The Removes is a brilliantly-written and well-researched novel. The settling and (so-called taming) of the American frontier in the 1800s is often romanticized in fiction. Very little in this book is romanticized. It brings to life, in vivid description and with brutal realism, a shameful and terrifying period in our nation’s history.
Three intertwined stories are told – those of 15-year-old homesteader Anne, Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer, and Custer’s wife Libbie. When Anne survives a Sioux attack on her family, she’s taken captive to live among the tribe where she endures near-starvation, rape, and hard labor over many years. Young, pampered Libbie also is thrown into a harrowing life when she marries Custer and travels with his regiment as they battle the remaining Indian tribes in the territories.
Tatjana Soli creates characters with depth. While some are fictionalized interpretations of famous people (the Custers), others are pseudohistorical compilations of everyday people from the time (Native Americans, homesteaders, cavalrymen, small town folk, big city socialites). The worst among them are violent and vindictive, the best are often self-indulgent and turn a blind eye to the cruelty around them. There are very few innocents in this story. They all are tragically human.
Soli’s writing evokes strong, often visceral, emotion. The story contains many descriptions of cruel, senseless violence against people and animals. Beyond the anticipated death-toll of war, countless bodies are mutilated, women and children enslaved and abused. Beyond hunting, innumerable animals are slaughtered – dogs, buffalo, horses – for military strategy, for amusement, for vengeance. Several scenes brought tears to my eyes and created a knot in my stomach. This book is not for the faint of heart.
At the same time, Soli captures the beauty of nature and the fortitude of humanity in a way that often consoled me. In relating a rare moment of peace for the young captive, Anne, the author wrote, “The cool nights and nearby river lulled her to a peaceful state. For the moment, she was content. Human happiness was like a flower insistent on burrowing its way out despite the most inhospitable conditions.”
There were a few historical information dumps that could have been handled more lyrically, and several inconsequential scenes that could have been cut to improve the overall story’s pace. But that is a minor nitpick compared to the broad impact the story had on my heart, mind, and soul.
The Removes* is not what I would call an “enjoyable” book, though I’m glad I read it, and I recommend it to anyone able to bear the pain of it. This is historical fiction at its best.
*Purchases at Bookshop.org help support indie bookstores and authors, including me.
For the past few years, I’ve served as a judge for the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Contest. Out of the 25 to 50 books I’m tasked to read, one or two are to be selected to progress to round-two judging. Most are average, a few have buried potential, and more than a handful are genuinely awful. Sometimes it’s the idea that falls short. Most often, it’s the execution. Common problems are stereotypical characters, inauthentic dialogue, passive language, and shoddy editing.
But in a good year, there is the one – the book that shines. This year, that book was Figurines by Jamie Boud.* I don’t know how it will fare with the next judge, but it impressed the heck out of me.
Figurines contains all the visual hallmarks of a high-quality novel, including striking artwork, professional design, and impeccable copyediting. Boud’s day job is as an artist and designer, and his talent shows.
The true measure, of course, is the writing. Boud shines there, as well. His use of sensory description evokes emotion and draws the reader deep into the complex story. Events from the past are slowly and expertly revealed to the reader, in first-person by two narrators who become more engaging, authentic, and tragic with each chapter.
From the book jacket:
In 2011 New York, Rachel is one step away from becoming invisible. Half a century earlier, confined in the clean, white walls of a mental hospital, Anna wishes she could be.
Rachel and Anna’s lives are woven together—one desperate to be seen, to find out who she is in the bright sunlight of New York and the dark shadows of her family history, and one frantically trying to sort reality from the fantasy in her head, to be known as a person before she’s lost to dull hospital labyrinths and the sharp tang of medicine on her tongue. Figurines is a deep exploration of self, of family, of mental illness, and the thin line between invisibility and nakedness. Between desperation and madness.
The fate of the world is often driven by the curiosity of a girl.
What happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke remains a mystery, but the women who descended from Eleanor Dare have long known that the truth lies in what she left behind: a message carved onto a large stone and the contents of her treasured commonplace book. Brought from England on Eleanor’s fateful voyage to the New World, her book was passed down through the 15 generations of. Thirteen-year-old Alice had been next in line to receive it, but her mother’s tragic death fractured the unbroken legacy and the Dare Stone and the shadowy history recorded in the book faded into memory. Or so Alice hoped.
In the waning days of World War II, Alice is a young widow and a mother herself when she is unexpectedly presented with her birthright: the deed to Evertell, her abandoned family home and the history she thought forgotten. Determined to sell the property and step into a future free of the past, Alice returns to Savannah with her own thirteen-year-old daughter, Penn, in tow. But when Penn’s curiosity over the lineage she never knew begins to unveil secrets from beneath every stone and bone and shell of the old house and Eleanor’s book is finally found, Alice is forced to reckon with the sacrifices made for love and the realities of their true inheritance as daughters of Eleanor Dare.
People always ask authors, “Are you working on another novel?” The answer is yes. Always yes. Yet, we all write and create at a different pace. I’m an avid reader, too, so I understand the enthusiasm and anticipation one feels while waiting for a favorite author’s next book. So without further ado, I’ll share a brief, sneak peek at the idea board — imagery and themes — for my current historical novel-in-progress. Enjoy!
Writers compose many sentences, scenes and chapters that their readers never see. It may be lovely prose. Yet, for one reason or another, it simply doesn’t fit in the final work. Each writer handles this differently. Some click delete, and never look back. Others hold on to those snippets in the hope that someday, somehow, they might find them a home. I fall in the latter category.
The following unedited scenes are from an early draft of my second novel, Peculiar Savage Beauty. They offer a glimpse into the lives of the characters during Christmas in the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era, of people finding small joys during even the most challenging of times.
The novel went through many rounds of edits. At some point, these pieces were cut. In the big picture and flow of action, they just didn’t quite move the story forward in the way all scenes must. I held on to them, because they still speak to me.
Now that the novel has been published, I’m giving these scenes a new home – for my readers who fell in love RJ, Woody, Ethel and the whole quirky town of Vanham, and for myself, who did the same.
Happy reading, and happy holidays!
December 24, 1935
Late Autumn brought a few more rain showers. Just enough to tease a little bit of life from the earth and a little bit of hope from the people of Vanham. Tiny green shoots of red winter wheat and buffle grass began to peek up in some of the pale fields and sand dunes. As the temperature continued to drop and the winter holidays approached, some folks even entertained the fantastical idea of a white Christmas.
At the Tugwell home, bowls of bright red cranberries and plump white popcorn sat on the kitchen table. Minnie narrowed her eyes and stuck out her tongue to thread a needle. Alternating berries and popcorn, she poked the needle carefully through each, creating a festive garland. There would be no Christmas tree this year. No gifts. But there was no reason why she couldn’t brighten up the place with a bit of holiday color.
Ernie shuffled out of the bedroom, rubbing his lower back with the palms of his hands.
“Have a good nap, Pa?” Minnie asked without looking up from her work.
He rolled his shoulders, working out the stiffness in his joints that always came with the cold weather. Then he walked over to the table and inspected Minnie’s project.
“Making garland, huh?”
She said yes, waited for the rebuke she knew was coming next.
“Ain’t that a bit much, times being what they are?”
Ernie grunted, scratched at the stubble on his neck.
“Besides,” she added, “I can feed it to the chickens after. It’ll be a nice treat for ‘em. Won’t go to waste.”
Ernie watched as his wife of forty-odd years picked up another cranberry, gently pushed the needle through its shiny skin and slid the berry down the thread. He gave her shoulder a quick pat.
“We can hang it above the door,” he said.
Minnie smiled. “Yap.”
He watched her work a moment more. Then shuffled to the front door, took his coat and goggles off the hook.
“Gonna go check on the north field,” he said.
“Get the chickens in the coop on your way back,” she said without looking up.
The dust drifted in from the south, an auburn fog, thick and unhurried. Red earth from Oklahoma seemed a fitting shade for Christmas Eve, and the storm had not deterred Ethel as she dressed for a late supper and Midnight Mass with friends. She’d used twice the usual pins to secure her hat and extra towels to wrap up her dessert dish. She would not let the wind and dust get the better of her. Not tonight.
“Ethel, dear, come in. Come in,” Marjorie embraced her friend and pulled her into the house. “I’m so glad the storm didn’t keep you away.”
“I’d have crawled here on my hands and knees if I had to,” Ethel said, hugging her friend a heartbeat longer than usual. She and Marjorie had been friends for more than thirty years.
“And tear your hose?” Marjorie said, punctuating her question with a snort.
Ethel handed over her dish – bread pudding with walnuts and cranberries, a Christmas Eve tradition. She removed her coat and hung it on a hook by the door.
Marjorie’s two granddaughters bolted into the room and threw their arms around Ethel’s legs.
“Mrs. Ethel’s here! Merry Christmas! Did you bring us treats?”
Ethel planted kisses on their heads, inhaled the bouquet of their freshly washed and curled hair. Her mind tumbled back to the days when the girls’ parents had greeted her the same way, some twenty years ago. She reached into her coat pocket and retrieved two peppermint sticks wrapped in wax paper. The girls shrieked and clapped. They hugged Ethel again and ran into the other room with their candy.
“Don’t spoil your supper now,” Marjorie’s husband, Walter, shouted after them. He gave Ethel a wink. She already knew he wasn’t at all worried about his granddaughters’ appetites.
The grandsons were less interested in Ethel, though she had brought candies for them as well. They were more interested in the presents under the tree, in shaking the boxes and wagering on the contents. Ethel watched them, as she did every Christmas, taking in their youthful glee and feeling a bit younger herself as a result. Walter stood beside her.
“Been a tough year for the kids,” he said. “For us, too, but Marjorie and me just couldn’t let Christmas morning come without anything under the tree for them.”
Marjorie had been knitting like a fiend the past few months to make cozy hats for each of her six grandchildren. She’d been saving all her extra pennies for Christmas dinner, so she’d unraveled one of her Afghans for the yarn. And Walter had been carving and painting toy cars and tiny zoo animals from wood scraps that would otherwise have gone in the potbelly stove to warm their aching bones.
“They’ll be over the moon tomorrow, Walt.”
Walter picked at some invisible lint on his shirt sleeve. “Shoot. They’re good kids. I’m just glad they’ll get to open a little something.”
Ethel snapped her fingers and turned to rummage inside the deep pockets of her coat.
“I almost forgot about this,” she said and pulled out a bottle of red wine. “Who says we grown-ups can’t open up a little something of our own.”
Walt’s eyes got big. Where on God’s green earth did you swipe that, they seemed to ask.
“I had Mrs. Wallace at the Five & Dime order a bottle from those Gallo brothers in California. She insisted I only pay wholesale, too, since it’s Christmas.”
“She’s got a big heart,” Walt said, admiring the bottle.
Ethel agreed and assured him she’d made the woman an extra large dish of bread pudding as thanks. He said Ethel’s bread pudding is worth a whole case of wine. Then he extended his elbow and escorted his old friend into the kitchen to fetch a corkscrew.
RJ woke to the familiar sound of Woody’s scratching at the windows. Stormy lay on the bed beside her, curled in a tight ball, pressed into the curve at the back of RJ’s knees. As a child, RJ had begged her Uncle Lou to let their English shepherd sleep in her bedroom, and he had looked at her as though she’d sprouted a second head. Uncle Lou wouldn’t even let the animal in the house, much less on the furniture. RJ smiled and snuggled beneath her quilt, not quite ready to break the Christmas morning magic and face the morning chill.
When she heard Woody get to work on the kitchen window, RJ threw back the quilt and put her feet on the dusty floor. Stormy jumped off the bed and trotted into the other room. RJ followed behind, throwing open the curtains one by one to reveal Woody’s dust paintings.
A table bearing a holiday feast, laden with stuffing, potatoes, gravy, pies, ham and turkey. A tree decorated with candy canes and gingerbread men, surrounded by boxes with big bows. A snowy forest scene with a lone noble buck looking to the horizon.
