Miss Rose's manor in RELIANCE, ILLINOIS is based off an octagon house in Watertown, Wisconsin built by John Richards in 1854. The inside of the manor, however, is a composite of several other period houses designed by Mr. Orson Fowler, self-proclaimed expert in a number disciplines, including physiology and phrenology, the study of one's characteristics through the bumps on one's head. Fowler considered the octagon an ideal shape for maximizing health and well-being. While the design never gained the lasting popularity he predicted, there remain quite a few excellent examples, like the Watertown, Wisconsin house, which is still standing and open for visits. If you happen to live in the SF Bay Area, check out the McElroy Octagon House at 2645 Gough Street.
Published in Saint Mary's Magazine, July 2016
In 1848, the Fox sisters, Maggie and Kate, professed the ability to communicate, through a series of tips and taps called “rappings,” with spirits beyond the grave. Prank or not, their claims were taken seriously and championed by progressive Quakers, who also believed in other radical impossibilities—universal suffrage, for example, and abolition. During and after the Civil War, the spiritualist movement the sisters inspired, swept the bereaved nation, and spirit mediums, mostly women, discovered a niche in an economy largely closed to them.
Were they frauds, feeding on the grief and willing ignorance of others? Did they indeed, have the power to piece and channel voices of loved ones? I’m not sure. I do know that as a child, I believed something no less fanciful than existence of spirits: I believed in History.
Imagine a complete and indestructible record of all people and deeds, good and bad; a chronicle kept, like a journal, in some kind of celestial library. Think of a stone monolith with a portico; imagine red brick. The important thing is that a record existed and could be called forth whenever needed. If this notion of History carried the threat of Christian judgment, it also contained the comforting illusion of permanence. Historians, guardians of the record, were unbiased, benevolent as librarians, and the books they wrote, accurate representations of the past.
I was nearly 22, living abroad as a Rotary Scholar in Wales before I recognized how porous, incomplete, and subjective the record was, how full of gaps and omissions, at least the human record. Part of my scholarship required I travel, giving lectures on the California Gold Rush at Rotary Clubs through the Welsh midlands. No one seemed to care that I, an aspiring writer, had no formal education in history. I was from California; proviso enough for my Welsh hosts. Driven by terror, I scoured textbooks and popular histories—beautiful tomes, full of maps, charts, dates of discoveries, pictures of young men with rakish grins—and wrote a presentation. It wasn’t terrible, but it was textbook and left my audiences, mostly male and over 60, politely uninspired. So was I, until one day a woman—a club member’s wife, white hair thinning on top—raised her hand.
“What about women?” she asked. “Were there women in the Gold Rush?”
I don’t remember where on the Welsh coast the club was—Aberaeron maybe, or Fishguard—but I remember that question. With my naive faith in history, it was a question I’d never thought to ask.
I closed the textbooks. I went back to the library. I went looking for women. They weren’t easy to find but their untold stories, once discovered—in small press histories, in memoirs, and journals, many of them fragmented and incomplete—became the foundation of my first two novels Crown of Dust and Reliance, Illinois.
Writing those books I learned that women’s history is fruitful territory for fiction. This might seem odd given the historical record overwhelmingly privileges men, conquest, and the spectacle of war. Women, when they appear, are side notes, or exceptions. Beyond three poles of existence—birth, marriage, and death—their stories remain largely undocumented and inconsistent; a fossil record of heirlooms, which borrowing Virginia Woolf’s lament, “lies at present locked in old diaries, stuffed away in old drawers, half-obliterated in the memories of the aged.”
But for a writer, nothing is as attractive as a lost or untold story; and a fiction writer with the patience to dig through hard to find, intimate and sometimes unreliable sources, is permitted to fill in with imagination what the record leaves out. She has freedom to speculate and create fully conceived characters from an amalgam of people about whom little might be individually known. What the facts of history provide is the landscape of a life and the skeleton of a story. Like spirit rappers before her, she uses that skeleton and those small telling effects she discovers to build a plot, to summon lives lost in time, and give them voice.
In the last blog of the series I introduced the phenomenal Mary Livermore, a nineteenth century abolitionist, reformer, suffragette and journalist. Today I have the great pleasure of introducing the scholar whose work brought Mary Livermore, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction era alive for me: Professor Wendy Hamand Venet.
Wendy Hamand Venet’s interest in women’s history began in childhood in the 1960’s. “I read all the biographies of women that I could find in the local public library. Unfortunately,” she said, “there were very few stories about women available at that time.” She has spent the greater portion of her academic life trying to fill these wide gaps in the historical record.
