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. 

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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

Update on The Maelstrom

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

On July 20 in this space I mentioned the new direction taken in revision of my historical novel, formerly titled Freedom’s Purchase, now titled The Maelstrom.

I am happy to report that extensive revisions have been made, based on very helpful feedback by championship-level book coach Christine DeSmet. As a result, it’s a much more compelling and exciting book. Many thanks to Christine, a noted author and a great personal friend of mine for many years.

I am now polishing the polish, and before long the book will be again making the rounds to agents and publishers. I’m quite confident we’ll get a good publishing contract this time around. 

So have patience! Before long, you’ll get to read the stories of Norwegian immigrants Anders and Maria, and Daniel the slave, in 19th-century America.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Salmonic Versus

Our trip has put me in mind of salmon. 

We did not travel to Alaska for the salmon, exactly. But once there, you cannot avoid salmon. They’re everywhere. 

Coho salmon. Bureau of Land Management photo. Public Domain.

Happy Salmon?

My Norwegian kin, I am told, have an expression: “A happy salmon.” En glad laks, in Norsk. It’s a label for someone cheerful by nature, a happy-go-lucky person. No worries, no cares. Smiling all the time.  

But, Kind Reader, consider the salmon. I mean the real salmon.

Salmon alevin with egg yolks. OpenCage photo, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Spawned in springtime, in the shallows of a cold mountain stream, it (he or she, take your pick) hatches from a round pink egg into an alevin—a tiny swimming fish with the yolk sac still attached to its belly. Consuming its yolk over the course of a few months, it becomes a small fish or fry. Only then does it emerge from the gravelly shallows into the main part of its natal stream. 

Depending on its species—chinook (king), coho (silver), chum, sockeye, or pink—the salmon fry either heads seaward immediately or hangs out in a freshwater lake for a year or more. In either case, it then develops into a smolt—a small, silvery fish with scales—and drifts downstream to an estuary, the tidal mouth of a river.

Salmon smolts. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo. Public Domain.

Hanging out in the estuary for a time, the smolt gains weight and—crucially—changes its metabolism, adjusting to life as a salt-water fish. When ready, the salmon moves into the ocean, where it will spend—again, depending on species—from eighteen months to eight years.

Life at Sea

Once a salmon becomes a denizen of the salt sea, how does it spend this time? It swims around, eats, and grows larger. It may swim more than two thousand miles, gobbling plankton, insects, small crustaceans, and fish, and gaining body length and weight. Unless, of course, it is eaten first.

Salmon in the ocean may be prey to seals, sharks or other large fish, orca whales, or the all-purpose predator, humans. 

Purse seiner off the coast of Kodiak Island. Photo by Wikimedia Commons User:NancyHeise. Public Domain.

Ocean salmon may be taken on hook-and-line by commercial trollers, in larger quantities in gill nets, or in even larger purse seines—depending on the species targeted and the size of the boat and its equipment. They end up as high-quality salmon steaks or filets, brined gravlax or smoked lox, ground salmon in a can, even salmon-based pet foods. 

Salmon Patties, Anyone?

When I was a boy (more than sixty-five years ago), Mom often served us patties of ground salmon, fried in her cast-iron skillet. They were cheap and nutritious, and I grew to despise them. Greasy and gamey-tasting. Not for me, thanks.

Salmon patty sandwich, photo by jeffreyw. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Since then, I have grown fond of lox with bagels and cream cheese, and I also like a nicely-done salmon filet. Context is everything.

But I digress. Back to the sea:

Those salmon who slip through the nets of man and beast eventually gravitate to the coast and, by a divinely-ordained process no scientist has fully explained, make their way back up the very stream then came out of and swim right up to the very shallows where they were born. 

Born to Spawn

Brown bear dines on salmon at Katmai National Park, Brooks Falls, Alaska. Photo by Brian W. Schaller, licensed under Free Art License.

Naturally, they must evade human predation. The rivers and creeks are full of anglers, fishing for recreation or to feed their families. Also, in parts of Alaska and Canada, the streams hold cunningly designed Native American salmon wheels, which skim off a regular portion of the fish swimming upstream to spawn. 

In this upstream, fresh-water journey is concentrated the whole point and purpose of their lives: Spawning. The procreation of their species. It is the Olympics they have trained for all their lives in creek, lake, river, and sea. And the competition is fierce. The journey is fraught with peril.

