from Preston Devereaux, who appeared to take no offense, as he regarded the three ladies – Miss Elizabeth, Annabelle and Minnie.
“I trust that you are finding your visit to Richmond enjoyable?” Preston Devereaux inquired, as if he really were interested, and Minnie replied,
“We have only been here for a day, Mr. Devereaux, but we have been warmly welcomed by our kin, and friends such as Miss Van Lew…”
“Richmond is so very different from Boston,” Annabelle echoed, and Miss Elizabeth set aside her teacup.
“We were having the most interesting talk,” she remarked, as every word were a little dagger. “Regarding mutual friends, and an interest in abolition.”
Minnie exchanged a glance with Annabelle; for all the care taken in leaving certain topics of conversation unexplored in the interests of civility among friends and kin, Miss Elizabeth was treading heavily among the conversational caltrops.
“Indeed,” Preston Devereaux raised an eyebrow. “A fascinating topic, Miss Elizabeth – alas, not one of interest to me: I may truly boast of having not a single drop of abolition blood in me.”
“A pity,” Miss Elizabeth observed, acidly “For I daresay that a single drop would make you into a man, rather than your present nonentity.”
Minnie drew in her breath with a horrified gasp, fully expecting Preston Devereaux to react as any ordinary man who had been insulted by a lady in the confines of another lady’s parlor, but instead, he merely chuckled appreciatively.
“Touché, Miss Elizabeth – my dearest shrew. I did invite that hit! Miss Vining pray do not look as if you meant to take offense on my part. Miss Van Lew and I have been in the habit of verbal jousts such as this for years. Such bouts sharpen our relative wits and amuse our friends no end.”
“Be warned concerning Mr. Devereaux’s conversation,” Miss Elizabeth returned, with an air of stark warning. “He assumes attitudes not from any deep conviction, but merely from a desire to provoke and tease. He is a veritable whirligig, turning as the conversational wind blows.”
“I have heard that Mr. Devereaux was abroad on foreign travels,” Annabelle interjected, in a manner intended to be placating, and that gentleman smiled as if he divined her motivation and was prepared to be indulgent of it. “I would like so very much to hear of his adventures – our cousin Susan says that you sought gold in California! So very exciting! What was it like? One hears the most fascinating tales of adventures and riches to be had in the mines. And now California is to be a state, so soon after having been merely a foreign possession! The gold mines are of an incredible richness, we hear tell.”
“I was in China, on an errand of some import for a relative of mine, and on my return, the ship on which I was traveling made port in California … and the news of the discovery of gold caused all of the sailors to desert,” Mr. Devereaux accepted a cup of tea and a plate of cake from Susan’s silent housemaids. Minnie made a private memorandum to herself; make sufficient conversation with Susan’s household slaves to learn their names. It seemed untoward to not know the names of servants, or not even to be able to tell them apart, so alike they all appeared, in their anonymous dark dresses and dark faces, below snowy-white turbans, as if interchangeable human automatons, given into service. Mr. Devereaux continued.
“We were there becalmed, in the port of Yerba Buena – although now it is called San Francisco. Situated on the most marvelous sheltered bay. The word came that gold had been discovered in the foothills of that mountain-range which shelters California to the east … even, that discovery was shouted in the streets, with proof brandished by one of the most respected men of town … I vow that even the few soldiers of the Presidio deserted their posts! All were maddened by the possibility of gold to be had, as easily as you ladies might pluck up and gather flowers from your gardens…”
“And did you find any gold yourself, in those bounteous California mines?” Miss Elizabeth sounded most skeptical, as Lizzie and Annabelle hung on every word. Minnie noted that Mrs. Eliza was deep in conversation with the young Mrs. Shaw – ah, from Philadelphia, she recollected. They must have interests, if not kin in common. Richard and Cousin Peter were likewise deep in converse together with Captain Shaw – matters of military import, both recent and of a historic nature, Minnie assumed. Charlotte and Lydia appeared likewise engaged in a converse most intense with a slender young gentleman who had also been announced. Minnie gathered that he was Lydia’s intended, from the fond manner in which Susan made him welcome to the parlor. She would have been more interested in the lad – but for being fascinated in the tale which Pres Devereaux had to tell.

13. June 2019 · Comments Off · Categories: History, Literary Good Stuff

(This is from the new work in progress: the Civil War novel, about the doings of Minnie Templeton Vining, tireless campaigner for the abolition of slavery before the war, and a nurse volunteer during it. In this chapter, Minnie has been left independently wealthy by the death of her father, and then of her oldest brother. She has decided to travel, and see something of the world.)

“Don’t fuss so, Richie,” Minnie chided Sophia’s seven-year old son, as she and Annabelle waited on the platform of the Lowell Street Station, that magnificent modern temple of commerce on Causeway and Lowell. The clamor of the busy station echoed around them; the shriek of steel wheels on rails, the gasp of steam escaping, newsboys shouting their wares. “We’ll only be gone for the summer. We’ll be back before you know it.”
She and Annabelle were to travel to Richmond by gradual stages and all the way by train, escorted by Cousin Peter and Annabelle’s son-in-law, Richard Brewer. Minnie had impatiently thrown back the black veil that draped her bonnet, and now a slight breeze from the harbor – wandering tentatively between the pillars which upheld the station roof, and the clattering engines with their burden of railcars – blew the ends of that veil to and fro. She and Annabelle wore the deep black of morning – although not the unrelieved shrouds suitable for widows, to Minnie’s great relief. She hated looking through a black fog of a veil.
“Don’t want Grammy to go ‘way!” Richie’s lower lip stuck out, mutinously, and he aimed a kick at the stack of trunks and carpetbags stacked next to Minnie and Annabelle and those friends and kin come to see them away. “Make her stay, Papa!” Sophia chided the boy, without any real conviction, but Richard shot out a swift arm and pulled the lad by his ear away from the luggage. Richie screwed up his face and yelped in pain.
“Stop that!” Richard commanded forcefully. “Behave like a young gentleman, Richie, or you’ll get a good thrashing over my knee!”
“Oh, you’re hurting him!” Sophia protested, while Minnie and Anabelle exchanged glances of mutual exasperation. Richie was a handsome lad, big for his age, well-mannered when he felt like it, but Minnie privately felt that Sophia mollycoddled and indulged him better than was good for his character; a young mother, and to date, Richie was the only chick in the Brewer family nest. Stubborn, willful and thoroughly spoiled, yet Richie was charming … when he wanted to be. Fortunately, Richard Brewer was not inclined toward indulgence.
“I’ll hurt more of him than his ear, if he doesn’t behave, my dear,” Richard sounded exasperated, even as Annabelle murmured, “All he hurt was his own toe, dear – I doubt that our luggage has any feelings at all.”
“It was an unmanly display of temper,” Richard retorted, in lawyerly dispassion. “And Richie is sufficiently old enough to learn not to give way to them. He is supposed to be the man of the house while I am away – not a spoilt infant.”
Minnie privately agreed with Richard – whom she had always found to be a sensible young man, sober beyond his years and yet graced with a puckish sense of humor which somewhat alleviated the solidity of his bearing and the burden of wealth and privilege. Her gaze fell with relief upon a pair off familiar figures, coming along the platform towards their party. To distract what she feared might become an unseemly public dispute, Minnie exclaimed,
“Look, it is the Reverend Doctor Slocomb, accompanying Cousin Peter! Dare I think that he has come to bid us farewell, or a safe journey? Or is he perhaps bound on a journey likewise? I would relish his company, if so – for his opinions and discourse are always so diverting!”
“I doubt that he can be parted so long from his adoring flock! Especially the ladies of the parish,” Annabelle observed, with a mischievous smile in Minnie’s direction. “Perhaps he is making an exception in your case, Minnie! You are, after all, an heiress to no small estate, and the good reverend is yet unwed…”
“Ridiculous!” Minnie snorted – for Annabelle would gently tease her about the handsome reverend – a half-decade Minnie’s junior, but his waving locks of dark hair already touched with gray, making him look as of he was her equal in years. And he was not unpleasing to look upon – nor was Minnie quite without susceptibility to male charms.
For the Reverend Slocomb was a man fully in command of those charms; a rugged physique, tall and broad of shoulder, a countenance in which the features of a classic Greek statue mingled appealingly with lively intelligence and charm. An passionate orator and of an abolitionist sympathies, his sermons in the pulpit of Beacon Street Congregationalist Church riveted the attention of all listeners, packed closely in the private pews and in the galleries – he had even had a collection of them published, and Minnie had purchased a copy from her allowance, although the late Judge waspishly described him as a producer of pretentious windbaggery sufficient to raise a Montgolfier balloon.
Now the Reverend Slocomb had spotted them – the party of three black-clad women, a man, and a small boy, with the towering mountain of trunks and carpetbags piled next to them on a pair of luggage barrows.
“My dearest Miss Vining!” he exclaimed, advancing and abeam with smiles, deftly evading a newsboy with his basket of fruit and sheaf of newspapers. The Reverend bowed over her hand, all honest and friendly affection. “Mrs. Vining, Mr. Brewer – good day to you all! My dear old friend Mr. Peter Vining tells me that you are departing with him on a journey of some time!”
“To visit kin,” Minnie couldn’t help but smile, and hoped that she was not pinkening – for Annabelle would tease her privately over that. “We will be in Richmond for almost two months – the length of summer. We felt the need of a change of scenery, and I am …”
“Tired of Boston?” Reverend Slocomb kept her gloved hand still imprisoned within his. Minnie felt the warmth of his regard, the appeal of his consideration and resisted the impulse to simper like a schoolgirl. Meanwhile, Cousin Peter Vining, advancing at a somewhat slower pace, leaning as he did on his trusty cane, flashed a boyish grin at the party.
“Belle, dear – Minnie! Richard, you young scamp! Here I am, better late than never. They were afraid I would be late for the train, pestiferous invention, yet better than marching all the way! Had you despaired of my arrival?”
Minnie flashed a brief smile at the Reverend Slocomb, sliding her hand out of his with a grace that obliviated any lack of manners. Cousin Peter Vining was over the allotted age of fourscore and ten and increasingly lame from toes lost to frostbite in the bitter cold of a winter encampment when he was a mere lad in the Revolution, although otherwise wiry and spry. Yet, in defiance of those years, and unlike the Reverend Slocomb, Cousin Peter still contrived to appear younger than his calendar age. It was in his eyes, Minnie had always thought – the lively interest and energy of her father’s younger cousin. Cousin Peter was raised in Milford in Delaware, and at the age of seventeen had followed Washington with stubborn devotion, marched south with the Delaware regiments and fought at Cowpens. The spirit of independence burned with a white-hot fervor in Cousin Peter – perhaps that kept him still young, after all those travails in his youth. It was his oldest daughter Susan, and her husband who had invited them all for a long visit – Minnie privately hoped that Cousin Peter was yet strong enough to endure the journey without damage to his health, for all that they had planned to do it in leisurely stages, and rest for a day or so between.
“An adventure!” Cousin Peter kissed Minnie’s hand, and then Annabelle’s. “I have never outgrown a taste for adventure! And Susan is my dearest child, and I long to see her again, one more time. She has six handsome children, and she sent me the loveliest letter some weeks ago – her eldest, Lydia, is collecting a button-string; a button from each of her relations! We can indulge Lydia with the very finest and most personal buttons, I daresay.”
“We can, indeed,” Minnie pushed back her bonnet sufficiently so that she could also kiss Cousin Peter on his age-withered cheek. “And we can present them personally, of course. I am anticipating this visit with such longing! It is not that I am tired of Boston,” Minnie added, with a sideways smile at the Reverend Slocomb. “But one longs, sometimes, for other vistas … other sights! I decline to rusticate away, to the point where I do not dare set foot outside my own doorstep, lest I encounter some unfamiliar sight and swoon out of fright at the strangeness of it all.”
“You were the perfect dutiful daughter, ministering to Ly, and then to Horace and George in these last years,” Cousin Peter murmured, his voice husky with suppressed emotion. “Eh – and you are well-deserving of a holiday, my dear Minnie.”
“A perfect saint,” the Reverend Slocomb added. “A model of daughterly and sisterly devotion – we shall miss your presence at our devotions, and in the good work performed by the good ladies of the congregation, Miss Vining. Hurry back to Boston, as soon as you may … your return will be an event much longed-for … I speak personally, of course. Although I am certain that the other ladies will welcome you home …”
“I am certain that they will,” Annabelle pursed her lips, just barely amending the cynical smirk in which they had originally arranged themselves. “We well know the degree of respect in which Miss Vining is held by the good ladies of the Beacon Street Church.”
Minnie just barely held herself back from sticking out her tongue at Annabelle – her oldest and dearest friend, who knew well where to jab the sharp needle of her teasing. An affectionate tease, for the most part – but Annabelle’s aim was as always, unerring.
“I have no apprehension when it comes to telling ladies like Lolly Bard when they are being silly geese,” Minnie retorted. “And that appears to be the source of the intelligence that I am respected among them,”
“Touche, Aunt Minnie,” Richard Brewer grinned. “A hit, a very palpable hit … I believe that is now our carriage, and now is the time to mount it – that is, if we wish to gain favorable seats for our party.”
“Lead the way,” They made their farewells to the Reverend Slocomb; Richard embraced his son – who seemed now merely sullen – and Sophia, bravely stifling tears. What he murmured to them was private, not for the ears of anyone else. In a spirit of rebellion, Minnie left the black veil hanging back over her shoulders, as Richard offered her his arm, and Cousin Peter did the same with Annabelle. Richard snapped his fingers at the porter with his barrow, already taking up the long handles, as another porter lingered, asking if he could be of service. Now was the moment of departure.

