I like to chop wood. Maybe it was my early training as a Boy Scout. Or those tales of Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack in the big woods, got to me.
Could it be I was moved beyond prudence by the poetry of Robert Frost?
Good blocks of beech it was I split, As large around as the chopping block; And every piece I squarely hit Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
—“Two Tramps in Mud Time”
At any rate, I’ve always enjoyed swinging an axe.
This year, however, the task threatened to overwhelm. From wood-gathering efforts chronicled here and here, I had more than enough fresh honey locust in my backyard, needing to be split.
We don’t use those big, round logs mentioned in Christmas carols (“See the blazing Yule before us, falala-lala, lala-lala!”). Logs must be halved, quartered, or even eighthed, to fit our small cast iron stove. Apart from mere size, wood ignites quicker when it has a cleft inner surface to feed the flame.
I started to split the honey locust, and some river birch from the same source, with my trusty axe.
My neighbor Dick rented a hydraulic splitter. I helped him use the splitter on his part of the take. I had never used one before, and it’s impressive, the ease with which it shivers great logs into small ones. It’s a good job for two people—one to horse the logs onto the splitting bed and one to push the lever that makes the machine go.
Need I spell it out? Dick did the heavy lifting and I provided the wrist action. A fair distribution of labor, agreed. But I was beginning to think I’m an old man, needing to be spared exertion.
When we had reduced his logs to splinters, he offered the use of the machine for mine.
“I actually enjoy splitting them with my axe,” I said. “Good exercise.”
I grinned. “However, some of my logs are too big and heavy to split easily by axe. So I gratefully accept your offer.”
We wheeled the machine to the back end of my garage. In a half-hour’s time we split the biggest and baddest of my logs down to halves or quarters. Plenty of logs remained to be split the old way, gratifying the woodsman inside me.
We hitched the splitter to the back of Dick’s car, and he towed it back to Home Depot.
Since then I have used my axe to make three face cords of split wood. That’s probably enough for now, as we head into winter. Tons of prime honey locust still await the axe. It will keep me busy all winter, whenever the snow is low enough.
Why Is This Important?
Ordinarily, the way people keep warm is their own concern. It’s hard to excite others about it.
There may be curiosity value in historical heating methods. Someday perhaps I’ll tell you what it was like to live in a house heated with a coal furnace, what one had to do—and it was the child’s lot to do it—to keep the flames alight.
But this year’s saga of my firewood husbandry is of possible interest only because it shows our dependence on one another. Some of our wood was a gift from my friend Jack. Some was a gift from our neighbors Nick and Shelly, who no longer needed their honey locust tree.
In processing the huge logs down to burnable firewood, I had help from my neighbor Ben on one side, and my neighbor Dick on the other side.
They say firewood warms you twice—once when you split it and once when you burn it. But the warmth of working with friends and neighbors is not to be discounted.
Having received a generous donation of firewood from our friend Jack, we were well on our way to having enough to heat our isolated sunroom for the winter. But we still needed more.
People on the corner one street over had a huge tree taken down. I approached the tree-felling contractor about the wood.
He looked askance, rubbed his chin. “Thing is, we sell it. Be happy to sell you some nice, quartered firewood.”
“Mmph. Thanks anyway. Mumble-mumble.” I didn’t go away angry; I just went away.
“Honey, how about that big dead oak down the block and around the corner? They’ve got machinery in the yard. Looks like they’re planning to cut that tree down before it falls on somebody and kills them.”
I ambled down the street and around the corner, drawn by the whine of a chainsaw. A lone arborist attacked the homicidal oak and stacked its branches along the curb. I examined the cut ends. All rotten and insect-riddled inside. I didn’t even mumble, just walked away.
One day in late November, I moped at my laptop, Googling “Firewood for Sale,” when heavy machine sounds pierced my reverie. I looked out the front window. There, across the street, in front of Nick and Shelly’s house, swarmed a crew of lumberjacks.
A Promising Development
Stop the presses!
I moseyed across the street and talked to the boss logger. Yes, Nick and Shelly had decided to cull a big honey locust from their backyard. The arborists were already hauling the results to the front curb, shredding the smaller branches in a big machine and stacking the big limbs to be hauled away. No, Nick and Shelly didn’t want the wood.
The foreman, rather than haul the big limbs away, was happy to dump them on my yard instead. “That’s great firewood, in case you didn’t know,” he said. “High heat density.”
I Googled it up and sure enough: Honey locust—or any kind of locust—is about the best firewood you can get. Mucho calor, low smoke output, easy scutting, easy splitting. Jackpot.
Using a log-grappling loader, they brought me lots of logs, six to eight feet long and hundreds of pounds each. I started cutting them to fireplace length with my little chainsaw, but by the end of the day, the loggers’ enthusiasm had left my efforts far behind.