Besides humans, those streams are full of bears—brown and black. You’ve seen them on the wild Alaska shows, gleefully scooping salmon out of churning rapids and devouring them on the spot. Eagles and ospreys also take salmon, lifting them whole out of rivers, lakes, and ocean.

If the salmon successfully evade all predators, they still must swim miles upstream to find their spawning beds. This usually means braving powerful rapids and fish ladders. 

A Salmonic Odyssey

In Ketchikan, our dauntless daughter, Katie, led us through a steady downpour on a journey tracking the salmon upstream. We followed Ketchikan Creek from the trendy shops that sit on pilings over its lower end up to the Creek Street footbridge. Under the bridge, salmon leap up into the rushing falls under the bridge. Their leaps are strenuous, athletic, and mostly doomed to failure. The fish falls short and is swept back downstream, only to try again. They spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to pass these falls, and many never make it. 

To help them, people have built a fish ladder as an alternate route over the falls. The ladder, like the falls, is steeply inclined and filled with water rushing rapidly downstream. But little walls, baffles I guess you’d call them, line the sides of the metal chute, giving fish a chance to work their way up from one resting point to the next. Even so, it’s almost as great a challenge as the falls themselves. 

Those salmon who cross the falls, whether by means of the salmon ladder or by simply leaping up the falls, enter a quiet stretch of the creek, which winds for several hundred yards and flows through Ketchikan’s City Park. In that stretch of water, the creek is very shallow, with a gravelly bed. This is the spawning-ground.

Prurient Interest

The dark shapes at center are salmon spawning. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

Standing in our waterproof ponchos under a soaking rain, we watched as female salmon—whose backs and dorsal fins protruded a bit from the water—wiggled their tails to scoop shallow depressions in the streambed. These depressions are called redds. There the females would release their clutches of round, pink eggs, while their male paramours released milt (fish semen) over them. After more wiggling to cover the fertilized eggs with fresh gravel, the female would move upstream to repeat the process. 

Scattered salmon roe in Ketchikan Creek. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

We could not see every aspect of this process, viewing it side-on under a stippling rain, but we saw the wiggles. Often we saw the back of what must have been a rampant male surging downstream—whether to frighten off rival males, or out of sheer exuberance of the rut, I could not say. 

But it was impressive, especially in that it was performed by the rare survivors of such a harrowing lifelong journey.

Ecce Salmo, piscis invictus!

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

North to Alaska

“Mormor, Bapa! Come on, there’s a lot of cool stuff at the top of the hill.”

Tristan, age nine, leaps and bounces in the trampoline-like mat of vegetation.

“You run back up there and learn all about it,” I say. “Mormor”—his grandmother—“and I will stay and rest a bit in the tundra.” 

“Okay, Bapa—if you’re sure.” And he leaps back up the hill.

Me enjoying comfy tundra. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

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Alaska has a way of wearing a man down. 

The first time we visited, in 2010, at age 65, there was enough bounce in my bones and enough tingle in my tendons to hike with a group up the mountain that overlooks the Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau. We scrambled over exposed roots, clambered through corridors of rain-slicked rocks. It was a tiring, yet exhilarating, trek.

This trip, at age 76, Your New Favorite Writer—still an enthusiast—strategically avails himself of frequent rest opportunities. 

Elsie, Katie, and Tristan at top of impossibly high tundra hill, enjoying Sidney’s lecture. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

Our time on the tundra in the middle of Denali National Park is precious. The softness, the springiness, the sink-in-ability of that blanket of tangled vegetation covering the deep permafrost challenges the hiker to walk without falling down and taxes one’s pulmonary system—especially going uphill. 

On the other hand, should you happen to fall down, you couldn’t pick a better place to do it. You almost can’t get hurt falling into the soft tundra. 

It’s an even better place to sit and rest, watching the mountains and listening to the enthusiasm of younger hikers as Sidney, our mountain guide—the young lady who carries the bear spray—points out wild blueberries and other flora just up the hill, telling which ones humans can eat, which ones the bears like, and so forth.

It’s a fine, warm day. Denali, the mountain, was out a few minutes ago and we got to see its peak before it was re-cloaked by its very own weather system. 

Denali seen behind Wonder Lake. Denali National Park and Preserve photo by Albert Herring. Public Domain.

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We have come here because we like Alaska; but even more, we want share it with our daughter, Katie, and our grandchildren, Elsie and Tristan. This resembles nothing they have experienced and nothing else they will ever experience—possibly not even in long future lives. 

