Circumstance and Plot

I can’t remember how my fascination with trains began. My brothers and I used to watch for smoke from the steam engine that pulled train cars along tracks that made their way just beyond the hills to the southeast of our farm. On a clear day, you could hear the train chugging its way between Custer City and Clinton, Oklahoma. And, if you climbed to the tallest hill on the farm, there was an outside chance that you might see the train—sometimes we did. 

I was a member of the Speech and Debate Club at Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen, Washington. In the spring, we took the train from Portland, Oregon to Weber College (now Weber State University) in Ogden, Utah for the Phi Rho Pi National Junior College Speech and Debate Tournament. We were routed through Green River, Wyoming and down to Ogden. I found myself staring out the window, awestruck by the stark beauty of the country we passed. I’d traveled it by car, but seeing it from a train window was an altogether different experience.

The picture is of my granddaughter and me at the Railway Museum in Sacramento. As we climbed on board the Santa Fe Chief at the Museum, I couldn’t help thinking about my Uncle Frank and his little brother making the trip from Kansas City to Sacramento every summer. 
 
 

I’d traveled the route by car many times over. I invariably wondered what would happen if the car broke down or by some stroke of bad luck we were stranded in a remote area. It was new food for thought: what would happen if a couple of boys got off the train and were stranded in the desert between Kansas City and L.A./Sacramento? Coincidently, about the same time, I read an article about luxury train cars. (You can find out more about private railroad cars at the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners website.) Who knew you could rent or buy your own train car? I clipped the article and put it in the little black marble notebook where I kept ideas. (Yes, for those of you who have read it, it is probably why Robert has a black marble notebook in The Last Crystal.) So what might happen if Uncle Frank and little Clyde stumbled into a private railroad car. Who would they find there?  

Life intervenes. I’d been busy enough as a mother and elementary school teacher. But the idea had to go on hold when I was admitted to a doctoral program at Teachers College, Columbia University (TC) in the late 1980s. After the doctoral program came the Assistant Professorship and the drive for tenure. I was teaching, indulging my bent for historical research, and writing—not about train rides and quests for something for some unknown reason.

Years later, after retiring from TC, I picked up the idea again. The black marble notebook in which I’d kept careful notes and clippings before graduate school days, had disappeared. But the idea hadn’t. My granddaughter was approaching eight-years-old and we shared stories together. I knew she’d be a willing accomplice. But it had to be ready for her. I wondered about who might be in that private car and what would be a motive powerful enough to drive a quest.

As chance often dictates, an unrelated set of circumstances gave me the motive I’d been looking for. I accepted an assignment to serve as a Senior Curriculum Specialist for the USAID Teacher Education Project in Pakistan, a collaborative venture between The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, and USAID, with Michigan State University (MSU) as a partner. I began working with MSU. Later, TC became a partner. I stayed on, making trips to Pakistan, usually for three or four weeks every other month or so.  

 

Here I am meeting with two long-term friends in Pakistan. We’re at one of the many workshops we had with Pakistani University faculty colleagues. An article in the TC News tells of how Hareem (left), who was my student at TC, and I met again in Islamabad. Rana Hussain, gifted curriculum specialist and another Senior Curriculum Specialist, is at the right. Rana is from Karachi and retired from the Institute of Educational Development, Aga Khan University, Karachi.

Early on, a colleague introduced me to a lovely jewelry and curio shop in the Super Market Shopping Center in Islamabad, Sector F6. The Punjab Museum carries artifacts and exquisite jewelry made by local artisans. Over the three years I worked on the project, I bought several gifts at The Punjab Museum. I loved chatting with the young man who ran the store on those rare occasions when the shop happened to be empty. One day he invited me to see something he had just acquired. “What do you think about this?” It was a beautiful egg-shaped stone that had been polished smooth. Inside a bubble of water was trapped in the middle—you could see through the translucent part of the stone. We speculated about the unusual formation and how old the water was—maybe as old as time.  

Water as old as time—when the earth was new. Such water would surely have magical healing powers. The lure of the Fountain of Youth, the quest for eternal life—such is the stuff of quest stories. What might such water do? And what might one give to possess it?  All the disconnected pieces began to come together: a train ride, a private car, a quest.

Next time, I’ll talk about how the setting and characters developed.  

THE LAST CRYSTAL: Behind the Scenes

The Last Crystal Trilogy is complete at last. In the next few posts, I will be reflecting on the process of writing the Trilogy, beginning with The Last Crystal because I wrote it first. I had no idea I was going to write a trilogy. 