The Daughter Unit and I spent most of Saturday morning in the lovely little town of Wimberley, Texas. Wimberley is situated on a particularly scenic stretch of the Blanco River, in the hills to the west of San Marcos. It’s closer to Austin than to San Antonio and seems to have become even more of a weekend tourist draw, since we first visited it in the late 1990ies. Then there were just a handful of little shops catering to tourists, and one restaurant with had memorable hamburgers and an outside deck which overlooked the riverbank, all grown with cypress trees, great and green. There were a fair number of hippie artisan types; potters, glass-blowers, metal-fabricators and the like, plus the usual number of antique shops, which tended more towards the ‘quaint old country junk’ side of the scale. On the first Saturday of the month, Wimberley stages a mammoth open-air market – something we’ve been to a number of times. It’s supposed to be the oldest and biggest one in Texas.
More »

07. June 2019 · Comments Off · Categories: Domestic, History, Literary Good Stuff

I scribbled the last words of Luna City #8 early Thursday afternoon. Left it all in suspense on the final page, as is usual with the Luna City series; resolve all the main story lines, wander down a few amusing byways as regards the (created) local history, explore the lives or experiences of characters, set up hints regarding the next installment, and then leave it all on a (temporary) cliff-hanger.
Yes, I’m evil that way. I want readers to buy the next installment, ‘kay? Just so they can find out what will happen next. Look, this has been the stratagem of story-tellers since the very art of story-telling began.

And then I set to work earnestly on the next … for which I had already scribbled two scene-and-character-setting chapters, and several pages of notes about mid-19th century female abolitionists, and ordinary women who took up the challenge of being battlefield nurses when the pustule of the peculiar institution burst in 1860-61 and plunged most of the somewhat united American states into a bitter and brutal war. They say that civil wars are the worst. It’s as if the hatred is all the more bitter when it’s not some alien and foreign invader burning crops, raping women, and stealing away the best, brightest and most noble of youthful manhood, along with the harvested crops: it’s all the more stinging when it’s kin and ex-friends doing all of the above. I guess that it is the aspect of personal betrayal that makes it all the worse.
It was all very complicated, you see. Human society, the interactions that we have with those of our kind most usually is more complicated that the political theorists and historians can comprehend. Just as a brief example – a recent bio of Audrey Hepburn revealed that her mother was quite the Hitler enthusiast … until the war began, Holland was occupied, and a near and dear relation was executed by the Nazis. So – serious reconsideration of sympathies, all the way around on the part of Mother-of-future-gamine-star.

Back to my original thought – the next book, set in the lead-up to, and during the Civil War, as seen through the eyes of a female abolitionist and later on, a volunteer nurse. Minnie Vining. She was briefly mentioned in Deep in the Heart, and at slightly more length in Sunset and Steel Rails, so that I must ret-conn her character and story-arc from those brief appearances and fill out such experiences which were hinted at in those books. Only daughter among four sons of a long-established and respectable Boston family, a family whose experiences in the American Revolution were also hinted at … and why am I writing all my family saga backwards? Starting from the 1830ies in Texas and filling it all in, backwards and forwards from that point? Eh … sounds like a personal problem.

So here it is – the next historical is a Civil War novel – a bit of a change in focus for me. Of the previous books, only one is set during that period, and that in the Texas Hill Country, where most key developments and events happened far offstage, and most main characters in it sincerely wished not to participate in the war effort in any way. The other books are set either before and on the frontier, or at some remove afterwards. This next one, with a working title of That Fateful Lightning goes straight into the weeds of the anti-slavery movement; how it came to be that the question of slavery roiled feelings throughout the decade before the war, and it how it came to be that partisans on both sides were more than willing to take up arms against kin, former friends, neighbors and total strangers.

I expect also to delve full into the eccentric operations of Civil War battlefield hospitals. I already have a tall stack of reminiscences by women who served in such hospitals, and in providing the necessary by organizing fund-raising bazars and extensive shipments of home comforts to men in the field. It may have been an almost natural thing for so many women to take up nursing at that time. In the days before antibiotics and notions of sterile bandages, women ordinarily spent a fair amount of time nursing the sick anyway; children, husbands, brothers and sisters. Taking up a temporary career as a war nurse was a natural extension. Organizing fresh bread, clean sheets, and tempting invalid meals on an industrial scale – must have been just another logical reach for someone already accustomed to doing so on a home-sized level. I have been mildly boggled to find out how the pre-war Army medical establishment, which was a tiny organization suitable to a tiny peacetime military, came to depend so heavily on the various local Sanitary Commission volunteers when it came to dealing with the huge numbers of casualties once the lead began to fly in earnest.
I honestly don’t know how long this will take me: maybe as early as the end of this year, perhaps into next year, say mid-2020. But in the meantime, enjoy the other historicals, the Lone Star Sons volumes, and of course – Luna City.

26. May 2019 · Comments Off · Categories: Domestic, Literary Good Stuff

Some years ago, when the world was young and all, Oh Best Beloved, the proprietor of a generalist blog (Blogger News Network) that I contributed content for, and who also paid me by the word for occasional professional content, came up with a means for his stable of contributors to score free books and movies. Seriously, that’s how it all started; and how could one say no to free books and movies, seeing how much new movie DVDs and hardcover books cost? He worked up an agreement with publicity firm which would provide review copies of movies … and we would do reviews for Blogger News Network. At a slightly later date, I began doing this for a couple of different on-line enterprises; book reviews mostly. Before Barnes & Noble, and Amazon evolved to the point of getting positively twitchy about duplicate reviews, we were also in the habit of posting slightly edited versions of our reviews on those sites. Later, B&N and Amazon came to frown on this practice, and I stopped doing it – for a reason which will soon become clear.

It came about, Oh Best Beloved, that one day in 2011 after I had been doing this for a couple of years (for the free book and movie swag, mostly) I received an email from something called the Amazon Vine, noting that I had apparently received a boatload of helpful up-votes on my reviews, and that was sufficient by their somewhat mysterious metrics to be invited to become a Vine Reviewer. Well, it sounded interesting, and possibly remunerative, and why not? The publicity company providing movie DVDs hadn’t offered anything interesting in simply ages – I think show business in general was going through a bad patch – and the book review places were going through a similar dry period. So, I accepted the invitation, outlined my preferences: for books, mostly, computer and office supplies, and stuff for the house and garden, sometimes gourmet food items. I still have no idea of why Amazon offered me this interesting little sideline gig, by the way – other than the boatload of helpful votes on the earlier reviews.

Over the next couple of years, I scored the occasional interesting book, a cover for the Kindle reader, a surge protector, a battery-operated motion-sensing flood-light for the back yard … nice, but nothing really to go bananas over. If there was a high-value item in my Vine queue, it was usually gone by the time I asked for it. For the first few years it continued that way. I did consider myself outstandingly fortunate to get a rather nice 17-inch laptop computer, and a couple of months later, a Canon Maxify printer. That was about a good as it got for me, being a Vine Voice. It seems though, about eighteen months ago, that the powers that be at Amazon rejiggered the Vine algorithms again. Since then, it’s been a veritable flood of household and home renovation items. A couple of interior light fixtures, an outdoor light fixture, a couple of ceiling fans, a very nice Moen kitchen faucet, an Amazon-brand bathroom sink faucet, a beveled-edge mirror, along with a number of kitchen appliances … the mirror, the bathroom faucet and one of the light fixtures were set aside and installed as part of the master bath renovation. The biggest of the ceiling fans went into the living room, and my daughter and I installed the exterior light fixture ourselves. (Not for nothing was the Daughter Unit a USMC field wireman.) The other features are set aside for the kitchen renovation in a couple of years. I am not totally mercenary about this – I only ask for the items that we can really, genuinely use – but looking around the house lately, anyone knowing where some of the features came from could be forgiven for thinking that it’s the House that Amazon Built.

Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings. – Heinrich Heine

This last week there was a mild kerfuffle in the world of those bloggers who love and often write books, and who also love history. This was caused by a marginally-literate screed published on a personal blog by one Sofia Leung, who professes to be a feminist and a librarian of the totally-woke/social-justice/critical-race-theory variety. Said screed was amplified in the twitter feed of the Library Journal, until the tweet was deleted, (possibly at the urging of someone with a lick of sense and professionalism). I suspect that the Library Journal is a publication which was once much more respected and authoritative; like Time, Newsweek, Scientific American, Harper’s, Smithsonian and National Geographic once were, before being overtaken in a flood of semi-coherent woke/social-justice/critical-race-theory nonsense. Quoth Ms. Leung –

“Library collections continue to promote and proliferate whiteness with their very existence and the fact that they are physically taking up space in our libraries. They are paid for using money that was usually ill-gotten…”

I swear, those two sentences alone encompass ignorance of such pure, stainless density as to drop into the center of the earth and emerge on the other side. (A close rival this week, is the Twitter feed of a painfully ignorant SJW who insisted that white people shouldn’t be permitted to learn Spanish because it wasn’t properly a ‘white’ language.*) However, the phrase which raises the hair on the back of the neck of any historically-knowledgeable of whatever color or shade of whiteness is her complaint that such materiel – presumably papers, publications and books which reflect that so-called “whiteness” “… are physically taking up space in our libraries.”