Panning for gold. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

For a time, we have lured them from their telephone screens into the powerful beauty of the real world.

Later today we will pan for gold in Moose Creek. Lucky Tristan will find a flake in his pan and have it laminated on a piece of black paper. A speck of gold to carry with him forever after. Or until he loses it, which is likely. But the important thing is, he will find it in his pan and will always remember that. 

Elsie, age twelve, will find one too but lose it on the way to have it laminated. That will be all right, though, because she will find prizes of her own in the wilderness, including sightings of bears and moose and the chance to befriend a young adventurer, Rhys, traveling with his own family.

Katie and Mormor will not try panning for gold. They will opt for a horticulture hike instead, another rewarding adventure.

Old Bapa—Your New Favorite Writer—will stand in the creek swishing gravel around his pan, to no avail . . . but will bring home gold anyway.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Happy 200th, Saturday Evening Post!

Current issue cover. Art by Norman Rockwell.

An American institution marked two centuries on August 4.

I am letting you all know here, in case you missed the announcement.

Readers old enough to remember the Saturday Evening Post may think it died years ago. Not so. 

The once ubiquitous flagship journal of the Curtis Publishing Company was rescued from demise by the Saturday Evening Post Society, a nonprofit group which purchased the magazine in 1982. The Post now appears as six large-format print issues per year, with an impressive circulation of 237,907 (2018). It also manages a thriving Web presence.

“And this is significant, Dear New Favorite Writer, because of . . . exactly, what?”

Mainly, Astute and Forbearing Reader, because of the magazine’s unassailable tradition and the long list of distinguished writers whose works have graced its pages.

Rockwell in 1921. Photo by Underwood and Underwood. Public Domain.

Great Illustrators

Younger readers may recognize the Saturday Evening Post as the locus of a series of cover illustrations which cemented the fame of 20th-century artist Norman Rockwell.

But those full-color covers—52 of them each year—by Rockwell and other great illustrators merely scratch the surface of the Post’s glory. When Your New Favorite Writer was a kid, in the 1950s, the Saturday Evening Post was a major pillar of Main Street America. People from all walks of life read the Post, learned from it, and were endlessly entertained by it. 

Saturday Evening Post Cover of 27 Sep 1924 by Rockwell. Public Domain.

Great Writers and Editors

Each issue held a lively mix of fiction, nonfiction, and features. The Post’s quick response times and generous pay attracted the best writers—Joseph Conrad, O. Henry, Rudyard Kipling, and others. Jack London’s Call of the Wild premiered in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post.

Under a succession of editors—George Horace Lorimer, Wesley Stout, and Ben Hibbs—the magazine reached a peak circulation of over seven million and attracted writers such as Owen Wister, Ring Lardner, William Faulkner, Stephen Viincent Benet, Agatha Christie, and Ray Bradbury. 

A Focus on Fiction

The magazine was particularly known as a great venue for fiction. Not avant-garde fiction, but mainstream fiction. And not just the writings of the greats, but great writing from not-so-well-known authors. 

Movie poster for Warner Brothers film based on Hazlitt’s Alexander Botts stories, starring Joe E. Brown.

As a boy I followed the exploits of Alexander Botts, freewheeling salesman of Earthworm Tractors for the Farmer’s Friend Tractor Company. In a series of stories by William Hazlett Upson, Botts’s odd-ball sales campaigns were chronicled as a stream of frantic memos, letters, and telegrams between the loose cannon Botts and his perplexed home office in Earthworm City, Illinois.

It was, as they say, to larf.

Many young writers got a hand up by selling stories to the Post. Young writers are still doing this today—not to mention a few superannuated novices, such as Your New Favorite Writer. When I began to write fiction as a septuagenarian, I had a few quirky tales about a young boy named Izzy Mahler, growing up in a small town in the 1950s. The Post was kind enough to publish three of them (see herehere, and here), including one which won honorable mention in the magazine’s 2018 Great American Fiction Contest. For this I cannot help being grateful.

Rescued from Oblivion

And I was thankful for the far-sighted energy of Indianapolis industrialist Beurt SerVaas, who saved the Post during its distressed days in the 1960s and ’70s. When he acquired the Post, he was primarily interested in its sister publication, Jack and Jill, the well-known children’s magazine. In 1982, he spun the Post off into a nonprofit company, and the magazine began to focus on nonfiction articles about health, medicine, and volunteering—the passions of his wife and business partner, Cory. 

