I’m celebrating the publication of my novel, Catharine, Queen of the Tumbling Waters, with a book tour. I began with a book launch in Havana Glen, Montour Falls, the very site of the village where my protagonist, Catharine Montour, lived with her people before and during the American Revolution. She was real, another hidden woman of history, an unsung heroine, except to those of us who grew up in the land of her spirit. There is an inscription in Iroquois and English on a memorial rock to Queen Catharine Montour, “Every one of you, always remember this.” Remember what? Some history, conflated and contradictory…a mystery. But we have all loved her and felt her presence in this gorgeous land.
This is the land of the Iroquois, known as the Haudenosaunee, and the Six Nations, a confederacy of Native Americans and First Nations people. They lived in Ontario, upstate New York, and Pennsylvania. Today, they live primarily in New York and Canada, but many live around the United States.
Why would I, a white woman who knew very little about the Iroquois and Catharine Montour, an Iroquois and French woman who lived through the French and Indian War and the American Revolution dare to write a novel about her? To put it simply, and yet there was no simplicity about it, Catharine Montour chose me. Come along with me on my book tour as I blog about my experiences and entice you with Catharine Montour’s life story.
Here are a few photos from my book launch in Havana Glen, Montour Falls, NY
Here is an excerpt from my novel:
“I’m not like your white women who lose their tongues and wits in a house full of men.”
So says Catharine Montour to her white captive during the Indian depredations of the 1750s. Catharine Montour, a métis, born during Pennsylvania’s Long Peace, is nurtured by her grandmother, the celebrated Madame Montour, an interpreter for the British colonies. Her uncle, Andrew Montour, is also an interpreter and sits on the Council of the Iroquois. The Montours are an unconventional, yet highly regarded family who host diverse and fascinating assemblies of fur traders, missionaries, Indians, and colonial leaders in their home.
As the Long Peace ends and the French and Indian War, and eventually the American Revolution occur, Catharine, desiring only to live quietly by a waterfall in New York, becomes a fearless, determined, and passionate leader who demands loyalty to peace in her village and for all. And then in 1779 when General John Sullivan leads the campaign to destroy all Iroquois villages, Queen Catharine, heroically guides her people to Fort Niagara. Today as American exceptionalism prevails against the recognition of indigenous peoples, Catharine’s relevant and fact-based story spans two wars and enlightens and makes visible the unwritten truths of early American history
Folio 1 – We take it all so personal – the leaf that delicately dances from the tallest tree and lands on your lap. Perfectly an oak leaf with the russet brown shiny skin. You happened to crane your neck way up to the sky that late autumn afternoon when its turquoise canvas could not blind you. The sun had withdrawn its embrace and sat companionably with the earth as you looked dispassionately into the heavens. Only for perspective and levity, but not for revelation. One leaf, alone, doing a slow, graceful pirouette that lasted a minute, two? It was a performance and your neck hurt by the time this leaf fairy landed on your lap. You think of the country song by Engelbert Humperdinck, Please release me, let me go…You’d be a fool to cling to me…So release me and let me love again…Falling leaves, some in their prime ripe with color, a few innocent and green, and some old, brittle and brown. They all lay down for love of earth. Timing is everything. Limbs tired, no juice left, the wind knocked out of you. We take it all so personal.
Folio 2 – I walk, or rather limp, through the woods that I’ve walked in for twenty-six years. Tree skins, these leaves, are now every hue of brown, lying thickly on the path, ready for decomposing. Different shapes and sizes, they fell silently and alone. A few balding trees shimmer and shake with golden yellow leaves, the last to go. And there are small bushes with bright peachy red leaves. It’s a cloudy day, the rain finished, and the few colorful leaves cast a spell on me. I stop and admire, photograph, and gently rub a leaf between my fingers. But I can’t ignore the deep piles of perishing leaves I walk through, their scent an autumn intoxication I inhale each year. This death fragrance lingers in my senses as much as the ripening apple orchards this time of year. They will nourish the roots of trees as much as the apples will nourish my body. These woods are home, familiar, and I visit them more than I do family. Somehow I believe they know me well, too, their limbs lifting in the wind to greet me. Sometimes a tree will drop a leaf in my hair that I don’t find until I lie down in bed and feel the crunch on my pillow. I love trees, their circling, not around, but up and down, their sighing, their colors, even if death must come. I trust them even when their roots, buried in dying leaves and New Hampshire thin soil, cause me to stumble. This autumn, I’m preoccupied with my upcoming hip surgery and so I stop often, but not only because of a sore hip. I’m telling them I might not see them for awhile, probably not until they’re sleeping beneath the snow. I must walk right after, the doctor says, but not in the woods where there are roots, rocks, and uneven paths. I must walk on even, straight paths. I’ll miss the wild, natural orderly chaos of the woods for a time, the way they welcome me into a good therapy session each time I visit. I read tree leaves like a fortune teller reading tea leaves and a dendrochronologist reading tree rings and usually walk out of the woods with awareness and a story or two. And never do I leave without saying thank you, especially as a writer of books whose pages come from pines, spruces, hemlocks, firs, birch, hickory, and more. I’ll be back, I tell them, and meanwhile, their leaves, colorful or pungent, are enfolded within my heart.
