History Is Not What You Thought, Part III

Our conceptions of history depart from the facts. 

America, in the era leading to and through the Civil War, was filled with formidable women who shaped the course of history though they seldom rate more than a footnote in standard accounts. 

Fictional Females

Maria Nybro, the main female character in my historical novel Price of Passage, is one such woman. The seventeen-year-old daughter of a small-town boat builder, she resolves to follow her heart’s desire, Anders Gunstensen, to America. She cajoles her father and uncle into a scheme that sends her across the sea with other family members, as caretaker to her strange Aunt Osa. 

In central Illinois, where Anders has settled, Maria moves heaven and earth, taking a tough scullery job to stay near him—while meeting her family obligation to care for the bewildered old aunt.

Aunt Osa herself is one of a kind. Marked as a “different” child from infancy, Osa sees herself as a changeling, one of the babies left with unsuspecting human families by huldrefolk, reclusive beings who live in Norway’s forest glades. When asked why she does not have the long, hairy tail of the huldrefolk, she explains that her mother took her to be baptized soon after the exchange, and her rudimentary tail dropped off within days of becoming a Christian.

“The Changeling,” by Henry Fuseli. Public Domain.

Another strong woman in the story is Kirsten Haraldsdatter, mother of four, who fearlessly leads her family’s expedition across the sea to join her husband Osmund, who has gone on ahead to establish a farm. Like Maria and Osa, she is fictional but based on a real woman, a shipmate of my great-great grandfather Anders on the brig Victoria in 1853.

These strong women and others in Price of Passage meet challenges as great as those facing the male characters. Some of those challenges, indeed, are posed by the male characters. When Anders goes off to fight in the Civil War, for instance, Maria must fend off the advances—financial and carnal—of a seedy land speculator. She finds an original way to defend both her farm and herself.

The Real Thing

Mary Ann Bickerdyke, steel engraving by A.H. Ritchie, 1867. Public Domain.

Actual historic women also appear as characters in the book, such as “Mother” Bickerdyke. Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke, a middle-aged widow from Galesburg, Illinois, who practiced “natural medicine” in that community, went south with a wagon of medical supplies in 1861 to aid the sick and wounded soldiers at Fort Defiance in Cairo, Illinois.

Focused on healthy food and good care for ailing soldiers, Bickerdyke shrugged off Army regulations and red tape. Backed by the Sanitary Commission and the ordinary soldiers, she soon won the full support of Generals Grant and Sherman, who cheerfully deferred to her in matters of soldier care. 

Mother Bickerdyke stuck with the Army until the war’s end, serving on nineteen battlefields and establishing three hundred field hospitals. After the war, she continued her work on behalf of the veterans she called “my boys,” lobbying and aiding in their fight for pensions and other benefits. 

Bickerdyke was just one of many women who served ably as nurses and Sanitary Commission workers—but she was the most colorful and legendary. When a surgeon questioned her authority to take some action, she replied, “On the authority of Lord God Almighty, have you anything that outranks that?” In a day when male surgeons ruled the Army Medical Department, Bickerdyke caught and held the ear of the generals. Sherman called her “one of his best generals,” and others referred to her as “the Brigadier Commanding Hospitals.”

The soldiers just called her Mother.

She’s only one of the strong, pioneering women you’ll meet when you read Price of Passage.

HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.

History Is Not What You Thought, Part II

Our conceptions of history depart from the facts. 

Consider Daniel, a young slave in my soon-to-be-published novel Price of Passage.

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. . . .
The steamboat idled a few yards away. 
Torchlight from the wharf made his task more difficult, yet not impossible. . . .
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 deck gang shouted as they drew in the gangplank. The side wheels churned, and the boat backed away from Hurricane Landing. . . . 
Light from the landing faded away when the boat turned upriver. 
Daniel had been born on Hurricane Plantation, had never left its boundaries. Now he would see the rest of the world. As the wooded shore slid by, lit by stars and a sliver of April’s waning moon, he reckoned he had never traveled so fast. Oh, Mammy, look at me now.

