What’s in a Title?

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

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

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

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

And look! Here’s the cover. 

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

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

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

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

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

We’re Covered

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

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

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

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

Curses! 

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

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

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

We ran it up the flagpole, and everybody saluted.

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

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

And that’s not all

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

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

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

I hope you will.

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

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Teeny-weeny Corrections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week,

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

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

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. 

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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

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

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