It started with an idea that swam around in my head for years before I was ready to do anything about it. Then, a series of unrelated events came together almost forty years later. The first version of The Last Crystal was the result. While this might sound discouraging to anyone wanting to be a writer, bear in mind that I wasn’t sitting around making daisy chains. I was busy being a schoolteacher, mother, graduate student and, finally a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, whose advancement depended on research and writing. So perhaps the saga of my writing the Trilogy is as much about letting an idea ripen as it is about how the book was actually written.

But before I continue, this bit of good news: The Last Crystal (Book 3, The Last Crystal Trilogy) has been nominated for an Agatha. Named for Agatha Christie, the Agatha is awarded by Malice Domestic, an annual fan convention that celebrates the traditional mystery.

Back to the main point. In the early seventies, my family made a cross-country trip from Baltimore to Sacramento. My daughter was four-years-old then. I was an elementary school teacher who incorporated children’s literature in teaching both language arts and social studies. I was always on the altert for good books for kids and ideas for teaching that connected them. I picked up interesting rocks, gathered samples of trees, and collected pinecones—actually, anything interesting to take back to my classroom.

On this trip, we stayed with my husband’s uncle and aunt in Sacramento. It was there, around the kitchen table, that I heard about Uncle Frank’s summer adventures as a boy. Uncle Frank’s dad worked for the railroad. He was based in the family’s home state of Missouri. But, grandparents had long-since migrated to far-away California. When school was out for the summer, Frank and his little brother, Clyde, were put on the train to California—by themselves. They had a grand trip of it, sleeping in their coach seats, exploring the train, eating their packed meals. 

“O-oh!”I thought. “Here is a situation ripe for mischief. Something mysterious could happen to two unsupervised little boys on a train.”

In my next post I’ll talk about how the idea began to develop and the chance circumstances that helped me build the story line.

The Making of an Egyptologist?

My granddaughter wants to be an Egyptologist. At fourteen, she has been teaching herself to read hieroglyphics, using the classic, Hieroglyphics for Beginners, by E. A. Wallis Budge.

This all began in third grade when a teacher introduced her to myths from various cultures. She was intrigued by Egyptian mythology.

Intrigue turned to the desire to know more, when her mother picked up on the interest a couple of years later and we began reading Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank as a family story. She was hooked on the series and on what Egyptologist, Barbara Mertz who wrote under the pseudonym, Elizabeth Peters, was teaching her about ancient Egypt.

I gave her a stamp set with Egyptian hieroglyphics from The Metropolitan Museum in New York, but it was soon clear that it was not enough. That’s when her mother introduced her to Wallis Budge, the famous Egyptologist who worked for the British Museum in the Golden Age of Egyptology during which Elizabeth Peters’ heroine, Amelia Peabody, plumbed the treasures of ancient Egypt and solved mysteries on the side. Now the book is well worn and indexed with post-its from beginning to end.

On a visit to the Egyptian collection at The Metropolitan Museum in New York, she was able to explain a great deal to us about what various artifacts said and take us deeper into the exhibits we were seeing. Her mother made her close her eyes before we entered The Temple of Dendur. I wish you could have seen her face when she saw it for the first time. It was a joy to watch her guide a good friend from the UK through the exhibit a year later (see the picture above).

Her growing interest in archeology was heightened by watching back episodes of The Time Team. For the uninitiated, The Time Team was a British television production that lasted from 1994 until 2017. Every episode covered an archeological dig, limited to three days. Excavations were led by first-rate archeologists, usually in England, and covered the range of human history. The actor, Tony Robinson, explained things in terms we could all understand, interviewing the professionals about the decisions they were making.

So now, my granddaughter wants to be an archeologist, focusing on ancient Egypt. As a former teacher and teacher-educator, I find satisfaction in knowing than an elementary school teacher ignited the spark. As a writer, I’m delighted at how a mystery series sharpened her interest and supplied her with a great deal of accurate information along with the good fun and imaginative adventure.

Will she follow through and become an Egyptologist? All I can say is, “Go girl! Follow the dream.” If the dream changes on the way, she will have had the joy of learning new things that will enrich whatever comes next. If she ends up excavating tombs in Egypt, I’m in for an Egyptian holiday!

Mist, Children, Poetry and Times Past

Mist marches across the valley.
Down a long slope the mist marches.
And then up a long slope the mist marches.
from Carl Sandburg, Mist Marches Across the Valley

Last week I was in a beautiful old farmhouse on the Choptank River where I focused entirely on writing. The first few days were rainy. The river ran high. I loved the wet mornings, watching the mist rise from the river. 

Carl Sandburg talks about how mist moving across the valley carries everything with it, armies, kingdoms, guns. The rhythms of nature, like mist, are timeless, indifferent to our triumphs and failures.