The sun was still low on the horizon and cast an orange glow through the window paintings, reminiscent of the warm blaze of a wood fire in the hearth.
RJ slipped on her boots and coat and stepped outside. The frigid air nearly knocked her over.
“Good heavens! Woody, aren’t you freezing out here?”
“Yes,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”
RJ laughed. His straightforward responses never failed to delight her.
“Merry Christmas to you, too,” she said.
She watched him work for a moment, shifting her weight from foot to foot to get her blood moving and get some warmth to her body.
Woody finished his final painting, a baby in the manger complete with Joseph and Mary, the three wise men, a cadre of animals, and a single star shining brightly above. He took a step back. “Do you like them?”
“I love them,” RJ said. “I only wish I could figure out a way to preserve them somehow. It always makes me sad when the next wind comes and sweeps them away.”
“That’s OK,” Woody said. “Then I can just paint more.”
RJ smiled. She invited him in to warm his bones, but he said no.
“Ma’ll skin me alive if I’m late for Christmas breakfast,” he said. “She’s making pancakes with brown sugar apples!”
Woody rubbed his stomach and rolled his eyes toward heaven.
RJ laughed again.
“Sounds like you better run then,” she said. “Wish Alice and your folks a Merry Christmas for me.”
“I will,” Woody said. He patted her shoulder two times, real quick. “Merry Christmas, RJ.”
“Merry Christmas, Woody.” She smiled at him warmly, holding herself back from giving him the bear hug she knew would delight her and torture him.
Then Woody turned and bolted across the yard toward the fields for home and his ma’s Christmas pancakes.
Jessica McCann’s second historical novel, Peculiar Savage Beauty, was named 2018 Arizona Book of the Year in the Arizona Authors Association annual literary contest. The novel also placed first in the published fiction category.
Peculiar Savage Beauty is the story of a headstrong and fiercely independent young woman who charges into the heart of the wind- and drought-ravaged Great Plains in the 1930s, intent on battling the dust and healing the land. As a geologist working for the U.S. government, Rosa Jean “RJ” Evans must find her place in a small farming town that welcomes neither a woman in authority nor changes to their way of life. She befriends Woody, an autistic savant born in an era long before any medical diagnosis would explain his peculiar ways and unique talents. The locals label the young man an idiot and RJ an armchair farmer. Yet, in each other, they see so much more.
Inspired by historical events during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl environmental disaster, Peculiar Savage Beauty is a parable about man’s quest to dominate the land and nature’s refusal to be conquered, about unlikely alliances and unexpected love.
Publishers Weekly calls McCann’s novel “gripping” and “atmospheric” with a “suspenseful plot and insightfully etched characters.”
Huge thanks to Mrs. Markham and her students at Accelerated Learning Center for reading my novel, All Different Kinds of Free.
Teenagers have always been a mystery to me (even when I was a teenager and especially when I was a parent of teenagers). So when a local high school English teacher contacted me to say she was teaching my historical novel in her class and would love to have me speak to her students, I was both massively thrilled and a tiny bit terrified. The visit was last week, and I’m happy to report I had nothing to fear.
The students and faculty at Accelerated Learning Center in Phoenix are amazing. Mrs. Markham created a unique lesson plan and assignments to go along with the group reading of All Different Kinds of Free. As just one example, she had students write a personal essay from the point of view of one of the characters in the book. The papers were posted on the wall, and it was interesting for me to see whose minds the students chose to explore. Some chose main characters (Margaret, Jim, Edward Prigg), while others chose secondary characters (such as Mill Green Justice of the Peace Thomas Henderson). The perspectives portrayed in the papers were insightful and creative (and sometimes hilarious, as Justice Henderson declared in one, “The nerve of some people. God, I need a drink.” I loved it.).
I’m relieved to say no one nodded off while I shared my writing background and inspiration for the novel. The students were attentive and engaged, and they asked a lot of unique questions about writing, researching, publishing and freelancing. The hour we spent together flew by too quickly. While teenagers will probably always be a mystery to me, they are no longer so intimidating thanks to the remarkable students at ALC. I can’t wait to go back next year, if they’ll have me again.