Tag: characters

Magpie and Ancestral Voices

Mr. Magpie photo by Keith Williams to be used on Seven Kinds of Rain book cover

In my upcoming novel, the title of which I will soon announce, Magpie and ancestral voices are inseparable. Magpie is a figure of myth and a real bird, but also the nickname for one of my central characters. In the story, Margaret Rose doesn’t choose that nickname for herself, but it is apt. She’s both dark and light, smart, vivacious and a bit of a thief. Like the bird, she’s smart, sensitive, loyal and eager to make use of what others leave behind.

I harbored some reservations about including magpies in my Nebraska stories. I wondered if they truly inhabited the Republican River valley, as I couldn’t remember seeing one when I was a child. I try to mind regional details, as well as historical ones, in my writing. As if to answer my concerns, when I drove along the Republican River last year for my research trip, a magpie flew low along the roadside where I traveled, showing me his white belly and glossy blue-black plumage. It seemed more than a random wildlife sighting, perhaps even a blessing on how I’m weaving the birds, the characters and the myths of Magpie into my novels.

Magpies, mystery, meaning and myths run through my writing, alongside what history would retell and science would prove. Margaret, my novel’s Magpie, loves both stories and science, as do her friends. In upcoming posts, I’ll discuss about other folktales, rhymes and mythical threads I’m weaving into the early 1900s characters, along with scientific theories and historical events.

The epigraph I’ve chosen for the book is a verse from Psalm 78. I claim no Biblical authority with these words, nor do I announce any religious theme or agenda for my little book. Rather, the quote expresses my belief that we should hold on to all the stories we receive from ancestors, and bring them to light for generations.

I will open my mouth in a parable, things we have known from of old, things our ancestors have told us.         Psalm 78

When we braid the old stories with our own, our lives become an extension of those who stood in this place before us. Even if the storytellers are not related to us by blood, their stories are one with this place, and their voices can deepen and amplify our own accounts.

No longer wandering alone in the midst of our facts, may we find ourselves illuminated by the multitude of ancestors, their presence, whimsy and wisdom. May our children and grandchildren, well-educated in science, consider also the light of history and myth.

(I’d like to give special thanks to Keith Williams, the photographer who captured this brilliant photo of Mr. Magpie, which I use as the featured image for this post. He kindly gave permission for me to use the image on the book cover of my upcoming novel…what a great guy, and an amazing photographer!)

Greeting a Magpie

My first childhood experience of greeting a magpie was in Estes Park, Colorado, in a parking lot. When I held a cracker or cookie or some other object overhead, a magpie would swoop down and take it. This interaction with people impressed me, as did the rushing, iridescent black feathers and sizzling white belly feathers on that swooping bird. Reading about magpies since, I find they have a reputation as highly intelligent thieves of shiny objects, especially in captivity.

Magpies are members of the corvid, or crow family, as are rooks, jays and nutcrackers. There are different magpie varieties, with the most widespread American bird being the type I met in Estes Park, the black-billed magpie, Pica hudsonia. Another variety with a yellow bill, Pica nuttalli, inhabits only woodland regions of central and southern California. The non-corvid Australian magpie, Cracticus tibicen, is a piebald bird. There’s also an entire genus of blue-green magpies in the Orient, Urocissa, and the azure-winged Cyanopica. A distant Corvidae relative, the black magpie Platysmurus leucoptyrus, is in fact a treepie and not a magpie. Take note, and thank you Wikipedia for sorting that out for us. We wouldn’t want to confuse our magpies and treepies!

I became a voracious seeker of magpie lore while researching my upcoming novel. Throughout North America, England, Germany, China, Korea and ancient Rome, the magpie appears in traditional stories and proverbs. On A Letter from the Netherlands, an expat British writer muses on how the superstition-laden magpie carries a bad reputation and is most often a bad omen in her tradition and family experience.

Reading about mythical magpies led me to reflect on the power and durability of myth, and how myths hold value for us today. In my next post, I’ll address this and greet Magpie as a mythic figure.

(Thanks to Christophe Libert for use of his magpie photo!)



