Thursday, December 4, 2014

Out West

It’s not so strange that living in a new place can affected our imaginations. Several years ago my husband, Bud, and I moved out west. From Kansas to California we visited many historical sites and wondered especially how the women and children sufficed the sometimes desperate conditions of the frontier. Since most of the stories were about men, we began scrutinizing the journals and letters by women and children from the 1840s to the 1880s. The French Lady’s Cowboys and Auspicious Dreams were spawned by many of these true stories.

In Auspicious Dreams, Sarah Margaret Lovelace wore her father’s trousers, held up by a blue satin ribbon to do farm work in Sacramento in 1845—ten years before Angèle Morisot disguised herself as a boy to escape a ruined life in France to join America’s Great Western Migration.

In 1848 Sarah Margaret’s older sister condemns the frontier life she’d escaped from by asking Sarah Margaret, “Whatever do you know about happiness?”
Sarah Margaret quickly admonishes her. “Look at this place. We have been here almost three years and there is nothing I cannot do on this farm. I cleared the land, planted it, irrigated it, cultivated, and protected it. I can cut and stack hay, fall trees, skid logs, and build fences. I can raise chickens, pigs, goats, and cows. Papa taught me to set and tend traps. Mama and I put up jars of pickles, tomatoes, beets, onions, catsup, and jam. I can roast venison on a spit and dress a roast to befit the finest celebration. And when all the work is done, I feel great satisfaction and delight to roll in a field of flowers, or take a ride up to the hills and canyons of the Sierras. So don’t try and tell me about happiness!”

In The French Lady’s Cowboys, Angèle Morisot’s life wasn’t as easy as Sarah Margaret’s. In 1862 Angèle’s sister-in-law asks if she’s strong enough to join Angèle and her husband, Tom, in Nebraska Territory.
Angèle responds, “I can’t answer that. I had no idea I could be who I am now. A year-and-a-half ago, I couldn’t fight off a soft, French gentleman. Six months later, I drove a remuda across the plains, killed seven Indians, and did most of the work to finish driving the cattle and horses to the ranch. I’ve learned to rope, castrate, and brand cattle, deliver calves...and I love it and all the men I’ve been working with. Most of all I’m free of oppression by men, even if the day might come that I have to use my guns to defend myself. I’m as free as any man, and Tom likes me that way.”

These strong women helped win the West as much as the 1873 Winchester rifle did. But don’t be fooled by these courageous young women who took on “mens” work to survive. They were proud and happy with their lives. They loved their men and their men stood beside them, encouraged them, and together chased their dreams in the Promised Land.

Auspicious Dreams and The French Lady’s Cowboys are revised editions of the stories written during the time Bud and I lived out our own western dream in Wyoming and California—one hundred and fifty years after Sarah Margaret Lovelace first stepped foot on the Oregon Trail and one hundred and thirty-four years after Angèle Morisot boarded a vessel in France to sail into a new life in America.

Both books have been published in paperback for the first time. (And just might make a great gift set for the upcoming holidays.) They are also available as E-books. Look us up on Amazon and take a step back into history. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Beautiful Ruins

"But then she turned directly to him, and the disparate features of her drastic face came together as a single, perfect thing, and Pasquale recalled from his studies how some buildings in Florence could disappoint from various angles and yet always presented well in relief, always photographed well; that the various vantages were made to be composed; and so, too, he thought, some people. Then she smiled, and in that instant, if such a thing were possible, Pasquale fell in love, and he would remain in love for the rest of his life— not so much with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment."

Walter, Jess (2012-06-12). Beautiful Ruins (p. 8). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 

When I read the above excerpt on Facebook I knew I would buy this book. Before I clicked on "Buy With One Click" I read a few reviews. This one caught my eye:

“A literary miracle. . . . A sweeping stunner of a narrative. . . . The entire novel is a kaleidoscopic collection of ‘beautiful ruins,’ both architectural and human. This novel is a standout not just because of the inventiveness of its plot, but also because of its language.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air

I like to think that I write literary fiction. A couple years ago, a friend in my writers group (Rick Bylina) suggested that my writing could contain more layers, my characters could be deeper, my descriptions more colorful. As I listened to this critique, I felt a fog creep into my mind and since then my writing became a puzzle with missing pieces. (I am happy to say that later that year Rick pronounced Child of My Heart to be "one of the five best books he'd read all year") and he'd read one a week! But while reading Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins I slowly began to understand my friend's critique. Jess Walter writes Literary Fiction—the kind of fiction I want to write. "Beautiful Ruins" captivated and enthralled me and kept me on the edge of my seat while also painting majestic pictures of people, places, and things so intimate that I felt I was a part of the story.