Taking up space in our libraries. Reflect on that for a moment. Our libraries. Taking a rather royally-possessive attitude, here, aren’t we, Ms. Leung? Considering that these tenuously United States are still inhabited largely by citizens whose national origins were somewhere north of the Mediterranean, and west of the Ural Mountains and thus are to be ‘white’ by the standards of this current century. (The definition of ‘white’ is curiously elastic; depending on the point to be proven. Americans of Oriental descent, and those whose origins are in South America are frequently also lumped into the ‘white’ category, for purposes of allocating places at prestigious universities or for inflating/deflating categories of certain crimes with regard to the ethnic background of the convicted.) Are we not supposed to be educated and diverted by volumes of whatever – poetry, history, philosophy, drama – in our own tradition? What is it that you are proposing to do with that which you so magisterially disapprove of, Ms. Leung? Remove it, as something unclean? Perhaps you have an auto-da-fe of books in mind, if you have thought that far ahead, when you consider a condemnation of stuff physically taking up space in libraries?

Additionally, I am also fairly certain that – depending on the nature of the library in question – that many of those institutions so casually dismissed by Ms. Leung contain extensive collections of material in the original language or in authoritative translation from the ancient world, from India and the Orient. Indeed, wherever there was a written language, there must be material, both original and informed commentary – from a direct source which in now ways could be considered ‘white’ and layers and layers of comment which perhaps might be …

In any case, Ms. Leung is considered by me to be a disgrace to her profession – a dangerous and bigoted one, with delusions of adequacy far beyond her intelligence, as it is displayed in her blog post. Is this expressed wish of hers – to cleanse “our” libraries of the dreaded taint of “whiteness” a kind of harbinger when it comes to fashion among the woke set? How seriously should we take it? Are we – us ‘normies’ and flyover citizens – now past the second or third marker on the road to be erased, in having our history, what we value intellectually being thrown down the memory hole?

Discuss as you wish.

*Can’t find the link for this – but I know I saw it.

27. February 2019 · Comments Off · Categories: Literary Good Stuff, Luna

What Do They Drive?

One of those things that I have practically had to make a chart for, when writing about Luna City – is keeping track of the vehicles which the various characters drive; they are mentioned now and again, and over seven (and this year to be eight books) I have to try and be consistent. Car ownership – make, model, style, color and condition – say something about the personality of the driver/owner. Herewith the run-down; as near to complete a listing of those motor vehicles (not necessarily automobiles or trucks) which I have noted in passing:
Berto Gonzalez: he routinely drives an assortment of luxury town cars and limousines as part of being employed by his Uncle Tony, who owns a car-hire service catering to the up-scale market. Berto also routinely drives a rather down-at-heels pickup truck owned by his father; a vehicle with a cracked vinyl seat patched with duct tape. He does not yet own his own personal vehicle, as he has no real need to do so.
Jess Abernathy-Vaughn: a bare-bones yellow Jeep Wrangler.
Joe Vaughn: ordinarily behind the wheel of the Luna City PD’s one cruiser, or one of the department’s sport-utility vehicles. His personal vehicle is a pickup truck, model unspecified, but of solid quality and well-maintained. Joe is fastidious, that way.
Doc Wyler: a very recent model Ford F-150 King Ranch model pickup, with the cattle-brand designed logo of the Wyler Ranch on the doors, and all the add-on bells and whistles. Doc is a man accustomed to the best and has the means to acquire and maintain such.
Sefton and Judy Grant: The Grants operate – and barely manage to keep it street-legal in the eyes of the Karnes County motor vehicle licensing authorities – a vehicle pieced together from an old Volkswagon bus, with a pickup-truck bed welded to the back half of the chassis, behind the driver and passenger seats. The sides of the truck bed and the doors to the driver/passenger compartment are spray-painted with flowers, peace signs and vintage hippie mottoes, in between the rust.
Miss Letty McAllister: she does not drive.
Richard Astor-Hall: he does not drive, either.
Chris Mayall: a recent model Mitsubishi hatch-back; bright red in color. Chris, like Joe, is fastidious about vehicle maintenance, and is still annoyed at the bill for bodywork incurred when he collided with a deer – even though the Gonzalez Motor and Auto Body shop gave him the friends-and-family rate. Chris blames the deer for reckless grazing.

Harry Vaughn: his personal transport – other than the RV which he drove down from Alaska several seasons ago – is a vintage ’66 Lincoln Continental convertible, candy-apple red and in pristine condition. Harry Vaughn is considerable of a chick magnet among the older generation in Luna City. He also has a fifteen-foot aluminum boat with an erratically-functioning outboard motor.
Romeo Gonzales: Romeo, the oil-field worker turned top male model, arrived in Luna City at the wheel of an extended-cab pick-up truck, make and model unspecified, slightly battered but in good condition mechanically. Like many of the Gonzales and Gonzalezes, Romeo is an excellent shade-tree mechanic.
Susanna Wyatt-Gonzales: As a senior executive (now on hiatus from VPI) Susanna, like Doc Wyler, makes enough to indulge in the very best. In her case a late-model, velvet-black Mercedes sedan with custom pink leather interior.
Roman Gonzalez: Another extended-cab pickup truck, of course. Not ostentatiously new, but slightly battered from use, and usually slightly dirty, with a rack carrying several ladders, a big toolbox, and whatever else is required at the job site of the day.
Hernando “Nando” Gonzalez: It’s been almost three decades, but the legend of Nando Gonzalez lives on, in the ritual sounding of the air raid siren every November 1st at 11 AM. Nando drove a an immense, boat-like late 60’s Cadillac into town every day for lunch at the Café – a car which increasingly suffered glancing collisions with curbs, telephone poles, fire hydrants, trash cans, the oak tree at Oak Street and West Town Square, the ornamental bollards in front of the Café itself, and other automobiles – until the then-police chief began sounding the siren in warning.
Xavier Gunnison Penn: An older RV, not in especially good condition, with Gunnison Penn’s treasure-hunting logo and picture emblazoned on the sides.
Luc Massie: Drummer for the band OPM and assistant chef at the café. Luc operates a small red Vespa motorbike.
The Walcott family has several vehicles: Clovis and Sook usually drive a late-model sport utility vehicle, black and with all kinds of automotive bling. They maintain an old Volvo sedan for the use of their teenage children to drive.
Did I miss anyone? Let me know.

So – Luna City Lucky Seven is finished, changes suggested by the Beta readers have been incorporated – and the latest installment of the Luna City Chronicles is ready to roll, pending arrival of the final cover. Which should happen over the weekend, or perhaps early next week. While I wait on that happy event, I’ve been scribbling away on the first couple of chapters of the Civil War novel, and mentally mapping out a few plot points. This novel, tentatively entitled That Fateful Lightening, follows Minnie Templeton Vining, a Boston lady of certain years. She is a die-hard Abolitionist in the years before the war, and a volunteer nurse during it, as outlined in Sunset and Steel Rails, in which she was a secondary or even tertiary character.

This new project requires me to really begin reading up on contemporary accounts and memoirs – of which there exists a large number. Many of the lady volunteers who took up this heartbreaking task of nursing soldiers under desperately primitive conditions wrote about it all afterwards; after all, the Civil war was the pivotal event of 19th century America. For better or worse, the issue of free-or-slave roiled politics and intellectual life for twenty years before, and the aftermath of the fighting left scars which, as of a century and a half later, are still vivid and raw. Thanks to having been a devoted reader of American Heritage as a tween and teen, thanks to Mom’s life-long subscription, I have always known this in outline, and in small tableaus – but not in such depth and detail that I could write convincingly and authoritatively about it from the point of view of a woman completely immersed, day to day, in both these issues.

So – another long, deep immersion in memoirs and letter collections – facilitated by the fact that most of the women who penned accounts of their heroic labors in field hospitals, in organizing fairs and markets to fund the purchase of medical supplies and comforts, and the rounds of public speaking and article-scribbling – are mostly obscure these days; their memoirs, letters and diaries are mostly in the public domain and free. Which is another nice benefit, since I am not anywhere near the income level of those authors who can command huge advances from a publisher, a guest shot on the Today Show, or The View, or a carefully-engineered position on the New York Times best-seller list.

Me at a recent Halloween market, as Queen Victoria

The other nice benefit reading this kind of material is that one is able to absorb the vocabulary, those thought-patterns and attitudes of the time. To me, there is no bigger crime in the historical-novel-scribbling set than that of ‘presentism’ – that is, basically dressing up modern characters in period clothing and having them walk through a 21st century plot. The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there. One might as well start with reading the authentic words of the residents. Histories are a useful adjunct to all this, but the problem with that is that the professionals all have their own biases and perceptions – and since so many of the female Civil War memoirists were concurrently, or later involved in various feminist crusades … I do not want to be put through the necessity of fighting my way through a bramble of biases. The original biases of the ladies involved is quite sufficient, thank you. The third nice benefit is that I can count on running across events, characters, small exchanges which will inspire plot twists and secondary characters for That Fateful Lightening. This turns up interesting things as a result. Well, interesting things to me, hunting scavenger-like for interesting bits of fact, turns of phrase, coincidences, and personalities – I swear, most of the plot turns in the Adelsverein Trilogy came about because I ran into something in the research reading and thought, “Ohhh! This has to be in The Book!”

The first such volume I have begun reading is a collection of letters, letters from and to a once-notable Quaker activist named Abigail Hopper Gibbons; who campaigned for various worthy charities benefiting women and orphaned children, the elderly, abolition of slavery, the Sanitary Comission (which provided medical care for soldiers during the war) the welfare of veterans and woman’s rights. She was happily married, it appears, and raised six children with her husband. Alas, one died as an infant, another at the age of five years old, and a third while in college after an accidental fall. She was a good friend of Lucretia Mott, who was also a very good friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton – all these people tended to know each other, I gather – or at the very least, knew of each other. These ladies and a dozen others of whom I have collected up their memoirs would appear to have been very far from being meek, submissive, conventional image of a Victorian lady, sitting passively in her parlor embroidering and murmuring, “Yes, dear,” while her husband pontificated.

In fact, these ladies, in their corsets and bonnets, and skirts to the toes of their high-buttoned boots, threw themselves into battle-field nursing, operating field kitchens, fund-raising to purchase supplies, and personally overseeing the delivery of those supplies to hospitals. They were real fire-crackers, these ladies – and it’s going to be an adventure, exploring their world and their words.

 

The indy-author scene is not the only thing which has radically changed over the last decade; just the one that I know the best, though having the great good fortune to start as an indy author just when it was economically and technologically possible. It used to be that there were two means of being a published author. There was the traditional and most-respected way, through submission to a publishing house – which, if you were fortunate enough to catch the eye and favor of an editor, meant a contract and an advance, maybe a spot on the much-vaunted New York Times best-seller list. This was a method which – according to the old-timers – worked fairly well, up until a certain point. Some writers who have been around in the game for a long time say that when publishing houses began viewing books as commodities like cereal brands and ‘pushing’ certain brands with favored places on the aisles and endcaps, and treating authors as interchangeable widgets – that’s when the traditional model began to falter. Other experts say that it began when tax law changed to make it expensive to retain inventory in a warehouse. It was no longer profitable to maintain a goodly stock of mid-list authors with regular, if modest sales. Mainstream publishing shifted to pretty much the mindset of Hollywood movie producers, putting all their bets on a straight diet of blockbusters and nothing but blockbusters.

The other means of getting a book out there was what used to be called the “vanity press”, wherein someone with more literary ambition and money than sense and patience paid for a print run of their book, and usually wound up with a garage full of copies. Strictly speaking, this was not such a bad way to get a book in circulation, especially if it was an obscure topic, such as local history or an impatient, new author. Quite a few of the 19th century greats actually kick-started their writing careers by paying for a print run of their own works. My own Tiny Publishing Bidness was launched nearly forty years ago, and some of the local histories which we published, of interest to researchers in the field since they were mostly based on original research go for quite astounding sums on the rare book market.