WWII in the American South: Ruth Francisco’s Camp Sunshine

campsunshine coverRuth Francisco’s  WWII novel, Camp Sunshine, entertains and informs with clear, specific storytelling. Already a fan of WWII history and fiction, I greatly enjoyed this novel. Francisco animates a rather unattended war detail, an amphibious attack forces training camp in the Florida Panhandle region. Servicemen stifled in that tropical climate, preparing to invade a beach on the Western Front, while German subs loomed near America’s coast. While the subplots are fictional, Francisco bases her story on significant WWII events. She authentically cross-weaves the past from her careful research and first-hand experience of that location.

The characters are rich and singular. There’s Vivian, a twelve-year-old girl just coming of age, whose home has been requisitioned by the Army to serve as officers’ quarters. Her mother, Gloria, is married to the man appointed Postmaster at Camp Gordon Johnston. Francisco also fleshes out the Post Executive Officer, his supervising Colonel, cargo ship crew and flounder fishermen. She brings to life the confused, exhausted and bored enlisted men, both white and Negro. No less interesting are her white politicians and military officers. The evolving beauty of the jazz and blues art forms and racial injustice–both on and off the military base–create tension. A murder mystery, profiteering plots and political intrigue shape the inevitable evolution of an American WWII disaster.

This author impresses me with her ability to probe the specific strengths and weaknesses of each character; wartime greed, pressures and deprivations, interpersonal conflicts and loneliness aren’t applied as noble, wartime clichés. Rather, they are undeniable forces that catalyze personality and influence history.

ruth_francisco_photoI highly recommend this book, and look forward to reading more of Ruth Francisco’s fiction. If you’re a writer, you may also enjoy her interview about writing historical fiction in general, and this WWII novel in particular, on Reading the Past. You may also find her on Facebook.

Here’s more Author info, which I conscientiously and appreciatively copied from the aforementioned interview on Sarah Johnson’s blog, Reading the Past: Ruth Francisco worked in the film industry for 15 years before selling her first novel Confessions of a Deathmaiden to Warner Books in 2003, followed by Good Morning, Darkness, which was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the ten best mysteries of 2004, and The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She now has nine novels, including the bestseller Amsterdam 2012, published as eBooks. She currently lives in Florida.

The Darkwater Liar’s Account as The Next Big Thing

Thanks to Kourtney Heintz for nominating me for The Next Big Thing blog award. She has inspired me to keep standing up when rejections smack me down. Thanks, Coach. I look forward to reading some of your work soon.

What is the title of your Work in Progress? The Darkwater Liar’s Account

Where did the idea come from for the book? About four years ago, I read about yet another Nazi who’d been hiding since WWII under a secret identity, only to be brought to trial in his last years. I realized that there must be many people still alive who cooperated in Hitler’s Germany to varying degrees, people who go on with their lives and never admit their involvement.

What genre does your book fall under? Commercial, historical fiction with literary value (I’d like to think so.)

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? I would love Cate Blanchett to play the main character, Bridget, and Ryan Gosling as her adult son, Erich. Yes, I have a vivid and specific fantasy life. But that’s a good thing, right?

 What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book? After crossing a continent, an ocean and two decades, Bridget lives a lie to hide her Nazi complicity during WWII, but the truth still breathes, and worse, it intends to kill her.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? That is a very good question. We are all still deciding, but I’m not getting any younger…

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript? There was much to research, so it took three years.

What other books would you compare this story to in your genre? Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay and Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Who or what inspired you to write this book? As in my own life, when a person is young, it’s easy to rush in, to make unwise commitments without foreseeing the consequences. That doesn’t mean there are none. We live with what we chose in our youth and redemption can be elusive, even fatal.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? The novel follows Bridget from 1930s London, through Germany from 1936-1945, then into Nebraska through 1968. I use actual excerpts from my late grandmother’s early 20th-century accounts ledger as a device and structure where Bridget chooses to settle her own “account.”

My nominees, based on my love for their current work and my curiosity about their WIPs:

Anna Solomon I just read her novel, The Little Bride. Wow! A great historical work about Russian Jewish immigrant settlement in Dakota territory.

Nichole Bernier Her new novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, moves the mind and heart to consider loss, friendship, parenting and marriage.