Daniel is a fictional character, but Hurricane Plantation was a real historical place. It was owned by Joseph Emory Davis, whose younger brother Jefferson would lead the Confederacy.

Joseph Davis’s library and a few of his slaves at Hurricane Plantation. Public Domain.

Social Experiment

Joseph Emory Davis. Public Domain.

Joseph Davis worked for years as a lawyer and invested his earnings in Mississippi Delta cotton land, and slaves to work it. He became one of the wealtiest planters in the state and owned more than three hundred African Americans. 

Under the sway of utopian reformer Robert Owen, Davis sought to establish a harmonious, and therefore profitable, community based on the master-slave relationship. He provided better-than-usual quarters, clothes, and bedding, more varied and plentiful food. Going beyond physical measures, he established limited self-government, setting up a slave court “where no slave was punished except on conviction by a jury of his peers.” Davis also encouraged his slaves to gain skills in areas that interested them. He allowed them to keep money they earned beyond the value of their labor as field hands. And they could sell their own poultry, eggs, and firewood for in the local economy.

Davis believed Owens’s dictum: “There is but one mode by which man can possess all the happiness his nature is capable of enjoying—that is by the union and co-operation of all for the benefit of each.”

It never occurred to him that the very foundation of slavery—one person owning another—might be incompatible with an ideal society.

A Remarkable Slave

Benjamin Montgomery. Public Domain.

One slave stood out among all others at Hurricane. Benjamin Thornton Montgomery tried to escape but came to terms with Davis when he was made manager of the plantation store. His ability and enterprise led Davis to place him in charge of all purchasing and shipping operations. 

Montgomery learned to read and write. He mastered land surveying, flood control, architectural design, machine repair, and steamboat navigation. He made himself a skilled mechanic and inventor and applied for a patent on a new steam-operated propeller for shallow-draft boats.

When the Civil War came and the master of Hurricane Plantation fled the advancing Union troops, it was Montgomery who kept the place going. Resourcefully, he found ways to keep his fellow slaves employed and fed. After the war, he bought the plantation from Davis on a land contract and continued to provide an economic base for the Black community. But in 1876, catastrophic floods made him default on payments, and the land reverted to the Davis family. 

Montgomery died the following year. His son, Isaiah, struggled to keep his dream alive, leading a group of former slaves to establish the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, in 1887 as a majority African-American community.

Another Option

Most Black slaves in the South worked and lived under far less favorable conditions. But they did not simply wait for the U.S. government to emancipate them. There was another option. 

Colonies of self-liberated Blacks laid low in swamps and upland forests, sometimes under the noses of their former masters. Dubbed “slavery’s exiles” by historian Sylviane A. Diouf, these reclusive plantation refugees are known to history as maroons.

Fugitive slaves fleeing through a swamp, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Public Domain.

Unlike the better-documented maroons of the Caribbean basin, the ones who lived in ethe United States are poorly represented in historical accounts. Their colonies, hidden away in every slave state, were small compared to those ofd Brazil, Surinam, Hispaniola, or Cuba. Official records usually called them truants, runaways, or banditti.

But they were more than that. They were organized communities of sub rosa freedom.

Marronage was a hard life that involved hunger, cold, danger, and much privation. Many maroons were caught by professional slave hunters and driven back to the plantations. Many others perished in the woods. But there were those like Thompson West of Plaquemine, Louisiana, who held out until the Yankees arrived and then walked out of the woods, saying, “I’m a free man!”

National Service

What about those African Americans who were already free? At the start of the Civil War, almost half a million free Blacks lived in the United States, South and North. Their numbers were continuously augmented as enslaved people fled their masters and established lives of freedom in northern cities and rural areas. 

Frederick Douglass in 1856. Public Domain.

