History Is Not What You Thought, Part I

Our conceptions of history depart from the facts. 

Our brains are stocked with tableaus sketched for us by parents, by teachers, by Hollywood. These static visions are partly true. But they are oversimplified. They dull our sense of wonder.

When we get down to actual cases, something magical happens. History stretches forth as a varied landscape, vividly peopled by wayward actors who refuse to stay on script.

HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.

Scandinavian Shuffle

Nordic immigrants appear in the mind’s eye as quaintly dressed folk descending from a ship in New York harbor, then forging their way westward by wagon, oxcart, train, or even on foot, to reach Wisconsin, Minnesota, or the Dakotas—the paradise of a Scandinavian farmer’s dreams. 

The brig Lady Washington, photo by Miso Beno, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. The brig Victoria, in which Anders crossed the Atlantic, would have been similar.

We have read this story in Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, or in Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants. If you saw the Emigrants film back in 1971, your brain may show Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman as the Swedish trekkers.

And if you happen to be descended from Norwegians or Swedes who did indeed follow this well-trod path, then you know the image is true.

Wait a minute.

What if I told you my great-great-grandfather, Anders Gunstensen, took a ship in 1853 from Norway to NEW ORLEANS, not New York? How does that affect the picture?

A Different Story

It’s true. Anders landed in the Crescent City. He was far from the only one. Many Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes entered America through its second-greatest seaport. These people must have been stunned—if not by the warmth and lush vegetation, then at least by the bouillabaise of nationalities, tongues, and skin tones encountered on the wharf at New Orleans.

Steamboats at New Orleans wharf, 1853, painted by Hippolyte Sebron. Public Domain.

And if stunned by these things, they must have been shocked to see African American slaves, human chattel herded like livestock to and from the auction block. This was something their kinfolk taking the northern route would not witness.

But hold on. Why, you might ask, would Northern Europeans sail the long way round, to fetch up on America’s south coast instead of the northeastern seaboard? 

The U.S. railroad system was in its infancy. Modern highways did not yet exist. The broadest, swiftest, most sure-fire route to America’s heartland was the Mississippi River. Still, only a minority came through New Orleans. Most of the Scandinavians arrived at New York or Quebec and made their way by Great Lakes ships, canal boats, and the railroads just being built.

Many who came through New Orleans were recent Mormon converts. The Latter Day Saints began harvesting Nordic souls in 1850 and soon had thousands. Church doctrine required converts to gather in Zion—that is, Salt Lake City. In March 1853, a week before my ancestor Anders Gunstensen would arrive, a sailing frigate landed three hundred Danish Mormons in New Orleans. They took a steamboat up the Mississippi to St. Louis, where they caught another boat westbound up the Missouri, getting closer to their coreligionists in Utah.

But Anders was not a Mormon, nor did he emigrate for religious reasons. He wanted opportunities not available to him in Norway. So in February 1853, he sailed from Arendal on the brig Victoria. After arriving on the Gulf Coast, he traveled up the Mississippi and settled in Menard County, a place in the middle of Illinois, just north of Springfield. 

Huh? Aren’t Norwegians supposed to go farther north? 

Most of them did, but not Anders. He and a few fellow Nordmenn chose Menard County for reasons of their own—most likely following the lead of one Gunder Jørgen Nybro, who had arrived three years earlier. 

With only a handful of Norwegians, they could not publish a Norsk newspaper like Nordlyset, established in Muskego, Wisconsin, by Even Heg, James Reymert, and others. Nor could a Norwegian in Menard County burrow into a large Scandinavian community and spend months or years learning the American language and folkways. No: Anders, Gunder Jørgen, and their friends had to deal with Americans, in English, from the start. 

Itchy Feet

The Restauration. Public Domain.

Our first Norwegian immigrants, Cleng Peerson and fifty-one fellow voyagers on the sloop Restauration, came to New York in 1825. Norwegian immigration peaked fifty-seven years later, in 1882. 

In the 1850s, when Anders arrived, Norwegians were more footloose than they had been since Viking days. Decades of smallpox vaccinations had allowed Norway’s population to grow explosively. With only three percent of her land arable, something had to give.

Ole Bull. Public Domain.

Norwegians have never been daunted by ocean waves. They headed for America, filling old-fashioned sailing vessels in the days before widespread use of ocean-going steamships. Even as early as 1853, travel to America was no strange thing. 

In March 1853, besides Anders Gunstensen and three hundred Danish Mormons, New Orleans hosted violinist Ole Bull, who performed a series of “farewell” concerts in Odd Fellows’ Hall, with nine-year-old singing sensation Adelina Patti. Bull was no stranger to America, having visited first in 1843. In 1852, he had founded a visionary colony called New Norway in Pennsylvania but soon gave up on the endeavor, which was not an agricultural success. 

Norwegians were exploring the world, particularly the United States. They found it inviting. And they did not all settle in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.

Next Week—The Black Experience.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23.

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.