Beautiful Ruins begins in 1962 in Porto Vergogna (a tiny island just minutes away from the Italian Rivera) where the protagonist, Pasquale Tursi, is attempting to build a beach for his small hotel, The Hotel Adequate View. A film producer has sent the beautiful Hollywood actress, Dee Moray (who has just been diagnosed with stomach cancer) to Pasquale’s pensione to rest until he can come for her and take her to Switzerland for treatment. But he doesn’t show up. The story jumps to present day where the producer is about to encounter Dee once again.

I usually don’t enjoy stories that go back and forth and delve into every character’s life story but this one is pure genius! I don’t want to give any more of this delicious story away so I’ll stop and hope that you’ll read Beautiful Ruins and not only enjoy it but learn something about your own life.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Memoirs From Broken Little Girls

Last week a friend sent a link to the story of Dominique Moceanu’s secret sister, Jennifer Bricker—a child given up at birth because she had no legs. But Jennifer didn’t suffer because of it. She led an idyllic childhood in spite of her impediment. Adopted and raised as the only daughter of a doting couple who believed there were no limits, “Jen” went on to become a champion high school gymnast and the Tumbling Champion of Illinois.

Jen fared much better than Dominique. The secret sister video led me to Dominique’s memoir, Off Balance—the story of Dominique’s tempestuous life.

Dominique tells the unvarnished truth about life in an abusive household as well as life with the infamous Karolyis. She recalls many stories when Bela Karolyi and her father “teamed up” to produce an Olympic champion through mind games, fear tactics, and physical abuse while her mother turned a blind eye.

From Chapter 6: (Tata is Dominique’s father)
“I will never forget opening day of compulsories at Worlds in Japan when Bela made me do my compulsory bar routine over and over again during morning warm-ups. During this time I wondered if there was an end in sight, or if he was trying to get me to break down and beg him to stop. I didn’t. It never seemed perfect enough for Bela. I thought maybe Bela wanted to humiliate me in front of the other gymnasts to make sure I didn’t get a big head, having just won US Nationals. With almost no rest in between, my hands were on fire, and by the eighth or ninth run-through the physical and mental drain started to accumulate no matter how much I suppressed it, and I began to make silly, uncharacteristic errors on my bar routine, which seemed to infuriate Bela. Frustrated that I was getting tired and not executing perfectly, Bela loudly accused me of eating too much and suggested that I was making mistakes because I had gained weight during my visit to Japan. He ordered me to get on the scale, so he could weigh me right there for everyone to see. Looking back, I’m sure he knew perfectly well that I was making mistakes because I had just done my compulsory routine sixteen times, not because I had eaten too much. This was typical Bela. It seemed to me that any time practice wasn’t going well, he’d try to blame it on my weight and threaten to call my parents (which really meant Tata), so Tata would then punish me for having eaten too much.”

“Bela exaggerated his affections for us in public, which was perversely rewarding at competitions because we feared him so much and were so desperate for his praise. He was a different person altogether when the cameras weren’t rolling.”

Later that year Dominique suspects that the Karolyis search the gymnasts’ rooms and backpacks for forbidden foods. When they find candy hidden in a secret pocket of her teddy bear they inform her father. 

“‘Why are you eating what you’re not supposed to?’ Tata blurted one last time before hitting me across my right cheek so hard it made my whole body jerk back….At that moment I despised the Karolyis for calling Tata and hated Tata for humiliating me for eating a handful of Mentos….I remember refusing to give them the satisfaction of seeing me cry, but somehow I still felt tears flooding down my face…. 

“I lost all respect for Marta and Bela at that moment as the two of them stood there seeming to gloat and nodding as if their mission were complete. I couldn’t bear to look at them anymore. Nobody, including Mama, reacted to the wallop across my face. I figured they all knew it was coming—God knows, Mama was expecting it since she’d seen Tata lose control and get physical timeless times before.”

Dominique’s story has a happy ending. After all the tribulations in her young life she has risen above the abuse, reconciled with her father, married her best friend, and is the proud mother of two beautiful children.

Dominique has told her story to expose the truth of the Karolyi’s Texas ranch and Marta’s total control of the National, World, and Olympic team selection.

Does anyone care that USA Gymnastics no longer holds Olympic Trials? For many years I have followed women’s gymnastics and observed verbal and emotional abuse from various coaches—and this is just from watching events on TV!  The problem of demeaning and mocking children to get them to perform seems to be wide-spread in the training of the elite gymnasts who become the Olympic stars.