I waved a grateful farewell to the lumberjacks and considered the fruits of their labor: A pile of logs so numerous and heavy my yard should have caved in.
I had my wish: Enough good firewood to last the winter. Way more than enough.
I invited my next-door neighbors, Ben and Dick, to share the wealth. Ben had to leave for a few days of Naval Reserve service, but Dick responded with alacrity. He came over the next day and helped me by moving and positioning the huge logs for optimum cutting.
That’s no small contribution. When you work with a chainsaw, half your time, attention, and energy is spent making sure the logs you cut fall the right way. If the log is balanced at the wrong point, it can either sink and pinch the cutting chain or fall out of control and roll in an unfortunate direction. Dick’s brawn, applied to positioning the logs before each cut, helped me cut them in a rapid and safe manner.
I don’t work for more than an hour or two with either an axe or a chainsaw. Why? Because when you’re tired is when you make stupid mistakes.
A stupid mistake when working at my laptop might dim my literary star. A stupid mistake with a chainsaw is something else again.
I called a halt and begged Dick to take some of his share home as soon as he could. We were in a race against time. If the logs stayed on my front lawn through the onset of winter, they could be frozen there until April. Dick brought his wheelbarrow over and took a lot of logs to his backyard.
The next day I finished cutting the big logs. Ben got back from Naval duty and hauled some of the logs away to his house. I trundled the rest through our long tandem garage and out the back end to where we keep the firewood.
We burn wood in our living room fireplace, in our backyard fire pit, and in a small woodstove that warms our sunroom. We fire up the first two venues only occasionally, mostly when the kids are over. But we burn a lot of wood in that little stove in the sunroom.
The sunroom, with its large windows showing our backyard and part of our wooded neighborhood, is a pleasant place to sit and write, chat, dine, or just sit and ponder. It is not served, however, by the gas furnace and ductwork that heats the rest of the house. Even to call it a “three-season room” is a stretch, because here in south central Wisconsin, spring does not get going until May, and winter has been known to start in late October. Burning wood makes the sunroom a year-round site.
Last year we went through about three face cords of wood. A face cord is one third of a cord. A cord of firewood is a stack four feet wide by four feet high and eight feet long. But nobody burns four-foot logs. You cut them into “fireplace length,” about sixteen inches.
You can’t be exact with logs. Some may be cut eighteen or twenty inches long, others less than a foot. But on average, they’re sixteen inches. We split the logs and dry them on eight-foot racks. Each rack holds a face cord.
We may burn more than three face cords this year. How much time we spend in the sunroom depends on how much wood we have.
This spring we had almost a face cord of miscellaneous logs left over. But spring is not too soon to start scrounging for more. You want your wood to dry a few months before burning; a year or two would be better. Dry wood burns hotter than fresh wood. And did I mention, I hate to pay money for firewood? I like to get it for free, but the opportunity has to be right.
The Hunt Begins
“The guy down the street has that big tree in his backyard that blew over a while back,” said my wife, Jo. “You could take your chainsaw and offer to give him a hand with it.”
“Mmph. Rotten old thing. Mumble-mumble.” I preferred, so early in the spring, to dilly-dally. Even, if need be, to shilly-shally.
“But where are we going to get firewood for next winter?”
Jack to the Rescue
Did I mention my friend Jack? A splendid gentleman of the old school, he happens to be a Renaissance man: classically educated, a Vietnam vet, a horseman, an expert witness on matters involving masonry construction. Jack is also a writer with a great book, not yet published—just as I am a writer with a great book, not yet published.
By the way, Jack owns and operates a large farm near Madison. He’s perpetually cutting down old trees, and he invites me to share the wealth. This year my daughter, Katie, and I went out to his farm and scored a couple of van loads of white oak and walnut. Already cut, split, and seasoned. Some of that wood warms me as I write these words—in my sunroom, surrounded by a snowy landscape.
Jack gives me wood, and I usually bring him a bottle of something nice. Katie brings him honey. This is not payment for the wood. We’re just doing something nice for a friend, who happens to have done something nice for us.
So, thanks to Jack’s generosity and a bit of left-over mulberry from our own yard, we now have more than a face cord of dry, burnable wood. But we neded quite a bit more. Even if Jack invites us out again, it will not completely fill our need. It seems to me churlish, not to mention unwise, to rely solely on one generous friend.
In the old days, Dear Reader, before the world went electronic and digital, clocks were run by mechanisms. To move all gears, pinions, and escapements, there was a big metal spring right in the middle of the works. It was called the mainspring. You would wind a small knob or turn a key to compress the mainspring. The gradual release of that compression furnished all the energy required to make the clock run.
The mainspring of my novel, The Maelstrom, is Anders Gunstensen, a 23-year-old Norwegian farmhand.