Folio 3 – My protagonist, Catharine, in my upcoming novel, Catharine, Queen of the Tumbling Waters, to be released in the spring of 2023, is also a tree lover and tree leaf reader (read my prior blog to know more about this real life character). A series of autumns in her life bring much change and she, too, ponders the resonance of autumn leaves upon the pages of her heart. This is an excerpt from Chapter Twenty-Eight:
I’m sitting on the river bank after my last invigorating dip into the icy water. I’ve wrapped myself in a blanket before I return to my clothes and complex life with captives and George Croghan and his friend, Edward Pollard. I watch the river as the wind carries maple, birch, and oak leaves gently on its surface. They float like tiny colorful boats down the river away from their mother trees. I, too, have fallen from my source that rooted me as a Montour and native custom. What this next life is I don’t know and hope I can surrender as freely as the trees and leaves. I look up into the nearby trees and note soon they’ll be as naked as I am right now. These trees are at ease in releasing and I honor them with a quiet prayer. I feel a chill and quickly dress to return to my home full of people who are of every color.
Oh, mournful season that delights the eyes, Your farewell beauty captivates my spirit. I love the pomp of Nature’s fading dyes, The forests garmented in gold and purple, The rush of noisy wind, and the pale skies Half-hidden by the clouds in darkling bellows, And the rare sun-ray and the early frost, And threats of grizzled Winter, heard and lost” ~Pushkin
My upcoming historical fiction novel, Catharine, Queen of the Tumbling Waters, is being published by Bedazzled Ink Publishers in April 2023. Bedazzled Ink is dedicated to general and literary fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books that celebrate the unique and under-represented voices of women and books about women that appeal to all readers. https://www.bedazzledink.com/about-us.html#/
My novel is a work of imagination, inspired by the life of Catharine Montour, also known as Queen Catharine, born in Pennsylvania possibly around 1729 and lived in what is known today as Montour Falls, New York. She was a metis, which means mixed in French, and was French and Iroquois. It was said of her that she was handsome, possessed more than ordinary intellectual powers, and meted out justice to all. She was regarded by Europeans as a superior woman.
Queen Catharine Montour’s name is perpetuated everywhere in Montour Falls, New York and the surrounds. There is a memorial, a street, a park, a creek, a trail, and many businesses named after her. History describes Queen Catharine as the leader and matriarch of a Seneca tribe and village, She-O-Qua-Gah (there are different spellings), a Seneca (Iroquois) word meaning tumbling waters. The village was later called Catharine’s Town, Catharine’s Landing, Havana, and eventually Montour Falls to honor Catharine Montour. In my novel, Catharine names the area Eagle Cliff Falls, which is the name of one of the waterfalls in Montour Falls.
In 1779, nearing the end of the American Revolution, General George Washington initiated a campaign to be led by Major General John Sullivan and the Continental Army (also known as the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign) to destroy all Iroquois villages, whether they were enemies, allies, or neutral to the Revolution. Congress approved Washington’s plan, “directing him to take all measures necessary to protect the settlers and to punish the Indians.” Washington wrote to Sullivan, “The immediate objects are total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every sex and age as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.” (Founders Online/Archives.gov.Home)
Queen Catharine Montour heroically gathered her tribe in She-O-Qua-Ga and led them away from Major John Sullivan’s approaching Continental Army to Fort Niagara to be sheltered by the British.
The campaign ended and forty Indian settlements were burned to the ground, thousands of bushels of corn, fruits, vegetables and livestock were destroyed, but most egregious were the thousands of Iroquois who sought refuge under the British at Fort Niagara. The winter thereafter was brutal and severe and many Iroquois died from cold and starvation. It is not known whether Queen Catharine returned to She-O-Qua-Ga, but I believe she did. After the American Revolution, the great Iroquois Nation and Confederacy scattered and has never been the same, but their spirit has always remained and today, there are many Iroquois museums, writers, artists, and organizations celebrating this indigenous history and their place in America.