The story begins when Jeanette is three. She’s standing on a chair boiling hotdogs when flames engulf her. After numerous skin grafts and six weeks in the hospital her father, Rex, believes that burns need air to breathe and not bandages so he whisks her away against medical advice.  A few days later she’s back to boiling hotdogs with her mother insisting that Jeanette couldn’t live in fear of something as basic as fire.

TheGlass Castle is a story of broken promises. Rex moves the family frequently to avoid bill collectors and ends up in Welch, West Virginia the town where he grew up—the Nation's Coal Bin. Here, the family descends into the lower regions of hell. Rex is an alcoholic and gambler who steals money from his wife and children to support his habits while Rose Mary, Jeanette’s mother, an artist and certified teacher is a free-spirit who expects her children to look out for themselves.

It’s difficult to imagine a more dysfunctional household: An intellectual father who likes to think out of the box and dreams of striking it rich, an educated mother who would rather paint a picture that will last a lifetime than cook her family a meal that will be gone in 15 minutes, and children left to fend for themselves; sometimes eating popcorn for days on end, sometimes eating week-old ham after picking maggots out of it, or sometimes eating nothing at all. The memoir is haunted with so many horrible stories that every time I read one I was sure things could not get worse. I was wrong.

 Even though they are poor the parents reject welfare stating that they can take care of their own and if they depended on welfare they’d become lazy.

The mind games ran rampant: When the family moves from Phoenix, Jeanette takes along her cat who doesn’t enjoy riding in a car. Rex throws the cat to the curb and speeds off. Jeanette is told not to be so sentimental, that the cat is going to be wild now, which is more fun than being a house cat. Perhaps the saddest statement comes from Rose Mary when the family moves into a rat infested, broken-down house without plumbing. The children protest but Rose Mary said, “Count your blessings. There are people in Ethopia who would kill for a place like this.”

As dysfunctional as Rex and Rose Mary are, there’s little doubt that they love their children. Rex inflicts a tender mind game one Christmas in the desert when there is no money for a tree or gifts. Rex takes the children outside, one by one, sets them on his knee and asks them to choose a star that will be their present. Jeanette chooses Venus, a planet, but Rex lets her have it all the same. They laugh at the kids who believe in the Santa myth and get nothing for Christmas but cheap plastic toys. “Years from now when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,” Rex says, “you’ll still have your stars.”

Jeanette manages to survive but her parents are never willing to change. When Jeanette is older, educated, and living on Park Avenue her parents squat in an empty building in NYC and find their meals and clothes in garbage cans and dumpsters—her mother’s way of “recycling”. When Jeanette asks her mother what she should tell people about her parents, her mother answers with a smile, “The truth.”

In the summer of 1991 Jaycee Dugard is a normal kid who does normal things until the day a sexual predator steals her life. For 18 years she is a prisoner, an object for someone to use and abuse. She is not allowed to speak her own name. On August 26, 2009, she takes her name back. Jaycee Lee Dugard doesn’t think of herself as a victim. She thinks of herself as a survivor. A Stolen Life is Jaycee Dugard’s story—told in her own words.

Little Jaycee is kidnapped…in broad daylight, within a block of her home while her stepfather watches, while her schoolmates watch. Jaycee disappears without a trace…or does she?

We can only imagine what torture Jaycee Dugard experienced during her 18 years of captivity. I won’t go into the content of the sexual abuse since most of us remember the horrifying media reports back in 2009. What I want to share about Jaycee’s story is the personal nature of it, it’s sensitivity and honesty. Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped by a mentally ill, sex-crazed, drug addicted, pedophile one week before she finished the fifth grade. She lived in “the backyard” of her captor’s house, which was visited over 60 times by police and parole officers. Not once did any of these people search the backyard compound that contained a soundproof studio, a shack, tarps, and tents all surrounded by a tall fence. Even when neighbors reported that children were living in one of the tents no one investigated. The children were Jaycee and her two daughters, both sired by her captor when she was 14 and 17 years old.

Jaycee chronicles her story in first person present tense. Each chapter ends with a reflection. There’s not a hint of self-pity, which makes this story all the more heart wrenching.

The memoir includes journal entries from 1998-2004 which contain lists of her favorite music (Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, Green Day, and Jason Mraz), places and things she wants to do (see Mom, touch a whale, visit Norway to see Aurora Borealis, and visit Victoria Falls in Africa). She also lists affirmations for her life to counteract her negative feelings:

I am a creative, positive, successful person.
I can achieve anything I set my mind on.
We will succeed in everything we are trying to accomplish.
I make it a habit to be happy.
Today is a glorious day.