These people had a powerful interest in seeing their enslaved brothers and sisters liberated. They almost unanimously sided with the Union in the war. Many of them wanted to serve militarily.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a self-liberated slave, declared, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth or under the earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”

Douglass made this famous remark in April 1863, in the midst of a struggle to get Black Americans admitted to service in the U.S. Army. Everyone who has seen the film Glory knows that, despite African Americans’ willingness to serve, enlistment was denied them until about the mid-point of the war. The rationale was that “colored men won’t fight” or “they won’t make good soldiers.” It took the actual experience of several ground-breaking regiments such as the 54th Massachusetts to begin to dispel these myths.

A fact less well-known is that sailors of color were admitted to the U.S. Navy from the start. More than ten percent of the Continental Navy in the American Revolution was Black. Even more sewrved in state navies and on privateers. In the War of 1812, Blacks represented one-sixth of U.S. naval personnel. In the Civil War, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles authorized recruitment of escaped or liberated slaves in the Atlantic Blockading Squadron from September 1861. These new sailors supplemented many other African Americans already in the Navy. Blacks served on seven hundred Navy ships. Eight won the Medal of Honor for their service. These sailors of color were limited to low-level positions and served under conditions of inequality with white sailors. But serve they did, in large numbers. 

Black sailors on USS Galena, a Civil War ironclad. Public Domain.

Astounded Yet?

A utopian plantation. An enterprising inventor/engineer slave. Self-governing communities of runaway slaves in the wilderness. Naval vessels with free Blacks and newly-liberated slaves in their crews. 

None of these things are really surprising, if we remember that history is composed of millions of individuals with their own unique situations. They only seem surprising in the face of oversimplified assumptions gathered from popular sources.

I call these instances to your attention, Dear Reader, for selfish purposes. I want you to buy my book, Price of PassageA Tale of Immigration and Liberation, when it comes out August 23. It is filled with little things like this. Things that may be unexpected but are nonetheless true. 

I began writing this novel in the conviction that fiction can be a good way to tell the truth.

So remember:

HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.

Next Week—Some Uppity Women.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.

Price of Passage

What does it take to make a story?

Timothy Eberle on Unsplash.
In 1856, on the Illinois prairie, Norwegian farmers ANDERS and MARIA encounter DANIEL, a young fugitive slave. Will they do their legal duty by turning him in? Or will they break the laws of their new country and put their lives at risk to aid Daniel in his bid for freedom?

Peasant Farmers, by Julien Joseph. Public Domain.

That’s not really a story. It’s more like a situation, a setup. But it’s a start.

In historical fiction, an author wants to pay attention to the underlying morality of the situation. But you have to build on that. The story of Anders, Maria, and Daniel, as mentioned above, is incomplete without some sense of where Anders and Maria have come from, to be newly-arrived Scandinavian immigrants in central Illinois. 

The Captive Slave, by John Philip Simpson. Public Domain.

One also ought to sketch Daniel more fully. What kind of slave life is he trying to escape from? What are his chances? What will he do with his new freedom, if he makes his escape good? 

There are more questions than answers.

John Brown.

It’s notable that Anders, Maria, and Daniel all arrived at the same place in 1856—just when the nation’s quarrel over slavery was starting to come to a head. John Brown was murdering pro-slavery men in Kansas about this time. The Dred Scott decision, which gave iron force to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, would come along in early 1857. Lincoln and Douglas would contest for the Illinois Senate seat in a series of debates in 1858. Brown would show up again, this time raiding the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, in 1859. The pot was coming to a boil.

How would these events affect Anders? Maria? Daniel? 

It’s all there in Price of Passage—A Tale of Immmigration and Liberation, coming August 23 from DX Varos Publishing. 

Sign up for my free newsletter, The Haphazard Times, above right, to be kept fully informed.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.

Perils of Progeny

I am pregnant. With a book. 

Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation is due August 23. It is expected to weigh eleven ounces and be seven and fifteen-sixteenths inches long. 

Congratulations are in order. But pity me carrying it through the hot months!