I’ve often said my writing career includes working with the dead and although this sounds morbid, it is not. We all carry the blood and stories of our ancestors and there’s a thin line between here and there if we attune our hearts to listen. I wanted to be a writer at a young age, but it took years to learn to listen. And when I did, I encountered many unusual experiences and synchronicities. This is not the place to talk about my other novels and their strange incidents, but before you put your curious and discerning nose into this novel, I want to tell you about some of my Catharine visitations. No, I didn’t just channel Catharine’s story, but through grueling, ardent, frustrating, and thrilling research, and with her spirit and various encounters, I have written a Queen Catharine Montour story!
I grew up in the Montour Falls, New York vicinity and was intrigued by Queen Catharine, but there was little known information. Historians have puzzled over Queen Catharine Montour and the Montour family for years. The Montours were elusive, famous, but obscure, and have been difficult to track down. Historians have disagreed over the life of Catharine Montour and her various family members for years. Her grandmother, Isabel Montour (Madame Montour), was born in New France in the 17th century. She was complex, a go-between, interpreter, and told a couple of different stories about her life. It was Simone Vincens, author of the wonderful biography, Madame Montour and the Fur Trade, who instructed me to learn about Isabel Montour and her son, Andrew Montour, if I wanted to know Catharine Montour. After uncanny and astounding Catharine nudges and reading local history articles, I delved into Simone Vincens’ book and it became the skeleton that eventually led me into fleshing out Catharine’s life.
In 2006 while visiting family in Montour Falls, I walked the Catharine Creek Trail as I usually do. Off the trail is a memorial to Queen Catharine with the Seneca and English words, “Every One of You Always Remember This.” I quizzically pondered this memorial because I didn’t remember much of anything about her. Suddenly, an emphatic voice within said, “Write my story!” I stomped my foot and said aloud, “No, I’m still writing Norah’s story!” That evening, I pulled out my mother’s couch bed and found a book on the Iroquois on her bookshelf. I read about the Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash) and fell asleep. In the morning, there was a kernel of corn in my bed! It was May, not autumn, and there were no dried corn arrangements in the apartment. Two big nudges, but I ignored them.
I took the Iroquois book home to New Hampshire and read it while continuing my work on a novel in The Irish Dresser series. The next visit to New York was in autumn and one morning I walked the trail and stopped at Catharine’s memorial. No voices, but as I continued my walk on a gorgeous day, I hummed and then incoherent words tumbled out in song. When my husband called, I jokingly said, “I’m singing in the Seneca language!” Later, my mother and I went to the Wind Mill Farm & Craft Market in Penn Yan, New York. Mom sat with a coffee and I went off to browse. Suddenly, I heard music that reminded me of my earlier crazy singing. With goosebumps and excitement, I followed the music to a Native American store where Seneca music was playing. I shared my experience with the owner and he gifted me with an owl necklace and I bought the Seneca CD. He strongly encouraged me to write Catharine’s story.
Thereafter, for years while working on The Irish Dresser Series and writing a screenplay series, I researched and wrote Catharine’s story. I found many books, rare books, journals, and ordered out of print books that cost me a pretty penny. Some of the print in the reprinted books published in the late 1800s or early 1900s was so small, I wore reading glasses over contact lenses and used a magnifying glass! I would find Catharine peeking out here and there in three volume history tomes and gradually, although painstakingly slow, her life was pieced together. In the empty spaces in this hide and seek research, I took creative license and used my imagination. However, I must say that even then, it seemed Catharine was telling me what to write. For instance, George Croghan, the Irish-born fur trader and a key early figure in colonial times, kept popping up in my research. And when I learned he became a good friend of Catharine’s uncle, Andrew Montour, it seemed natural for Catharine and George to have a dalliance. Well, if they did…. You will have to read the book to find out. But George Croghan matters a lot in the novel although I kept saying no, no, no…he’s Irish and I don’t need to bring this Irish fellow into this story.
I felt at times I was in over my head and on many occasions decided to quit. Well, I had said this with my Irish novels, too, but this was different. It was difficult writing about a real person of history and a Native American, at that. The voice of doubt, at times, was stronger than the voice of Catharine and the characters’ voices in her story. But each time I was going to quit, peculiar things happened.