Perhaps Jaycee’s most poignant memoir is a list of her favorite quotes:

“What will happen will happen. There is time for miracles until there is no more time, but time has no end.” Dean Koontz

“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope; for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” T.S. Eliot

After the first few months, Jaycee’s captor removes her shackles and gives her free range of the backyard. Couldn’t she have scaled the fence and escaped? After all she tells about peering over it once and a woman asking her name. If she had shared her name with the woman the ordeal would have been over years sooner. But her captor has a stun gun that can shock her into paralysis. There are two (supposed) very aggressive Doberman Pinscher’s outside, and she is told that if she even tries to escape her captor will sell her to people who will put her in a cage. Later, when Jaycee is older, her captor becomes her protector from the “evil outside world”. So she adapts and becomes complacent. She doesn’t have the will to leave. It is the monster’s world and she is simply trying to survive.

A Stolen Life is the story of indestructible hope and that perspective makes this book worth reading. Jaycee wrote this memoir with the hope that victims of sex offenders can learn to survive without shame and to inspire people “to get their head out of the sand and to speak up when they see something amiss”. Finally, she wrote this for judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials whose job it is to protect the public from people like her captors.

Check out Jaycee’s foundation: JAYC (Just Ask Yourself to Care)

The abuse and neglect of children is timeless. In my novel Child of My Heart Annie Lancaster witnesses many forms of physical and psychological abuse as well as parents maiming and even murdering their own children. The stories are true and were taken from my personal experience as a pediatric and NICU nurse for over 40 years. (Names, age, sex, locations and situations were changed.)

Near the end of the novel Annie reflects on the most recent incident of child abuse she’s seen as she strokes the forehead of a baby girl raped and beaten unconscious by her father. “I couldn’t think of a single thing that could ease the pain or lessen the disgust. I thought about all the interventions for children and families that weren’t available years ago. So many dollars invested in doctors, social workers, and research, yet the suffering continues. Why, I decided, was a question I shouldn’t ask.”

The manipulation of children is the common link between these stories though the mechanisms differ in each case. I pose the question Annie dared not ask; what is wrong with our social fabric and how can it be corrected?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Evenings at the Argentine Club

Halfway through Julia Amante’s  Evenings at the Argentine Club I knew I would write about it on this blog. I identified with the protagonist and her relationship with her father. Big dreams they had, Victoria and Victor Torres. Big dreams to beat the odds. I loved that this 5 STAR story made me think about family relationships but it also made me think about immigration and assimilation and just how difficult that has been throughout world history.

All immigrants to America have dreams but when Victor and Jaqueline Torres move to America from Argentina, Victor has wild ideas of making millions and returning home a big shot. But, like most first generation American families they soon find that dreams aren’t handed to you. Every member of the Torres family and the Orteli family, their best friends, has their own dreams and expectations of living and working in America. Their story is one of miscommunication and dysfunction between husband and wife, parents and children, and other Argentine families who settle alongside them in Burbank, California . Julia Amante weaves a glorious story of letting go of expectations and reconciliation; something all of us need to do.

Victoria Torres, daughter of Victor and Jaqueline, is the protagonist. She's twenty-eight, single, and still living at home when the story begins. Her goal in life, which so far hasn't brought happiness, is twofold: she wants to be "Somebody" and she wants to make her father proud. So far, she has put her desires aside to please her father. Victoria's transformation is both turbulent and glorious.

After reading Evenings at the Argentine Club I realized that there are similar clubs across America for Italian-Americans, Greek-Americans, Polish-Americans, and etc. I lived in Miami when the influx of Cubans began after the Cuban Revolution. The Cubans I met through my work and church believed, like Victor Torres, that they would soon return to their homeland but for a different reason. Victor wanted to become rich and return home a wealthy man while the Cubans believed they were in exile until the turmoil in Cuba receded and Castro was overthrown. But that didn’t happen. Unlike many immigrants to America who blended into American society, the Cuban’s did not. They remained loyal to their cultural norms, mores, customs, language, and religious affiliations.  Little Havana, a small community near downtown, quickly became Cuban Miami. I sympathize with these people. They are proud to be Cuban. They did not want to leave Cuba. Their homeland has been devastated. And I understand their need to be separate or maybe better said their need to stay together.

Almost every American city is divided into “separate” neighborhoods. Who hasn’t heard of China Town, Spanish Harlem, or Little Havana? In New York City, high concentrations of ethnicities make up the population: Chinese, Japanese, Greeks, Italians, Vietnamese, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, Mexicans, Middle Easterners, Russians, East Indians, on and on. And most live in their separate little neighborhoods. As much as people want to cling to their roots, Evenings at the Argentine Club reminded me that all of us are the same. We all want the American Dream even if our ancestors have been in America for so many generations we can only guess what our roots might be.