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Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash.

It’s a funny thing, Dear Reader: One stroke of a pen and you go from writer to bookseller.

One hundred percent. Instantly. 

On February 17, I signed a contract with DX Varos Publishing for the publication of my historical novel The Maelstrom.Things started happening. 

  • The publisher and I agreed to change the title from The Maelstrom to Price of Passage.
  • We added a subtitle: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
  • The publisher sent me an advance check to seal the deal.
  • We settled on a cover design, which was swiftly executed by the publisher.
  • The publisher revealed the cover and announced the publication with an exciting blurb teasing the contents of the book.
  • I upgraded my website, www.LarryFSommers.com
  • I acquired Mailerlite software, learned its rudiments, and launched an occasional newsletter for my loyal fans, The Haphazard Times (currently undergoing refinement).
  • I attended the Chicago Writers Association’s annual conference, where I received much kudos and encouragement from fellow authors.
  • I applied for a Wisconsin Seller’s Permit.
  • I sent for a Square Reader so I can process people’s credit card and Paypal purchases at author events such as signings, readings, and book clubs.
  • I started “going to school” on my friend Greg Renz, successful author of Beneath the Flames. I’m studying what he does to beat the drum for his book, and how he does it.
  • Oh, yes. I am ordering custom bookmarks to give out with copies of the book.

Take a Breath, Buster

It’s been just over a month. Price of Passage will not arrive until August 23. 

I stand presently under a Niagara of marketing, sales, and bookkeeping concerns. I don’t understand half of what I’m doing but plunge ahead anyway. Learn by doing, the saying goes.

Meanwhile, I have a second completed novel a mere whisker away from being ready to start sending queries to publishers. It only needs two or three good days of last-minute polishing, plus the drafting of a good synopsis and query letter. But all that will have to wait.

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash.

I have a great idea for a short story to develop for the literary journals. Quite a bit of work. And it will have to wait.

There is the beginning of a personal memoir. It needs to keep going. But it will have to wait.

Opportunity Knocks

Blacksmiths of yore had a saying to cover this situation: “Strike while the iron is hot.” 

Shakespeare, more verbose yet pithy, said

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat…

Rodeo cowboys are more terse: “Let ’er buck!” 

No matter how you say it, now is the time to sell, even though I’d rather write. We can pick up the pieces afterward.

The Book Trade

Why is it this way?

Maxwell Perkins. Al Ravenna, New York World-Telegram and Sun. Public Domain.

Maybe you think when an author finishes a book, he sends it to his publisher—one of the Big Five—who assigns the manuscript to a top-flight editor, a Maxwell Perkins type in a three-piece suit, then takes out a full-page ad in the New York Times and calls the appropriate committees (Pulitzer, Nobel, etc.). Oh, yes, a book tour of the major cities might be needed, with the author accompanied by two or three publicists and cossetted in luxury suites in four-star hotels. And then the dollars roll in, followed by movie contracts, more dollars, etc.

Well, Gentle Reader, let me assure you: 

That is NOT, unless you are Stephen King, How It Works.

Publishers do not sell books. Mostly, they can’t even spare a publicist.

But publicists do not sell books, anyway.

Editors, of course, would not be caught dead selling books.

Even bookstores do not really sell books. They merely conduct the transaction. People come into the store looking to buy books. All the store needs to do is have some on hand.

Amazon? Even more so.

So, you ask, who does sell books?

Authors.

Authors sell books.

So next time you see me, Dear Reader, I will have my foot wedged firmly in your door. And a great book in my hand. You should definitely own a copy or two. And all the members of your extended family should, too. It will make a very thoughtful Christmas or Hanukah gift.

Wish me luck.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.

What’s in a Title?

A lot can happen in from one week to the next. 

Two weeks ago, I announced that my novel, The Maelstrom, would be published July 26. One week ago, March 1, I announced that no, it would actually be August 23. And with a new title.

As of today, the August 23 release date is still good. 