Tip-Top in Chi-Town

I finally made it to the Cloud Room. A divine ascent, after all these years.

Taiwan map by Uwe Dedering, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

It didn’t look promising back in 1967, when I was a 22-year-old airman. We worked at midnight in a windowless compound on northern tip of Taiwan, straining to hear the calls and responses of Chinese pilots and controllers, just across the Strait. 

Some nights, however, the MiGs were quiescent, inactive. On those nights we listened to commercial radio programs relayed from the States and rebroadcast by Armed Forces Radio. 

In the depths of night an announcer boomed, “It’s Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club! Coming to you from the Cloud Room of the Beautiful Hotel Allerton on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile!”

The McNeill Experience

In the murk that enveloped the Pacific Rim in the wee hours, we heard sunshine in the voice of ever-chatty Don McNeill, who had brightened America’s mornings for thirty-five years. He was the pioneer of the concept that people coast-to-coast would listen to idle chatter interspersed with music in their waking hours. 

My mind’s eye pictured the Cloud Room of the Beautiful Hotel Allerton with walls of gleaming jasper and pillars wrought in 24-karat gold. 

It must be some swell place, judging from the staff announcer’s enthusiasm. And it was.

Ethereal Realm

Photo by Tony the Tiger, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Cloud Room, on the stately Allerton’s twenty-third floor, had been called the Tip Top Tap until it was renamed in 1963, just before McNeill’s long-beloved show took up residence there.  “TIP-TOP-TAP” in giant letters remained emblazoned across its upper stories for all Chicagoans to see. In recent years, the old name has been restored to the room itself.

Despite the “tap” in its name, the twenty-third floor has no permanent functioning bar. These days the elegant space is reserved for meetings, such as last weekend’s “Let’s Just Write!” conference sponsored by the Chicago Writers Association, which is what drew me there, after my fifty-five years of forlorn pining. 

I must say the Allerton, now the Warwick Allerton, is looking good as it approaches its 100th birthday in 2024. The twenty-third floor is divided between the Tip Top Tap on one end and two smaller, but still large, meeting rooms—the Michigan and Huron rooms—at the other. All have large, wrap-around windows affording a lordly view of downtown Chicago.

Kristin Oakley teaches Chicago writers. Larry F. Sommers photo.

It was nice to be there, especially on a sunny day. And the meeting was great, too.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23.

Taking Stock

Maybe, Dear Reader, you’ve been wondering what Your New Favorite Writer’s quixotic quest for literary lionhood amounts to. 

Let’s take stock.

Just over six years ago, in January 2016, I undertook to be a full-time writer of fiction, after a lifetime of doing . . . well, other things. 

In that six years, what have I accomplished?

  • Wrote a character profile of my superannuated Siberian husky and got it published in Fetch! magazine.
  • Wrote three “Izzy Mahler” short stories published by the Saturday Evening Post. The first two were published online as part of the Post’s New Fiction Friday series (here and here); the third won Honorable Mention in the 2018 Great American Fiction Contest and was published in the e-book anthology for that year’s contest.
  • Joined a monthly writers’ mutual critique group, Tuesdays With Story, and became a regular contributor in its proceedings. This interaction with my writing colleagues, more than anything else, has helped me learn to write fiction.
  • Attended the 2018 and 2019 University of Wisconsin–Extension Writers’ Institutes, fabulous conferences where I learned a great deal about writing, the publishing world, and the writers’ tribe. I signed up for the 2020 Writers’ Institute as well, but then COVID hit, deep-sixing that very valuable annual event for 2020 and ever after. On the bright side, I plan to attend a similar conference in Chicago soon.
  • Wrote an 83,000-word historical novel, The Maelstrom, which is being considered for publication by two different independent publishers. I plan to continue querying and submitting this work until I find a publisher.
  • Wrote a 41,000-word middle-grades novel, The Mulberry Rocket Ship, on behalf of which I am about to begin querying agents and publishers. 
  • Have begun the first draft of a book-length personal memoir—tentative title: Reconnaissance: A Debriefing. I’ll keep you posted on that, Dear Reader, as it develops. 
  • Have written more than a dozen short stories, which I consider “not ready for prime time.”
  • And in April 2019 I created this blog to share my thoughts, aspirations, struggles, whimsies, and literary creations—all around the theme of “seeking fresh meanings in our commmon past.” I have usually posted once a week, with only a few misses. 

So, as you can see, I have been busy the past six years with my new writing career. And I have accomplished a great deal.

In case you’re wondering why there is not a published book, or more than one published book, to show for all these efforts, I must say: Have patience, Gentle Reader. We’ll get there. 

Rome was not built in a day, nor Parnassus climbed in a similar timespan. Six years is but the twinkling of an eye in the Lit Biz.

You may know people who have already published their novels. Chances are, most of them are self-published. That’s wonderful. It means you can read their work earlier. 

Self-publication is a great thing. It allows authors to get their work in print sooner by skipping the traditional publishing industry process.

Van Gogh

I have chosen a different path, because there are only so many years ahead, and I have a lot to say.

The task of learning to write well and getting some things into decent form is so all-consuming that I cannot take time off to become a publisher as well. 

I will just have to write the best I can and try to connect with a traditional publisher. 

Remember, Emily Dickinson’s poems were all published after her death. Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life. All of his critical and popular success were posthumous. If I should shuffle off this mortal coil before any book is published, at least I will have written as much, and as well, as I can. And I, for one, will still have both ears.

But fear not, Dear Reader. You may yet get a chance to purchase a deluxe edition of my works for yourself, not to mention extra copies for all your friends and family members. They will make excellent Christmas gifts.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood: #9

Do you recall, Dear Reader, when I said that to be a Literary Lion you must write?  Or words to that effect? Yes, that’s right: Step Two in my Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I may have neglected to mention that, even when you go on to other steps, such as getting feedback, hobnobbing with other literary lions, and submitting your work for publication, you still must continue to write.

Case in point: Your New Favorite Writer.

State of Play

At present, I am juggling multiple balls. Besides posting this blog, I have a finished historical novel manuscript, The Maelstrom, being considered by more than one traditional publisher. I am polishing another historical novel—a coming-of-age story about a young boy, Izzy Mahler, in the 1950s—and will soon begin seeking a publisher for it. I am always, of course, on the lookout for likely places to submit some of my completed short stories and poems.

But while all this is going on, I must keep writing.

Which brings us to the current project.

Memoir

Lincoln Steffens. Photo by George G. Rockwood. Public Domain.

I am writing a memoir—have written only a few thousand words of first draft so far, and I don’t know where it’s going. This in itself is odd—because you would think I’d know the story. Writing a memoir is like writing a novel, except that you generally have some idea how the novel ends. In the case of a memoir, you know the whole story in great detail but can’t figure out what parts make it a story, and what parts make it an insufferable catalog.

How does memoir differ from autobiography? They could be the same—but not always.

I like to think of an autobiography as a document written by a person of note. (That would exclude Your New Favorite Author.) Benjamin Franklin wrote an autobiography. Lincoln Steffens wrote an autobiography, but it’s arguably more a memoir. Harry Golden wrote many memoirs or autobiographical pieces, but they might better be considered miscellaneous collections of reminiscences. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth reading, but they are a different genre. 

The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant is a great autobiography as well as a great memoir.

Confused yet? If you’re not, you just haven’t been paying attention.

Consider: “What makes Larry F. Sommers worthy of an autobiography?” Absolutely nothing—in the sense that I’m neither Hillary Clinton nor Jon Bon Jovi. 

On the other hand, if you’re talking memoir, well—I’ve lived a long time, learned a lot of things, and have something to say. Memoir-writing guru Marion Roach Smith says memoir is about what you know after what you’ve been through. 

I’m only now beginning to understand it’s not as simple that. Maybe I’ll sign up for her course.

Structure

The structure of a memoir is crucial. I’ve got a slam-bang, surefire opening chapter—a riveting account of a reconnaissance flight from my time as a member of the U.S. Air Force. But what comes after that? How do I integrate the opening chapter with all the other things I want to include?

RC-135M reconnaissance aircraft, 1969. Public domain.

“All the other things I want to include” is a big fat hint. The trouble is, I want to leave in way too much.

In seventy-six years, one may accumulate a lot of experiences and quite a bit of wisdom. But good writing, a book you would want to read, depends on selectivity.

Every bit of my life seems tremendously significant. To tell it all would take millions of words. Even if I live another thirty years, there may not be time enough to write it all down. And then—who would read it? 

Martion Roach Smith also says that all non-fiction, memoir included, is an argument. To wield the razor effectively on one’s own narrative, one starts by knowing what the argument is. Then you only leave in that which supports it.

So here’s where it gets tricky: I don’t know what I’m trying to say, and I won’t know until I write it down. My writing is not the triumphant display of certainties already discovered but a stumbling exploration of what the past may mean. 

So in tackling a memoir, I’m being forced to change from an outliner to a pantser. I’ve got to just write, until I get a glimmer of the path forward. 

The only comfort is, you can tell is when it’s not working. You can feel when your prose is floundering. Then you need to back up and do something different.

I call this “living the dream.”

Thanks for listening, Gentle Reader.

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

Birth of a Historical Novel

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.

Two little Norwegians: Grandma Sommers, left, and her sister Mabel, ages 5 and 3.

Nordmann Unawares

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. 

Øyestad Church, photo by  Karl Ragnar Gjertsen, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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?

Our Sons of Norway genealogy badge.

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 New Orleans wharf in 1853, painting by Hippolyte Sebron. Public Domain.

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.

But consider:

  • 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.

Next Time: Daniel—A Plot Device Goes Rogue

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Mau-mauing the Garage Police

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.”

Re-organizing

“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.

“That’s right.”

“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.”

Lo, how the mighty are fallen.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer