Re-igniting the fire in the belly
In January 2012, my novella - Gauchos & Gumption: My Argentine Honeymoon – will be published by Turquoise Morning Press. This is a fictionalized memoir by my grandmother, Leora Maria Banning (see photo at left), about her trip to South America in 1910. Accompanying the journal are actual photographs she took on the Argentine plains with a simple box camera.
Writing this work has been something of a struggle. All writers struggle, I know. We go through periods of “ohmigod how do I do this?” And we wish for hope to sustain us - a sort of church for writers. For me, that “church” is other writers’ work. While working on Gauchos I have been buoyed up by four novels in my genre – western historicals – which I found inspiring. Naturally, I can’t resist talking about them.
Settler’s Law, by Doris H. Eraldi (Berkley, 2010). This isn’t a romance, exactly, but it does portray one of those really special unspoken-bond relationships that I find moving and believable. The hero (Settler, or “Sett”) is a man working to overcome an unsavory past and he has scars to prove it.
The setting, the Montana mountains of 1886, is so beautifully presented I never tired of the descriptions of woods and canyons, trees and rivers, the weather (!), even rough-and-ready towns. What drew me in and what sticks with me is the authenticity of the people, the place, and the story--not high drama in the “Indian war” tradition, but the quiet, wrenching drive for one human being to connect with another.
The sequel, Settler’s Chase, which deals with a woman’s desperate yearning for a child, is proving to be equally moving. As with Settler’s Law, I’m finding it hard to stop reading and this isn’t because of a “hook” at the end of each chapter; it’s because the story is compelling and has meaning beyond the world of “entertaining fiction.”
Hot Biscuits, Eighteen Stories by Women and Men of the Ranching West, edited by Max Evans and Candy Moulton (University of New Mexico Press, 2002), is an eclectic collection of wonderful tales that have that typical “cowboy” humor and a good deal of human sensitivity to the land and to the human condition.
These are stories of heartbreak, of surprises, and of struggle in the Old West that speak to us – or at least to me – today. There is a tenacity and verve to the characters depicted that I find heartening, even uplifting. Such stories make me laugh and wonder at the strength and grace of human beings under pressure.
Mama Grace, an Oklahoma Centennial Book, by Dana Bagshaw ( Evans Publications, Inc. 2006), is a novel based on an original (unpublished) work by Letha Crossman, the author’s grandmother. Mama Grace is the author’s great-grandmother. The story is told in diary format; the chapters are presented in order of occurrence as the title character, Grace Barnet, a pioneer woman, brings her five children in a covered wagon to Waynoka, in western Oklahoma, to farm. She made the trip alone, with the ammunition for her rifle stashed in her bosom and her baby son on her lap.
Neither the trip nor the life they found in Oklahoma were easy; the adventures and trials Mama Grace weathered brought my eyebrows up and tears to my eyes. This woman had real spunk, real fears, real heartbreak, and real triumphs in a land where water was scarce, prairie fires raged, renegade Indians and outlaws (“Three-Finger Jack”) rode free, and houses had no heat but for a wood-burning cook stove.
My Name Is Mary Sutter, by Robin Oliveira (Penguin, 2010), a first novel, is fiction of the highest caliber about a young Albany, New York, woman who becomes a nurse during the Civil War. I was riveted by this story, amazed at the depth of insight into Mary Sutter’s thinking and emotions and pop-eyed at the unvarnished picture of the War, which included not only Mary’s personal trials but the impressively researched events that occurred in makeshift hospitals (the author is a nurse), in President Lincoln’s office, in Dorothea Dix’s parlor, and on the bloody fields of battle.
Reading such a work gives me pause: what struggles and anguish human beings are subjected to and survive, not without scars but with courage and nobility.
Are any of you inspired by or drawing on family diaries or autobiographies for your work?