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.

In the photo, my granddaughter and I are at the Railway Museum, Sacramento, standing by the Santa Fe Chief.

This interest in trains was bound to find its way into my writing. Given my fascination with trains, it’s no wonder that the idea of Uncle Frank and his brother on a train trip kept surfacing.  “What would unsupervised kids get up to on a train?”The route they would have taken, either on the California Limited or on The Santa Fe Chief would have been through rugged mountains and wide expanses of wilderness. I’d traveled the route by car many times over. I’d also made many trips between the farm in Oklahoma where I was reared and Washington State, where my parents taught school when I was a teen.

On our many car trips, 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.  

“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.

When Favorite Characters Die

After one of my friends finished reading The Black Alabaster Box, she e-mailed me.“I loved it. . . I must say that you are very brave, because I couldn’t kill off some of my favorite characters.”

It’s true. Some of my favorite characters experience the harsh reality of life on the Santa Fe Trail. Two die of small pox and four are murdered. (I won’t say which ones–you’ll have to read the book to find out!) I was terribly sorry to see them go. But I was determined to be true to a history in which few people traveled the trails without being witness to or experiencing its grim realities. And, while an author is in control of what happens, sometimes it feels as if the characters and context are calling the moves.

I don’t recommend the Trilogy to youngsters under about ten-years-old. It can be a great read-aloud for a nine-year-old, within the safety of family or schoolroom.

Disease was arguably the greatest killer on the trails, although many people were shot by accident. People drowned in dangerous river crossings as well. Traveling west was not a six week-long camping holiday.  And the greatest threat to wagon trains was not American Indians, though there were instances of violent clashes between wagon trains and native tribes.

Youngsters are exposed to an enormous amount of violence on their devices, in movies and on television. But it is one thing to see Batman and Robin going “Bif!” “Pow!” “Shezam!” as they kill off the bad guys and quite another to think about what you’d do if someone in your own family died.  

A good story can raise important and difficult issues in ways that can be discussed thoughtfully and with sensitivity at school or at home. It can become a cataylist for “What would you do if…?”

 A wise teacher will suggest that if her students have not talked through the “What would you do if?  question with their parents, they should do so. It is psychologically important for children and young people to know that should the worst happen, their parents or caretakers have made a plan for how to deal with it. Of course, disaster is not predictable. Plans can be disrupted. It isn’t possible to forsee the future. Hence, discussions are all the more important. Children should know “go-to” people they can rely on, how reach them, and if circumstances prevent them from reaching their “go-to” people, safe contacts.

It is hard for author and readers to accept death of favorite characters in a story. It is even harder to face the certainties of death in the midst of life. But we do it as part of living and learning how to go on.  A good story can help us along the way–especially if a caring adult is there to share the experience when favorite characters die.

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

The Mad Artist in Me

Mad Artist

I am still working on launching THE BLACK ALABASTER BOX. It is off to a good start, but a publisher alone can’t get the word out. Getting the word out depends on the goodwill of friends, new fans, and hard work.  I’m adjusting to the idea of fans. I tend to see them as fans of Grace Willis and Mr. Nichols and the outlaws you love to hate, Junior and Ruby.

I’ve had a lot of fun meeting with kids, reading to them, and talking about the book. This spring I visited was The National Trails Museum Independence, Missouri and left a copy of the book for their library. What a fine research collection they are building along with an interesting museum, well worth the trip to Independence.

I was in Kansas City for a visit to Briarcliff Elementary School where my fifth grade friend, Jamison Sherman and his class hosted an author visit. It was a lot of fun reading from the book and talking with kids who had some really great questions about writing process and character development. There were some personal questions, too: “How old are you?” I think that with all my white hair there was the serious thought that I might have set out on the Santa Fe Trail with Grace Willis in the late 1800s.

Some days I feel like that! The past week I’ve been playing what my daughter calls “the mad artist.”  That’s me in the picture above: the mad artist working at the dining room table. Not mad as in angry; I’m thinking of mad as an adverb as in “totally mad, extremely cool.” (We all have our fantasies.)

So while I’m launching Book one, I’m madly working on illustrations for Book two. The thing about historical fiction, even fantasy that situates itself within an historical era, is that it is easy to miss important details. Illustrating the chapters, as I did in Book one, often reveals some new bit of history that I’ve overlooked.  Take Big Red, for example.