In her own words:
As an undergraduate and graduate student, I pursued the study of women's history and became intrigued by the connections between the antislavery and women's rights movements. My doctoral dissertation (later my first book called Neither Ballots nor Bullets ), focused on antislavery women during the Civil War. I found that Civil War activism led some women toward public careers as women's rights activists in the postwar period. Mary Livermore was one such individual, and I decided to make Livermore the subject of my next book. A Strong-Minded Woman: The Life of Mary Livermore was published in 2005. I have been pleased by the response to this book. One of my goals was to restore this important figure to the place of importance she held in her lifetime. I have received emails and letters from students and interested readers who have come to understand that the women's rights movement involved far more than the partnership of Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Several years ago, the White House Historical Association contacted me. Seeking to commission a painting featuring Abraham Lincoln and a Civil War woman, Association leaders selected Mary Livermore after reading my book.
A Strong Minded Woman is an engrossing book—a well told story of a life and time. I recommend it to anyone interested in Civil War and Reconstruction history, and specifically in the contributions of women. Also, please check out Venet’s other books: Neither Ballots nor Bullets: Women Abolitionists and the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 1991) and most recently A Changing Wind: Commerce and Conflict in Civil War Atlanta (Yale University Press, 2014). She speaks about the Civil war on PBS, NPR and is the co-editor of The Union in Crisis, 2nd ed. and Midwestern Women: Work, Community, and Leadership at the Crossroads.
Thank you Dr. Venet for writing the stories of our foremothers and offering a more complete and intriguing picture of history!
Next blog post in the "Lost Voices" series: The outspoken Eliza Farnham, abolitionist, novelist, activist for prison reform, and feminist.
History’s Lost Voices: 19th Century Women Writers and Reformers
Recorded history overwhelmingly privileges men and affairs of state. It takes a special effort to unearth contributions of women who have long been relegated to the periphery of public life. This blog series will feature short biographies of remarkable, and largely forgotten, writers and reformers I discovered while working on Reliance, Illinois. It will also feature well-deserved shout-outs to historians and scholars who do the hard work of resurrecting the lives and legacies of these women. For how can women know themselves, or find their voices, without having known the voices and struggles of women who came before. Enjoy!
Mary Ashton Rice Livermore
I’m writing now from Chicago, so it’s fitting I begin with onetime Chicago resident Mary Livermore, one of the most fascinating and influential American women you’ve never heard of. Born in 1820 in Melrose, Massachusetts, Mary Livermore was a journalist, abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. During the Civil War she was co-director for the Northwestern branch of the United States Sanitary Commission and organized the Northwestern Sanitary Fair, raising no less than eighty-six thousand dollars for the Union effort (over twenty-million dollars today). After the Civil War she transferred her energies to the suffrage and women’s rights movements, founding the influential reform journal The Agitator, which merged with Woman’s Journal in 1872.
What fascinated me about Mary Livermore—apart from her delightfully opinionated books like What Shall We Do With Our Daughters? and Other Lectures—is how profoundly her attitude toward suffrage changed after joining the Sanitary Commission. While she had always worked for social reform alongside her husband, a Universalist minister, she was not, at first, committed to women’s suffrage. Her experiences organizing the Northwestern Sanitary Fair, and administrating what amounted to a national distribution system, supplying Union troops with food, medical supplies and other necessities, convinced her that women deserved a place in government, and that their active participation was necessary to achieve substantial reform. After the war she lectured widely, arguing for suffrage and for temperance; she appears in my novel (one of the few real historical figures to do so) on her way to one of these engagements.
But please do not consider my fictional portrayal an authentic portrait! Her cameo in my book is brief, and we learn of her through the decidedly biased eyes of Miss Rose. Livermore’s inclusion in the novel serves dramatic rather than biographical purpose. Her presence allowed me to dramatize the divide in the suffrage movement after the Civil War (and to heighten the tension in the novel between Miss Rose and Mrs. French). The long history of the women’s rights movement has never been one of peaceful unity. No diverse group of reformers, however committed, agree on how to approach reform, or even the kinds of reform necessary. The first wave of suffragettes were no different.
If you wish to learn more about Mary Livermore (I hope you do!) I heartily recommend Wendy Hamand Venet’s A Strong Minded Woman: The Life of Mary Livermore.
Next Post: Historian Wendy Hamand Venet
Click here to learn more about the divide in the suffrage movement after the Civil War
I wrote the first post in this series at a beautiful little bookstore in Chicago, off Milwaukee Avenue, called Volumes Bookcafe. The store is brightly lit, stylishly appointed, with plush chairs, good sized tables, and a coffee bar to fuel the fits of inspiration that visits book people in such places. Sisters Kimberly and Rebecca George opened the store a little over two months ago and, judging from the steady stream of people though the door, the future is promising. It’s a beautiful space to read or work. I wandered in, bought a coffee and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and settled in to write. If I’m in Chicago again, I’ll be sure to visit on purpose!