Victoria Torres reminded me of a piece of American history I discovered while researching my novel Auspicious Dreams in The Annals of San Francisco. What follows is from Auspicious Dreams, chapter 20 (1850):

“Nick (a Native American trying to assimilate into the “white man’s world”) had already discovered the unspoken class system that separated people into little groups. The place of a person’s birth seemed to separate them as strongly as their place of work or the type of clothing they wore. The people who spoke English and worked in banks and offices seemed to demand respect from the others.

“Most seemed comfortable in their little groups. Some longed for their homelands. Some constantly spoke of how wonderful their life had been before coming to America. To Nick, one group stood out from the rest—the Germans. Unlike other nationalities, they eagerly learned English, took interest in the local affairs of the city, and entered into the spirit of the community with enthusiasm. Although they had strong feelings for their homeland, they didn’t want to return to it. There was a common brotherhood of Germans who were ready to celebrate their nationality and praise the old country ways, yet they wanted to be part of this new country too.”

While I advocate the words of the song, Get Together by The Youngbloods (1967), I more rationally realize the need to be with those most like ourselves—but not exclusively. While the Torres and Orteli parents cling to old world traditions, their children gradually become more American than Argentine. This is bound to happen in any ethnic group.

“Come on, people now, Smile on your brother, Everybody get together, Try to love one another right now.”

From Evenings at the Argentine Club, chapter one. “Victoria Torres couldn’t say she understood what it felt like to leave behind everything one had ever known for something new. Leave parents, siblings, friends, an entire way of life, to live among strangers who spoke differently than you did and believed in values that were foreign compared to those you grew up with. To do something of that magnitude took a sort of internal strength that she lacked. When she thought of immigrants and their decisions to leave their homes, she figured either life had to be so bleak in their own countries or their dreams had to be so immense that they were willing to risk everything just for the hope of a little magic— a chance to change destiny.”

Eveningsat the Argentine Club by Julia Amante. 
Available on Amazom.

Monday, July 28, 2014

How to Survive a Labyrinth

Ariadne Josef 1946

The Labyrinth: A Novel Based on a True Story

by Bertina De Sisto, published by Morris Publishing, November 1995

From where does bravery come? Is it inbred or is it taught to us when we find ourselves terrified? In The Labyrinth Ariadne Josef finds it in the least expected and the worst God forbidden places.

Ariadne is born in 1924 in Barcelona into a wealthy family with three older, doting brothers, servants, cooks, gardeners, a housemaid, a governess, and a chauffeur. Her life lacks for nothing until she turns three and her mother dies of typhoid fever. Her father, Alphonse Josef, who was born in Holland of Belgian-German parents, and whose proficiency in ten languages takes him to far away countries for mysterious employment, becomes her absentee father. Two years later the grand life she once enjoyed turns to ashes. Her brothers are sent to an orphanage and she would not see them again until she is 17. Ariadne is left with her frail, almost blind grandmother who takes her from Barcelona to Malta and soon teaches her to beg door-to-door. At seven Ariadne is sent to a convent/orphanage for girls.

Thus begins the story of the deprivation, sorrow, and loneliness of one little girl brilliantly reconstructed from Ariadne’s journals.

From page 12: “It is most significant to me that the very first word I heard and learned in Maltese was Ja-hassra (a connotation of compassion, sympathy, and pity) as I was welcomed to the island at age five by kind people who empathized with my orphaned condition. They would continue to be sensitive to it even seven years later. When as a lonesome, defenseless 12-year-old I stood nervously on the ship’s deck, facing a big, scary world on my own, their concern and doubts about what the future might hold for me were still visible in their sympathetic farewell expressions of ‘Ja-hassra’.”

After five years in the orphanage Ariadne’s father sends for her and she boards a ship to Marseille, France. Alone on the ten day journey, Ariadne is too timid and frightened to leave her cabin so the steward brings meals to her along with writing paper and coloring books. As she disembarks she frantically looks for her father but is met by the Dutch Consul instead who takes her to a hotel for a “brief stay”. After 55 days she receives word that she will join her father in Lisbon. But there she is met again by the Dutch Consul who takes her to a boardinghouse in Porto where her father is waiting. But he doesn’t meet her at the door or, after the eight year separation, ‘roll out the red carpet’ as she expects. Instead she climbs the two flights to his room where he greets her in a pair of silk pajamas and mohair slippers. The reunion lasts two months before Alphonse Josef leaves her alone in the boardinghouse. He says he can’t afford to send her to school and she should go to the library every day and study geography and history, as well as French, Portuguese, and Spanish. After no payment arrives for board the housekeeper orders Ariadne to a small room off the kitchen which she shares with roaches, fleas, bedbugs, and mice.