Once, after stating it was over with Catharine and I felt briefly unshackled, I was at an Irish festival in Boston to sell my books. The authors were gathered together in a tent and we introduced ourselves to one another. One of the authors had written a book about General John Sullivan and I asked him if he knew of Catharine Montour and he responded, “how do you know Queen Catharine?” Another time, my husband and I were driving through Newmarket, New Hampshire when we came upon The John Sullivan House! I hadn’t known this general who led the campaign against my protagonist and her people was from New Hampshire. I had only known him through New York history and hadn’t known he had been attorney general, federal judge, and a governor of New Hampshire. Was I getting the message to keep writing?
I continued to work on the novel, but at times, reluctantly. A few years later, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was walking on a remote deer path in the woods. I looked down and there was a kernel of dried corn, bigger than life. I put it in my pocket and decided there would be no more quitting. I finally finished the novel in 2021, but then my mother went into hospice and I traveled from New Hampshire to New York to help care for her. She was my biggest fan and encouragement and repeatedly said she didn’t want to die until she held Catharine’s story in her hands. Fortunately, I was able to read her an edit before she passed in May 2022. During these difficult times, my publisher for my last two novels indicated publication for 2023 would be non-fiction and they would not be publishing Catharine’s story. At this point, with my mother in hospice and knowing my best friend was soon going to leave, I quietly decided not to pursue publication and laid aside this story. Around this time, while back in New Hampshire on a reprieve, my husband and I went to dinner at Ambrose Restaurant located in the Inn at the Bandstand in Exeter, New Hampshire. While dining and talking to one of the owners, we learned that the inn was originally the Sullivan-Sleeper home, built in 1809 for George Sullivan, the son of Major John Sullivan, who was a lawyer and statesmen in New Hampshire. Of course I would have to continue to pursue publication for this story!
After saying goodbye to my dear mother and less than two months after she passed, I had an offer for publication from Bedazzled Ink Publishing, a publisher who represents authors who shine a light on under-represented women. And that is what I have sought to do in this novel – to shine a light on an under-represented Native American woman. But did I really have a choice not to?
I never intended to write a novel about Catharine Montour, aka Queen Catharine, a Native American and French woman who was born in Pennsylvania around 1729 and lived through the French and Indian War and American Revolution. Her name (and spirit) is perpetuated everywhere in Montour Falls, NY and surrounds. She’s revered and a sort of talisman for the locals. Everyone claims to know her, especially the historians, but she is mysterious and obscure and many historical accounts are inaccurate and contradictory. The Montour family was one of the most famous, or perhaps infamous, and elusive families of early Pennsylvania and New York frontiers. In 1779, Queen Catharine, the matriarch of her village (Catharine’s Town/Montour Falls), led her people to Fort Niagara during the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign to destroy all Iroquois villages of the American Revolution.
I grew up hearing this part of the story, but little else. I felt her in some sort of affectionate way every time I saw her memorial or paid attention to her namesake on motels, roads, and places. I was interested in her, but how to know her? I left home and for a long time forgot about her, until fifteen years ago when I visited her memorial on a walk and heard a voice within me, “Write my story!” I laughed aloud and said, “No, I’m writing Norah’s story.” I was finishing my third novel, Norah, and knew I’d be writing another one about Norah McCabe. I was immersed in The Irish Dresser Series! And it was enough craziness researching Irish-American history for these novels and I couldn’t imagine tackling this mysterious woman of local history. Thereafter, a number of experiences ensued that were clearly spiritual and transcendent…paranormal perhaps (and I was somewhat familiar with this with my Irish novels). I couldn’t say no to this queen and so I started on a rigorous, difficult, and mind blowing journey with Queen Catharine. And each time I decided to chuck the idea of a novel, I encountered her through mysterious ways and sometimes they were so palpable that I cried out to her to leave me alone. They inspired me to keep going, but it was at times exhausting and even too strange. One of my first encounters, was waking up to a dried kernel of corn in my bed after reading about the three sisters of the Iroquois (corn, bean, and squash). And that was a tame encounter. There have been quite a few and I’ll reveal them as I speak about my novel.
I write here of the first and second encounter (voice and kernel of corn) and I’ll end with this latest encounter whereby I recently sat in a restaurant in an old inn in Exeter, NH. An inn I just learned was built by General John Sullivan who led the campaign against the Iroquois (and attacked Queen Catharine’s village). Hmmm, a perfect place it will be for a book launch in New Hampshire…poetic justice…Queen Catharine speaks 243 years later in the home of her oppressor! ‘Catharine, Queen of the Tumbling Waters,’ my novel, is finished, but her story and her people’s stories are only beginning.