Big Red is the White-Faced Hereford calf that James Matthias’ gets ready for exhibit at the county fair. Finding images to create a sketch that is satisfying to me was not such a struggle. Getting him right was a challenge. BUT later in the book, Big Red is kidnapped–I suppose one could say rustled. He’s hauled away to the Oklahoma National Stockyards to be sold for World War I Bonds. This sends me double-checking my facts: when was the Oklahoma National Stockyards opened (1910, whew, that works)  Finding a satisfying image of a 1917 truck was a search in itself. But an image of the backside of a prize-winning Hereford Bull riding in the back of a 1917 truck?) I finally managed to make a sketch that feels right. Big Red the Calf and Big Red in the truck are below. (I still need to do something about that right rear wheel–it’s too dark.)

Then one sketch of the stockyard later, I ask myself, “When did the stockyards get that fancy entrance?” and I discover the completed sketch won’t work because the entrance was there, but it first read “Oklahoma National Stockyard Co.”–start over with a new sketch. All part of trying to keep the history as right as I can and part of the mad artist’s life!

About getting the word out: Thanks to so many who have written wonderful reviews on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Goodreads.  Keep spreading the good word and put THE RED ABALONE SHELL, Book two on your Goodreads “Want to Read” list.

Written by Somebody’s Grandmother?

Who’d want to read a book about some random girl going West written by somebody’s grandmother?”

Last year when Katie Schmidt talked with her class about the prospect of piloting The Black Alabaster Box, this was a question one of the children asked. I had to laugh when my granddaughter, a member of the class, told me. “What did he think grandmothers should be doing?” I asked.

I’d like to think that children of today are growing up with positive attitudes about issues that have troubled us in the past, issues such as race, gender, age, conceptions of beauty. But we aren’t there yet as a society. We aren’t helping our children as much as we could were we to provide better role models. (And maybe better stories?)

As the grandmother in question, I do think about aging. Age isn’t always kind. I don’t ever want to be guilty of assuming that people who start to shut down when they reach retirement age  choose to do so. People have health issues that place severe limitations on what they can do physically and mentally. But there is choice, too. I’ve seen friends who just seem to quit. They don’t like what age is doing to them. They can’t fight it. They can’t fix it. They want to be young. They aren’t. They give up.

There are reasons we give up. Aside from the crushing experiences that life can deal out, we are surrounded by a culture that values youth and beauty. Our culture tells us at every turn that when youth leaves off, so does beauty. Maybe that is what drew me to Celeste, the character in The Black Alabaster Box who traded her immortality to be the most beautiful woman who has ever lived. Her goal in life is to stay young and beautiful—she has, for centuries. Not a wrinkle mars her perfect face nor does anything bulge in the wrong place. Isn’t that the message that we bump into everywhere we turn? Keep Young and Beautiful if you want to be admired, if you want to be loved.

After reading the draft of my book, one of my friends challenged Celeste. Why her? We already have Snow White’s stepmother and a host of her type. Why perpetuate a negative stereotype?   4rua60jaa87nxnI gave her comment a lot of thought. But Celeste would not be set aside. She demanded to be in the book, living out the message that says you don’t matter if you aren’t beautiful. If Mother Nature didn’t reward you with that advantage, you’d better do something about it. You have to be young to be beautiful, too. When the wrinkles appear, do something about it. “Beauty is your duty,” according to an old advertisement for the Success School.

I was thinking along these lines when I saw a short bit on the Teachers College website about Jacqui Getz, a student in my early years at the College. She was beautiful then. Now in her fifties and proud of it, she is still beautiful. Does she look like she did then? No. She looks as she is now, confident, purposeful, seasoned, full of life, and smashingly, gorgeously, beautiful. “Go Jacqui!” The blog about Jacqui is a message that challenges our dysfunctional view of beauty and of age.

Maybe that is why Celeste wouldn’t go away. She lurks in our deep places, telling us that retirement is an ending, not a beginning. She whispers that every gray hair and wrinkle is a blight, undermining our self-worth. We see her in the book and reject her, laugh at her. But she isn’t always so easy to laugh at when we look in the mirror.

So who does want to read a book about a random girl going West written by somebody’s grandmother? You, I hope. And this grandmother plans to keep writing. After all, grandmothers should be writing, and traveling, and gardening, reading, having adventures, doing what they love to do for as long as they are able, and looking in the mirror and giving Celeste the raspberry!

“Every Young Wife Must Make This Decision” from https://repository.duke.edu/dc/eaa/P0151