Peculiar Savage Beauty – Bonus Scenes

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!


Snowy forestDecember 24, 1935

Vanham, Kansas

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.

“Yap.”

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?”

“It’s Christmas.”

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.

“Yap.”

======

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.

###


Peculiar Savage Beauty is 2018 Arizona Book of the Year

2018 Arizona Literary ContestJessica 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.”



Book Recommendation – The Power of Meaning

book Meaning of Life

What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? These are questions that have taunted mankind since the beginning of time. The Power of Meaning provides a straightforward and inspiring answer, based on extensive research and analysis. Simply put, the meaning of life is to find meaning in life. And it’s actually easier to find than we are often led to believe.

“The search for meaning is not a solitary philosophical quest, as it’s often depicted,” writes the author. “… and meaning is not something we create within ourselves and for ourselves. Rather, meaning largely lies in others. If we want to find meaning in our own lives, we have to begin by reaching out.”

There is so much to this book, it’s hard to boil it down in a review. (I found myself rereading and marking lines on page after page, and I handwrote six pages of notes upon completing it.) By summarizing dozens of psychological studies, presenting scores of anecdotes and stories about real people, and sharing many of her own thoughts and insights on the differences between happiness and meaning, Smith ultimately brings the reader to the simplest of revelations.

Belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence: these are the four pillars of meaning, and they are accessible to everyone, regardless of religious beliefs, cultural backgrounds or economic status. As someone who has made a living as a professional writer and author, I was particularly struck by the storytelling section. Though it was not surprising to me that story plays a critical role in finding fulfillment in life, it was fascinating to learn the many reasons why (both for the storytellers themselves, as well as for listeners or imbibers of those stories). The author turned to several novels to help illustrate her points – from Middlemarch and The Little Prince to Life of Pi and The Death of Ivan Ilych – as well as numerous memoirs.

I especially liked this point:

“We are all the authors of our own stories and can choose to change the way we are telling them. One of the greatest contributions of psychology and psychotherapy research is the idea that we can edit, revise and interpret the stories we tell about our lives even as we are constrained by the facts.”

And, how we perceive our lives and stories is directly related to whether we ultimately find fulfillment in them.

The sections on belonging, purpose and transcendence are equally fascinating. They are packed with examples of how seeking and finding fulfillment leads to better physical and mental health, helps us overcome traumatic events, and guides us to lasting contentment rather than fleeting happiness.

I highly recommend this book to all who want to expand how they view the world and the people with whom they share it.

* If you decide to purchase Emily Esfahani Smith’s book, check out Bookshop.org at the link below. A portion of sales at the site supports indie bookstores and authors, including me.



Pay No Attention to the Teenagers behind the Curtain

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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.


Book Recommendation – All That is Solid Melts Into Air

All That is Solid Melts Into Air

One of the first books I read this year was All That Is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon. It immediately landed on my list of all-time favorite reads. As 2017 comes to a close, I still miss the people in the book terribly. Yes, I know they are fictional characters; that is the magic that fuels this novel. McKeon has created full-bodied, living, breathing, feeling characters – mistreated, yet resilient; impassive, yet loyal; flawed, yet perfect. Add to that the author’s beautiful prose and his amazing talent for descriptive storytelling, and this is a book that will linger in my mind for years. 

Here is a summary from the publisher:

All That Is Solid Melts into Air is a gripping end-of-empire novel, charting the collapse of the Soviet Union through the focalpoint of the Chernobyl disaster.

In a run-down apartment block in Moscow, a nine-year-old piano prodigy practices silently for fear of disturbing the neighbors. In a factory on the outskirts of the city, his aunt makes car parts, trying to hide her dissident past. In the hospital, a leading surgeon buries himself deep in his work to avoid facing his failed marriage. And in a rural village in the Ukraine, a teenage boy wakes up to a sky of the deepest crimson. In the fields, the ears of the cattle are dripping blood. Ten miles away, at the Chernobyl Power Plant, something unimaginable has happened.

Now their lives will change forever.

If you’re looking for a thrilling page-tuner or a happily-ever-after story, this is not the book for you. It explores the impact not only of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in 1986, but also the horrible repercussions of an oppressive Soviet regime on its people. In the paperback edition, the author also includes a closing essay that details the continued and tragic health and quality-of-life consequences suffered by the people of the region more than 25 years later.

This is a book that will make you cringe, and weep, and think, and worry. It is sad. It is terrifying. And yet, it is exquisite in so many ways. As a reader, I was blown away by its beauty and depth. As an author, I was envious as hell. McKeon raised the bar for all my reading and writing.

* If you decide to purchase McKeon’s novel, check out Bookshop.org at the link below. A portion of sales at the site supports indie bookstores and authors, including me.



Writing Podcast: On freelancing, novel writing and life

It was so much fun recording this interview for the Writer’s Market podcast. We chatted about maintaining a successful freelance writing career while pursuing the goal of becoming a published novelist. I also shared some personal stories about my writing journey, as well as general freelance writing and business tips.

The podcast is about 60 minutes, perfect for your daily commute or workout on the treadmill. Click below to listen.

Big thanks to Writer’s Digest Editors Robert Lee Brewer and Brian Klems for inviting me to share my story and insights.