When Alphonse returns four months later he takes Ariadne to Covilha then resumes his journeys. As it happened in Porto it happens again in Covilha, her room can’t be occupied by a non-paying guest so she is banished to an eight by nine foot basement dwelling with a dirt floor, eternally dripping ceiling, a damp mattress, and a blanket put together out of flour sacks. Here she spends the next eleven months.  

In the midst of Ariadne’s suffering her father continually sends gifts which she shares with the boardinghouse owners: cases of port, cases of eggs, even a whole ham. Once he sends her a coveted wristwatch watch which she pawns to help pay her room and board. Alphonse misses Ariadne’s 13th birthday—the day he promised to shower her with gifts. Instead he sends a box of chocolates and a letter. This is truly Ariadne’s saddest childhood memory. And this, by far, is not the end of Ariadne’s horrendous journey.

How did Ariadne survive, most of the time alone in countries where she didn’t speak the language? How did she manage to school herself and teach herself so many languages? Along the way Ariadne meets good people who befriend her when she thinks things can’t get any worse. She calls it God’s grace. Perhaps her personality attracted kind-hearted souls because in every situation she eventually finds someone to befriend her and take her to their hearts. Ariadne had one horrific childhood. But little “Ja-hassra”, survived to emerge triumphant out of an enigmatic labyrinth.

 This is a marvelous book—the best one I’ve read all year. Unfortunately it’s out of print but can be found occasionally on Amazon. I hope you get the chance to read it someday.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

American Heiresses

Two fictitious women named Cora end up in similar circumstances as American heiresses to European aristocrats in the 1890s. In Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, the popular PBS series, and in the acclaimed novel, The American Heiress, written so beautifully by Daisy Goodwin both Coras are based on many real-life wealthy American women. 

At the end if the nineteenth century it has been estimated that 450 American heiresses married European aristocrats: earls, counts, princes, dukes, viscounts, marquises, barons, and knights. The wealthy in general and the heiresses in particular became the first true celebrities in American life as Ms. Goodwin precisely points out.

“The New York Times suggested in 1893 that as much as fifty million dollars might have accompanied the American brides as they sailed across the Atlantic for their new lives in the decayed and impoverished estates of the great aristocratic families.” From Titled Americans, 1890: The Real Heiresses’ Guide to Marrying an Aristocrat.

We can only imagine the relationships of these heiresses with their noblemen. Most of the marriages appear to be loveless and arranged: the heiresses gained titles and the crumbling estates rose up like the phoenix. But what about love and marriage? In Downton Abbey, the love between Countess Cora and Lord Grantham took a few years to cultivate. On the other hand, Cora Cash and the destitute Ninth Duke of Wareham, meet accidentally and fall in love before either realize the other’s circumstance.

If you’re a Downton Abbey fan I say there’s a fair-to-middling chance you’ll enjoy The American Heiress. And in my humble opinion don’t believe the reviews that state Daisy Goodwin’s ending is predictable. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Barely A Pot To Piss In: Eugenia Burney Christensen

Eugenia woke up every morning with a great desire to live joyfully.* At least that’s the impression she conveyed to me. 

I met Eugenia Burney Christensen (1913-2012) on her 83rd birthday, July 4, 1996 in the tiny mountain town of Dubois, Wyoming. Much of her life had passed but she wasn’t one bit ready to slow down.

On the day we met, a local artist/tanner had dressed Eugenia in buffalo hides and a long black wig with a bone tied to her head and situated her on one of the home-made floats for the town’s Fourth of July parade. She waved gaily and laughed until tears streamed her cheeks.  “It was a hoot,” Eugenia told us later that day. A phrase I would hear for years to come. To say Eugenia enjoyed life is an understatement. She was always happy even when she barely had a pot to piss in.

We didn’t know about Eugenia’s illustrious past but we got a glimpse when we had to side-step through a tiny subsidized apartment overfilled with antique furniture, paintings, sculptures, books, a stack of papers, and a typewriter balancing on an ottoman. Eugenia was a writer and we could already tell just how enthusiastic she was about it. We were immediately drawn to her as she graciously both welcomed and accepted us. We toasted our budding friendship with cheap champagne in Dollar Store glass flutes. 
Eugenia was born in South Carolina and even though she lived in Idaho, New York, Wyoming, and California she never lost her refined Southern accent. Perhaps that’s what drew her to me—I’d been raised in the south and that great accent offered me a bit of Southern hospitality that I’d found missing in Dubois. She pulled Bud and me into her life and we spent the next ten years captivated by the wondrous tales of her past. She had to be a writer because she was a fascinating storyteller.

Together with her husband Gardell Dano Christensen (1907-1991), Eugenia published several books in the 60s and 70s including Colonial South Carolina in 1969. 

Gardell was an artist as well as a writer. After working at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC for seven years (in the 50s), he was asked to represent the museum on expeditions to Africa and Alaska to collect animals for building dioramas in the museum to “tell the world of faraway places”.  

Gardell set out to fulfill his dreams and spent a lifetime living them. A former student, Nan (Morgan) Smith, said, “Over the years the Christensens continually invited friends and pupils into their home and into their hearts. Together they made the people and places around them sing with the beauty of art.”

It seems that everyone who knew Eugenia and Gardell knew an endearing story about them. A local plumber told us that when they first moved to Dubois, Gardell bought a plot of land and built a house mostly with materials he’d scavenged from the landfill. Sometime after they’d moved in the plumbing went haywire. When the plumber arrived on a rainy morning, he found Gardell and Eugenia sitting at the table eating cereal while the rain dripped on them through holes in the roof. That was their life. It was a good life even when the roof leaked. 

Eugenia often boasted that she’d written more books in her retirement than in her career which included an editorial position at one of the big five New York publishing companies. Most of her later writings were biographies of colorful and influential people who shared their life stories as she typed and edited. The most notable being Fremont Miller, a WWII war hero (who had spent 76 hours in the frigid North Sea after his P-47 Thunderbolt caught fire over Diepholz, West Germany) and a retired legislator of the Wyoming House of Representatives. Together they published, Growing Up With Wyoming, a fascinating story of a man who loved Wyoming. 

Eugenia is listed in the World Who’s Who of Women. No wonder. She was as comfortable mingling with dignitaries as she was with cowboys.

The next fall Eugenia convinced a local outfitter to photograph her upon a horse for her Christmas cards. She wanted to show her family and friends that she lived in cowboy country. The outfitter had to have been very brave and must have had an old calm horse to be talked into posing an eighty-five-year-old unsteady woman horseback. But he did and it was, yes, a hoot!

Bud and I moved to Eureka, California in 1997 and the next year Eugenia followed because she had gotten tired of the small town that rolled up the sidewalks at nine p.m. Eureka had a few bright lights, but I honestly think she longed for not only the bright lights but big city as well. She applied to a five story senior assisted living complex and could have moved in that same day but she wanted a room on the top floor! What she lacked financially she made up for grandly. After all, the top floor was the best and Eugenia wanted nothing less.

Eugenia dreamed big, just like Gardell had. Every single time she saw a convertible she’d stop and stare. “Oh, I want one of those,” she’d say dreamily, “except I want a red one!”

In early December 2002, when Eugenia was 89 and frail she called Bud and asked if he’d photograph her on the beach at sunset for her next Christmas Card. She wanted her friends to know that she’s moved back to California. “I have an old bathing suit that I still look pretty good in,” she said. On the next sunny day we headed to Samoa Beach even though the temperature measured just 45 degrees. The sunset was glorious…just as Eugenia had ordered and Bud shot photos until the sun gloriously sank into the  ink-blue ocean. Unfortunately the camera didn’t cooperate and the shoot failed to give us even one acceptable shot. If Eugenia was upset, it didn’t show. We fixed the problem and headed back to the beach several days later. This time the temperature measured in the 30s and while we waited for the sun and sky to burst into orange, peach, and lavender, I wrapped Eugenia in warm blankets. This time the sun and sky refused to cooperate. Instead of setting like a big red ball the sun turned completely white before sinking into a bank of gray clouds. I wanted to cry when I saw the photos. But Eugenia, always positive, was thrilled beyond measure.

She was always thrilled beyond measure…even when she went through cancer and surgery and especially when she decided to move to Santa Rosa for even brighter lights and bigger city.

The last Christmas card we received before she died had been taken in her brand new red convertible…a mobility scooter. And she had a smile on her face.

We miss her terribly, our wonderful friend of ten years. Eugenia taught us that we didn’t have to be wealthy to be rich and she showed us how to live joyfully every day of our lives.

*From a quote by Alexandra Stoddard

Saturday, June 21, 2014


"The air told me and the azaleas confirmed it: it was the end of March in Savannah."