Now here is the new title: Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

And look! Here’s the cover. 

A book’s cover is key. Sometimes, the cover even drives the choice of title. 

When I first started writing this book, I just called it “the Anders and Maria book.” Eventually, I settled on Freedom’s Purchase. I did not like Freedom’s Purchase much. It seemed hyper-inflated. But it fit, because throughout this story, characters pay high prices to secure their freedom. They must give up precious things to be free and prosperous. 

When I re-wrote the book I changed it to The Maelstrom. I was thinking of a great whirlpool, like the Moskstraumen off the Norwegian coast. It seemed to capture the vortex of looming disaster that was the pre-Civil War United States.

DX Varos Publishing bought the manuscript. Publisher Daniel Willis wanted to add a subtitle: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation. This would give readers more information about the nature of the story. So we were set to publish The Maelstrom—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Several people had previously said things like, “Maelstrom? Huh?” “What’s a maelstrom?” “Is this a book about some ocean current?” In my wisdom, I had ignored such minor quibbles.

We’re Covered

A good story often has a last-minute twist, and here it is: The publisher sent me the cover art. 

It showed a railroad track in foreground, a breaking chain overhead, and a distant sky full of clouds and sunshine. The track could suggest immigration; the broken chain, liberation; the half-sunny sky, a brighter future. 

I was underwhelmed by this cover. I surfed the web frantically and found an image that embodied the dynamic tension of “maelstrom.” It was a blue-green ship in a stormy ocean, a large whirlpool churning in the foreground. I sent it to the publisher. 

He said, “Well, yes, but everybody’s going to think they’re buying a sea story.”

Curses! 

A cover is not just about symbols and metaphors. It should give the reader a clue about the actual contents.

It’s true this book includes an ocean voyage, but it’s a minor part of the story. Everything important occurs on land, in the middle of North America, far from any ocean. 

Bowing at last to common sense,  I accepted the publisher’s cover. But the title, The Maelstrom, did not match the cover image. Rereading Chapter One, I stumbled on the phrase, “price of passage.” It relates to the purchase of a transatlantic ticket to America, but it’s also a good metaphor for the costs incurred in “freedom’s purchase.” 

We ran it up the flagpole, and everybody saluted.

So now, with pride, DX Varos Publishing and Larry F. Sommers give you Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation–available for pre-order in late spring.

I’m glad to be partnered with somebody who knows what they’re doing in this business.

And that’s not all

I hereby announce the inaugural issue of The Haphazard Times, a very occasional newsletter, by email, intended to apprise you of only the most significant developments in this writer’s life.

Why should I  trouble your Inbox on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, just to meet an arbitrary deadline? The Haphazard Times will appear in your email only when important events or milestones occur. Events like the opening of pre-orders for the book and other key milestones for the book or for me as a writer. Other than that, I won’t bother you. 

All you need to do to get on the mailing list for The Haphazard Times is fill in this form:

I hope you will.

Note Well: This “Keep Up!” signup is for the newsletter. The other signup, at right under “Share My Journey Week to Week,” is for email notification whenever this blog is posted. If you already receive such notices, they will continue. If you do not, but would like to, just enter your email there. But that will not get you the newsletter. I recommend taking both.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Teeny-weeny Corrections

Last week I announced in this space that my novel, The Maelstrom—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, would be published on July 26. 

The good news is, the book is still going to be published.

The other good news is, it will have a better title. Better as in, not as confusing. Better as in, more harmonious with the art on the book’s cover. Better as in, making clearer to the reader what’s inside the covers. 

An additional piece of news is: The publication date is moved back to August 23. This is not the publisher’s fault. It turns out that the original July date coincided with a long-planned family trip. And I, the author, wanted at least to be in the country when my book came out.

Please excuse these minor confusions, Dear Reader. I have never been an about-to-be-published book author before, and I seem to be mishap-prone. It will get better, I’m somewhat sure.