A more recent strategic shift, in 2013, brought the Saturday Evening Post back to its original mission. According to the magazine’s website, it “returned to . . . celebrating America, past, present, and future. Since then, the Post has focused on the elements that have always made it popular: good story telling, fiction, art, and history.”

Storytellers, take note. The Saturday Evening Post is still in business, doing what it has always done best, bringing high-quality mainstream narratives to the American public.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

The Maelstrom

A lot can change in a few weeks.

Just over a month ago, I announced in this space that I was laying aside my historical novel Freedom’s Purchase for an indefinite time because of difficulty in reconciling two diverging story lines.

Soon after, I heard from my friend and champion Christine, who made a compelling case that it was possible to write a successful novel including this bifurcated plot. I took a deep breath, tried again, and lo! The successful rewrite is now complete. I am extremely satisfied.

I won’t tell you, Dear Reader, exactly what changes I made in the manuscript. I will tell you that it’s now a much more compelling read than the manuscript I was trying to sell as recently as a year ago. Some work remains to polish it, but I hope to begin marketing again in the near future. 

What I can tell you is that is has a new title: The Maelstrom. And it is still the story of a Norwegian couple making their way in 1850s America and an African American slave in the deep South struggling for freedom and meaning.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Thanks for your patience. I heard recently the average time an author takes to complete a first novel is five years. So I’m right on schedule.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

What About the Pilgrims?

“The Pilgrims? It’s not November—why are we talking about Pilgrims?” 

For one thing, maybe in midsummer we can step back and be a bit—dare I whisper the word?—dispassionate.

Passion rules the day. On every hand, our passions are egged on. “Engage your passion” is almost as frequent a bit of advice as “Follow your dreams.”

Noah Webster pre-1843. By James Herring. Public Domain. 

But has anybody bothered to check what that really means? Perhaps you will indulge me: 

passion . . . n. [[OFr < LL(Ec) passio, a suffering, esp. that of Christ (<L passus, pp. of pati, to endure < IE base *p­­ē-, to harm >  Gr pēma, destruction, L paene, scarcely): transl. of Gr pathos: see pathos]]  1a) [Archaic] suffering or agony, as of a martyr b) [Now Rare] an account of this  [P-a) the sufferings of Jesus, beginning with his agony in the Garden of Gethsmane and continuing to his death on the Cross b) any of the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ Passion and of accompanying events c) an artistic work, as an oratorio or a play, based on these narratives  3 a) any one of the emotions, as hate, grief, love, fear, joy, etc. b) [pl.] all such emotions collectively  4 extreme, compelling emotion; intense emotional drive or excitement; specif., a) great anger; rage; fury b) enthusiasm or fondness [passion for music] c) strong love or affection d) sexual drive or desire; lust  5 the object of any strong desire or fondness  6 [Obs.] the condition of being acted upon, esp. by outside influences—Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.

Webster goes on to comment that “passion usually implies a strong emotion that has an overpowering or compelling effect [his passions overcame his reason] [.]” 

Ignoring all the brackets, parentheses, italics, boldface, numbers, letters, and abbreviations that clutter the lexicography, we can discern that passion comprises suffering, endurance, harm, destruction, pathos, agony, martyrdom, and extremes of compelling or overpowering emotion—to include love, affection, and lust but, more commonly, hate, fear, grief, anger, rage, and fury.

Passion. Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash.

As a novelist and screenwriter, I applaud these outrageous eruptions of emotion. They  make drama.

But in my role as a human being trying to cope with the world, I must take a rather different tack. I believe that reason and objectivity—things that do not easily coexist with passion—are the best survival tools handed down from the philosophers of old.

They allow us to see our world more nearly as it is—less tinted by our fears, resentments, and extravagant dreams.

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“Okay, My New Favorite Writer, but what about the Pilgrims? You were going to say something about Pilgrims.” 

We’ll get to that, Gentle Reader. Don’t give up on me yet.

First, another mild digression.

As a young man, I studied a bit of the History of Science under Prof. David Lindberg at the University of Wisconsin­–Madison. Lindberg’s introductory lecture in the course covered what he called ancestor worship. 

Ancestor worship, in the good professor’s view, was the study of history on the basis that people of old times were either clear-sighted heroes (if we can make out that they pioneered the values we espouse today) or blind and bigoted blackguards (if they violated our current norms). 

This ancestor worship—really more an attitude than a program—leads to outlandish propositions that we often accept without rigorous examination. For instance:

Martin Luther (1483–1546). By Lucas Cranach the Elder. Public Domain.
  • Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in order to champion Freedom, Progress, and Democracy.
  • Christopher Columbus ravaged the American hemisphere and commited genocide because he was a vicious white supremacist.
  • All those who lived before the Renaissance—or the Enlightenment, if you will, or the Summer of Love—were untutored savages who lived lives void of intelligent vision.

Many other, similarly fatuous, statements could be made. What they all have in common is a fatal simplicity.

Real life, Dear Reader, is not all that straightforward.

Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century German mathematician, started from the assumption that the planets moved in circular orbits which could be neatly inscribed in a nesting series of perfect Euclidean solids, and ended up proving the planets move in elliptical orbits that could not possibly answer to such imaginary constraints. Furthermore, despite his massive intelligence, it seems he saw no contradication between his two irreconcilable theories. He saw the former as being proved, not disproved, by the latter. Huh? 

Actuality just wants to escape any convenient mental box we try to cram it into.

Portrait of a man, said to be Christopher Columbus, by Sebastiano del Piombo. Public Domain.
  • Luther lived in a time when Progress was not a recognized value. Democracy was unthinkable, except as a curious aberration of the Athenians in remote antiquity. And if Luther valued Freedom, it would have been the freedom of the believer to realize salvation in Christ. His whole concern was that the institutional Church was stifling the ordinary person’s hope of receiving the Grace which the Scriptures revealed. If Luther was a hero, he was a hero of Faith, not of Modernity.
  • Columbus seems to have been actuated by the hope of Glory, Fame, and Wealth on Earth—and, perhaps, Eternal Life in Heaven. That he pursued these goals by enslaving the inhabitants of Hispaniola shows that he did not value their lives as much as white European lives; not that he held a Hitler-style ideology of race. He trampled on the Arawaks just as any supreme egotist tramples anyone in his path. It was made easy by the fact that they could not post eloquent written protests in Spanish or Latin. His genocide was casual, not programmatic。
  • And as for the belief that those who lived in days of yore were simply not bright enough to understand the world’s complexities as we do—Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Augustine of Hippo would like to have a word with you.

The real history of the world is not a relentless March of Progress nor a sinister Parade of Criminality, but an ongoing Stumble of Perplexity.

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“But what about the Pilgims? Are we there yet?”

Here are the bare facts, as widely acknowledged:

A group of Puritan Separatists—people who wanted to leave the state-mandated Church of England—fled to Holland after persecution by British monarchs. A few years later, disillusioned with life among the Dutch, they sailed for America. They arrived off Cape Cod in December 1620. Half of them died of disease and hunger during the first winter. Friendly Indians named Squanto and Samoset introduced themselves the following spring and taught our Separatist Pilgrims how to grow corn. In the autumn of 1621, Pilgrims and Indians gathered for a harvest feast that we now call the First Thanksgiving. 

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850-1936). Public Domain.

Because the Pilgrims’ Plymouth Colony, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony established by other Puritans ten years later, became materially successful over the ensuing decades, they came to be celebrated by their 19th-century descendants as precursors of all that was good in American life. They were seen as model saints, who were sometimes victimized by their Native American neighbors but had never done anything to provoke such treatment. They were energetic and intelligent colonists, whose prosperity owed all to hard work and intelligence. Indeed, in the Mayflower Compact they had drawn up the very blueprint of American Freedom, Constitutionalism, and Democracy.

Does anything about this seem familiar to you? That’s right—Ancestor Worship! 

Because the view of the Pilgrims developed by 19th-century Congregationalists was slanted, 20th-century historians began to debunk many parts of it, in the interest of correcting the record. The 1960s and 70s also saw the rise of a corps of self-consciously subjective historians motivated by Marxist ideology. Their view was that there is no such thing as objective historiography; that history is always a political act. To them, the Massachusetts Pilgrims’ and Puritans’ checkered relationship with the Native Americans of the region was an opportunity to denounce capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.

Besides this, Native Americans in the second half of the 20th century gained ground in their quest to be heard. And the Wampanoags, today’s descendants of the Patuxets and other early Massachusetts tribes, had some long-neglected bones to pick.

Thus, although the 19th century’s triumphalist view of the Pilgrims held sway well into the 1950s—when Your New Favorite Writer and many other old people were school children—the “oppressor Pilgrims” narrative, fed by leftist historians and supported by well-documented assertions of the Wampanoag people, has gained ground since the 1960s.

There are still plenty of pro-Pilgrim apologists out there. But they must increasingly feel like yesterday’s children, shouting down a dry rain barrel.

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In the interest of sanity, not to mention conciliation in a divisive era, let me point out a few truths that are sometimes overlooked.

1. Before the arrival of white Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries, North America was never what we would consider densely populated. Nobody knows how many Native Americans there were in pre-Columbian days, but recent estimates range from eight million to 112 million for the entire Western Hemisphere. The North American part of that would be less. If we average the two figures and assign half of the result to North America, we get 30 million. While this is a much larger population of American Indians than existed subsequently—after the effects of virgin-soil epidemics, outright wars, and a long period of genocidal practices—North America would still have seemed sparsely populated to Europeans of that era.

2. The incursions of Spanish colonists in the West and Southwest, and Englishmen on the East Coast, started a catastrophic decline in the fortunes and the populations of Native American tribes. Of this there can be no doubt. As the Pilgrims constituted an early successful experiment in colonization, they were part of the problem, from the Native American point of view.

3. The frequent forays of English fishermen, explorers, and adventurers into North America in the arly 1600s caused one or more serious virgin soil epidemics in New England. Such epidemics happen when a group of people bring new disease organisms into a population not previously exposed to them. Since no resistance has been previously acquired, the disease spreads swiftly, with extreme virulence. One such epidemic depopulated the Massachusetts shoreline just before the Pilgrims arrived. Finding evidence of a recently vanished native civilization, the religious Pilgrims saw in that circumstance the special providence of God—the Hand of the Almighty had cleared a place for them to live. 

4. In the first weeks of their sojourn on the new shore, the Pilgrims uncovered a bushel of corn left by the former inhabitants as grave goods. They understood something of the spititual significance of this corn to the people who had left it there. But those people were nowhere to be seen, and the Pilgrims were in danger of starving. They took the corn and resolved to make restitution if they ever got the chance—a pledge they made good on, by the way.

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Rodney King, April 2012. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Now it is 2021. We live thirty years after Rodney King famously asked, “Can we all get along?” We seem to be having some trouble doing so.

If we are to make progress towards getting along, we must start by acknowledging the scope and pain of the real losses suffered by those cast aside in America’s rush to power and wealth. Where feasible, we should try to make amends.

To shed light on the past may help us do better in the future. But ferreting out the sins of our ancestors to use as cudgels against one another in the present is worse than useless. 

Our common history is no less complicated for its being troubled, and the search for Good Guys and Bad Guys is more futile the farther we are removed from the facts.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Patience

My old friend Jay came up from Chicagoland last week, with his lady friend Harriet. We chatted over a very nice Italian dinner at a local restaurant. At some point, Harriet inquired about my quest as a would-be book author. 

I told her I had the complete manuscript of a historical novel, but by submitting it to various agents and publishers I learned the story needed a complete, tooth-to-tail revision. A daunting prospect, but one I undertook bravely. The problem is that, even though the writing is a lot better in the new version, the many changes of plot and character made me fear that by the time I got to the end, the story would be an incoherent mess. But I was plugging on, regardless.

At this point, Jay made the obvious comment: “Well, at our age, you don’t have that much time left to finish this thing and get it published.” 

Jay was, of course, correct in his assessment. But I shared with him this amazing secret: The older I get, the more patient I become.

It’s hard to account for. Against all rationality, I look forward to thirty or forty more years of productive life. Therefore I can afford to spend time getting my manuscript right. 

Just when time is running out, I have learned patience.

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The manuscript is another matter. Since the conversation with Jay and Harriet, it has become clear that I have two separate stories—a Norwegian couple making their way in 1850s America, and an African American slave in the deep South struggling for freedom and meaning. I am not creative enough to make the two stories mesh.

My spouse observed long ago that I was writing two books at once. She was right.

For now, I’m laying it aside. Maybe I can sort out the separate strands of story at a later date. I have a lot of other work “in the hopper,” no end of things to write about. 

One avenue of expression is these blog posts. Until getting bogged down in the rewrite project, I was posting here weekly. I now hope to resume that habit.

And I would like to pick up where I left off in what I call “the Bradbury Challenge”—writing a short story a week for a year.

And my daughter recently suggested an excellent setting for a screenplay. All it needs is a story to go with it.

So never fear, Dear Reader. I’ll keep busy. Someday, I’ll get back to the historical novel. Patience.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer