Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Timberline's true name

This blog is currently about witchcraft persecutions, ancient and modern, but now and then I will dip into material regarding my first novel Woman of Ill Fame. The novel is about a Gold Rush prostitute in a dangerous, brand-new San Francisco.

A few days ago, someone was in my archives and saw my post about the real-life prostitute whose image is featured on the cover. All I knew was that her name was Timberline, she was a Dodge City prostitute, and her image is in the collections of the Kansas State Historical Society.

Well, the anonymous commenter wrote that her name was Rose Vastine.

That for one thing totally threw me. Although I fashioned my character based on this photograph and named her Nora, for some reason I had “felt” that this real woman’s name was Kate.

Secondly, the commenter wrote that she earned the name Timberline for being 6’2” in height. Another big surprise. In my mind, the nickname had dirty connotations!

Armed with her real name, I consulted Professor Google.

The first link I accessed made me gasp out loud in the cafĂ© I was working in, and literally grab my forehead. According to Linda Wommack’s Ladies of the Tenderloin, “Timberline climbed up into the hills above Creede and shot herself not once, but six times.”

When you have spent so much time staring at someone’s photograph and constructing an entire novel around them, you develop a strange and intense connection to them. It was almost as upsetting as hearing this news about someone I knew…but not only was Timberline a stranger to me, but she died 150 years ago. Whatever sorrows she endured, they are dust now.

I dedicated the novel to two wonderful women the world lost at an early age, and on the second line dedicated it to “Timberline and the other girls of the line: I hope the world was kind to you.”

And here was evidence that the world had not been kind to her.

The link went on to say that Timberline did not die from that suicide attempt, but strangely enough, another link had her recovering from an “intended overdose.” Is it apocryphal that she tried to kill herself with such vastly different methods and survived both times? Whatever the truth is, she must have been an unhappy young woman.

Several sources have her living in Creede, Colorado, a silver mining camp 420 miles from the Dodge City that her photograph is labeled with. Sure enough, the website for Creede, Colorado mentions Timberline on its “About Creede” page. Bat Masterson too (whose biography the commenter mentions) lived in both cities, so maybe she hitched a ride with him.

If anyone has any more information on her, I’d most definitely love to know it.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Pope in Angola

Probably this is old news to many, but I wanted to belatedly link to the BBC’s article “Pope Warns Angola of Witchcraft.”

In it, the Pope is quoted as saying,

“In today's Angola, Catholics should offer the message of Christ to the many who live in the fear of spirits, of evil powers by whom they feel threatened, disoriented, even reaching the point of condemning street children and even the most elderly because - they say - they are sorcerers."

It’s interesting to me that as witchcraft beliefs have spread through southern and central Africa “over the last few years,” as the article says, the phenomenon is echoed by an exponential increase in western novels about witchcraft in medieval Europe and colonial America. Something is drawing western novelists to explore the lives of people living in such abysmal conditions that they seek a scapegoat (a witch), at the same time that people across the world are still LIVING that reality.

In the last paragraph, the article notes the Pope’s shameful refusal to support condom use in combating HIV/AIDS, which is such a tragic epidemic and, I might note, a trigger for witchcraft persecutions. Just as medieval people blamed the plague on Jews poisoning the wells, some Africans blame the spread of AIDS on “witches.” The case of the young girl burned to death in Papua New Guinea a few months ago may have been a result of such an accusation.

Here is the BBC article in full.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Witch killing country

"I am driving deep into witch killing country," writes Johann Hari in an extraordinary Independent (U.K.) article.

Hari reports on Kenya and Tanzania's overt "witch" murders, with old women paying the price for living too long. I was especially struck with the story of women blamed for the death of a young child from diarrhea--that was one of the more serious accusations leveled against my ancestor in 1656, that she had killed her neighbor's newborn, while really flux (the old term for diarrhea) was the cause.

1656 was 353 years ago... is it not outrageous that these same tragic issues are still happening, with parents bewildered by the brutality of their child's unfortunate death, and casting their eyes about them for someone, anyone to blame?

"Witch killings are a daily event in Sukumaland," writes Hari. This is an agricultural area of Tanzania. A daily event.

Hari tackles one of the more touchy aspects of discussing modern witchcraft persecutions: the fact that it renders the western world patronizing and meddling and oblivious to the aboriginal culture:

Africa consists of hundreds of fissiparous cultures and no culture anywhere is homogeneous and unchanging. The culture of Massachusetts was to burn witches not so long ago – until some people there began to stand up and oppose the practice. In the same way, there are huge divisions within African societies.

To read the entire article, which is quite in-depth with much anecdotal evidence (and tackles genital mutilation as well as witchcraft), please visit here.

To help support those fighting against witchcraft, visit HelpAge.org, which is teaming with Comic Relief to help elder women in Sukumaland. The article also mentions Maparece, an organization working against female genital mutilation, but I couldn't find an online presence for it to create a clickable link.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Welcome, English readers!

Today the Witch's Trinity launches in England in its mass market paperback format. It's the same novel as the hardcover, but in the back there are now a few extras:

1. Five medieval woodcuts of witches and demons
2. A Q&A with me (also to be found on my website)
3. Book group discussion questions (ditto)
4. A brief list for further reading on witchcraft.

Since I believe strongly in authors helping each other, I will also post that list here:

The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow
Entertaining Satan (nonfiction) by John Putnam Demos
The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent
The Witch of Cologne by Tobsha Learner
Witch Craze (nonfiction) by Lyndal Roper

Meghan of Medieval Bookworm posted the first review of the new paperback here at her blog. Thanks, Meghan!

Today is also World Book Day in the U.K. and Ireland. Started by Unesco, over 100 countries participate, but most do it on April 23. [Why? Because the tradition started in Spain, and that is the date of Cervantes' death. It's also connected to St. George's Day of the same date, a celebration that since medieval times has entailed a man giving his love a rose, and her ---or him! As I type this, the Supreme Court is deliberating on Prop. 8---returning the favor with a book.]

In Ireland and U.K., children are given a special token that they can use to buy one of six specially-published books at a bookstore. What a neat idea... get kids into bookstores, and armed with a special coin to buy a book!

Sadly, I don't think this is a holiday that the U.S. participates in. I have never heard word one about it before, and I am a regular library and bookstore visitor. Maybe I'll write a letter to President Obama about it. After all, we share the same Random House imprint... he'll have to listen to me! ;)

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