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One way to keep up with the dizzying pace of developments will be to sign up for my electronic newsletter. 

“What electronic newsletter is that, O New Favorite Writer?”

I refer to the newletter I am about to launch. Once it is up and running, you may rest assured I will publicize it unmistakably on this blog. So keep on tuning in, at least once a week.

I thank you; my publisher thanks you; and this wonderful story—which highlights the contributions of immigrants and slaves to the development of our country—this wonderful story thanks you.

Until next week,

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Izzy Mahler Finds True Gold

A sweet little secret of the Lit Biz—which I am about to let you in on, Dear Reader—is this: 

After giving months, or maybe years, of your life to writing an 80,000-word novel, you must then tell the story again, accurately and with zing!, in one page.

That’s only if you want anyone to have a chance to read it.

“What, one page?” I hear you cry. “Dear New Favorite Writer, that’s hardly possible.” 

You’re quite right. It’s flat-out IMpossible. Nevertheless, it’s mandatory.

The situation is not quite as bad as it seems. You can single space.

Why Is this Trip Necessary?

Agents, editors, and publishers want to see a one-page synopsis to decide whether there is any point in reading your whole manuscript. An agent or independent publisher receives a thousand or more queries a year—a query being a proffer of a new fiction manuscript the author hopes will get the green light for a traditional publishing contract. 

The agent or publisher can represent, or publish, only a handful of titles a year. A dozen, or two dozen, perhaps. So barriers are built, like the steep waterfalls and boiling fish-ladders of the Pacific Northwest that keep all but the strongest of salmon from reaching their spawning grounds and scoring the Darwinian reward of posterity.

Salmon try to leap a waterfall. Photo by Marvina Munch, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public Domain

The Synopsis

The synopsis is one of those barriers. Does it tell the whole story? Does it tell the story clearly? Is the story interesting? If not, fuhgeddaboudit.

Unlike the marketing blurb on the back cover of the book, which will give enticing hints of the story while gingerly avoiding spoilers, the synopsis—meant for publishing industry eyes only— must reveal the whole plot, including the ending. If it does the job well enough, the author’s reward is a request from the agent or publisher to send the full manuscript for review. 

Thus, you have made it over the first waterfall on your way upstream. The next waterfall is steeper. After they read the whole manuscript, they may pass. But at least your synopsis has earned you a chance at success. 

Which brings us back to the impossibility of writing your whole novel in one page. But trying to do so is actually a valuable exercise. An amazing number of characters, phrases, and plot twists must be left on the cutting room floor. What remain are only the real essentials, connected causally in whole different way from what the meandering course of the book itself required.

Izzy’s Novel

Now, Gentle Reader, I’m going to do something that’s almost never done. I’m going to give you a peek at the one-page synopsis of my new middle-grade novel about a boy named Izzy Mahler. You will see it before any agent or publisher sees it. 

WARNING: If you hope to read the book after it is published, if your memory for plot details is good, and if you can’t stand reading a story when you know what’s going to happen, AVERT YOUR EYES NOW.

For those who remain, here is the synopsis, preceded by a one-sentence logline. 

Synopsis

In 1957 Illinois, class runt Izzy Mahler just wants to become a regular kid as the world falls apart around him—but can he shield America from Sputnik, and will a secret gold mine save his struggling family?

It’s 1957. IZZY MAHLER, 12, youngest and smallest of eighth-graders in Plumb, Illinois, longs to be respected as a regular kid, not battered by bullies like LYLE HAYCOCK,13. Izzy and fellow Space Patrol afficionado COLLUM GUNDERSON, 14, find a shiny gold rock in the woods near their homes on Wry Lane. Collum swears Izzy to secrecy, because the discovery is their special thing, which Collum’s three half-brothers must not share. Emerging from the woods, they meet IRMA RUGER, 12—Izzy’s third-grade flame. Izzy keeps mum, the gold rock safe in his pocket. But the secrecy irks Izzy. If the gold is real, it could save his parents’ marriage, which  is foundering over money. He visits the public library to learn about gold, but all he garners is a couple of cool space travel books. On his way home from the library, he inadvertently goads the MORIARTY BROTHERS into a baseball game: Court Street versus Wry Lane, to be played in two weeks. Izzy recruits players for the Wry Lane team, filling out the roster with physically impaired and oddly-named MUTT-MUTT CORNER.

Izzy’s underemployed DAD, a war veteran with a science degree, goes into a part-time upholstery business with PATCH PAGELKOPF, a wise old jack-of-all-trades. Izzy interrogates a pawnbroker and learns that even a little gold is worth a lot of money. But he prays Dad’s extra cash from the upholstery sideline, on top of his night-shift job at a glass bottle factory will be enough to keep the family together, so Izzy can keep the gold secret. Time comes for the Big Game: Lyle Haycock, playing for Court Street, shoves and harries Izzy mercilessly. The fey Mutt-mutt Corner makes an oddball play to win the game for Wry Lane, closing out Izzy’s summer on a high note. In the fall, heart-stopping Irma Ruger is once more a schoolmate, adding spice to life. Things are going swell!

Sputnik. NASA photo. Public Domain.

But the glass factory lays off the midnight shift. As Izzy’s family reels from Dad’s job loss, the Russians launch SPUTNIK, the first man-made satellite—which Izzy, furious, takes as a personal insult. Now suddenly, America wants young scientists. Izzy can easily see himself as a space opera hero. He and Collum, advancing America’s space program, launch a skyrocket over the local brickyard, but a night watchman calls the cops and the boys must flee through the woods. With his parents’ marriage on the rocks again, Dad vanishes. Izzy wonders whether he’ll come back. At a science expo for young students, Izzy learns that Irma has a brighter future in science than he. MOM tries to explain to Izzy that Dad was damaged by combat, but try as he might, Izzy cannot picture Dad as a war hero. 

Dad comes home. He’s been up North and landed a new job that will make use of his science degree. Seems Dad’s wedding ring is all the gold the family needs. But Mom, Izzy, and kid sister CHRISTINE must move to Pikeport, Wisconsin—Dad’s new work site, after Christmas. Izzy is devastated. Just when he is fitting into kid society in Plumb, he gets yanked away. Walking home from the town’s Christmas pageant, Izzy ponders his improved status as a kid among kids. Lyle Haycock waylays him and starts a fight, which becomes a conversation—one in which Izzy learns the facts of life in a truly broken family. Only Dad’s new job up North can spare Izzy from sharing Lyle’s crummy fate. After Christmas, the Mahlers move to Pikeport. On their way out of town, Izzy gives his new baseball glove to Mutt-mutt Corner, wishing him a good 1958 season. Up North, Pikeport is a hard place to adjust to, but Izzy finds a couple of new friends. His morale improves when America finally manages a successful launch of its own satellite in January 1958.

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There you have it, Dear Reader—my latest book, soon to join the crowd of manuscripts battering their way upstream in the world of publishing. 

When it comes out in paperback, do yourself a favor and read it. Especially because of all the ’50s reminiscences included, it’s a fun book for grown-ups as well as kids.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Anders—The Mainspring

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.

“Mainspring” by emjaysav is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The mainspring of my novel, The Maelstrom, is Anders Gunstensen, a 23-year-old Norwegian farmhand. 

Protagonism

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. 

Activating Anders 

My lavish office

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

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.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Maria–Unstoppable Woman

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.”

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

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.

Harvesting grain. Provincial Archives of Alberta. Public Domain.

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.

Greater Challenges

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. 

Next Time: Anders—The Mainspring

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Daniel—A Minor Plot Device Goes Rogue

Dear Reader,

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.

The Captive Slave, painting by John Philip Simpson (1782–1847). Public domain.

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 counterhistorical 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.

Parting thoughts

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.

Next Time: Maria—The Unstoppable Woman

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer