Tag: story

Little Servants

Little Servants

Children at Work in the 20th Century

 

The little servants were everywhere . . . until 1938, when President Roosevelt’s Fair Labor Standards Act included some of their concerns, American children were subjected to all manner of exploitation, service and labor, unprotected by any national laws. It’s sometimes said that, had the Great Depression not made adults willing to work for a child’s wage, reform may not have happened even then. Before Roosevelt’s Act, a 1916 national child labor law went into effect to block interstate transport of goods if underage laborers were involved in production, but it was struck down in 1918. In 1924, Congress attempted to pass a constitutional amendment to protect children, but it was blocked and eventually dropped. Children were fair game in America in the early 1900s, both in their families and in society.

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“Frequently beginning their working lives before their tenth birthday, children worked in hazardous jobs at mines, mills, factories, sweatshops, and on farms, with little or no wages. Labor laws did not exist, and the common perception of the ease with which children were manipulated made them targets for a variety of rights violations.”1

While laws protect most children today, their labor remains unregulated in American agriculture. The 1938 federal laws still allow children as young as 12 years old to work unlimited hours before and after school in the ag sector. As a result, as many as 500,000 children pick almost a quarter of America’s harvested food, and they’re sorely underpaid. Some may assume this is an immigration issue, or describes children who work on prosperous family farms, but most of these working children are American citizens who suffer from poverty so intense, they can’t afford to buy the food they harvest.2

My grandmother, Laura, was born in 1906, into a world where children were often seen by many as little servants, small adults expected to work to survive, often in fields or factories. Readers may have seen Laura’s handwriting and read her ledger notes in my first novel, The Darkwater Liar’s Account. Before she was the young housewife recording how to make her own soap from lard and lye, she was the abandoned child left at a Lutheran orphanage in Fremont, Nebraska.

For some orphans in 1911, adoption offered a chance to be part of a family, but this didn’t happen for my grandmother. When she was five years old, she and her sister were placed with different families, and Laura’s didn’t choose to adopt her. They wanted a worker, so in the official census in 1920, she’s recorded as a “boarder” at that family’s address. In truth, she was a hard-worked child servant in a household that looked down on her, even as they provided the bare essentials. A typical Christmas gift was a few yards of cloth for that year’s dress. Her responsibilities included taking care of children not much younger than herself, and she was whipped for their misbehavior. There were no laws to protect children during her childhood, and no loving parents, in her case.

My grandmother’s story, like many stories of the little servants who worked in America, remains a mystery. We’ve never located either of her parents, and we don’t know why her father left her behind, promising to return, and yet, never did so. Family mysteries inspire stories, and my grandmother is the inspiration for Margaret Rose and the little servants, the unwanted children in my new novel, Seven Kinds of Rain, to be released this summer. My grandmother was quieter than Margaret, but surely had as much grit, to survive as she did.

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I think readers will like Margaret Rose, who earns the nickname Magpie in the story. She’s smart and takes on all comers. Here’s a little of Maggie’s voice, as she considers the woman she works for, in Seven Kinds of Rain:

“In one carton of books up here, I found Fowles’ New Easy Latin Primer. It teaches a funny language nobody speaks, but it’s a mother to other languages. It has no letter W. Latin is confusing, so I asked my teacher about declensions. She said it’s not a usual question for an eight-year-old girl, but she explained well.

“Trying to forget about Florence, I sit on my mattress to look at the Latin book. My teacher says I’m lucky to have a special talent to remember everything I read and with Latin, I have my own secret language. Maybe for a diary, or if I have a friend someday, we can use it for secrets. To help me feel better, I also found some little swears nobody will understand, but nothing bad enough to send me to hell. Like puter anus, which means rotten old woman but sounds worse. And verres and clunis, hog and buttock.

“Remembering Florence’s red, crying face distracts me from the Latin on the pages. I’m sorry for her and want to forgive the whippings and missed school. The Latin swears help a little, like letting steam out of my hot kettle, but I can only say them in the closet or up here. It doesn’t help that Florence’s little pointy teeth and long nose remind me of a fox, vulpes. If she looked softer, more like a rabbit, lepus, I’d feel more like petting her, and less like trapping her and pelting her out.”

Watch for more information about the world of Seven Kinds of Rain in upcoming posts, with Maggie and her friends, Jack and Kuruk. Then the book comes, in summer, 2016, for you to find yourself in the story.

Be sure to subscribe for updates, and follow K. Lyn Wurth on Facebook, to stay up-to-date. And thanks for reading. I appreciate every one of you!

Notes:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_labor_laws_in_the_United_States
  1. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/03/do-children-harvest-your-food/254853/
  1. Child photo from Wikipedia, “Addie Card, 12 years. Spinner in North Pormal [i.e., Pownal] Cotton Mill. Vt.” by Lewis Hine, 1912 – 1913. E. F. Brown – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-nclc-01830 This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID nclc.05282.

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!)

 

 

A Special Sort of Patience

Thirty years ago, I was a young mother with two preschool children, one of them less than a year old. The necessities of life transplanted me to a tiny house in a tiny South Dakota town, where I was lonely and exhausted, with a touch of the postpartum blues. There were cloth diapers to wash, a home to maintain on a shoestring, cheap meals to prepare, a baby to nurse, kids crying and laughing, me crying and laughing and not one friend within a 500 mile radius. Life took a special sort of patience, then.

It was a good, messy, joyful and hard time, and I sensed even then that my children would bring me a lifetime of rewards. Yet, in the midst of it all, something was missing, specifically the creative writing process that inspired me as a college student. In a life-changing moment of temporary insanity, I resolved to add fiction writing to my hectic days.

So at five a.m., while everyone else slept, I would seclude myself in our little enclosed front porch. There were no heat vents out there and the chill poured off the old storm windows, requiring socks, sweaters and, if memory serves me, a blanket over my shoulders. I wrote for a while by hand, then bought a used typewriter (a major investment in those lean days). Between ideas, I’d sit looking at my reflection in the glass (which is all you can see at five a.m. in South Dakota in winter, in case you wondered) and make up stories. Some were long and some were short, and few were notably good. But I knew I ‘d learn, if I didn’t give up.

In order to have something else to look at besides my own ghostly pre-dawn image, I took a 3×5 piece of notepaper and wrote on it a quote from Gustave Flaubert.

Talent is a long patience.

I taped that quote to the woodwork between the windows above the typewriter. Of course, the day I copied it down, I didn’t imagine how long my patience would need to be, to become the writer I hoped to become. And yet, I was already a writer from those first days, because I was putting down stories, editing them and sending them out.

This was back when we ambitious, wordy folks with delusions of publication typed stories on paper and sent them through the mail. With stamps. You know, to publishers and editors, who sent back rejection letters. If you remember, you probably did it, too. I looked forward to the rejections and those mostly-kind editors sent many, but I kept writing. I took pride in having been gently, even personally, rejected by some of the best publishing houses in New York. Yes, a personal rejection with a note of encouragement went a long way, in those days. I even had a close call, coming a hair’s breadth from having a short story published in Redbook. An agent represented my second novel manuscript, and I felt discouraged when that story didn’t become a book. Now I’m glad it didn’t. It wasn’t ready and neither was I! But I kept writing, and more short stories and novel manuscripts followed, along with skill and confidence. They were just the practice I needed.

Because practice didn’t put bread on the table, I pursued other lines of work, some quite happily. I went to grad school, studied writing and medicine, ran a home-based writing and graphic design business, learned about the world from different viewpoints and raised my family. Writing fiction and telling stories ran through it all, like an underground river, coursing unseen while sustaining me.

The tools changed . . . I graduated from typewriter to word processor to computer, from dot-matrix to digital printing and from typed letters to email. Publishing changed, too . . . it opened to everyone, even as it became more challenging to land a book contract with traditional publishers.

an occasional payment for words

an occasional payment for words

Inevitably, I changed, as well . . . there were personal problems, life problems and health problems. Unforeseen interruptions appeared to veer me off track, then turned out to be the stuff of life and writing. It’s been quite a time, the past thirty years. Good news, though. Everything got better! (Everything that matters, anyway.) Even my writing skills, apparently, because a few stories found publication in journals and in an anthology, The Arduous Touch: Women’s Voices in Healthcare. Every now and then, a check came my way. I went out on a limb and embraced publishing my own novel, The Darkwater Liar’s Account, in 2013, a grand adventure because talent isn’t only a long patience, it’s being willing to take a risk now and then. I have two more novels sitting on my desk right now. One is en route to an editor, and the other, its sequel, is a completed first draft.