When I taught in elementary school, I always looked forward to the first really misty, foggy morning. It was the perfect time to introduce Carl Sandburg’s little haiku (as he referred to it) to the children:

The fog comes on little cat feet, It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches And then moves on.  

I never asked children to memorize a poem. I invited them to join me in saying a line that stood out for them. They knew “Fog”almost immediately after I introduced it. By the end of the year, whether I was with kindergartners or fifth grade, we had a reperitorie of a couple of dozen favorites that we knew by heart and we enjoyed together. 

Fall was a great time to invite children into the Walter de la Mare’s Someone, too.  It is a perfect poem for this season. There is such a mysterious, haunting quality to it, inviting imagination. “I’m sure, sure, sure,”and “At all, at all, at all.”Were great places to join in at first. 

Some One

Some one came knocking
At my wee, small door;
Someone came knocking;
I’m sure-sure-sure;
I listened, I opened,
I looked to left and right,
But nought there was a stirring
In the still dark night;
Only the busy beetle
Tap-tapping in the wall,
Only from the forest
The screech-owl’s call,
Only the cricket whistling
While the dewdrops fall,
So I know not who came knocking,
At all, at all, at all.

We used to speculate about who came knocking and whether or not they knocked at a fairy door.  Could have been, if you have imagination.

I talk more about how I taught poetry in the classroom and the connection between peotry and children’s spirituality in an essay I wrote for the Teachers College Record a few years ago: 

Only Those Who See Take Off Their Shoes: Seeing the Classroom as a Spiritual Space,  Teachers College Record Volume 111, Number 12, December 2009, pp. 2713–2731 

The writing retreat was productive. Wet October mornings brought back memories of mist, children, poetry and times past.  

“You Can’t Do That!” More about Death of Characters

The Beautiful Hills, Chapter 27 of The Black Alabaster Box is a chapter my granddaughter insisted on.

She’d been my junior editor all along, listening to various iterations and offering suggestions. Sometimes I followed her suggestions faithfully. Other times I had to follow my own light. This was especially true when it came to death of characters in the book.

I was reading from Chapter 26, “We must fly, Song of the Wind!” said Mr. Nichols. “Everything depends on speed! Don’t look back, lad, and don’t let Gracie look.” As they sped along the dirt road from the house, the sound of a terrible explosion came from behind. It shook the very ground around them. . .” 

“You can’t do that, Grammy! You just can’t do that.”

“But people did die. Sometimes life was really hard for them,” I reasoned. “I didn’t want them to die, but it happened.”

She was insistent. “Okay,” I said. “Tell you what. I’ll see what I can do, but I don’t make any promises.” The result was “The Beautiful Hills.”

In writing it, I drew on my experience leading a doctoral seminar on spirituality and children’s literature at Teachers College, Columbia University. Children from all faith and non-faith perspectives seem to find conceptions of an after-life surrounded by light, love, and family to be emotionally satisfying. When I read my draft of the chapter to her, my granddaughter was satisfied. Interestingly enough, many children tell me it is a favorite chapter.

Through the Curriculum with The Black Alabaster Box

I’ve been working on this resource guide, now available for free download on http://www.fschoonmaker.com As you can see from this first page, it focuses on how to create a curriculum or curriculum experiences with children and young people. I hope you’ll visit the website. Click on Teachers and Parents in the menu and you’ll see Curriculum Resource listed. I’ll welcome ideas and feedback. Use my blog comment space for your suggestions. If you have experiences you’d like to share, I’ll be collecting them and post on my webpage for everyone to see, attributing your ideas to you, of course.

The Red Abalone Shell and WWI: The Backstory

RAS finalcoverThe Red Abalone Shell is scheduled for release the first week in September. Here’s what you have to look forward to:

James finds himself on the steps of a church with no idea who he is or how he got there. His only clues are a map, a red abalone shell, and a dog, Old Shep. Adopted by a German-American pacifist family, James and Old Shep take to life on a farm. Patriotism is running high in Western Oklahoma as the United States considers entering World War I. James and his family are proud to be Americans, but not everybody sees it that way, especially Claude Higgins who bullies James in and out of school. As James tries to stand up to Claude and struggles to regain lost memories, he discovers that his identity is linked to mysterious, magical events that define both his past and his future.

The World I context is essential to the story. As I set out to write the second book in The Last Crystal Trilogy, I deliberately situated it on the cusp on World War I. In doing so, I had to alter the time line somewhat, moving it forward a bit. I explain this in the preface.

I remember my mother talking about World War I. She was a girl of about seven- or eight-years old during the war. Among her many memories was one of her father, my Grandpa Shannon, standing up for a German-American neighbor. Patriotic feelings were fanned by newspaper articles accusing German-Americans of aiding the enemy and public speeches by politicians from President Wilson to local officials. The work of organizations such as The American Protective League and the National Security League may have had the most influence on immigrants–both of these organizations come into play in the book.

defaultMap from Library of Congress files: https://www.loc.gov/item/2013593059/

The ugly history behind events in the book is not as well known as I had expected–but given my ignorance, maybe that shouldn’t have been surprising. In 1910 over nine percent of the population in the US were German-Americans. In fact, immigrants from Germany were the largest immigrant community in the country. German language and culture were thriving and German-Americans were respected members of communities across the country. Everything changed when the US entered World War I. Those who were German-born were suddenly enemy aliens and second- and third-generation immigrants were suspected of collusion with the enemy (Manning 2014; Wasserman, 2016, ). While there were undoWar Bondscroppedubtedly Kaiser Wilhelm II sympathizers among the German-Americans in the US, these were far and away the exception. Most, like my Grandpa Shannon’s harassed neighbor, were good people who were proud to be American and were unjustly shunned, ridiculed, shamed, persecuted, tarred and feathered, beaten, or taken to court

German-born immigrants were rounded up and placed in internment camps, setting a precedent and providing a model that was to be followed in World War II. A nation of immigrants now turned on the newcomer and outsider, defining them as “other” and “foreign.” Theodore Roosevelt said it a 1915 speech, “there is not room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. Our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance (cited in Manning, 2014, p.16).” His attitude was one adopted by the public as the war loomed nearer.

Wasserman argues that “despite its lack of scholarship and popular knowledge, German internment left a lasting legacy” (p.4, 2016). World War I left a prototype for how to deal with enemy aliens, one that was to be refined in World War II when German-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps (nearly twice as many Japanese-Americans, it should be noted).

The Web_0

Citizens groups sprang up all across the country, many of them like the vigilantes of the West. They looked for evidence of alien subterfuge. Michael Inman (2014), Curator of the Rare Books Division of the New York City Public Library writes: “By far the largest of these hyper-patriotic organizations was the American Protective League, or A.P.L., which maintained a network of branches in more than 600 cities. . . . the A.P.L. worked to enforce patriotism and stifle dissent.  Unlike these other bodies, however, the A.P.L.’s actions were carried out with the approval of the U.S. government.” The 200,000 untrained volunteers of A.P.L were authorized to ferret out aliens whose loyalties were tested by pledging allegiance to the flag, buying war bonds (sometimes groups assigned an amount, often beyond the means of those expected to pay up), or to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” (Manning, 2014).

The National Security League called for military preparedness in the period leading up to World War I. It was the largest preparedness group and probably the most influential (Ward, 1960). The map above detailing the Kaiser’s plans is one of the hundreds of items distributed in the US to garner support for the war effort. Initially the League had the participation of progressive elements in the US, but its work deteriorated into what amounted to witch hunts and vigilantism. Book banning, banning use of German language, teaching German in schools, religious services in German, German names, German food—all things German. Its work deteriorated into “confiscations, lootings, and beatings. . .culminating in the widely publicized lynching of Illinois miner Robert Prager, hanged draped in an American flag (Wasserman, 2016).  You can read more about the Prager case athttp://www.museum.state.il.us/RiverWeb/landings/Ambot/Archives/vignettes/government/Prager.

While I think back on my grandfather’s stand with pride, digging into the history was a somber experience. There was too much in it that felt current. As Kimberly Younce Schooley notes in her review of The Red Abalone Shell, “we watch World War I unfold and witness how individual liberties can be so easily and tragically curtailed in the name of narrow-minded nationalism masquerading as patriotism. An important message for today perhaps.” (You can read her full review in “About the Book” when the book is available).

Some of the other resources I drew on in preparation for the book make interesting reading. Most are available on line:

Michael Inman, “Spies Among Us: World War I and The American Protective League,” October 14, 2014, retrieved from https://www.nypl.org/blog/2014/10/07/spies-among-us-wwi-apl)

Mary J. Manning, “Being German, Being American” Prologue, (Summer 2014), pp.15-22.

Robert D. Ward, “The Origin and Activities of the National Security League, 1914-1919,”The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Jun., 1960), pp. 51-65.

Wasserman, Jacob L., “Internal Affairs: Untold Case Studies of World War I German Internment” (2016). MSSA Kaplan Prize for Use of MSSA Collections. 8.
https://elischolar.library.yale.edu/mssa_collections/8