Butterfly season will soon be here and I will again become a mid-wife in helping monarch butterflies come into the world. In March, I was notified that my essay, My Friend Crumpy, was a top ten finalist in the Wild Atlantic Writers essay contest. I had become so smitten with a particular butterfly, I had to express my love to him after he died. For over twenty years in New Hampshire, I’ve kept a backyard nature journal to record wildlife. Once we had over sixteen species of butterflies in our yard, but in the last few years, they’ve dwindled to four or five. The pandemic was the perfect time to focus on raising butterflies! And I believe that everything one needs to know about life is in the life of a butterfly.
It was one butterfly who came out of his chrysalis with a crumpled wing that stole my heart. He could only fly short distances, but mostly he flopped to the ground, stunned. And so we became friends and would whirl around the yard together, him clutching my shoulder or hand.
My Friend Crumpy
I gently cup your fluttering being in my hands and remember first kisses sweet and delicate. I hold you longer than I should, opening my fingers slightly so you can breathe, not wanting you to leave. Memories of my unborn baby touching the soul of me. Memories of passion erupting like a giant moon flower, too tender and secret for the sun. I widen my fingers for more air and remember dancing. From heart to tummy to feet, there are memories of wings.
I open my hands so you can fly to Sky Mother who is swathed in a blue robe. You don’t reach her arms and tumble down beside me. Are you not ready to fly? I scoop you into my hands and feel your longing and my own.
I place you in the cage with a Mason jar full of nectar-filled flowers and you nestle into a fragrant Buddleja bloom. It is then I note your left wing is slightly crumpled and your thorax favors that wing and isn’t straight. You’re a male monarch with two distinct black marks on your wings and when you cling to the side of the cage and practice folding and unfolding your dark orange wings, I am smitten. For two weeks, after your brothers and sisters leave, it’s just you and me.
We frolic together on these halcyon days. I tell you that you can fly and your polka dotted head moves side to side, answering no. Your tiny feet grasp my finger and tighten on my skin, fearful and eager. We move around the yard, me waving my arm up and down, your wings opening and shutting. You want this! I want this! How long has it been? The pandemic cloisters me from clasping hands in waltz and reels, hips tightening against the world. I favor my left, too, Crumpy. You drink deeply the nectar from the flowers I place you on, your magical proboscis unfurling. One day, I set you on a large white hydrangea bloom and you mistake it for a cloud and lift your wings in anticipation, pirouette, and land on my chest. You crawl up to my shoulder and sit dazed. I whisper again that you can fly. I can, too, Crumpy. And then I feel the breath of your wings on my neck and you are gone. High over the fence, as high as other butterflies fly.
When I find you sitting in the grass, I lift you up and your feet cling to my shoulder. I’m proud of you, Crumpy. You turn your head to my cheek and uncurl your proboscis. My first real butterfly kiss.
Later, I find you on the bottom of the cage, your wings spread out majestically in death. I see no crumple, only beauty. My right atrium flutters in sorrow.
The next day, while in an antique store and thinking about you, I find a silk monarch butterfly cape, the only one in a store that sells antiques, not capes…
Originally posted on Tell It Slant: ? Quick! Look at the morning glow upon the oak and pine trees out the window! A cadmium yellow softens into white gold. What is white gold? It’s that which shimmers from the under…
Quick! Look at the morning glow upon the oak and pine trees out the window! A cadmium yellow softens into white gold. What is white gold? It’s that which shimmers from the under painting of a sun rise as the day sings on, each moment having its own special assignment. Hurry! You don’t want to miss the show out your window. A window washed so clean with tears, one can see clearly as if for the first time. It’s Spring and e.e. cummings bids you into its muddy realm with his words, “…the sweet, small, clumsy feet of April came into the ragged meadow of my soul.” Furthermore, make haste, get up, and open the windows of your darkened winter mind, rake away the debris and let in the gleaming white gold splashing in from the soul’s sanctuary; that sacred cave of the heart, eternal, always there, like angel wings. Oh soul, often late, playing second fiddle to the bustling, sizzling mind. Open all windows! There’s an Easter parade and April and your soul are simpatico, separated only by flesh and bark, and the windows unopened.
It’s been a somber, gray day when the dead are felt in the wind and gravity of this public holiday. Holiday. Indeed not. As a child in America, for the most part, one is protected from war and rumors of wars and it’s a welcomed holiday. But not so for the mature adult who has lived through times when there’s been war and rumors of war. I’ve struggled with Veteran’s Day because of the stark reality that brave men and women really did go to war and still go to war. I grieve for those who’ve died in wars and those who’ve returned and live with memories of the horrors of war. I honor them. I cannot imagine growing up to become a soldier and this gives me pause…and awe.
I believe we need peacekeepers more than soldiers. What would our world be like with peacekeepers – vigilantes of justice, love, and forgiveness? Boundaries between countries only meeting places for shared bounty and festival sites for ethnic dances and food. No walls. An inter-flow of colors, ideas, and harmony as we freely cross back and forth like a line or group dance…your turn, mine…swirl, swing, smile, cross. Perhaps we wouldn’t need to leave permanently to take up residence in another land. We’d be guests of our birth land and visitor guests to other lands. Guests of the earth. We are here so briefly, why should we stake our claim so fiercely that it causes war and rumors of wars?
How can this earth sustain further turmoil, bloodshed, and hate through warring with technology that can destroy us all, we who are guests of the earth? As a writer, I know the importance of tension in a story. Would there be no story without the tension? Would our world be blunted and dulled by the lack of tension, that tension that leads to war and rumors of war? Does the story only come when we have to kill for peace and freedom? Do we think this is part of the circle of life and we, the animals, kill to survive?
I suppose I’m a hopeless romantic to believe that the world is evolving and the tension for story is changing. It’s going within that circle of life, deeper than before, within the souls of humankind who aren’t merely raising their hands to the heavens, but turning inward before turning outward. These are the peacekeepers in training. And believe me, to encounter the enemy and then the divine within creates tension and story majestic enough for the silver screen. Yeats said, “Man (and woman) needs reckless courage to descend into the abyss of himself.”
I’m thinking about these things on Veteran’s Day and after watching the superb movie, Harriet, about Harriet Tubman, I aspire to her words, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. If you hear the dogs, keep going.”
I have been remiss in blog writing. I can hardly find the time to write, edit, and wrap my mind and heart around the times we’re living in. I have so much to say, but how to say it slant? There are many blogs, articles, editorials, and posts vying for attention and the ones with the biggest names get the read. Why should I bother to write a blog? It’s like the wildflower garden I planted a few years ago. When I pick flowers for my house, I tend to pick the boldest and biggest flowers and inadvertently trample those wee Violas and Forget-Me-Not flowers to get to the ones “in my face.” I love them and they all have a place in my vase. So perhaps I should write a blog, especially because I’m excited about my new novel, the fourth in my Irish Dresser Series, that is being released in early June (the time for so many flowers). The Irish Milliner continues the story of Norah McCabe and the setting is New York City during the Civil War.
in The Irish Milliner, Norah McCabe befriends Elizabeth Jennings, a real life woman who refused to get off a streetcar, was pushed off, took the company to court, and won. There’s a lot about race, xenophobia, and the disunited states. I didn’t plan on writing this novel, as I thought I was finished with Norah’s story in the previous novel. And as I’m readying for its release, I can’t help but ask whether our American history is wearing the same old historical rags?
America has been wracked with racial and xenophobic amnesia that was hidden beneath our belief in equality and justice for all. But these days, hate has floated blatantly to the surface of our everyday lives, as shocking as the plastic that has gathered in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean. Since the election, it’s as if the band-aid over the wound of racial injustice in American history and in the present time has been ripped off and the gaping, ugly injury is there for all to see. Not only racial injustice, but misogyny and xenophobia. During this election, many stared into the gaping, raging monster’s mouth and were sucked in and swallowed by ignorant and damning rhetoric. Finally, there is someone to say what they were really feeling for so long, perhaps for over two hundred years.
Joseph J. Ellis writes in his Pulitzer Prize book, Founding Brothers,
Jefferson’s initial draft of the Declaration of Independence had included language that described the slave trade as the perverse plot of an evil English monarch designed to contaminate innocent colonists. Though the passage was deleted by the Continental Congress in the final draft, it nevertheless captured the nearly rhapsodic sense that the American Revolution was both a triumphant and transformative moment in world history, when all laws and human relationships dependent on coercion would be swept away forever.
The passionate conviction that the Revolution was like a mighty wave fated to sweep slavery off the American landscape actually created false optimism and fostered a misguided sense of inevitability that rendered human action or agency superfluous.
Why didn’t these founding brothers get rid of slavery for once and for all right then? Well, read this author’s book, for it will explain how it went down in an insightful manner. Yes, we know. The states were divided from their having or not having slaves and the Deep South wanted the freedom to import Africans to stock their plantations. I say now, but don’t know if I really mean it, why didn’t the North let the South go its own way and we would have been freed from this race problem and there would have been real freedom and justice for all, just an all that was much smaller. But that oversimplifies it and I’m not an expert or historian, but in light of the research I’ve done to tell Norah McCabe’s story set during the Civil War, and in light of the racial pus that is oozing in our country today, maybe I do wish those southern states would have not have continued as part of the United States.
Yet we know human nature is the same in the north, south, west, east, and all over the world. What is the answer? We have made great strides and we have overcome. Blacks vote. Women vote.The North and South are one. But don’t you want more? I do! But to have more, we have to tangle with our own ancestral heritage, our insides, our diverse souls. We have to cast out the demons in ourselves, get the plank out of our eyes, and wrestle with our own motives and arrogance. For as the Buddhist monk, Phap Dung, said recently,
Trump is not an alien who came from another planet. We produced Trump, so we are co-responsible. Our culture, our society, made him. We love to pick somebody and make them the object. But it’s deeper than that. We have to see him inside of us.
Norah McCabe in The Irish Milliner saw a bit of the great Irish liberator, Daniel O’Connell, in Abraham Lincoln. She was hopeful. She was hated because she was Irish, but her African friend, Elizabeth Jennings, was hated even more. Norah and Elizabeth both lived through the Draft Riots, Norah made hats for the escaping slaves, nursed the dying soldiers in Gettysburg, and loved two men, one a shanty Irish and one a lace curtain Irish. Norah read what Daniel O’Connel said about America just before the Civil War erupted,
The black spot of slavery rests upon your star spangled banner, and no matter what glory you may acquire beneath it, the hideous damning stain of slavery remains upon you, and a just Providence will sooner or later, avenge itself for your crime.
Might it be that a just Providence is avenging itself for our crimes, or perhaps has been trying to do so since the Civil War?
The setting in my novel includes when Abraham Lincoln is assassinated and Andrew Johnson becomes president for four years and is eventually impeached. Johnson grants amnesty to former Confederate rebels and allows them to elect new governments which exact new laws that are measures designed to control and repress the freed slaves. Johnson opposed the civil and voting rights for ex-slaves and vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Freedman’s Bureau bill aimed at protecting blacks. Southern states passed the “Black Codes” and barred interracial marriage, with death as punishment. There is violent opposition to the Reconstruction Act and whites go on a rampage killing 5,000 African Americans. Eventually, the 13th and 14th Amendments are passed granting citizenship to African-Americans. But…four grueling years. Johnson was no president the country needed. It was a solemn time for America.
In The Irish Milliner after Abraham Lincoln is assassinated, Norah says goodbye to her best friend, Elizabeth Jennings. Here is the excerpt:
Norah leaves Elizabeth and Charles’ house later that evening, knowing well she won’t see the people gathered there ever again. She and Elizabeth embrace one another like a last goodbye. Although it seems the wrong time to tell her friend that she is moving out of the city, she must. There is no use hiding anything from anyone, for whatever reason. She is not only leaving behind a city besought with struggle and violence, she is leaving behind the differences between Elizabeth and herself. They have become friends in an impossible environment, one that was infertile to growth between an Irish woman and a Negro woman. How many times has Norah said to Elizabeth on their walks in the city together, “Look at those flowers growing alone in such a miserable place. That’s like you and me, Elizabeth!” Right now, Elizabeth has to be with her people and help them in this complex time, for although freedom has come, it won’t be as real as they dreamed. They can’t help but look into Norah’s face and see the oppressor. At least for now, Norah thinks, and well she can understand.
And today, it’s a solemn time for America because we’re still wearing the old historical rags. But I’m hopeful. I went on the Women’s March and the love, hope, and peace was not warm and fuzzy, it was palpable and real. This is no time for violent resistance or violent opposition. This is no time for cruelty and hate. It is a time for hope, tearing off the historical rags, being naked before ourselves, and healing.
It had been seven years since my last Ireland visit and when I traveled on August 7th, it was my seventh journey to celebrate a January 7th birthday. I hadn’t an inkling there were so many seven occurrences until a few days before I embarked on this trip. A web site about numerology indicated that the number 7 is mystical and resounds with spiritual awakening and that the angels are commending my hard work and efforts. Repetitive sevens indicate dreams are coming to fruition and one should expect miracles, large and small.
I carried this in my heart as I flew to Ireland with two friends to attend a writing retreat at Anam Cara on the Beara Peninsula for a week. Eyeries on the Beara Peninsula is full of angels, according to their web site. I walked along the seashore with flowers, birdsong, and friends, and this indeed was a memory to treasure. The Artist, the Creator of life, and perhaps the pre-Celtic Goddess Cailleach (Hag of Beara) honored my visit and cloaked me in love that seeped into my soul that brought cleansing and renewal. A year before, I was supposed to travel to Ireland, but I had fallen into a dark well of sorrow. Postponed, but timing is everything they say, and thus the journey was a celebration of life that often comes after a dark night of the soul. I brought a rose quartz to offer the Hag, the Creator, and left it on her rock, a symbol of my thanksgiving and further prayer for my life’s purposes.
