Our conceptions of history depart from the facts.
America, in the era leading to and through the Civil War, was filled with formidable women who shaped the course of history though they seldom rate more than a footnote in standard accounts.
Maria Nybro, the main female character in my historical novel Price of Passage, is one such woman. The seventeen-year-old daughter of a small-town boat builder, she resolves to follow her heart’s desire, Anders Gunstensen, to America. She cajoles her father and uncle into a scheme that sends her across the sea with other family members, as caretaker to her strange Aunt Osa.
In central Illinois, where Anders has settled, Maria moves heaven and earth, taking a tough scullery job to stay near him—while meeting her family obligation to care for the bewildered old aunt.
Aunt Osa herself is one of a kind. Marked as a “different” child from infancy, Osa sees herself as a changeling, one of the babies left with unsuspecting human families by huldrefolk, reclusive beings who live in Norway’s forest glades. When asked why she does not have the long, hairy tail of the huldrefolk, she explains that her mother took her to be baptized soon after the exchange, and her rudimentary tail dropped off within days of becoming a Christian.
Another strong woman in the story is Kirsten Haraldsdatter, mother of four, who fearlessly leads her family’s expedition across the sea to join her husband Osmund, who has gone on ahead to establish a farm. Like Maria and Osa, she is fictional but based on a real woman, a shipmate of my great-great grandfather Anders on the brig Victoria in 1853.
These strong women and others in Price of Passage meet challenges as great as those facing the male characters. Some of those challenges, indeed, are posed by the male characters. When Anders goes off to fight in the Civil War, for instance, Maria must fend off the advances—financial and carnal—of a seedy land speculator. She finds an original way to defend both her farm and herself.
The Real Thing
Actual historic women also appear as characters in the book, such as “Mother” Bickerdyke. Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke, a middle-aged widow from Galesburg, Illinois, who practiced “natural medicine” in that community, went south with a wagon of medical supplies in 1861 to aid the sick and wounded soldiers at Fort Defiance in Cairo, Illinois.
Focused on healthy food and good care for ailing soldiers, Bickerdyke shrugged off Army regulations and red tape. Backed by the Sanitary Commission and the ordinary soldiers, she soon won the full support of Generals Grant and Sherman, who cheerfully deferred to her in matters of soldier care.
Mother Bickerdyke stuck with the Army until the war’s end, serving on nineteen battlefields and establishing three hundred field hospitals. After the war, she continued her work on behalf of the veterans she called “my boys,” lobbying and aiding in their fight for pensions and other benefits.
Bickerdyke was just one of many women who served ably as nurses and Sanitary Commission workers—but she was the most colorful and legendary. When a surgeon questioned her authority to take some action, she replied, “On the authority of Lord God Almighty, have you anything that outranks that?” In a day when male surgeons ruled the Army Medical Department, Bickerdyke caught and held the ear of the generals. Sherman called her “one of his best generals,” and others referred to her as “the Brigadier Commanding Hospitals.”
The soldiers just called her Mother.
She’s only one of the strong, pioneering women you’ll meet when you read Price of Passage.
HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.