Alberto Landi traveled to Savannah, Georgia 23 times. Me, just once but we both crash landed. My face-first "fall" really wasn't a fall at all. According to my husband I went flying without a parachute from a 24" raised sidewalk on River Street. We'd just left a restaurant when a huge cargo ship slowly maneuvered down the narrow Savannah River right in front of us. I'd never seen such a spectacle so I ran over to view the ship that towered over me by some 50 feet. When we turned back toward the shops and restaurants I looked up and pointed to the second story. "People live up there," I said. It amazed and surprised me and like I do whenever I visit a new place I imagined living there in the romance of it all. That's when I flew off the sidewalk and landed face first on the pavement below. Covered in blood, I took my first ride in an ambulance. I am happy to say that I walked away from the hospital with five or six stitches in my lip and no other injuries. 

Alberto Landi, the protagonist in Whispering Tides by Guido Mattioni, took a far more impressive fall. After the horrific death of his beloved wife of 23 years, when his world crumbled, he left his home in Milan, Italy and with all his worldly possessions in two bags, moved heart and soul to Savannah where he slowly healed. 

"Now I understood the sincere sensation that I had experienced the very first time I had arrived here and immediately felt this place hidden deeply inside something already familiar that belonged to me. It was almost as if that water and that mud, so remote from the places where I was born and had lived, were in reality elements that had always been known to me, so much so that from then on I felt as I was immersed, secure and at ease in an amniotic liquid."

Mattioni goes on to describe Savannah, its residents, the flowers, and the wildlife in such detail that the writing seems three-dimensional and in slow motion. This brilliant writer paints such beautiful pictures with his imaginative prose that I will not soon forget them.

Whispering Tides is not a story of grief and loss. It is a wondrous love story between Alberto and his wife, Nina, and his romance with every nuance of Savannah.

If you want to post a comment please click on "No Comments" or "One Comment" or "Ten comments" below. If you can help me make a comment button please feel free to contact me!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Twitter and Infertility

A few years ago I joined Twitter with the idea of marketing my books. All the “marketing books” told me to do that. After a couple of years I realized that ninety-eight percent of my followers were also authors with the same idea so I discontinued my account. I wasn’t there to buy books, I was there to sell them. I read another book on marketing that suggested I join Twitter to simply make friends—the kind of friends who might enjoy one of my novels. In other words: readers. Since my books are mostly about women and children I started friending mothers as well as avid readers. Soon I realized that the majority of my friends/followers were infertile women and I identified with them. Not because I was infertile but because I was childless. Somewhere in Twitterland I came across the memoir, BREEDING IN CAPTIVITY: One Woman’s Unusual Path to Motherhood. I decided to read it, mostly because it was written by a woman with my maiden surname, Stacy Bolt.

From page 12: [“So, pregnant yet?” Why in the name of all that’s socially appropriate would anyone ever ask a woman this question? No good can come of it. If I’m pregnant, and I want you to know, I’ll tell you when I’m ready. And if I’m not, this question is like getting a drink thrown in my face. It stings. It’s embarrassing. And it makes me want to crawl into a corner. Right after I slap you.]

This is a heartwrenching story written with humor, sarcasm, and anguish. I gave it 5 Stars not only for the impressive writing and fresh voice, but because I identified with Stacy’s disappointments.

I wanted my twitter followers/friends to become my fans, my audience. I actually expected them to make me famous. I put the responsibility on them to make me famous. So, after a year of suffering with so many infertile and childless women I really don’t want them to buy my books—they can’t afford them. They’ve spent millions of dollars, taken out second mortgages, borrowed from their relatives, gone without fine champagne in cafés on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees—that’s what their doctors do. The ones who have failed to give them the one thing they can’t live without, a baby.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Little History: Opal and Me

Prior to writing Child of My Heart or I should say, all my life, I wanted to be a mother. Way past my childbearing years I came across a book by Barbara Cooney and Jane BoultonOnly Opal: The Diary of a Young Girl. 

This book changed my life. Opal Whiteley, a child born in 1898, changed my life. She is the child I should have raised and whether you want to believe me or not, she came to me in a vision. She inspired me to write a fictional story about my life. And so my writing career began.


Pg 261: Eugenia placed a copy of The Story of Opal, by Opal Whiteley on the desk in front of me. I opened it and began to read, My mother and father are gone. The man did say they went to Heaven and do live with God, but it is lonesome without them. The mama where I live says I am a newsance. I think that is something grownups don’t like to have around."

Pg 248: My hands trembled. I dropped the book. A newspaper clipping fell out. I picked it up and read. "These words are taken from the turn-of-the-century diary of an extraordinary six-year-old girl named Opal Whiteley. This child, who was a friend to animals, had been given to a family in Oregon when her French parents died."

Thank you, Opal. xoxoxo