The Writer’s Life Jenna Blum has two great novels available now, Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers. I’ve read and love both.

Unreliable Narrator I’ve read Dell Smith’s work on Beyond the Margins. I love his insights on story and writing.

Word Love Randy Susan Meyers’ novel, The Murderer’s Daughters took my breath away with her bold tale of the everyday horror of childhood amid and after domestic violence. I see on her blog that another novel is coming soon.

Be sure to visit these blogs. These authors are worth your reading time. And thanks again, Kourtney.

Short Attention Span Summer Fiction

our dust storm, 2012

Our Iowa summer days seemed long and hot, due to drought, but the season stopped short of our expectations for rainfall and yield. It also held a few surprises. That’s not a cloud towering over the farmhouse by the trees in the picture above, but prime Iowa topsoil in flight; fortunately, it was a short-lived, springtime dust-eater that blew through in less than an hour. It left grit in our teeth and ribbons of black soil strewn across my hardwood floor, blown through the ventilation holes below my sliding glass door. All summer, I hoped for and missed the usual sizzle, crack and wash of thunderstorms. Maybe next year.

In celebration of short things, you might enjoy a (brief) visit to an online literary journal, wigleaf: (very) short fiction. Short fiction, short shorts and even flash fiction (which is not only short, but written in a prescribed period of time)–these are fun-sized fictions for fast people hurtling through long distances, short on time and feeling late. Or, even for you.

Try wigleaf. I especially enjoyed “Shorn,” by Sarah Beth Childers.

From time to time, I’ll post other literary journal connections. Good stuff. Sometimes strange and always new.

Measure your day not by minutes, but by stories. It’ll sound better that way.

History, Courage & Learning to Remember

In college, I was no history buff. Dr. Lynwood Oyos’ legendary Western Civilization class at Augustana College nearly sank me in terms of my grade point average. He was a brilliant and personable professor who expected his students to immerse themselves in history, not simply learning dates, but absorbing the past in dimensions at that time beyond my grasp. I appreciated the man but came to fear history, at least as an academic pursuit.

On our first date, Goodhusband and I met in a bookstore…yes indeed, an auspicious sign. Thumbing through a published collection of World War II photographs, he told me more than I’d ever learned about that war. While he and I were in high school, some teachers claimed that it was “too soon” to teach or learn about it, that time must bring perspective. Maybe it was just too near and painful to talk about.

World War II holds my interest as a writer because of its complexity and endless potential for storytelling, so I read quite a bit about it. My as-yet-unpublished novel, The Darkwater Liar’s Account, is about a woman who survived that war and lived to regret it. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, as a reader I’m attracted to stories about people caught in events so devastating, so pivotal and yet so real.

Last week I read Sarah’s Key, a novel by Tatiana De Rosnay that revisits a World War II event in Paris. Beginning on July 16, 1942, Paris police herded thousands of French Jewish families into the Vélodrome d’Hiver before deporting them in train cars to extermination camps. Sarah is a fictional character at the center of that catastrophe who captures the interest of the novel’s main character, a journalist named Julia Jarmond. This Rafle du Vél d’Hiv, or the Vél d’Hiv Roundup, is seen from both Julia’s and Sarah’s perspectives as De Rosnay explores the multi-generational and cross-cultural suffering generated by indifference and complicity with Nazi racial extermination. Her story also explores healing, which is an essential, elusive but excruciating process for individuals, families and communities at war. It’s a great story and I highly recommend it, although it depicts intense tragedy and its aftermath. Don’t go into this story expecting to emerge unruffled. For more information about Vél d’Hiv, Ms. De Rosnay and her fiction, I recommend her website. Background on  Vél d’Hiv is widespread on the web, but the Guardian ran a cluster of features on the historical event, De Rosnay’s novel and the related motion picture, featuring Kristin Scott Thomas. The Time World page on the 70th anniversary of the Vél d’Hiv roundup, this past July, is worth viewing, as well.