After a week in what seemed like fairyland on the Beara Peninsula, a friend flew home, and my friend, Nora, and I visited our friend, Martha, from the States who has a home in the Burren in County Clare Ireland. We hiked daily on the limestone mountains, stepping between giant rock footprints made from ancient bones and seashells. I’ve read that there are over six hundred flowering plants that dazzle and shimmer in this landscape. I spied bluebells, yellow-wort, lords-and-ladies, loosestrife, orchids, and many other flowers. We walked on Burren landscape with the Beltie cows, donkeys, and goats and journeyed on a path created by Lough Avalla Farm down into sylvan glens with thick green moss, streams, and foliage. We hiked ten miles, some of it quite rigorous, and at the end, a tea room situated in a stone fort lit with candles awaited us. Scones with clotted cream and jam, barm brack bread, and tea refreshed and delighted us. I wondered if I was in a fairy tale!
Honoring the ancestors through historical fiction writing is what I desire to do, and I also seek the presence of the past in famine ruins and holy wells. It is not morbid, but a melancholy endeavor and a spiritual pilgrimage. I feel as if I’m taken out of time and place to a sentient landscape that remembers and invites me to do the same. PJ Curtis (http://www.oldforgebooks.com), a musicologist, former broadcaster, and writer, who holds the stories of the past as a priest holds a communion host, took us on a trek to a few holy places in and around Kilnaboy, Clare, Ireland. A village, annihilated by the Great Hunger, sits in his backyard and we rambled through brush and brier to visit ruined cottages and a holy well. It was difficult finding the crumbling stone homes because Mother Nature was seeking to clothe the memories in her green forgetfulness, eventually absorbing the past into a presence of wild beauty. A sacred amalgam of earth and spirit will eventually thrive and successive generations will wonder what they feel and those who see will see but not fully understand.
I am of the mindset that the ruined village needs to be honored with preservation, like an elder and his or her wisdom. PJ’s great grandfather found a father and son dead in one of the stone cottages during The Great Hunger. They had grass stained mouths and had already been claimed by Mother Nature. We cannot forget. We have solemn memorials for the Holocaust, Viet Nam, the world wars, and a few for The Great Hunger. If we make pilgrimages to remember and to honor, we leave with the imprint of divinity and carry the dead within us, thus they live on in us. We feed the hungry, we clothe the poor, and we give the shirt off our backs. But if there is no memory, no visitation, and no homage given to the past, we live only unto ourselves.
Tom Hayden writes an Introduction, An Irish Hunger for Meaning, for the book, Irish Hunger: But some still ask: Why not let the past, with all its horrors, be at rest and be forgotten? First, there is a moral and spiritual need to express reverence for the unknown millions who suffered and died. They have been erased from history, or subjected to demeaning stereotypes. But ‘ “they were a great people” ‘, an old woman told the poet Eavan Boland as a young girl. Even today, many lie in unmarked graves all across Ireland. Thousands died at sea, or at the fever hospitals at Grosse Isle. As their survivors, we should remember and honour them properly in our rituals today. Second, the deliberate avoidance of past traumas is unhealthy for individuals or cultures. The repressed past does not simply let go of us on command. The “hidden scar” (the phrase again is Boland’s) is transmitted, invisibly and unconsciously across generations. We have become, she says,’“the present of the past, inferring the difference but unable to feel or know it…” ‘ We have not healed from these repressed horrors; it is as if unmarked Famine graves are in each of us. Third, proper remembrance of the Famine can contribute to building peace rather than reopening old wounds or rationalizing violence. Fourth, recovering the Irish Famine experience is vitally important to understanding the pervasive crisis of starvation that continues in the world today.
My seventh journey to Ireland was for beauty, for time away to write, for responding to the stanza in Yeat’s poem, “I am of Ireland, And the Holy Land of Ireland…Come dance with me in Ireland.” It was also to march in a parade of redheads. How poignant to learn later that the Crosshaven House in Cork where I spoke about my books, including my book, The Irish Dresser, A Story of Hope during The Great Hunger, served as a soup kitchen during The Great Hunger. Although unplanned, I had come to Ireland again to honor and remember. And to be reminded that my work as a writer is more than just telling a story.