The store is on 1474 N Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago. Check it out! - MV
A Mother's Day tribute to my mom and the stories we share on bookreporter.com.
Mom grew up the daughter of ranch workers, a hardscrabble, nomadic existence in northern Nevada and California. In fifth grade she moved three times, attending three different schools in and around the head waters of the Humboldt River, a high plateau spotted by sagebrush and marked by wide open skies that felt, some nights, close enough to touch. The one constant, beyond hard physical work, were the books her mother bought on rare trips to town. A box of books traveled with them place to place --- a luxury, and one that kept her mother, my Nana, if not happy, then sane.
Read the rest on bookreporter.com
Check out this interview on my forthcoming novel, Reliance, Illinois in Shelf Unbound. Such great questions!
From Shelf Media: In this highly charged political season, the disparate views of what America is and what it should be are writ large. In our newest issue, we're staying away from blue states and red states and the arcane rules of brokered conventions but instead taking a look at scenes from America as imagined by a handful of novelists.
Discover authors Mary Volmer, George Singleton, Sara Majka, & many more in our April/May issue: http://bit.ly/1YehFjE
Sage Advice for Traveling Abroad with a Toddler
By Mary Volmer (Published in the Travel Talk section of WorldLeap.Co)
2) Unless you have a very good reason to fly with a toddler, please don’t. If you must fly with a toddler, be prepared. Pack snacks, treats, a change of clothes (for both of you), books, games. Consider easing usage limits you may have against electronic entertainment. (The iPad is your friend). Purchase as much understanding as you can from your nearest neighbors with gift bags. Put inside ear plugs, candy, Advil, one (or two) of those little glass bottles of hard liquor, and a note:
“Dear bearded, tattooed stranger in the seat in front of me, my name is Joe. I’m two. I’m on my way to visit my Grandma in England. I’ll try to behave but eleven hours is long time. I’m sorry in advance for barfing, chair kicking, and screaming fits. Oh, and for peering over your seat to say BOO, one too many times, and for anything else that might make your already long and uncomfortable flight, less comfortable.
Helpful information: Yes, you will have to buy Joe his own seat. No, he won’t want to sit in it. Yes, he will scream when forced to strap in during take-off and landing. (On a positive note that extra seat is a great place to store the snacks, iPads, books, crayons, sticker rolls, etc. you’ve brought along to keep Joe busy.)
3) In “Family Values”, a recent article about traveling with children in British Airway’s High Life Magazine, author Emily Payne cheerfully argues, “Traveling with children doesn’t have to mean compromise.” With all due respect, bull. Traveling with children does mean compromise, especially traveling with young children. Their needs won’t evaporate on your way to the England, or, the Bahamas. And meeting their needs will take more forethought and planning abroad. Will you need diapers, a crib, medicine, special foods? Some of your travel plans will take second place to these considerations. Understand this before you go. Travel with reasonable goals, flexible plans, and invest in a good sense of humor.
4) Less is best. As a fancy free single (or childless couple) you might have wandered London, visited seven attractions in a day, ate a late dinner, fell into bed at dawn after dancing and drinks with that Austrian dude and his cousin with the funky nose ring. This time around, plan to see one or two attractions (providing one of the attractions is a park where Joe can chase pigeons; Joe really likes to chase pigeons). Know where you’re going. Bring a map, extra diapers, a change of clothes, enough snacks to feed the Roman army, a stroller (though he won’t want to ride in it). If you can, factor naps into the day’s plan. Joe will be happier for it, and if Joe’s happier…
Keep in mind that at two-years-old, everything is at once exotic and ordinary. There is little difference between. You don’t have to manufacture or seek out new experiences for your toddler. The Tower of London and the National Portrait Gallery won’t mean anything to him until he’s ten or eleven. Right now, anywhere with pigeons and ice cream will do.
So, slow down. Said Epictetus, in The Handbook, “let some things go completely, and postpone others for the time being.” He was not speaking to parents of toddlers explicitly, but he might as well have been. Cross the Natural History Museum off your list. Sit in the park and eat ice cream.
Understand that a good traveler cares more about the quality, than the quantity of her experiences. For the parent of a toddler, quality is achieved through a newly layered awareness. You learn to observe the world through two sets of eyes: your own, drawn to domes and archways and vistas, and your child’s who will discover smaller miracles nestled in the cracks of the wonders you traveled to see. A small, toy tractor on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. A squirrel climbing the branches of a tree in the Queen’s garden. Engaged in this pleasant double vision, you will enjoy a richer and more satisfying experience, even if you see less.