Denise Madeleine Bloch

My random WWII research this week also led me to the story of a survivor of Vél d’Hive, Denise Madeleine Bloch. As Parisian Jews, she and her family must have felt the tide turning; they fled Paris just in time, crossing the demarcation line into “free,” unoccupied Lyon on July 17th. There the Special Operations Executive, a British World War II organization, recruited her into resistance as a wireless operator and courier. A successful and resilient agent, she learned the art of deception, memorized cryptographer codes, underwent rigorous physical and psychological training and even gathered the courage to parachute jump. Her codenames included “Ambroise” and “Crinoline.” Ensign Denise Block was executed in early 1945 at Ravensbrück and received several posthumous awards. You may read more about her where I found this information, here.

These women–an author, an undercover agent and fictional characters you’ll never forget–their lives, events and stories demonstrate that facts can expand and live through storytelling, whether academic, journalistic or fictional. Resounding with meaning in our senses and memory, stories lead us to embrace and remember people and events that must never be forgotten.

That’s probably what Dr. Oyos wanted me to learn, once I was ready.

The Aviatrix, Monks, Landlopers and Longing for Home

amelia earhart

Last evening I again watched the movie, Amelia, about the aviator Amelia Earhart. I enjoyed it as much as I had, the first time. I like seeing some movies more than once because the best films, like the best fiction, are deep with resonance and meanings that don’t jump out at me; on review, my mind links together ideas and themes that weren’t obvious, at first.

This time, a few simple lines of dialogue struck me, and as I haven’t been able to verify the exact words, I paraphrase here. As Amelia talked over the radio to her husband, he remarked that when she returned from circling the globe, they would go home. She asked where that was and he commented, “Wherever you are.” Her response? “I’d like it there.” It’s beyond irony that they shared these feelings right before she became lost, 75 years ago.

Wherever you are. This phrase might be interpreted in a few different ways. The first implies a traveling show, a potentially solo journey around the world where, whenever you land your plane or pitch your tent, tada! You’re at home. It brings to mind the spirit of the American West, cowboys around their campfires and homesteaders crossing the plains and mountains in prairie schooners.

photo by gayle lindgren

Even though I’ve traveled a bit and lived in many different places, serial mobility was a challenge. As a child, I was often the new girl, as my father’s career demanded; we called IBM “I’ve Been Moved” for good reason. As an adult, every move was a new home-making, fraught with frustration and confusion. (One of the first challenges was always finding my way to, through and back from the nearest/best/most economical grocery store, with kids in tow.) Even though I’ve settled down considerably, qualities common to many of my fictional characters are a sense of displacement and a longing for home.

A second interpretation implies that we define home by our companions. About fifteen years ago, I was blessed to fall among Benedictines, finding fellowship and education at a monastery near my home. Of all the monastic values, the words St. Benedict of Nursia recorded in his Rule about restlessness and stability impressed me the most. He mentions “gyrovagues” (translated in some texts as “Landlopers”), monks who move from one monastic community to another, failing to commit to any one and living at their ease until something disturbs them, at which time they leave for another, more pleasant place. “Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites.” (The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 1)

st. benedict by fra angelico

In my interpretation, St. Benedict wasn’t simply recommending to his followers that they commit to a geographic place, although that is implied and can be a good thing to consider, maybe especially so in our lightfooted (dare I say “landloping?”) culture. It’s a reluctance to commit to a community, to other people, that carries the spiritual risk. Committing to another person is the hardest work we face as human beings, whether he or she is a spouse, friend, child or co-worker; I’ve learned this the hard way, through trying and failing. We can’t hold every person equally, but when we make a commitment, we may do well to remain, to strengthen that meaningful bond.

So, wherever you are, who are the people where you find your home?

Back in the Game, by Charles Holdefer: a Reader’s Review

Stanley Mercer might be called an accidental teacher. After fourteen years of pursuing his youthful dream of professional baseball through the U.S., Mexico and France, he returns to America, without success or his girlfriend, Delphine. Everything he owns is in the duffel bag he slings over his shoulder. His brother, Riley, a successful attorney, donates sympathy and a temporary bed, but Stanley knows he can’t stay. Even his widowed mother has moved on with a new hairstyle, sexy wardrobe and a colorfully-dressed lover. He has to do something with his life to avoid becoming a barely-tolerated fixture in other families’ bathrooms.