In thirty years, some things haven’t changed, perhaps most notably that I’m still writing. I enjoy research and growing stories out of what I learn, about life on the Great Plains and in the West, history, family life and health. That scrap of note paper with its message is constant, too. Eleven different apartments and homes have housed me since I first taped up that quote. Everywhere I’ve gone, it’s followed. The tape’s changed so often, the paper’s upper edge is tattered as if someone’s been chewing on it. It’s a little wrinkled, too, like me. We’ve both proven ourselves in ways that the twenty-something girl I was wouldn’t have expected, and may have terrified her, had she known.

Talent is a long patience.

 As I write this, I look up and it’s there, between the windows in my workshop, over my desk. The words still inspire me. After all this time, I don’t intend to lose them.

Golden Women Writing the West

Go West, Woman Writer…

IMG_1498Women weren’t specifically encouraged to “Go West” as pioneers in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but many did, nonetheless. They went as single women, wives, entrepreneurs, investors, farmers and ranchers, including and beyond the stereotypes of madams and soiled doves. (Hollywood’s John Wayne in his Western characters never met most of those women, but if he had, he may have been delighted and a bit intimidated by their strength and spirit.) Some of their genetic and spiritual great-granddaughters, Women Writing the West, gathered in mid-October in Golden, Colorado, at The Golden Hotel and The Table Mountain Inn. I was delighted to join them as a new member. We came not to pan gold or rope steers or run hotels, and not even to brew beer (a nod to Coors, at home in Golden), but to consider what it means to write the history and experience of the West.

WWW logoWomen Writing the West is a nonprofit association of publishers and writers who set down the Western North American experience via journalism, nonfiction articles and books, screenplays, mass media and children’s literature. They write contemporary, literary, historical and romance novels, short stories, and poems, but these categories only begin to describe their artistic ventures. This year was the twentieth anniversary of the organization, and many Founding Members were present for special honors.

This autumn, Golden beckoned farmers, scientists, ranchers, teachers, and even businesswomen, from Canada, Alaska, South Dakota, Virginia, California, Oregon, New York, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico…well, you get the idea. The West lives everywhere.

Key conference speakers included Sandra Dallas, Susan Wittig Albert and Corinne Brown. Panelists led us through sessions as varied as Writing the West for Kids, Women’s Fiction, Place as Character, Self-Publishing, Trends in Publishing, Social Media and Collaboration Strategies. Mystery series author Margaret Coel led an inspiring session, My Journey with the Arapahos, that I’ll never forget. I learned so much, and came away so inspired, it’s hard to sleep at night…but I keep a notepad on the bedside table, to catch ideas.

IMG_1524The Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum hosted the readings by, and reception for, this year’s WILLA/LAURA awards finalists. There were beautiful quilts on display, including the one WWW members made for this 20th Anniversary celebration.

CherokeeOn Friday Night, we met at the American Mountaineering Center to screen a new film, The Cherokee Word for Water, about Wilma Mankiller, the late Native American activist and modern Cherokee Chief. Her husband, producer and director, Charlie Soap, film producer Kristina Kiehl, and the young star who played Wilma in the film, Kimberly Guererro, met with us for a Q & A after the screening. View the film trailer and watch for this amazing story of how a community saved itself with hard work and “gadugi,” soon showing online or in a theater near you.

IMG_1508While the West is a physical region and encompasses an historic era, it truly lives, as one conference writer said, as a state of mind. In the West of the imagination, anything can happen. Fortunes can be won and lost, lives are wagered on a bright future and the wealth of our nation daily expands beyond our founders’ dreams, out where the tumbleweeds roll, the buffalo snort and the silicon harbors data.

418px-Baby_Doe_TaborBeing a woman in the West was always something special, yet usually untold. Many have heard of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, or even Baby Doe Tabor, Colorado’s Silver Queen, who lived in glitter and died in squalor. But if you want to know Grace Robertson, a teenage bride alone on the South Dakota Prairie, read Dawn Wink’s novel, Meadowlark. Karen Casey Fitzjerrell’s Forgiving Effie Beck, which just won the 2014 Will Rogers Gold Medallion Award, leads you through a mystery of a woman gone missing in 1930s Texas. To see frontier justice through a woman named Emilee, read Retribution, by Tammy Hinton, which garnered the 2014 Will Rogers Silver Medallion Award. To learn the secret of the Little House on the Prairie writing process, read Susan Wittig Albert’s A Wilder Rose, about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. For heartwarming Women’s Fiction, try Journey to Sand Castle, by Leslee Breene. If you prefer nonfiction and want to consider health, ecology and the power of connection with the natural world for healing, begin with Susan Tweit’s Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey. I met each of these women, and I’m saving more to write about in future posts, as I experience their work.

IMG_1586The highlight of the conference was the women themselves, and I basked in their warm welcome. Their voices, their love of writing and their encouragement inspire me to both live and write more deeply. As Margaret Coel put it in plainspoken Western style, “People tell you all the time what you can’t do. Don’t listen to them.”

IMG_1564On Sunday morning, to send us off in high style, many of us gathered for a High Tea, featuring our best historical costumes. Corinne Brown presented an amazing array of Western women characters telling their stories, deepening my appreciation for our foremothers’ sacrifices and endurance.

The great beauty of the West is in its still-to-be-explored history, changeability and multicultural fabric, reflected in and by this happy gathering of writers and publishers. Among them, this writer has claimed a new homestead.

WWW 2015 CatalogFor a pdf catalog of more great books by and about the Great Plains and West, go to this link and click on the “View the 2015 Catalog” button at mid-page. Take a leisurely walk through wild country…no cowboy boots or turquoise jewelry is required… but then again, they might get you faster service.

Worth the Wait

hungry dog waiting

hungry dog waiting

Gilda the WunderSchnauzer is sitting at my side as I type, not in adoration, but trembling with anticipation. In her mind, the clock holds no meaning and it’s always time for food in her dish. Her hunger makes it worth the wait. She’s vigilant, hoping I’ll look at her and say, “It’s time.” Time for another meal.

Wurth harvest 2013

Wurth harvest 2013

All summer, we in rural Iowa have been waiting for harvest. The soybeans and corn tell us what time it is, so to speak, as sprouts crack through brown soil, leaf, spread and canopy the ground. We watch breadth, height and fanning of leaves that wave like water under the summer winds, until the colors peak and begin to fade. The seeds drain the life from the stalks and leaves, while all ripen and dry. It’s both good and sad to see the colors change back to beiges and browns. When that last combine pulls out of the field, headed for the machine shed, it means another cycle is complete and it’s time for the earth, and farmers, to get a little rest. Just a little, here at one ending, and before another beginning.

waiting to touch you

waiting to touch you

Life keeps us waiting, longing, ever anticipating. Right now my daughter, along with our whole family, is growing impatient for the birth of her third child and even all these years later, I remember what that feels like, that sense of fullness, holding that squirming, beautiful life who’s just on the verge of visibility. Arms ache for what will fill them. Minds and bodies overflow with affection, aching to stroke little fingers and kiss a downy head, to breathe in those “new baby smells,” even the not-so-fresh ones!  To hear that voice for the first time. To memorize an eye color and a smile. It’s hard to wait for anything, but it may be hardest of all to wait for beginnings. A new season. A new child. A new chapter in a family’s novel of love.

So we write on, generations like pages turning, to fulfill and extend our story. This is how we are blessed, breath by breath, but we must be patient for what matters most. We must wait, sometimes painfully, to touch what we cherish and believe.

 

Water, Anywhere But Here

Water, Anywhere jpgMy new short story, “Water, Anywhere But Here,” appears in the July/August edition of a very “green,” pdf-only literary journal, The Broadkill Review. This tale is set in New Mexico, one of my favorite places in the world. If you’re in the mood for great poetry and an intriguing interview with author and poet Marge Piercy, you’ll enjoy this issue.

I’ve been following this journal for a while, and I appreciate what the editor, Jamie Brown, assembles for our literary pleasure. I also appreciate that he published my story! This link will take you to a page with subscription information, if you’re in the mood to add another journal to your reading list…this one won’t even add to your straining bookshelf, and will go with you wherever your pdfs can travel; computer, smartphone, tablet…you get the drift.