A story needs a protagonist to make it go. In The Maelstrom’s braided narrative, each of the three main characters—Anders, Maria, and Daniel—is protagonist of his or her own story. But Anders is the overall protagonist of the book. He is the one who drives the whole plot forward to its conclusion.
The protagonist makes key decisions and takes actions based on those decisions, driving the story forward. If a tale seems vague, meandering, or inconsequential, maybe the protagonist is indecisive. A good story usually has an active protagonist.
Above my desk is a bit of folk wisdom I picked up somewhere along the way:
The Protagonist must PROTAG.
The original manuscript, Freedom’s Purchase, did not stir readers much, because Anders did not protag enough.
In the new version, The Maelstrom, Anders drives the narrative at every key turning point. His decision to emigrate to America starts the flow of action in the book and also motivates Maria to create her own future as a fellow emigrant.
On a steamboat to his planned destination in Central Illlinois, Anders leaps into action to defend the escaping slave Daniel. This futile gesture gets him in trouble but also brings him to the attention of abolitionist farmer Benjamin Lake, who becomes his American mentor.
Anders, indecisive when it comes to love and marriage, is saved by the protagonistic presence of Maria, who has followed him to America. She recruits him into a marriage and farming partnership, to which he commits himself.
But his commitment to farm and family is challenged by another commitment, this one to the cause of freedom. Anders’s idealism drives him to help fugitive slaves—including Daniel, when he makes a new escape. Ultimately, Anders will join the Union Army after the Civil War starts.
When Anders works in Underground Railroad operations, that poses challenges for farm wife Maria. Later, when he joins the Union Army, Maria is left to save the farm and preserve her own virtue all by herself.
In helping Daniel make his second escape good, Anders unleashes a third strong actor in our story—the liberated slave, who takes strong actions to help himself and his fellow slaves.
The Protagonist’s Arc
Major characters in stories are said to have arcs. “Arc” in this case meaning some kind of forward progress. A character who learns new things and becomes a better or more capable person has an arc.
But not every protagonist has a strong character arc. Think of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, which you may have read in high school. Caesar, at the play’s opening, is already a triumphant leader, emerging as dictator of Rome. His character never changes. He is denied an opportunity for significant character growth by his fellow senators when they kill him.
Yet Caesar’s ambition drives all the other characters in the play. Brutus, for example, is forced to shed his native caution and strike the fatal blow against Caesar. This change or galvanizing of his personality is a character arc. Brutus has one; Caesar doesn’t.
So it is with Anders. Maria has an arc. We see her grow as she masters challenge after challenge. Daniel has a huge arc. He goes from an oppressed slave with a yen for freedom to a free man and an accomplished fighter for the freedom of others. But Anders remains largely what he always was—a bluff, confident man, and one capable of swift decisions.
Some readers may call Anders impulsive. But from Anders’s point of view, he only acts out of his true nature and the logic of the situation. He does what seems to be called for.
Whether he is impulsive or logical, the key thing about Anders is that he protags. He is the mainspring. He calls the tune to which the others dance.
The result is an entertaining and informative book. I hope to bring it to you in print before long, because you really ought to read it.
When Anders Gunstensen, original protagonist of my historical novel The Maelstrom, flees from servitude under his cruel uncle, he runs into headstrong seventeen-year-old Maria Nybro, daughter of a local boatbuilder.
Anders might be the subject of a police search. He needs to stay hidden. He hides in the boathouse of Maria’s father. Maria rushes to evict a squatter from the boathouse, only to discover it is Anders—long the object of her heart’s desire.
Maria relents from evicting him, but Anders declares he will be off on the morning tide to America. In that moment, Maria resolves that she will go too, no matter what it takes. Maria combines a stubborn determination with an unwavering internal compass. She knows what is right, she knows what she wants, the two are one, and she will make it so.
Maria Gets Her Man
Transplanted to Illinois, she will make her own way as a new immigrant, caring for her addled old Aunt Osa. To gain financial independence she snags a menial job in a prairie hotel. She pursues Anders and makes him see the advantages of a merger. They marry, combine resources, and buy a small farm, which they name Søtstrøm—Norsk for “sweet stream.”
Like all farm wives, then and now, Maria has a hard life. In all weathers and hazards, she cares for Anders and Aunt Osa. She also helps in the fields with the farm work. Though giving birth to two healthy babies, she is also acqainted with sorrow when another child dies in infancy.
Her husband Anders not only works hard to establish their farm—he also involves Søtstrøm and its residents in their new country’s fight against slavery. This complicates to Maria’s life. She meets the challenge head-on, driving off violent slave catchers at gunpoint.
With the little farm yielding good harvests, the nation plunges into civil war. Anders marches off to fight, leaving Maria to manage the farm with the aid of a drunken old hired hand. Maria must produce a living for herself, her two children, and Aunt Osa.
Meanwhile she is besieged by a predatory and amatory creditor, who wants to claim both the farm and Maria herself.
Through all these trials, she grits her teeth and does what she needs to do. She uses not only brute force but also imagination and creativity to solve problems.
I have said before that The Maelstrom is a tale of differing white and black perspectives on American freedom, and the character Daniel represents the black experience.
But Anders and Maria offer two sharply different takes on the white immigrant experience—male and female. While Anders does his manly duty as a warrior, Maria does more than simply keep the home fires burning. She braves harsh vicissitudes and bullying men to preserve the farm she and Anders have built.
Each of the three main characters—Anders, Daniel, and Maria—has an important story to tell about the rigors and opportunities of American life in the middle of the nineteenth century.
I want to tell you how an abstract invention with an attribute of blackness came to life and made an old white fabulist spin a new bicolored tale.
Daniel, a runaway African-American slave, entered my historical novel Freedom’s Purchase as a catalyst for events motivating the main character—Norwegian immigrant Anders Gunstensen—to join the fight against slavery in the 1850s. Daniel was not really a character himself but, rather, a literary device.
In the revised version titled The Maelstrom, Daniel is one of three main characters weaving a braided story of the struggle for freedom. I committed to telling the story from three points of view. And as soon as I began writing chapters from Daniel’s point of view, he came to life.
To pants, or not to pants?
When characters take over a story, speaking and acting for themselves, demoting the author to stenographer, that’s considered a good thing. It can be a problem, though, if the author already has a plan for the shape of the story.
Writers fall into one of two camps: outliners or pantsers. Outliners construct the plot before writing any action or dialogue. Pantsers write by the seat of their pants; they start typing and follow the story where it leads.
Characters taking over a story should be no problem for a pantser. It is what the writer hopes will happen. But to an outliner, a character who takes over may seem to be hijacking the plot.
Few of us, however, are pure outliners or pure pantsers. The latter still need to ride herd so the story moves in a satisfying direction, while the former are often forced to revise their outline when the characters start acting on their own.
If it’s a historical novel, the plot must accommodate well-known facts. For example, you can’t allow your characters to change the Civil War so the South wins.
(Okay, Gentle Reader, you’ve caught me out. Actually, one can write a contra-factual novel. Many people have done it. But then you’re using the Negative Heuristic: following a possibility that did not materialize to see what might have happened if it had. For example, what if Pickett’s charge had succeeded, Lee had won at Gettysburg and rolled on to threaten Philadelphia, and the North had sued for peace? Such stories can be fun, but they’re not historical novels. They’re counter–historical novels.)
How it all came down
I started my book intending to use the factual structure of my ancestors’ real lives to show fictionally how America’s struggle over slavery might have presented itself to new immigrants. Writing about Anders Gunstensen’s journey to America, I knew his passage through the city of New Orleans must give him some kind of moral reckoning over slavery. He must witness a slave auction and be repulsed, and thus become a freedom fighter.
But after New Orleans—both in my story and in real life—Anders went upriver to settle in Illinois. Since slavery is central to the story, I invented a slave named Daniel, who escapes his plantation and flees to Illinois, forcing Anders to deal with the reality of his plight.
Notice how all this revolves around Anders? Daniel is merely a reason for Anders, his wife Maria, and Maria’s old Aunt Osa to respond to the challenges of harboring and helping fugitive slaves in the highly-charged environment of pre-Civil War Illinois.
A narrow escape
That first version of the book was almost published! I was offered a contract by a traditional publisher. After agonizing for a few days, I turned down the offer, not because the book was flawed, but because the publication contract was flawed.
Now I thank God that Freedom’s Purchase was never published.
Two other publishers, who rejected the manuscript, gave me valuable hints on what was wrong with the story. Those hints prompted a full, tooth-to-tail rewrite, which became The Maelstrom. More important than the new title was the new dramatic structure. It is now Daniel’s story as much as it is Anders’s and Maria’s.
Some experts will tell you, Kind Reader, that a novel can only have one main character. But I was writing about European immigrants coping with the traumatic struggle which was engulfing their new country just when they arrived. Telling a story that revolves around American slavery, I came to see that you can’t tell it honestly without representing the viewpoint of the slaves. Daniel represents a whole people, whose freedom struggle is as important as the well-meaning efforts of white abolitionists.
One rejecting editor said “the escaped slave story” did not begin early enough in the book to maintain reader interest. In The Maelstrom, Daniel’s story starts early and, more important, is seen through his own eyes.
Daniel comes to life
As soon as I began writing from Daniel’s viewpoint, a new person arrived on the scene:
Daniel felt like a motherless child. His heart thumping, he crouched in the weeds between two of Mister Davis’s warehouses, not far from Mister Davis’s wharf. Barefoot, he wore the white shirt and trousers that Mister Joseph Davis of Hurricane Plantation issued to all his male slaves in January of their sixteenth year, with a new set to come every January after that. This was Daniel’s first set of white clothes, which he reckoned made him an adult. All he lacked now—besides his dead mammy, for whom he wept by night—was freedom.
The steamboat idled a few yards away.
Torchlight from the wharf made his task more difficult, yet not impossible. Having Mister Davis himself on the wharf, however, might make the trick easier, if Daniel timed it right. The frail old man stood under the big signboard and chatted with his departing guest—a Yankee, by the odd sound of his speech.
The boat’s gangplank touched the wooden wharf. Mister Davis in his top hat, tailcoat, and gloves, the long-jawed Yankee dressed in a plain suit and carrying a carpetbag—the two white men spoke courtesies of departure. Mister Davis valued courtesy at all times.
Now. While they jawin’. Go.
Daniel darted across the open ground. He slipped into the water. His toes sank in warm mud. He waded chest-deep in brown water to the boat. With strong shoulders, he pulled his slim body over the low rail. The Yankee’s footsteps sounded on the gangplank behind him.
As the boat clerk stepped forward to collect the Yankee’s fare, Daniel crept between two crates in the mid-deck cargo pen. The deck gang shouted as they drew in the gangplank. The side wheels churned, and the boat backed away from Hurricane Landing.
Nobody had noticed Daniel, as if he had become invisible. His fear mask melted into a smile of satisfaction.
Light from the landing faded away when the boat turned upriver.
Thus begins the full story of a main character. Over the course of the novel, Daniel will become a fugitive slave, a member a colony of maroons living in the swamp, a rescuing figure like Harriet Tubman, and eventually, a Civil War combatant. Of all characters in the book, Daniel undergoes the most profound transformation. He even learns to read and write.
I like the book a lot better this way.
Norwegian immigrants like Anders and Maria helped make America what it is today. And immigrants were active both in the Abolition movement and in the Civil War. But when Daniel came to life and took his fate in his own hands, The Maelstrom became a compelling story.
Gunsten Gundersen was the schoolmaster for the seacoast village of Øiestad, Norway. Christian Conradsen Nybro was a boat builder in that same small town.
The schoolmaster’s second son, Anders Gunstensen, and the boat builder’s eldest daughter, Johanne-Marie Elisabeth Nybro, married in Menard County, Illinois, in 1855.
Your New Favorite Writer is a great-great-grandson of those two Norwegian pioneers.
People in our family do not seem to believe that much is worth mentioning. I was a full-grown adult before my father thought to inform me that his mother—my Grandma Sommers— came from “Norwegian people down around Springfield.” This abrupt onset of Norwegian-ness took me by surprise.
But it was welcome news. Norwegians, of any sort, had to be more interesting than the rest of my relations.
With no clue what it meant to be a Nordmann, or how to be one, I joined the Sons of Norway to check it out. SoN lodge meetings and lutefisk dinners soon confirmed my ignorance. There was no doubt my blood flowed from the north. But my Norwegiosity was several quarts low.
I had grown up as a plain American. None of my kin spoke Norsk. My mom did not bake sand bakkels at Christmas. I envied my Nordic friends their silver-clasped, richly patterned Marius sweaters but did not invest the four hundred dollars to buy one for myself.
Years went by.
A Brief Essay
My wife, Joelle, qualified for a Sons of Norway genealogy badge by tracing my family tree. The final requirement was a brief biography of a Norwegian ancestor. Since Anders Gunstensen was my ancestor and not Joelle’s, she made me write the essay.
“Yes, Dear,” I mumbled. The project would be a distraction. I was focused on writing fiction. She was asking me to pivot and write two pages of nonfiction about my great-great-grandfather.
Cornered, with no way out, I glanced at the information Joelle had dug up. The more I read, the more I marveled. Anders emigrated to America in 1853 on the sailing brig Victoria, departing Arendal, Norway, in early February and landing at the end of March in . . . New Orleans.
Curiouser and Curiouser
New Orleans? Are you kidding me? Norwegians sail to New York, don’t they?
Not all of them. Anders didn’t. And after passing through New Orleans, he settled in Menard County, Illinois, near Springfield.
Wait a minute. Norwegians live up north—Wisconsin, Minnesota—don’t they?
Not all of them. Anders didn’t.
Two years after reaching America, he married Johanne-Marie Nybro, a Norwegian girl. Compatriots in a strange land they seemed, drawn together by a common language and culture.
But hold on, now. Anders and Johanne-Marie were not chance acquaintances. They came from the same hometown. She was the boat builder’s daughter, he the schoolmaster’s son. The village was only a few hundred people. Everybody went to the same church. Anders and Maria must have known each other all their lives.
Was There a Plan?
So, why didn’t they get married in Norway and then emigrate as a couple? They shipped separately, for some unknown reason. Maybe they had a pre-set plan to marry after arriving in the United States? Hmm. Unlikely. More likely, the decision to wed was made only later, after they reached America.
But unless they were planning as a couple, why would both be drawn to the same small county in Illinois? Old microfilms in the Wisconsin State Historical Society Library disclosed that Johanne-Marie’s cousin Gunder Jørgen Nybro had already settled in Menard County in 1850. Gunder Jørgen must have written home in praise of his place of settlement. Such a letter would be passed around, even read aloud at public gatherings. Everybody in Øiestad must have known, from Gunder Jørgen’s letter, that Menard County was THE place to go.
Anders, by the way, sailed from Norway February 9, the very day after his passport was granted. He did not wait for spring or summer, when the North Atlantic would be in a more friendly mood. It seemed to me that Anders left Norway in a big fat hurry.
Fact Into Fiction?
Still mumbling, I wrote the two-page biographical essay, which posed more questions than it answered, and we earned the lovely three-level badge for Norwegian genealogy. But the project left me frustrated, with open spaces in my ancestors’ biographies that likely would never be filled.
The obvious next move was to make up the answers and thereby convert my ancestors’ story to a fictionalized account. A historical novel.
The image of a footloose, 23-year-old Norwegian stepping ashore in 1853 New Orleans was irresistible. Anders the Nordic farm hand meets the lush warmth of a Louisiana spring. He sniffs fecund and beguiling odors, hears a polyglot of strange tongues, and sees a mix of people—rich, poor, merchants, townspeople. White, black, and brown. Some are free while others are slaves. Some, rich planters, have come to town to buy slaves, whom they regard as livestock.
The Question of Slavery
What would Anders have thought of slavery? America’s Peculiar Institution was an enigma to Norwegians. Scandinavian immigrants in general disapproved of slavery.
And purely from the standpoint of fiction: If this is going to be a historical novel with Anders as hero, of course he opposes slavery! Having gotten an eyeful of the slave trade during his sojourn in New Orleans, he would have been revolted.
Would he have left slavery behind when he traveled to make his home in Illinois? Not by a long shot, Gentle Reader.
The Prairie State swarmed with runaway slaves from Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and points south. Chasing the slaves were slave catchers—bounty hunters empowered by the Fugitive Slave Law to capture slaves, even on “free” soil, and return them to their owners. As a settler in 1850s Illinois, would Anders not have met freedom-seeking slaves and their hunters?
Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth and Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants were trail-blazing novels of Scandinavian immigration, and Laura Ingalls Wilder sketched the lives of prairie sodbusters. A new book along these lines could hardly add anything.
But what if Anders and Johanne-Marie became abolitionists and Underground Railroad agents? “Norwegian immigrants aid enslaved African Americans.” That would be something new.
“You gotta lotta nerve”
How plausible is the premise? Did any Norwegian-Americans help fugitive slaves through the Underground Railroad? Alas, Dear Reader, I have not found any examples.
Norwegian immigrants were anti-slavery activists. A Norsk immigrant named Even Heg and his son Hans Christian collaborated with other Norwegians to publish Nordlyset (The Northern Light), a Norsk newspaper that was an organ of the Free Soil Party, pushing freedom for slaves.
Central Illinois, where Anders and Johanne-Marie settled, hosted plenty of Underground Railroad operations. At least nine sites in Menard County were stations or otherwise associated with Underground Railroad activity.
Norwegians in central Illinois, with no native-language press or other Scandinavian institutions, had to learn the English language and American ways quickly. Would not Anders have cultivated American mentors? Could those mentors be station agents for the Underground Railroad? Of course they could.
The factual, historical Anders, like thousands of Norwegians and other immigrants, joined the Union Army when war came. Not all Union soldiers were abolitionists, but some were. Anti-slavery principles must have been part of Anders’s decision to fight.
It is not at all far-fetched to imagine Norwegian farmers in the antislavery struggle. The Underground Railroad was an illegal clandestine movement, most of its operations conducted in secrecy. For that reason alone, its true facts will never be fully known by historians.
The point of a historical novel is not to narrate events that definitely happened. It is to tell a story that could have happened, by which the reader is entertained or informed.
A New Literary Work
So I embarked on writing my first novel, Freedom’s Purchase. Five years later, it is greatly improved and bears a new title: The Maelstrom. Johanne-Marie’s name has been shortened to the less tongue-twisting Maria. A few facts of family history have also been altered for the plot.
Most importantly, the antislavery theme, first conceived as merely one aspect of Anders’s and Maria’s struggle to adapt to life in America, took on a life of its own and became the main conflict of the book. The invented character Daniel, a runaway slave, came to embody in some way the whole institution of slavery. Thus The Maelstrom gives equal weight to the separate stories of Anders, Maria, and Daniel. It is a braided narrative of three interwoven strands.