Charles Holdefer’s Back in the Game

With just a “small lie,” he accepts a teaching job in Legion, Iowa. While everything appears to be quiet in Legion, Stanley soon learns that his new, small town life is anything but peaceful. He witnesses an odd sort of boosterism in a community where gossip prevails over facts and the mascot is a mythical hog. Methamphetamine labs and addiction afflict the families of his students. The nearby hog confinement company, The Double Dee, is the primary employer around Legion, but its sewage lagoons signify both prosperity and imminent disaster. Stanley experiences the pleasures, wiles and wills of lovers, with each woman remaining as much a mystery to Stanley as the children in his classroom. He lives with a cautious goodwill and presumes the same quality in other people, even where it is lacking.

Back in the Game depicts present-day life in a fictional Iowa small town, but it explores how disappointed people struggle to relaunch themselves into better lives. Stanley and other characters in Holdefer’s story inhabit that silent expanse of time and place that follows the wheezy deflation of dreams. As with his other literary fiction, Charles Holdefer balances tragic elements with an uplifting twist of humor, delicately avoiding the excesses of caricature and gloom. This is neither Lake Wobegon nor a requiem for the end of rural communities on the American Great Plains. Holdefer writes an affectionate and genuine story of people in small communities who wager their lives, loves and economies against poverty and loneliness. He considers how closely-guarded myths can prevent meaningful change. His flawed but resilient characters invite us to consider how we might ease our own ways through great disappointments, as they must do for survival.

Holdefer’s Back in the Game has been one of my summer delights. I encourage you to enjoy it, too. You may acquire it at your nearby or online bookstore, as well as Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
cover art

This review is based on a pre-release reading of the uncorrected, “galley” proof provided to me by goodreads. Novel Release Date: June 5, 2012.

I just finished an early taste of summer vacation, with a rich and engaging book. Nichole Bernier’s debut novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., is a brave and breathtaking story about the subtle natures and interplay of womanhood, parenting, marriage and friendship.

The story begins as Kate Spenser, her husband, Chris, and their two young children begin their seven-week vacation at the beach. Kate is still processing the death of her friend, Elizabeth Martin, the victim of a plane crash in Queens that is abruptly overshadowed by the disasters of 9/11. As she mourns her friend, Kate also finds herself responsible for Elizabeth’s secrets and legacy; Elizabeth directed in her will that Kate alone receive the locked, antique trunk that holds Elizabeth’s journals.

Kate, although a reluctant interpreter of her friend’s written life, takes the responsibility seriously. Her commitment to reading Elizabeth’s journals influences not only her memories, but raises questions about Kate’s own decisions and marriage. Her fascination, which borders on obsession (as mine did, reading “over her shoulder”), stirs Kate into uneasiness. While ruffling the surface of her marriage, the responsibility also places her at odds with Dave, Elizabeth’s surviving husband, who struggles with his own suspicions about Elizabeth.

This story begins as an intriguing mystery about Elizabeth–her personality, relationships, changes and affections. Yet, this mystery is only the wrapping that conceals other, more tender dilemmas for the reader to unfold. Through her strong characters, striking observations and deep insights, the author leads us to ponder the dedication it takes to endure uncertainty; about the people we love, about seemingly random events and the “mere” coincidences that make the difference between life and death. The greatest mystery I savored in this moving story is the immeasurable cost of secrets, which protect, torment and shape us.

Nichole Bernier draws the reader into Kate’s private, conscientious point of view. Reflecting on her deceased friend, Kate considers that some people “don’t fit into a box. They grow to infiltrate everything, and when they suddenly go missing, they are missing everywhere.” In another post- 9/11 moment, Kate considers that, as for having a third child, “It seemed a dangerous thing, having more children than hands.” (Out of respect for the uncorrected proof status of my galley, I won’t quote more than this…although I could go on and on with great pleasure, thanks to many “aha” moments of literary and emotional resonance.) The author rings true with her characters and a timeless consideration of the dangers of love, in its many mysterious forms.

Please find more information on the author, book excerpts, the first chapter, release date and where to purchase at: Nichole Bernier’s blog and her author website. Thanks to goodreads for drawing my name out of the great hat of cyberspace. I will post this review on their site, as well.