Three elements have it possible to route around mainstream establishment publishing over the past decade and for independent authors to make a modest living from writing, or at least have a regular income stream. The first was the shift to digital printing from traditional lithographic press; once those big industrial presses begin rolling, there’s a thousand, ten thousand copies of a book printed in a matter of hours, and at a minimal per-item cost, but at a substantial overall expense for whoever was paying for the print run. Digital printing offered an alternative; a slightly higher per-unit cost but producing only as few copies as were required at a time. Almost at once, industrial printers began offering the digital option. New boutique publishers made their services available, for relatively modest sums: format the text to print specs, generate a nice cover, print only as many copies as required, and make the book available to distributors … like Amazon. Amazon’s development of an e-book reader, the Kindle (followed by other reader systems like Barnes & Noble’s Nook) was the third development which upended the traditional publishing industry, eliminating printing, storage and distribution costs in one go. (Although not editing, formatting and marketing expenses.) It doesn’t help that mainstream publishing, or what I’ve been calling “the literary-industrial complex” has been concentrating itself into fewer and larger houses, just about all of them international when they aren’t based in New York and throwing their energies into mass-marketing a diminishing stable of established authors, and through retail channels such as Barnes & Noble.

Curiously, this all has had the effect of leaving the field wide-open for independents like me, to small regional and specialist publishers – like the authors I spend three days with last week at the Word Wrangler Book Festival in Giddings, Texas. The book festival was started thirteen years ago, to benefit the public library in that town. Book submissions are juried by the committee – and the requirement is that the books have a Texas setting or interest. That’s pretty much it – although if they might be of interest to junior readers, that’s a bonus, as the Festival is the focus of school field trips on one of those days. Picture books, self-help, travel, gothic, romance, mystery, thriller, historical fiction – our books ran the whole gamut of interests. Just about every book on display was a quality production, the equal or better of anything produced by the publishing establishment. Indy authors have now been at it long enough to have developed considerable professional skills, either on their own or through networking with freelance talent, and professional organizations like the Texas Association of Authors. This is a paradigm shift that the mainstream publishing establishment wish would go away, if they even admit the existence of it, beyond some snotty remarks about the bad self-published stuff. (Of which there is quite a lot, admittedly. There is also an equal quantity of awful books published through the mainstream, although the copy-editing tends to be a little better.)

The towers of the Literary Industrial Complex are still standing, however cracked the foundations might be. One of the other writers at Word Wrangler has a lovely series of educational picture books. A couple of years ago, she explored the possibilities of the Texas-local HEB grocery chain stocking them, and regretfully decided against it. Accustomed to the good old ways of doing business with established big publishing, retail corporations like HEB have requirements for quantities, returnability, and pricing that simply can’t be met by indy authors and tiny regional publishers. Alan Bourgeois, who founded the Association, has been working with HEB and other companies to adjust their requirements. He has met with some success in this, although a recent meeting with the CEO of Barnes & Noble proved disappointing. The last big box book store chain still standing is still wedded to their old model, of preferring a policy of top-down management, rather than allowing local store managers latitude when it comes to hosting book events with local indy writers and prominently stocking indy-published books. The late lamented Borders and Hastings were much more receptive and responsive, generally. As a footnote and perhaps a harbinger of things to come; a French author, whose latest book was rejected by publishers, apparently because of the subject matter – went to publish it through Amazon … and that book subsequently won a national literary prize. But the French bookstores won’t stock it, because – Amazon has cooties, or something. When establishment publishers and bookstores reject authors whose books are embraced by readers, this does not portend well for doing business in the same old way. In any case, I believe there is not a better time than now for readers and for independent authors.

I cannot say how much the ditching of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name for a yearly award for the best in published books for children and young adults distresses and disappoints me. I am one of those millions of readers who read and adored the Little House books early on, which various volumes my parents presented to me for Christmas and my birthday from the time that I could read – basically from the age of eight on. I would sit down and read the latest gift from cover to cover almost at once, so much did I love the books. After so many decades of honor, respect, and dedicated fanship, after having basically created (along with her daughter) a whole YA genre – historical adventure novels set on the 19th century frontier – LIW is now writer-non-grata, in the eyes of a segment of the American Library Association which deals primarily with library services to kids. Henceforward, sayeth the Association for Library Service to Children, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award will now be called The Children’s Literature Legacy Award, or something equally forgettable. The public reason given for this are two-fold, as nearly as I can deduce.

In certain brief passages of her nine-volume retelling of her childhood on the post-Civil War American frontier, LIW reflected the attitude of wary dislike with regard to the presence of American Indians common to those 19th century Americans, especially those who lived in close proximity to them. In the eyes of tireless social justice warriors, which appear in oversupply in today’s hypersensitive age, this is practically the same as preaching genocide on every page. And in one single chapter, her father and several men of the town put on black-face makeup and performed a minstrel show to entertain their friends. Such a form of entertainment was as popular then as it is considered disgracefully racist today.

So, rather than look honestly at the mores of the past – and perhaps entertain the thought that many of those notions which today we accept merely as conventional wisdom will, in a hundred years or so be held in as much, or greater disfavor than those attitudes held by LIW’s family and neighbors. I wonder though, if the motivations of the members of the Association aren’t just a little more complicated than polishing their social justice credentials. The Little House series presents – more than anything else – the quiet, intimate epic of a strong traditional family; a hard-working, resourceful, loving family, equal to every imaginable hardship going, from frontier isolation, to plagues of insects, bad weather, and grinding poverty. The Ingalls do not lament their lot, as LIW presented them; they make the most of it, and eventually achieve a quiet and modest degree of prosperity.

The Little House series, originally written and published a little short of a hundred years ago, remain overwhelmingly popular. Thousands visit the places which LIW immortalized in her books – the places where she and her sisters lived and grew up, the farm which she and her husband eventually established in Missouri. The TV series very loosely based on the series continued for years. I cannot help wondering if the kind of family and community life thus portrayed in the book series runs counter to everything in those young adult novels currently being pushed upon the younger generation by teachers and the child librarians; books which revel in gloom, despair, dysfunction and nihilism, a kind of literary filboid studge, in which in every grim trope embraced on the page discourages kids from reading. So – a burnishing of social justice credentials or sabotaging a classic series to advantage of contemporary but unreadable books intended for the juvenile consumer? Discuss.

06. June 2018 · Comments Off · Categories: Literary Good Stuff, Luna

Or, half of one, anyway. Titled Memorial Day. (I’m easing back on writing for the moment, being taken up with some other projects, including research for the next couple of historicals. And the household stuff, of course.)

Memorial Day

Jess Abernathy-Vaughn, being of that pale tint of skin which burned and freckled rather than tanned, lounged under the shade of a dark and ultra-violet-ray protective umbrella, planted at a rakish angle, deep into the beach sand at the Gulf-shore side of Galveston Island. She was also slathered with the highest SPF-level sunscreen available over the counter. In spite of not being a fan of sunbathing until one looked more like a leather saddlebag, she was truly enjoying this holiday. A second honeymoon, everyone called it, now that she and Joe had been legally wed for more than a year, and their son was now almost ten months old, and well-able to withstand the baby-sitting ministrations of his great-grandparents, living in the high-ceilinged apartment on the second floor of the ancestral hardware store on Main Square. She watched Joe – as fit and muscular as a classical Greek bronze of an athlete – mastering the use of a boogie-board in the indifferent surf with the same single-minded attention that he brought to every enterprise which took his interest. It killed Joe to not be the best at anything, so he applied himself relentlessly; football, soldiering, law enforcement – and of late, to dedicated fatherhood.

“We’ll be happy to have a baby in the house, once again!” Martha Abernathy exclaimed, even before Jess had ventured the casual boat of her suggestion – that she and Joe spend a luxurious weekend at a Galveston resort destination – onto the tranquil sea of familial relations over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. “Do make the reservations, Jess – you need to take a break now and again! It’s good for a marriage, to make a little time for yourself and your man. Don’t trouble yourself in the least, worrying about Little Joe!”

“Your grandmother has been longing to get her hands on our boy,” Joe grinned when Jess had first tentatively broached the question of a holiday in the sun, surf and sand. That was the evening in Spring Break week, and he had just come home from a tedious day of upholding the law in Luna City, and on the stretch of Route 123 which adjoined the municipality. “Let’s do it, Babe – go back for a weekend, and try and recall the people that we were before becoming a life-support-system for the rug-rat. I’m trying my best to be patient until the day that we can throw the ol’ pigskin around, but I need a break, too.”

Jess sighed. “I can hardly wait until he can cook … Richard swears that he will start teaching him to make a lovely proper mayonnaise as soon as he knows how to handle a whisk…”

“When will that be?” Joe spun his white work Stetson onto the old-fashioned coat-and-hat-rack which stood by the front door of the old cottage on Oak Street and collapsed with a sigh onto the overstuffed sectional sofa – an overstuffed and sprawling thing which took up altogether too much space in the old-fashioned front room, but which was too comfortable to give up entirely. Jess dropped their cooing offspring onto Joe’s mid-section and he yelped, “Ooof! What have you been feeding him, Babe – bricks?”

“Growing boy,” Jess replied, with a remarkable lack of feeling. “You entertain the Soup-Monster for a while I fix supper – tell him mad tales of all the dirtbags you have arrested, and all the speeders you have ticketed … I’ve been talking to him all day about the necessity for retaining receipts for cash business expenses. Among other topics of note.” (Soup-Monster was her nickname for her son, taken from Marsupial Monster, from the early days when she carried him in a baby-sling across her chest.)

“Sounds deathly dull,” Joe replied. Jess sighed with heavy sarcasm as she opened the deep-freeze unit in a corner of the kitchen.

“Attention to such minutia pays the bills for our incredibly lavish life-style,” she called in reply and Joe responded with a hearty horse-laugh. Jess smiled. It pleased and satisfied her to know that she could make Joe laugh. He was wrapped too tight, sometimes – too earnest, too serious entirely. Now, Jamie – she had always been able to make Jamie laugh.

Yes, that pan of frozen lasagna … and a mixed salad to go with, once the lasagna was warmed and bubbling in the oven. Say an hour or so; Jess was also tired; a full day of seeing to her various clients in Luna City, Karnesville and Beeville, driving hither and yon, with Little Joe uncomplaining in his car seat. He was a good baby, for all that. But now and again she really missed the days when she and Joe went out for burgers or pizza as impulse took them, or drove into San Antonio for a meal at one of the Riverwalk restaurants, a table on one of the outside terraces, overlooking the river, the lights that twinkled like fireflies in those monumental cypress trees lining the artfully-channelized river, while live music spilled from one of the other places, and she and Joe people-watch in the twilight, as swifts and grackles swooped into their night roosts. All that without the labor of hauling the Soup-Monster and the heavy freight of his impedimenta – the diaper bag, the stroller, the baby-car-seat and all that along with them.

No – a weekend of leisure in Galveston would be just the ticket. Jess covered the lasagna with tinfoil, turned the oven to 350 and went to join her menfolk, just as Little Joe grinned at his father, an open and uninhibited grin which revealed all of two new baby teeth in his lower jaw. Jess’s heart turned over in her chest – the child looked so like Joe, it was uncanny, even to his tiny nose, which gave a hint of the ancestral Vaughn beakiness, even now. A miracle, the blending of her blood, flesh and bones with Joe’s – and yet, Little Joe was his own person, even at the age of eight months! A whole, new, original, and miraculous little person … again, Jess thanked with her whole heart for Miss Letty’s wise advice.