Yet this book also is a dialogue between two different experiences of life—the immigrant experience of Anders and Maria, and the enslaved experience of Daniel and his friends. These two perspectives speak in ways that I hope are powerful, informative, and humane.
“But how dare you, a white American male, write a character like Daniel, representing the hopes and frustrations of black Americans whose lives you did not live?”
You may with equal logic inquire how I can write of Anders and Maria, whose life as nineteenth-century Scandinavian immigrant farmers was almost as remote to me as that of Daniel the slave.
The answer is the same in both cases: One can only do one’s best.
We have the right to invent stories. They need not be factual. We hope they may entertain, inform, and address something in our common humanity that readers will recognize as true.
No one was more nonplussed than Your New Favorite Writer when Milo Bung, after his narrow brush with mortality in the Marines, came home and married Muriel Blankenship (Class of ’62).
“Muriel Blankenship!” I expostulated at the time. “Why HER, of all people?” I prophesied that Milo would rue the day he married Muriel Blankenship. Maybe that’s why I was not named Best Man. As consolation they did, in the end, permit me to ush at the wedding.
Now, nigh onto sixty years later, Milo seems about to admit that I WAS RIGHT!
It’s all about hardware.
The Hardware Challenge
“You know I’m not much of a do-it-yourselfer or home repairman,” Milo said as we stood in his garage. “But over the years a man accumulates fasteners, lubricants, hand tools, power tools, blades, bits, and all sorts of oddities.” Milo swept his arm inclusively over a small workbench in a back corner of the garage, behind Muriel’s gardening tools.
When a man, through no fault of his own, amasses such a treasure hoard of metal and plastic doodads, he naturally takes a proprietary interest in his collection. He becomes a curator.
“Take metal fasteners, for example,” Milo said. “I’ve got here nails, screws, nuts and bolts, for starters. Each of these has subdivisions. For instance, there are common nails, roofing nails, finishing nails, galvanized nails, and so on. Two-penny, four-penny, six-penny, eight-penny, ten-penny, et cetera, et cetera. Round-head, flat-head, pan-head, oval-head screws; slotted, Philips, square drive and star drive; wood screws and sheet metal screws; steel, brass, chrome—you get the idea. I’ve got stove bolts and carriage bolts, square nuts and hex nuts. Don’t forget wing nuts. Plain washers and lock washers. And specialized fasteners like toggle bolts, hooks and eyes, turnbuckles. Not to mention turn buttons for storm windows.” He paused to take a breath.
“Turn buttons for storm windows?” I asked.
“I told you not to mention them,” he said. “Anyway, you can see these things all come in various sizes and finishes. And what about little old things like cold chisels, offset screwdrivers, and old-fashioned seat reamers for washer-type faucets?”
“Nobody uses those anymore, do they?”
He fixed my eye with a gimlet stare. “Do they not? I really wouldn’t know. But, you need a plumbing snake? I’ve got one.”
“Your point being?” I inquired.
“My point being, Muriel wants me to re-organize all this stuff. Which is secret code for, throw it out.”
“Throw it out?” I gasped. “When you’ve spent a lifetime collecting it? Those hundreds of trips to the hardware store, where you come home with things you wind up using only a part of, or not needing at all? And then you need to keep them, in case you ever don’t need them again?”
Milo nodded. “Exactly,” he said.
“Throw out those little useful parts out of gizmos you dismantled and threw away—but you kept those unique little parts, because you never know when you will need them?” I was in high dudgeon.
“Little electric motors from disused exhaust fans—”
“Curtain rod brackets for curtain rods of a style that’s no longer made—”
“Yes! And what about—”
“I know,” Milo said. He picked up an I-kid-you-not metal Hills Brothers coffee can and rattled it, with a satisfying jingle from inside. “Every kind of miscellaneous and odd-sized screw, bolt, pin, and toggle known to man. A mix you can just swirl your hand around in and maybe come up with the exact thing you need to re-attach the downspout where you snipped it loose to put in the rain barrel.”
My head swam. “And, let me get this straight. Your wife, the esteemed Muriel Blankenship Bung—”
“May her name ever be whispered with reverence—”
“Muriel wants you to throw these things out?”
Milo sighed. “Or reduce them by at least half, and then put the rest in some logical order that makes sense to her. . . .”
I could see where he was going with this. “Or to some other random observer who—”
“Did not have a hand in acquiring, collecting, and arranging all these items in the first place.”
The Many Faces of Evil
O the horror. The revered Muriel, bent on a heedless path of destruction. Never mind that she has given Milo the best six decades of her life and three fine children who are outstanding citizens. Forget that she has saved Milo’s bacon any number of times and flawlessly guided him through complex social situations with never the slightest faux pas. She is about to become a prime villainess—a veritable Cat Woman of the near West Side—by suggesting that the amorphous pile of metal parts occupying the rear corner of the garage, which Milo has spent six decades amassing, be reorganized “before it gets out of hand.”
Gentle Reader, we ask you: When does Muriel think it was ever IN hand?
The hardware situation was already spinning out of control when young newlywed Milo came home from the hardware store proudly bearing those brackets to hang the curtain rods on, and a blister pack of little brads to poke them in with.
There were bound to be parts left over—extras that anyone would be a fool to throw away. This crisis was fore-ordained.
Now, when he can no longer figure out how to tune his TV set, and when starting up a rental car has become a dark mystery, that pile of seemingly random junk in the garage is one of the last arenas where Milo still knows what’s what.
And Muriel Blankenship Bung, Class of ’62, wants to take it apart, throw the best half away, and put the rest back together upside-down and backwards.
“Stand up for yourself!” I told him. “Don’t trade your birthright for a mess of helpful organizational hints.”
“Well,” said Milo. “I don’t know. If I don’t clear out this junk, the kids’ll just have to do it, a few years from now.”
Sometimes I feel like an army of one in the Global War on How Things Are Now.
Consumer Cellular—that Heaven-sent company for old, grouchy, reluctant adopters—has sent me a brusque email. They say that something called 3G is going away; hence, they can no longer support the phone I keep in my car.
Therefore, I must upgrade. It’s, like, mandatory.
A Smart Phone Denier
If you have been paying attention, Fair Reader, you’ll already know about my failure to be enthralled by smart phones. But in case you are a newcomer here, I’ll just mention that my only cell phone is a $13-a-month clamshell device. I keep it charged in my car in case of the just-barely-possible event of having car trouble in a remote location.
That device, and the service package that keeps it going, have now been dumped on history’s rubbish heap. The slightest available upgrade—to 4G, whatever that is—will cost me $25 per month, almost double what I now pay. Our free market being what it is, that convenient new figure of $25 derives from nothing more complex or baffling than the company’s need to extract twice as much cash from its senior citizen customers.
In addition to the service plan, one must also have a new phone. The 4G version of my old flip phone costs less than sixty dollars, and they will let me pay that off at two bucks a month for two years. So my penalty for living in 2021 will be only $27 minus the $13 I was already paying. So, an extra $14 per month. Chicken feed. Then I could roll on as before, unvexed by progress.
I probably should do just that.
But, Why Not?
You know full well, Dear Reader, how easily the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. You see, that same two bucks a month would cover an entry-level “smart” phone—a sleek little beauty with a shiny glass face and the ability to do all those things people are always doing with their smart phones.
So, what’s to think about? Why would I not make the obvious move—the “smart” move?
Once upon a time, Your New Favorite Writer—in a desperate, ill-starred bid to enter the twenty-first century—acquired an Apple iPhone 4. I shared my life with it for a couple of years, but we never became romantically involved. No matter how I tried, I could not develop an abject dependence on, or even a liking for, the darned thing.
I do enjoy chatting with my friends and relatives; that doesn’t mean I feel a need to talk or text with them every few minutes. Likewise, I feel no need to document my doings with photos. I can check email on my laptop; when I get home will be soon enough.
As for driving directions: If I’m going someplace I’ve never gone, I look it up ahead of time. My old granny always told me: If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t go.
Tallying up all all these phantom benefits, I then considered the pocket factor. In my pockets I carry a wallet, keys, comb, sun-glasses case, and, often, a roll-up hat to keep the sun off my head. I spent two years trying to cram an Apple iPhone 4 in with all that stuff. Never did find a place where it could fit.
So I chucked the smart phone and opted instead for a simple flip phone to reside in my car.
Living in the Past
Having failed to embrace the modern world, I tried instead to make a virtue of nonconformity. I have aspired to be the last person in North America to get a smart phone. One can—without becoming a Luddite, I trust—take a certain kind of calm satisfaction from hewing to the good old ways.
Yet now, this idyll is threatened. Not by the convenience or utility of smart phones, that’s for sure. Not even by irresistible coercion from Consumer Cellular; after all, they have been careful to keep a clamshell model available, newly enabled for 4G.
No, Gentle Reader, it is only the sinking feeling that some new, unforeseen wrinkle in the social fabric may suddenly render smart phones truly indispensable. Then I’d be out of luck, wouldn’t I? I would be the only person in North America yet to begin the smart phone learning curve. Maybe I should start now, before it’s too late. At least, you know, get my learner’s permit.
Does that make sense?
In a dark corner of my mind there is a ragged rebellion raging against this craven capitulation. There has been no need for the convenience and wonderfulness of a smart phone until now. What could change?
All this may seem like a small matter, but in my brain the choice looms like an existential crisis. To smart phone, or not to smart phone? That is the question.