5) Find time alone. Remember the very good reason you had for traveling abroad with a toddler in the first place? That’s right: Grandma, Grandpa, and the Yorkshire cousins. They are your ticket to time away to engage in the kind of unfettered wanderlust that characterized your travels before Joe. Don’t feel you are abandoning the family if you take off for a few hours, or a day, to sightsee without him. He’ll be fine, and so will Grandma. (Really, it was Joe she wanted to see, anyway). It will do you good to sluff off that double vision for time, to look inward and regain a sense of self, independent of your family. There is no better way to do this, even if you are the parent of a toddler, than by traveling.
6) About that eleven hour flight home? Good luck.
They’re called tits, titties, boobs, breasts, hooters, hahas, bosoms, the focal of point of male fantasy, of fashion (high and low) admired, but, for all the wrong reasons. Call me envious of the well-endowed. Okay, I am a little. But for most of my youth I embraced a kind of athletic androgyny: strong, active, my breasts little more than perky mosquito bites stranded between ribs. Nothing to look twice at. So imagine my surprise, when two years ago, I became pregnant and my breasts grew to assert themselves.
Everything grew, of course. Grew and overgrew, out of my control, or, the illusion thereof. But my breasts were the first and most obvious sign of the changes to come. I wish I could say I enjoyed their new girth, but I was too sick the first trimester to enjoy anything, too high on hormones in the second to notice, and too fixated on the baby bump in the third to give the girls much thought. (That’s what I call them now, girls. Hard-working, anonymous, girls.)
After giving birth, my breasts, larger than ever, expressed loyalty only for the needy human clamped on my nipple. What a shock to discover how supremely unconcerned my breasts were with my needs (much less the needs of my hubby, poor guy. Now that there was finally something to hold on to, they weren’t his to hold.) If I failed to eat enough, or take in enough calcium, my breasts would happily strip my body of these resources to feed my baby. This is not to say baby and breast always got along well together...
Read the rest at MUTHA Magazine
Photo credit: Atomische / Tom Giebel (flickr/creative commons)
One day I suggested to my husband that “maybe it would be okay if we tried.” I could have been talking about sushi, or skydiving, or lunar travel. Something safe and final. But the man’s face lit up with unambiguous joy.
I use the word “we” lightly here, because let’s face it, my husband and I were not, and would never be, pregnant. I would be pregnant. I would be sick on the couch, eating saltines, staring at a cursor blinking on an unfinished scene of my unfinished novel. The flu, I told my students, hives, pneumonia—anything to keep my condition secret until it appeared the condition would stick. I was the one subject to the probing hands of doctors, to needle pricks, and bloodletting. I was the one banned from alcohol, coffee, cold cuts, hot tubs, and yes, sushi, skydiving and lunar travel.
Read more of this essay on Mutha Magazine
Ever since a friend gave me a tattered copy of Housekeeping, I’ve been a fan of Marilynne Robinson. All of her work, fiction and nonfiction, is driven by a singular intelligence and bolstered by a sober brand of faith I can only envy. Her collection of essays, The Death of Adam, is the best, which is to say the only, defense of Calvinism I have ever read. Her latest novel, Home, reflects an equally cerebral, but more restrained preoccupation with religious convention, and with faith and its limits.
In Home, Robinson rewrites the trope of the redeemed prodigal. When Jack returns home seeking forgiveness from God, from his father, and to a lesser extent from his sister Glory, redemption is not the result. Jack mourns his transgressions but has no recourse with which to atone them. He is born with a deviant disposition and is destined, first to flee the consequences of youthful transgression, and failing that, to blind himself, through drink, to the suffering he has inflicted. Really, the story has as much the feel of a Greek tragedy as a biblical allegory. We mourn Jack as we mourn Sophocles’ Oedipus, not because we admire or feel tenderly toward him, but because we fear that we, too, will ever be trapped in the choices and patterns of life that shaped our pasts.
By rewriting the trope of the prodigal in this way, Robinson refuses to limit the human experience to an easily digestible morality tale. She resists presenting religion as a palliative, and as a result reveals the greater mystery of a faith, which can neither be adopted nor discarded by will, or by logic--a mystery that fills that void between human understanding and divine grace. Robinson is not dismissive of Jack’s efforts, or his pain. His fate does not denote a wasted or a useless life. After all, he leaves behind a son with a chance of happiness. Instead, when Jack dies Robinson allows us the freedom to mourn his moral failings, and by extension, our own. Through Jack we are asked to recognize that unhappy and irredeemable men are, after all, still men and, however anguished, still deserving of love. What more, Robinson asks, can we reasonably expect of salvation?