“Supper in about fifty minutes,” she said, as he settled onto the sectional next to Joe. “Give me twenty minutes, I’ll feed the Soup-Monster and put him down to sleep, so that we can have supper in peace.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Joe replied. “And the weekend thing, too. Let’s go for it, Babe. We need a break, some R-and-R, you know. Be good for the Monster to learn how to wind the grands around his little finger.”

“Share the blessings,” Jess leaned her head against Joe’s substantial shoulder, the one with the uniform patch embroidered with the city logo of the Luna City Police Department sewn upon it. Another brief moment of pure contentment; Gram and Grumpy had insisted that such in retrospect would be considered the happiest times of their lives. Jess had of late begun to see that her grandparents were right about that.

Now she watched Joe abandon the mild surf, the boogie-board under his arm, striding up through the receding surf, which cast a brief swath of lacy bubbles across the white sand. He collapsed with a brief grunt onto the spread beach towel at her side. Jess spared a covert and concerned glance at him. She’d bet anything his knees were giving him hell again. Good thing she had packed a bottle of extra-strength Motrin. She would mildly suggest that he take a few before they went out for dinner, and hope that he would take the suggestion.

“How’s the water?” She asked. Joe chuckled.

“Salty and wet, Babe.”

“It’s the ocean, it goes without saying.”

Joe lay back in the shade with a sigh. “Thought about where to go for dinner? I’ve an appetite for fish tacos. That place on Seawall with the two big-ass balconies overlooking the Gulf would suit me fine. OK with you?”

“Perfect,” Jess agreed. “A bit noisy, but we can go early… it’s an anniversary for us, you know. We can celebrate.”

“Oh?” Joe raised an eyebrow, and Jess grinned.

“The first time we seriously kissed … and umm. Other stuff.”

“Oh, that.” Now Joe grinned, reminiscently. “After the Memorial Day pig-roast at the V, you had too much to think, and I walked you home? Yeah, I remember.” The grin widened into an expression of outright lewd reminiscence. “Hoo, boy – do I remember, Babe! I was so damned glad you didn’t punch me in the nuts when I made the first move…”

“Joseph P. Vaughn, you are no gentleman!” Jess exclaimed with an attempt at a Scarlett O’Hara exaggerated Southern accent and swatted at her husband with her discarded tee-shirt top. Which launched a good quantity of sand at him – but he just chuckled again and lay back on his spread beach towel.

“No regrets though, Babe?” he said, and Jess shook her head.

“No regrets, Joe.”

14. May 2018 · Comments Off · Categories: Literary Good Stuff

So … even as I am starting research on the American Revolution-era novel, I am moved to start on another — about Minnie Templeton Vining, who was a peripheral character in Daughter of Texas, and in Sunset and Steel Rails.

A blue-stocking and a crusader, and … stuff. At mid-century, where there were a lot of things going on.

Enjoy. I don’t quite know where this will finish out … but Minnie is a ferocious abolitionist. And perhaps has other involvement in the Underground Railroad. It all depends…

Chapter 1 – A Lady of Leisure

A week after the reading of her father’s will, Minnie Templeton Vining sat in the old-fashioned parlor of her father’s tall house on Beacon Street with her sister-in-law Annabelle, while an errant spring breeze stirred the curtains … as well as the festoons of black crepe which adorned the façade of the Vining mansion. Narrow windows of the austere classical style that had been the height of architectural fashion early in the century now overlooked the broad avenue and leafy avenues and meadows of the Common and the public gardens beyond. The room within was furnished in the old manner; chairs, tables and shelves made in the austere style of two generations past, of polished wood sparingly ornamented, for the late Lycurgus Agrippa Vining resisted any change in the mansion in which he had ruled over as absolute dictator for half a century. The paintings and portraits, blue and white China trade porcelain, ranks of books in solid leather bindings, somber dark-red brocade upholstery, and very old-fashioned crewel-embroidered curtains – all testified at least as much to the wealth and pride of the family as to their magnificent disinclination to follow mere fashion … and thereby waste any portion of that wealth on transiently popular fripperies.

“So the house and a substantial income are yours to control absolutely!” Annabelle marveled, as she added sugar to the cup of tea which Minnie had poured from a silver pot which was one of the Vining’s treasured possessions, coming as it had from the workshop of the great Boston silver artisan, Paul Revere. In one of the account books in the old Judge’s study and library was preserved a bill made out in Revere’s own spidery handwriting, for that very teapot and a dozen silver spoons to be adorned with acorns and oak leaves.

“Indeed,” Minnie set down the teapot with a gentle clinking sound and took up her own refreshed cup. She was a confirmed spinster, being something somewhere in her fourth decade; a woman of decidedly firm opinions – and yet attractive to the eye for all of that, at least to those who entertained a taste for fine-boned features, and arresting blue-grey eyes, animated by a formidable and unsparing intelligence. “Cousin Peter is to be my trustee – but he is too sensible a man to attempt any thought of treating with me as if I were a silly child in need of correction and protection.”

“I should say not!” Annabelle chuckled. “One might very well try to rope and ride one of those wild bison creatures of the plains. Your dear brother – my late husband – told me such a tale of the President of Texas shooting one of those dreadful beasts in the streets of the capitol of that benighted place!” The humor briefly departed from Annabelle’s pleasant countenance. She was a slender woman of about forty years, the same age as Minnie – and like Minnie, garbed in the darkest black of mourning for father and father-in-law. They had been friends since their earliest childhood, indulged by their parents, friends of the heart, as well as of marital and distant blood connections. And Annabelle was a Saltinstall connection, which counted for something in Boston.

“My brother had many tales to tell of his travels,” Minnie acknowledged, although she held deep in her heart the one which she would never distress Annabelle by telling – of that low-bred woman in farthest Texas, the one who had cohabitated with her youngest brother, and bred four nasty brats with him, or perhaps some other man, no matter what her brother claimed was a proper marriage in that benighted place. That was a deathbed secret and confession she would take to her own grave, rather than distress Annabelle with revealing it. Annabelle was his wife in the eyes of the law and of Boston. That woman in Texas was a nobody and of no character at all. Annabelle – dear, innocent Annabelle – deserved a measure of peace of mind, if not happiness, in the wake of a marriage-not-marriage to a husband who was never present in Boston but always gone on interminable ocean voyages and travels in a vain attempt to recover his health.

“Telling the absolute truth can often be a brutal cruelty,” her father, Judge Vining was wont to say. “Consider well the costs of relieving your own conscience, Minerva, if that cost comes at the expense of another’s peace of mind and happiness.”

“He did, indeed,” Annabelle smiled, ruefully. Her husband – Minnie’s youngest brother – was dead some eight years past, in this very house. The consumption took him, painfully, on his final return. Minnie did not like to think of that even now, or the embarrassing situation which had brought him home for that one last time. “You were such an angel, Minnie – nursing him through those last awful days. Need I say again how grateful I was for that? It was all such a tangle – Sophia having just married, and in such difficulty with her first child. It was all that I could do to attend on my dearest little girl, night and day … I feared so much for her! Richard was a treasure in her travails, of course – but a husband is not so attentive as a mother – or a sister would be!”

“It is what we do, my dear – for those whom we love,” Minnie replied, whereupon her sister-in-law sighed.

“So we do, Minnie,” and her expression brightened with genuine curiosity. “Now – that you are a spinster of independent means, and your dear father is enjoying his heavenly reward; what will you do with yourself, and this establishment?”

Minnie set down her teacup and regarded the parlor; hers and hers alone, to do with as she thought fit. This was a heady feeling, and Minnie longed to stretch her wings and soar, soar on the pleasant updraft of a generous income and control over it, after two decades and more of being bound by obligation to family. Truth to tell, she had not minded all that very much. Papa-the-Judge (for so she always thought of him) may have been a magisterial and terrifying parent to his sons, employees, and those brought before him at the Bar, but his only daughter had always had an especially affectionate bond with her father. Her mother – dead in childbirth with her – had been the Judges’ second wife for a brief time.

“A clever woman,” Papa-the-Judge had often said, on those rare occasions when he had been moved to speak of such personal things. “Bold as brass, fearless – she was a spy in the late war, Minnie – did I tell you of that?”

“Yes, you did, Papa – often,” Minnie had replied.

During his last days on this earth, Papa-the-Judge had often patted her hand, at the conclusion of maundering about in his reminiscences, and promised, “Well, then, Minnie – you are to be well-provided for, my girl, since you aren’t inclined to matrimony. I’ll have Peter as your advisor, but he’s a sensible man. Have seen too it, y’see. The only intelligent female child of my blood … the image of your mother. She was a spy, you know. Carried messages for Doctor Warren’s network, back in the day when the bloody Lobsterbacks. Bold as brass, although she was only a bit of a child when I first lay eyes on her … she would want to see you holding to your own independency”

“I know, Papa,” Minnie would answer. She knew very well that she was the image of her mother. There was a small framed portrait painted on ivory in Papa-the-Judge’s monumental desk, secreted in one of the small drawers, which Minnie knew the secret to opening. When she was younger, she had often compared the painted features to her own, reflected in the small elaborate glass mirror which hung opposite the window in Papa-the-Judge’s study. And in any case – Cousin Peter, and others who had known her mother had often commented on the likeness.

No, she would not change the parlor, or Papa-the-Judge’s library, or even all that much about the house. All too dear and familiar, and now it was all to be hers, to order as she liked … but Minnie felt a restlessness in her. It was, she thought, like one of Annabelle’s songbirds, looking out from an elaborate silver cage, to which the door was open, wanting to spread her wings … yet wondering if she yet dared.

Yes. She did. Minnie sipped from her own teacup, and then set it down again with a tiny, decisive clink against the saucer.

“I have decided to go traveling,” she announced. “Oh, not terribly far, Annabelle – just as far as Charleston, and then for a stay in Richmond in Virginia. Cousin Peter has kin by marriage in Charleston. His daughter and her husband ministers – he is in orders, you know – to a very respectable parish in Richmond. They have written, extending their hospitality. I am of a mind to accept. Would you like to accompany me? I would welcome your companionship.”

“For how long, do you plan to remain abroad from Boston?” Annabelle regarded Minnie with an anxious expression, and Minnie smiled in a manner calculated to reassure.

“Not terribly long – for the length of the summer, and return in time to celebrate Little Richie’s birthday, of course. It is …” and Minnie sighed. “My dear, I long to escape these walls for a time, and refresh my soul by gazing on new vistas. I beg you to accompany me, for the sake of respectability. And …” she shot her sister-in-law a severe glance. “It would be energizing for the both of us. We are both allowed a certain considerable degree of freedom by our status as widow and spinster? Why not explore, as far as we are allowed by the strictures of decent society? Why should we be kept mewed up in our little tiny parlors, like falcons wearing blinding hoods, when we might soar?”

“Because …” Annabelle began, irresolutely, and Minnie couldn’t keep herself from snorting.

“Because, fiddlesticks. I have a purse and the inclination, and I want to do something other than sit in my parlor, see that the maids dust the furniture properly and take calls on my at-home day. There is a larger world and great causes to fight for, Annabelle – shouldn’t we begin claiming parts of it for our own, rather than just live as silly simpering angels in the house?” She fixed her sister-in-law with her most ferociously-determined expression, and – as Minnie had been certain that she would – Annabelle crumbled.

“Of course, I will accompany you,” her sister-in-law yielded with a sigh. “But … have you set a date for commencing this … this project of yours. And … I suppose I shall not require any winter things in my trunks…”

“Next month, I think,” Minnie replied, in secret relief. “I shall have to see to the arrangements, and consult with Cousin Peter, of course. But oh!” she smiled and took Annabelle’s hand in her joyful embrace. “It will be such fun!”

03. January 2018 · Comments Off · Categories: Domestic, Literary Good Stuff, Luna

The next Luna City installment will be called A Half Dozen of Luna City – and herewith a snippet of one of the stories.)

Five Men and a Baby
“The whole thing came up at the last minute,” Joe Vaughn groaned. He sat at one of the picnic tables out in back of the VFW, while a mild spring breeze stirred the leaves of the monumental sycamore tree overhead. Sitting in a monumental car-seat/baby carrier/rocker set on the table top, the infant Little Joe sucked on his tiny pink fist and regarded those gathered for guest night with eyes which had already gone as dark as blackberries. “I’ve been subpoenaed to testify in a court case – Monday in San Antonio. Not in Karnesville, which would be a walk in the park. God knows how long the trial will drag on; guarantee I’ll be sitting on my ass in the Bexar County courthouse for a week, at least.”
“I don’t see what the problem is,” replied Richard, sitting across from Joe and nursing a very respectable ale produced by a local small brewer. Really, he reflected privately – there were subtle advantages to this place, which no one coming from the outside would ever have considered. It was guest night at the VFW; he was enjoying the ale, and the company of Joe, Berto, Chris, Sylvester Gonzalez, and Jerry Walcott.
Joe sighed, heavily for dramatic effect. “Baby-sitting, Ricardo. Jess is away at the Methodist women’s retreat as of yesterday – until next Sunday.”
“So?” Richard sank another satisfying draft of ale and ventured a friendly wink at Little Joe – who merely chomped again on his baby fist and scowled in reply.
“Everyone – that is, every one of our female kin is also on that same retreat,” Joe answered glumly. “Every single one of them. Even Miss Letty – she would advise me as to who would be a good fill-in. Pat and Araceli chose this weekend for a get-away to the coast for some relaxation, or I would ask them. Look, guys – this is Jess and mine own first-born child. Handing him off to strangers, or giggly teenagers for a week is just not an option.”
“Tell me about it,” Richard acknowledged in a morose tone of voice. Beatriz and Blanca were filling in adequately, as far as front of the house service went – between giggling, and Robbie Walcott helped out at the back – but dammit, this was a disruption to his routine! Richard did not welcome disruptions, or handle them gracefully when they occurred.
“What about your parents?” Berto Gonzales asked, in a tone of voice which suggested an attempt at being helpful.
“Off on a Caribbean cruise,” Joe replied, dolefully. “They flew out yesterday – not back until two weeks.” He fetched up a deep sigh, from the very core of his being. “Screwed, blued and tattooed, guys. I need a babysitter for Little Joe … else I am taking him into the Bexar County Courthouse every day, and giving him to the bailiff to hold, when I am called to the witness stand.”
“What’s the problem with that?” Berto asked, in genuine curiosity, and Joe sighed again.
“Look – the bailiffs aren’t there to do that job. And anyway – have you seen the stuff you have to take along with a baby? They search everything. It will take me half the day just to get through security at the courthouse alone. God – think of the bugs that he would be exposed to! Just from being in that old building, with all those people! He’s too young to be exposed to all those viral cruds; kindergarten is soon enough.”
“They’re so small,” mused Sylvester, dapper in his usual retro-nerd wardrobe – today a pair of classic chinos and a fetching short-sleeved aloha shirt printed with images of palm trees, surfers and pineapples. “Babies, I mean – but all their stuff! It takes up so much space!”
“Tell me about it,” Joe grunted. Under the table was a diaper and sundries bag the size of a small steamer trunk.
“We could take care of him for you, Joe,” Jerry Walcott was home in Luna City for the weekend; a gentle and competent late-twenty-something, who worked as a nurse at the Karnesville Medical Center. “Seriously,” Jerry added, in serene response to the skeptical looks on the faces of the other men at the table. “I did my last rotation in pediatrics. It’ll be a gas to look after a healthy kid. Serious, you guys.”
“I can help, Berto offered. “It’s spring break. I gotta help Papi at the garage during the day, though.”
“I’m done at the Tip-Top ‘bout half-past five every evening,” Chris ventured, thoughtfully. “And Ricardo – you’re free in the afternoons, aren’t you?”
“Well…” Richard temporized. “I’m busy at the Café from about five in the morning until after lunch.”
“We can do it in shifts,” Sylvester pulled out a small spiral notebook. “When are you done at the hospital, Jerry?”
“Six AM,” Jerry replied, and Richard protested, “Look, chaps – I don’t know anything about caring for infants. I’ve barely worked up to having a cat…”
“Nothing to it,” Jerry answered. “Bottle at one end, clean diapers at the other, keep them from being too hot or too cold…”
“A piece of cake, as long as I don’t confuse one end with the other,” Richard meant to sound derisive, but both Berto and Jerry were impervious to sarcasm, and in any case, Sylvester was already mapping out a schedule.
“Ok, five of us – we can cover the baby-sitting duties round the clock. Four hours and forty-five minutes each – no sweat.”
In the space of five minutes and another round of drinks, Sylvester had worked out a rotation, while Jerry gave a swift demonstration of applying a bottle to the appropriate end of Little Joe and a diaper (accompanied by hygienic wipes and sticky white diaper-rash ointment) to the other. Berto and Sylvester volunteered to spend their nights at Joe and Jess’s house for their shifts – “Hey, the kid can sleep nights in his own bed, ‘kay?”. At around 6:30, when Jerry got home from the hospital, he would take Little Joe for nearly five hours. Then – it would be Richard’s turn, for the afternoon, until Chris finished at the Tip-Top. The plan had Chris delivering Little Joe home to Sylvester and Berto after supper, to begin the whole cycle again. Still, Joe’s expression as he looked around the table, and regarded his offspring was one torn between gratitude and worry.
“I owe you guys,” he confessed at last. “But I dunno about handing him around like a hot potato. I mean, Jess will have a conniption fit…”
“Babies thrive on the stimulation,” Jerry said. “And doesn’t Jess take him with her, when does her client consultations?”
“Yes, but …”
“I don’t see the difference,” Jerry said. “If he’s used to it, he probably likes it.”
Richard had a feeling that Joe didn’t precisely agree – but in the face of a workable solution, he had no other choice.
“We’ll start on Monday,” Sylvester folded away his notebook, after writing down a copy of the schedule for everyone else. “Any questions?”
Richard briefly considered asking for release from the rota – but then he considered Little Joe, and his own long-term plans to inculcate an appreciation for good food into a younger generation – and really, how much younger could you get than a six-month old? This merited careful consideration, but when he asked it of the table, both Jerry and Joe laughed.
“At this age? Rice cereal, and not much of it,” Jerry replied, and Joe snorted.
“Mother’s milk. No – really. The fridge is full – Jess began stocking up weeks ago.”
“Moth – oh, I see,” Richard considered that he had already looked enough of an idiot in front of the others; best now enjoy the weekend, before flinging himself into the baby-minding rota.

He had nearly forgotten about it all – or at least, shoved the trepidations to the farthest and most neglected corner of his mental attic, when the Café’s door opened and shut to a musical jingle, and Jerry appeared, with the baby – a tiny pink-faced morsel dwarfed by a monumental stroller. Richard could verily swear that he had seen smaller motorcycle sidecars. The enormous necessity bag was stowed at the back of the stroller. With some difficulty, Jerry maneuvered it through the dining room and into the kitchen. Richard was there alone; Robbie and the girls having capably dealt with the with the most immediate pressing post-lunch-rush chores.
“Here we are!” Jerry announced. “Little Joe is all ready to spend quality time with Unca Richard.” He almost succeeded in concealing a yawn. “He’s already had his midday bottle – you’ll want to give him another just before five. It’s in the side pocket of his ditty-bag with an ice-pack to keep cold. Just warm it up before you give it to him. Blood warm is about the right temperature. Remember, how I showed you how to hold him for feeding? Yeah, that. Remember to burp him, when he’s done – and check his diaper, too – he’ll probably poop again, just to make room for the fresh intake.”
“What do I do with the little … little tyke until then?” Richard demanded. He had almost made himself forget his promised child-minding obligation.”
“No idea,” Jerry yawned again. “Talk to him. Play simple games, pay attention to him, stimulate his imagination. That is, when he isn’t sleeping, eating, or pooping. Use your own … sorry … imagination. See you tomorrow, the same time. Chris will take over from you at five-thirty.” Upon delivering this dispiriting intelligence, Jerry took himself out the door – the bell chiming musically. Little Joe and Richard looked at each other.
“Goosh,” commented Little Joe, blowing a spit-bubble. It sounded philosophical; neither hostile or overly-affectionate.
“The same to you, my little man,” Richard replied. Well, that took care of the social niceties. “Look, sport – you’re a little young to become a kitchen apprentice. And I’m told that … well, you aren’t quite old enough to start cultivating a sophisticated palate. How about just keeping me company while I prep for tomorrow?”
“Goob-gurgle,” replied Little Joe with perfect amiability.
“Right then,” Richard said, and fetched one of the three high-chairs from the front of the house, setting it up next to the big all-purpose table which served as prep-space. Summoning up all of his nerve and silently sending up a prayer to the heavens that he not inadvertently damage the little sprout in any way, shape or form – since Joe and Jess between them had the capacity and will to inflict horrific damage on anyone who harmed a single one of the barely-visible hairs on the head of their tiny offspring – he lifted Little Joe from the stroller and settled him into the high chair. Regarding his handiwork, Richard thought the infant was sagging a little too far to one side in the chair – which would accommodate a much larger child. A pair of small cushions wedged in on either side of Little Joe did the trick. The two of them regarded each other solemnly across the worktable, and Richard continued his prepping for the following day’s business.
“Cinnamon rolls,” Richard ventured. “It’s cinnamon rolls for tomorrow.”
“Goo-goosh!” commented Little Joe, and Richard was heartened. Didn’t Jerry advise talking to the little sprout? Stimulate his development, or some such child-rearing mumbo-jumbo. “They’re a mainstay at the Café, don’t you know – well, you should. I think your Mum had one every morning. So – here’s the dough for them. Been rising in the warmer for a couple of hours. Now, this is the mixture that goes onto the dough, once I have patted it out just so. Light on the flour, by the way…” he continued in this vein, as if he were explaining and training a new apprentice, as he worked the dough with the expertise of long practice, and the yeasty odor of newly-risen dough filled the workspace. Little Joe was even drooling a bit. “Pity you’re just not old enough for a taste,” Richard commiserated. “Never mind, young-chappie-my-lad; soon enough, soon enough.”

19. November 2017 · Comments Off · Categories: Literary Good Stuff

The last two weekends of scheduled marketing events, in anticipation of the Christmas holiday season … no, strike that – the last two weekends, and the marketing events in October as well – have just not produced the sales figures that my daughter and I had expected, based on previous leading-into-holiday events. The October events were supposed to fund the November and December events, but those anticipated sales just did not happen; one of them fell to inclement weather, another to plenty of people looking, but darned little buying. So we could not venture into things like Dickens on Main in Boerne, as we had planned, and we were too late for another go at Johnson City for the courthouse lighting, as we did last year. I was even too late to sign up for Saturday in the Author Hall at the New Braunfels Weihnachtsmarkt, and had to make do with Friday instead. While we did at least, recover the table fees and then a bit, it’s a lot of work and energy for very little return.

This is not just our judgement, but in commiserations with other vendors; they also experienced the same bafflement – plenty of shoppers at well-established and well-advertised event, not over-pricing the goods, we worked the crowd and engaged with shoppers, instead of sitting behind the table looking at our Kindles and iPads … but with disappointing results. We speculate that perhaps we have worked the weekly market days dry, after having been profitable over the previous three years. My daughter wants to do more of the art events, specifically in San Marcos, and I’d prefer more book-oriented events and author appearances, where at least people are primed to expect to consider books. The one good thing about book events, is that I am at the point where doing an appearance brings invitations to do others (and bring books to sell!) which is not nearly as labor-intensive as an all day, or a two-day market.

So – a slight rethinking of my marketing strategy, as well as signing on to Patreon, and committing to producing good bloggy ice cream for patrons and backers, while I work on the next book – tentatively entitled When the Lanterns are Lit. Which, if you like, is kind of a circle around to how I went about funding publishing of To Truckee’s Trail – friends, fans and readers made contributions to cover the costs of publishing it through a POD house, when interesting a mainstream agent and establishment publisher in the manuscript for it fell through. What goes around, keeps on coming around, I guess.

When we do a market or book event – my daughter takes care to put out all of my books along whatever table or display space that we have in chronological order. Eight of them are historicals, and can be described as a family saga, in that a good few characters appear in various books – although not always as a main character. Even so, I have taken good care that all my books (Chronicles of Luna City excepted) are self-contained; it’s not one of those series where you have to read each book in rigid order to make sense out of it all. (Personally, I hate those kinds of series.) But the Adelsverein Trilogy, and the five books which share the same four family trees span the years between 1825 and 1900 – mostly, but not exclusively in Texas. To Truckee’s Trail is set in 1844-45, on the California-Oregon Trail, but stands apart from these eight. Lone Star Sons is set in Texas in the 1840s, and has Jack Hays as an ongoing character – but is also stands apart. The Luna City series is set in modern-day Texas, and is completely different in tone, being more a gentle comedic diversion.

With that out of the way – this is the breakdown, in chronological order, for those readers who do want to read them that way:
Dot cover - smallerDaughter of Texas: Runs from 1825, and begins with the Becker family arriving in Texas: Margaret, her brothers Rudi and Carl, her parents Alois and Maria. The narrative deals with early days in the entrepreneur settlements of San Felipe-on-the-Brazos, and Gonzalez, Margaret’s marriage to the local school-teacher, Horace “Race” Vining, the build-up to and the outbreak of the War for Independence, the Runaway Scrape and the battle of San Jacinto. The remainder of the book tells of Margaret’s life in the tiny settlement of Waterloo, which became Austin, up to the year 1840 and the death of her first husband, under circumstances which set up plot elements of Sunset and Steel Rails – which is set a generation and forty-five years later. Besides Margaret, her brother Carl and her son Peter Vining as an infant, this book introduces the characters of Daddy Hurst, and sisters Hetty and Morag Moylan, carpenter and part-time soldier Seamus O’Doyle and Dr. Henry Williamson. Sam Houston, Harry Karnes, James Bowie, William B. Travis, Susannah Dickinson and her daughter, and those members of the Gonzalez Ranging company who went to the relief of the Alamo, Deaf Smith, Mirabeau B. Lamar, and Angelina Eberly are some of the historic figures which appear in this book.

Deep in the Heart Cover - 800 pxDeep in the Heart: This book runs from 1841 to 1847, and overlaps some of the events and developments in Adelsverein: The Gathering – although there is a brief “bookend” introduction and afterwards set in 1865, as the Civil War ends. This narrative follows Margaret and her four sons and her friends: she is a widow running a boarding-house in Austin catering to members of the legislature. Her younger brother Carl serves as one of Jack Hays’ Rangers, fighting Comanche war parties in the unsettled Hill Country, the invading Mexican army at the Salado Creek fight, and barely surviving the Battle of Monterrey during the Mexican-American War. The main narrative ends with Margaret’s second marriage. Historical figures appearing in this book include Sam and Margaret Houston, Angelina Eberly, Jack Hays and many real-life residents of contemporary Austin.

 

The Gathering Cover - smallAdelsverein: The Gathering runs from 1844 to 1849. Carl Becker is a major character here; Margaret makes a very brief appearance. This book is about the recruitment and emigration of German settlers by the Mainzer Adelsverein and their arrival in Texas – in this story, represented by the Steinmetz and Richter families: Christian Steinmetz, his wife Hannah, step-daughter Magda Vogel, his sons Johann and Friedrich “Fredi” and his daughter Liesel, who is married to Hans “Hansi” Richter and has two children with him; Anna and an infant named Joachim. The narrative follows their journey – first by sailing ship across the Atlantic, and by wagon train to first New Braunfels, and then to the new town of Fredericksburg, where they happily settle and begin to build prosperous new lives for themselves. The Steinmetz and Richter families are fictional, as are their friends, the Altemeullers – but most of their neighbors in the new settlements are historical figures, including John Meusebach and the innkeeper C.H. “Charley” Nimitz. Prince Karl of Solms-Braunfels appears in this volume, along with his retinue, Jack Hays (again), Indian agent Robert Neighbors, Samuel Maverick, his wife and their household. One minor character – Porfirio Menchaca, the Tejano horse-wrangler at Carl Becker’s ranch, who appears at the end of this book, is the son of an old friend of Horace Vining’s, as mentioned in Daughter of Texas. Porfirio appears as a minor character in the subsequent Adelsverein Trilogy books, and in The Quivera Trail.

9780989782289-Perfect.inddThe Golden Road: This book follows the teenaged Friedrich “Fredi” Steinmetz to the gold fields of California during the years 1855-59. It was mentioned in Adelsverein: The Sowing, and in Sunset and Steel Rails that Fredi followed the Gold Rush, but without any particular success that he wished to talk about later. During those years, Fredi works as a cattle drover, freight hauler, washes dishes in a saloon, sells newspapers on the street, rides for an express mail company, and serves as bodyguard/stagehand for Lotta Crabtree, as she and her mother tour the gold mines. He does pan a little gold, too, in company with a mysterious and musical Irishman named Polydore O’Malley, who may be wanted in England for an attempt on the life of Queen Victoria. Or not. O’Malley is fictional, but Fredi does encounter a number of historical characters, some before they became famous – or notorious – including Sally Skull, Jack Slade, Charles Goodnight, Roy Bean, Juaquin Murrietta, William T. Sherman, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Old Virginny Finney, Lotta Crabtree, and Ulysses S. Grant.

Cover The Sowing - smallAdelsverein: The Sowing. The second volume of the Adelsverein Trilogy covers the Civil War years, 1860-65, chiefly following the lives of Carl and Magda Becker and their family, Hansi and Liesel Richter and their children during that time. The main narrative ends with the wedding of Magda and Liesel’s adopted young sister Rosalie to a returning Confederate soldier at the end of the war. There are a pair of brief “bookends” – opening and closing the book, set around 1910 with the aged Magda telling several of her grandchildren and greatgrandchildren of what happened during the war. Magda’s brothers Johann and Fredi appear briefly, as does Porfirio Menchaca. Historical characters appearing in this book include (again) Jack Hays, Dr. Ferdinand Herff of San Antonio, Dr.Wilhelm Keidel of Fredericksburg, and a leader of the notorious “hanging band”, J.P. Waldrip.

 

The Harvesting Cover - smallAdelsverein: The Harvesting – This book picks up at the end of the Civil War, slightly overlapping events in the last chapter of The Sowing. The first chapters deal with the experience of Peter Vining, the youngest son of Margaret and “Race” Vining returning to the family home in Austin. He and the small son of his oldest brother are the only surviving males in the family. His three older brothers died at Gettysburg, he is an amputee – and both Margaret and Dr. Williamson have died as well. For lack of a better alternative, he travels to Fredericksburg in the Hill Country and takes employment with Hansi Richter, who has gone into the freight hauling and general store business, along with Fredi Steinmetz and Carl Becker’s oldest son, Dolph. The main narrative concludes in 1876, with Magda receiving news that Dolph has courted and married an Englishwoman. During the course of this book, the younger generation moves more to the front and center: Dolph Becker, his younger brother Sam, Peter Vining, Hansi Richter’s daughter Anna, and Magda’s daughter Hannah. Again, there is a ‘bookend’ beginning and ending, set in 1918, with Magda recollecting events for her youngest daughter Lottie, serving as a volunteer nurse at a military hospital during the great influenza pandemic.


The Quivera Trail
: This book slightly overlaps Adelsverein: The Harvesting, as it begins in 1875 with Dolph Becker courting Isobel Cary-Groves, a titled English aristocQuiveraTrai; Cover 1 - Smallerrat with a desperate need to marry … marry anyone. The main narrative follows Isobel and her very young ladies’ maid, Jane Goodacre as they journey to Texas and begin building new lives for themselves. Alternate chapters deal with their experiences and perceptions as Isobel builds confidence in herself and trust in her husband, and Jane – against her own expectations – develops a sense of independence and falls in love. Magda and her daughter Lottie, Hansi and Liesel Richter appear as supporting characters, as do Peter Vining and his wife, Anna Richter. Hetty Moylan and Morag’s daughter Jemima-Mary also appear. Historic characters appearing include the gunman John Wesley Hardin, and Lizzie Johnson Williams, famous as a woman rancher of the period. The character of Wash Charpentier, champion cowboy, is based on Nate Love, an early rodeo champion – who retired from cowboying to become a Pullman porter. The narrative concludes in the late 1870s, although there is an afterward, set in 1918.

 

9780989782050-Perfect.inddSunset and Steel Rails: This narrative is divided into three parts, set in 1884, 1890 and 1900, following the experiences of Sophia Brewer, the granddaughter of Horace “Race” Vining by his wife in Boston. Jilted by her fiancée, bullied and exploited by her older brother, Sophia escapes by taking another name and employment as a Harvey Girl. Finding love and happiness at last, Sophia’s family and friends are threatened by the horrific Galveston Hurricane of 1900. Fredi Steinmetz is a major character in this book. Magda Becker, her daughter Lottie and daughters-in-law Isobel and Jane also appear, as do Peter and Anna Vining, Peter’s nephew Horrie, and George Richter – an infant in The Gathering, and a Confederate Army teamster in The Harvesting. Wash Charpentier, the cowboy turned Pullman porter also appears. Historical characters include Fred Harvey himself, his son and business partner David Benjamin, and cowboy-turned Pinkerton detective Charlie Siringo.
And that’s the run-down – all in order, for those who wish to follow the fortunes of several linked families over 75 years, or who have favorite characters among them. Enjoy!

Some time ago and in another blog-post I wondered if it were possible for those with conservative and libertarian leanings to develop some kind of secret password, or handshake with which to identify themselves to new-met acquaintances who might possibly share those inclinations. We tend to be polite, do not relish open confrontation – and really, why pick unnecessary fights with neighbors, casually-met strangers, distant kin, or fellow workers? Most times, it just is not worth the hassle, or the chance of turning a casual social interaction or relationship turning toxic. Most of us do not eat, sleep, dream, live politics twenty-four-seven, anyway. But it certainly is pleasant to discover someone of like sympathies, usually after a few rounds of warily sounding them out, and assuring them that no, we will not come unglued if they confess to having voted for or liked (insert political figure or philosophy here).

But I think that I have hit upon a handy shorthand method for discerning the political sympathies of another without coming outright and asking. This insight came about through following a couple of libertarian-leaning or conservative blogs – Sarah Hoyt and Wretchard at Belmont Club being two of the more notable – and noting that the principals and many of their commenters all seemed au courant with Kipling.

Lines from “The Gods of the Copybook Headings“When ‘Omer Smote ‘is Bloomin’ Lyre”, “The Sons of Martha” “The Three-Decker” and “Dane-geld” or “The Wrath of the Awakened Saxon” and any number of other poems from the pen of the Glorious Rudyard were tossed about with abandon, along with references to various short stories and novels. Tags and lines from these poems and others were almost a currency in comment threads at these websites and blogs.
If you like Kipling … then you are likely to be some stripe of conservative, libertarian, or an original independent. I have not much of an explanation of why this should be so, other than that Kipling was an unparalleled master of storytelling, and his poems – traditional in the sense that they had a rhyme and meter – sometimes are still topical and always quotable. He has been out of fashion among the mainstream intellectuals and tastemakers for going on a century; In the place of the story-teller and poet there is a massive straw-image of him, labeled with every nasty -ism that can be applied; imperialist, racist, and so on and so forth. Die-hard fan of British imperialism – or not – he certainly was an acute observer of the institution and of his times. Perhaps it is the clear-eyed observer part of the Glorious Rudyard that appeals. Any other explanation would be welcomed, but the correlation between a liking for Kipling and conservative leanings is pretty well marked in my mind. Your thoughts?

24. December 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: History, Literary Good Stuff

(This is a short-story version of an episode in Adelsverein: The Sowing, which I reworked as a free-standing Christmas story a good few years ago, for a collection of short stories. The scene; the Texas Hill country during the Civil War – a war in which many residents of the Hill Country were reluctant to participate, as they had abolitionist leanings, had not supported secession … and had quite enough to do with defending themselves against raiding Indians anyway.)

It was Vati’s idea to have a splendid Christmas Eve and he broached it to his family in November. Christian Friedrich Steinmetz to everyone else but always Vati to his family; once the clockmaker of Ulm in Bavaria, Vati had come to Texas with the Verein nearly twenty years before with his sons and his three daughters. “For the children, of course,” he said, polishing his glasses and looking most particularly like an earnest and kindly gnome, “This year past has been so dreadful, such tragedies all around – but it is within our capabilities to give them a single good memory of 1862! I shall arrange for Father Christmas to make a visit, and we shall have as fine a feast as we ever did, back in Germany. Can we not do this, my dears?”
“How splendid, Vati! Oh, we shall, we shall!” his youngest daughter Rosalie kissed her father’s cheek with her usual degree of happy exuberance, “With the house full of children – even the babies will have a wonderful memory, I am sure!” Her older sisters, Magda and Liesel exchanged fond but exasperated glances; dear, vague well-meaning Vati!
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19. December 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: Domestic, Literary Good Stuff

The last of the Christmas markets was done and over for us, as of about 2 PM Sunday – when it became plain that a) at least three-quarters of the other vendors at the market had packed it in over the previous evening due to high winds and very low temperatures. Saturday at the Boerne Cowboy Market was lovely and for me, fairly profitable. The town square was packed to the limits, the weather was fair and near to summer-warm, plenty of shoppers, live music, shoals of shoppers … but the forecast for Sunday had in it a dire warning of near-to-freezing temps, and high winds that were promised to diminish by about ten AM. It’s one of those things – there is the promise of the after-church-service crowd – but the bitter cold put the kibosh on that. So, with no other potential shoppers save other venders or friends of family of venders, we packed up our stock at early afternoon and came home.

Yeah, I know that vendors in outside Christmas markets in locations less salubrious than the Hill Country of Texas are probably snickering into their sleeves at our overall lack of cold-weather-hardiness … but still. Thirty degrees or less of wind-chill cold; up with which the casual browsing customer is not willing to put. The market management who had rented us one of their canopies came and took it down in the wee hours, to prevent damage to it, I guess – so we were left canopy-less on Sunday. Those of us surviving vendors – all of whom had put up the table fee for a two-day market and were by-damn agreeable to giving the second day a good old-fashioned try on the hope of seeing the after-church service crowd … well, no hope of that, with the brutal cold, and the wind that kept tossing the surviving pavilions and their walls about – although we all had long winter underwear, heavy coats, mufflers, hand-warmers, and propane heaters available to us. None of that does any good unless there are shoppers about, and of that were there none.

So, we packed it up and came home to thaw out … revising on the way, our schedule of markets for next. This has been a kind of exploratory mission for us – working out what venues, time frames and conditions work best. We will probably not do any markets past the second weekend in December, it being our conviction that people are “shopped out” at this point – and so are we. We probably won’t do Blanco again, but will be there for the Johnson City court-house lighting on the Black Friday weekend, even if that involves a two-night stay in a hotel or RV park. The Bulverde craft fair is a keeper, and so is Goliad. Another possible is Boerne’s Dickens on Main, although that involved two weekends – and evenings, at that. Still – large crowds, enthusiastic shoppers may make the table fee worthwhile. We’ll look at other events, throughout the year, mostly in order to build up Blondie’s Paper Blossom productions business. Showing up, building up clients and fans – even branching out and providing specialty items for other vendors would, hopefully, provide a steady income stream for her – but the effort has to be made.

Now begins our short Christmas break; a time of rest and relaxation, as well as enjoying the day in the warmth of indoors. Of course – now that the markets are done for the year, I finally have received the printed copies of The Golden Road. I did have one paid order for it – from a particular fan in Goliad who bought one of my other books, and ordered a copy of the Golden Road – but the order form was lost in the windstorm on Sunday morning. Did you order a copy of The Golden Road, at Goliad, on December 3? Please get in touch with me, so that I can send it to you!

From last year - a representative sample of our neighborhood Christmas gift

From last year – a representative sample of our neighborhood Christmas gift

Seventeen days to Christmas and counting … yikes. It’s coming at me like a freight-train. We finished the custom fleece blankets for the nieces and nephews … but have yet to package and mail them. I have yet to order some Christmas presents to be sent to family … seriously, where the heck does December go? And we’re just a week into it, too.
Of course, I am distracted by the weekly market events. Blondie’s Montero has been kept loaded since mid-November with all the market impedimenta; the pavilion and the weights, the tables, folding chairs, signage, display racks, table dressings, the strings of lights and extension cords for the events which require them, the tool kit for emergencies, the Rubbermaid tub with the folder of extra flyers, postcards … and of course, the other tubs and boards of merchandise which are the whole purpose for these excursions. We have not even unpacked the Montero between market excursions. The purpose for all this is pure basic capitalism: We have goods – books and origami creations, to exchange for cash or occasionally in kind – with people who desire to own said books or origami creations. This – leading up to Christmas, and the customary exchange of sometimes frivolous consumer goods between consenting adults, and presented to the immature specimens of our species of whom we are fond – is the reason that most vendors of consumer goods make their nut in the last quarter of the calendar year. I have no critique to make of this arrangement; it’s our custom, and not only do I demand respect for it, I participate willingly.
But enough about the commercial aspect of the season – now about the neighborly and altruistic aspect. It has been a long-established custom in our family to make home-made treats to present to hapless acquaintances and neighbors. My mother’s practice was for cookies – a fairly decent basket-assortment of butter-cookies and slabs of cake and fruitcake, which we attempted to emulate for a couple of years. Then we tried out giving small gift-baskets of other gourmet items, since simply everyone does Christmas cookies … until my daughter hit upon the notion of boxes of gourmet fudge, after visiting a candy store in in Fredericksburg some four years ago and sampling – and purchasing a few bits of their finest specialty fudge. Oh, a hit – a very palpable hit! Boxes, tins and plates of various flavors, made from the very best ingredients. High-quality chocolate, real butter and cream: We knew that we had a winner after the first year, when in late November of the second year, various neighbors began to hint, wistfully. “Say, are you gonna be doing that fudge again … that was soo good…”
This was the week that we scheduled for making up batches of eight different kinds of fudge; chocolate with nuts, chocolate with nuts and cranberries, brown-sugar and toasted-pecan, white chocolate coconut, raspberry-creamsicle, peanut butter, and Bavarian mint chocolate, and brandy-alexander chocolate. That was Monday thru Wednesday; Thursday and today are dedicated to packaging and delivering. We do a massive pair of boxes for the local fire station, and the nearest police substation to us; a smaller one for the Frost bank branch where we do business, for Alfred the mailman, and the guy who drives the trash collection truck. Those all went out yesterday, to great appreciation from the receiving staff at the fire station and police station, especially. Today – it’s another round of packing and delivering boxes for the near-in neighbors. Another Christmas objective achieved; tomorrow, it’s all day at the Old Courthouse in Blanco for the next to-last Christmas market. Sunday – perhaps we’ll feel sufficiently energetic to hang out some ornaments on the bay tree, and to sit down and do mail-order gifts for the family in California. And that was my week …

20. November 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: Domestic, Literary Good Stuff, Local

So passes another weekend in our grueling schedule of holiday events. Somehow, I didn’t quite grasp until this afternoon that this is the last weekend before Thanksgiving, and that was why there were so many shoppers in the local HEB buying frozen turkeys, trays of bake’n’serve rolls, sweet potatoes, et cetera. Well, of course – since next weekend is our three-day extravaganza in Johnson City, where they ceremonially light the courthouse and Courthouse Square with millions and millions of lights, and have a parade and Santa, and a market and a fair … it’s the kickoff holiday event for the Hill Country, apparently, and we have high hopes for it as far as sales go.
This Saturday was my brief turn at the New Braunfels Weihnachtsmarkt: the cost of an author table has been raised by the management, so I could only justify half a day on Saturday, which experience has taught me is the single busiest session. Since we were halfway to Austin, and a paper supply place my daughter wanted to see first-hand, we toddled on up there, after a moderately successful morning. And then – well, it was just a short jump to the Ikea store in Round Rock. Why not? See what they were putting out for Christmas, pick up some nice-quality items in the kitchenware department, and stock up on frozen Swedish meatballs and lingonberry preserves in the grocery department. We thought perhaps we might have a late lunch in the cafeteria, but it was so late in the day by then, we decided to drive home and make our own supper of them. The meatballs were as scrumptious as ever – and they had a sale on them. Our strategic Ikea meatball reserves are replenished as of this weekend. Although this schedule did push back dinnertime very late last night.

Early on, when sorting out the schedule, my daughter was considering a Sunday market in Giddings to follow on Saturday at the New Braunfels Weihnachtsmarkt, but we decided not to, because of the long drive for a single-day event. Just as well; the bulk brush pickup for our neighborhood has been set for the week after Thanksgiving. Sunday and the first part of the week were the only days that we could see to taking down the dying mulberry tree in the back yard. The original owners of my place planted it, apparently – for it was a lush, mature tree which shaded the whole back of the house, especially in late afternoon. But the local utility company went through about five years ago, clearing away branches from the wires at the wrong time of year. Then the tree was stressed by a couple of drought years, and last year fell to some sort of ghastly tree plague-fungus that was killing the exposed roots, bark and branches of about a quarter of it. Local tree expert consulted, trimmed away some of the dead bark and branches, but didn’t give much hope for long-term survival.

A View of the garden and the bare mulberry three years ago

A View of the garden and the bare mulberry three years ago


We made the decision that we’d hire the neighborhood handy-guy to bring his chain-saw, ladder and rope, and we would help. So, he knocked the price down on that account, and Sunday was the day that he could work. The tree is now down and the stump trimmed off level, half the yard is deep in bright mustard-colored sawdust, and a couple of trunk segments cut into drums to use as plant stands, and there we are. My daughter and I are totally exhausted. This is the one tree that I have had cut that I will genuinely miss, mostly for the shade it offered the back of the house in the late afternoon. All the others I have paid to be taken down were ones that I hated – especially the overgrown red-tipped photina by the front door that made the den into a dark cave. Now the entire back yard must be re-thought, with accommodation for the chickens, of course. There are certain green plants that they adore and will eat down to the stem – fortunately citrus trees in planters are not one of them, and the citrus plants adore the strong sunshine. I will fiddle with a new garden layout over the next couple of weeks, one which must accommodate voracious chickens and strong late afternoon sunshine. And that was my week – yours?