Saturday, December 21, 2013

Looking ahead to next year's historical fiction reading challenge!

I'm really excited to participate in the 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, hosted by Historical Tapestry. I'm thinking I'll probably be somewhere between "medieval" and "ancient history" in my reading volume:

During the following 12 months you can choose one of the different reading levels: 

20th century reader - 2 books
Victorian reader - 5 books
Renaissance Reader - 10 books
Medieval - 15 books
Ancient History - 25 books

Prehistoric - 50+ books

Anyone else game?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sneak preview of Downton Abbey Season 4 at the Crest Theater

I'm supposed to be blogging in support of my virtual book tour for Woman of Ill Fame this week...but I can't help but pause and celebrate the new season of Downton Abbey. I was lucky enough to score tickets to the sneak preview showing on the big screen at the Crest Theater in downtown Sacramento tonight. I went with my great friend Diana, and we had a blast.

First, the theater. I have a fondness for old movie palaces! The Crest was built in 1913 as a 2,000-seat Vaudeville house. The theater's website does not mention the architect's name, but I'm betting on Timothy Phlueger, the designer of the Oakland Paramount--there were many design elements in common. It is a show-stopper of a building and I would've been happy just being there.

But there was also Downtown Abbey on offer.....

More on that in a second. I want to thank KVIE for arranging the free showing (yes, by God, it was free) and the Crest for hosting. It was just the most fun night I've had in a long time. There was a costume contest beforehand, and people had the most gorgeous Edwardian outfits on. I didn't mind the line in the women's restroom because there was so much eye candy with the lovely dresses.

The fellow who won the male contest was dressed as a WWI soldier and handily won the most claps/noise from the audience. I was also very impressed with the man in a top hat carrying a white life preserver: he was Patrick, the drowned heir from the Titanic. The woman who won was dressed as Mrs. Pattmore, and got many whoops. I have to admit, I was one of the whoopers. I love Mrs. Pattmore the best of all the characters on the show. I did, however, whoop harder for the woman dressed as Anna Bates, because I had waited outside to enter the theater just behind her and inveigled her to take a photo with me. I'm loyal. I also liked seeing a self-identified Pankhurst with her women's right to vote sash, a friend of Sybil's.

"Anna" and I in the queue outside the theater

Indeed I did leave all cares behind

KVIE showed some previews for upcoming shows which were really entertaining. And then....and then....Downton unfolded.

I have to hand it to Julian Fellowes yet again (I blogged my deep admiration here). In one hour--it was a sneak preview giving us the first half, not the entire enchilada--I was moved to tears several times, gave out great gasps, grinned in pure bliss. I even had to reach over and seize Diana at one point in sheer startlement ("You wicked, wicked half-breed," anyone?). He just is a talented storyteller, and I adore him. I adore Downton Abbey. I adore it all.

Thank you KVIE and the Crest! I can't wait until Jan. 5 when the new season commences on PBS.

. . . .

Monday, December 09, 2013

Virtual tour schedule

For the next two weeks, check out these reviews, interviews and giveaways each day at different book blogs. Thanks so much to Amy Bruno of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for being my tour guide.

Virtual Book Tour Schedule

Monday, December 9
Giveaway at Passages to the Past

Tuesday, December 10
Guest Post & Giveaway at HF Connection

Wednesday, December 11
Review at Flashlight Commentary

Thursday, December 12
Interview & Giveaway at Flashlight Commentary

Friday, December 13
Review at Historical Fiction Obsession

Monday, December 16
Review at A Book Geek
Review at Unabridged Chick

Tuesday, December 17
Review at Book of Secrets
Interview & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick

Wednesday, December 18
Review & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages

Thursday, December 19
Review at A Bookish Libraria

Friday, December 20
Review at CelticLady's Reviews
Review at Confessions of an Avid Reader

Saturday, December 07, 2013

E-tour begins Monday!

I'm going on tour---virtually!--for two weeks, starting on Monday. The cause? The launch of Woman of Ill Fame in e-book form. Forget paper, spines, book glue, prostitute Nora Simms gets to please the fellas in electronic form.

In celebration of the e-launch, we slightly adjusted the book jacket with a new quote...from...yes....yes....I can hardly believe it....Diana Gabaldon. If there is a kinder, more generous, more charming author than her, I'm in disbelief.

I met her at the Historical Novels Society conference this summer, where I read a brief passage from Woman of Ill Fame at the Sex Scenes Readings she hosts annually. She kindly agreed to read my book in the midst of trying to finish her own book, and in between shifting geographically, and in between sharing the constantly-updating news about her Outlander books becoming a Starz series...I frankly can't believe she extended such a favor to me. And then when the blurb came. Oh.My.Goddess! Thank you, Diana, and I owe you a million glasses of Glenfiddich when next we meet.

So on Monday, check with Passages of the Past, where Amy Bruno is hosting a giveaway of the ebook! (If you don't own an e-reader--I've asked for one for Xmas myself--you can always download the free previewer app and read away on whatever device you do have.)

If you prefer, click below to download immediately. Thanks!

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Giving Tuesday--help JLK, a six-year-old fighting a brain tumor

Wrote this on my hand to remind myself to hit the ATM and deposit my friend's check.
Then I cried every time I looked at it.

JLK, who lives in Gilroy, California, is on my mind constantly. She creeps from the back of my mind to the front, and I cry. Then other things enter in, and she subsides to the back again. But she's always there.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine named Kate responded to my blog post asking people to buy JLK lunch after her chemo treatment. She mailed me a check to pass along to JLK's family.

This woman who sent the check, we went to graduate school together. I knew her for only two years...and that was nearly 20 years ago. We've had no "live" contact since. We are Facebook friends now, but she rarely posts, and that's the extent of our relationship. So what possessed her to send a donation for JLK?


Knowing she can help pure strangers.


(By the way, Kate is not the only one who responded to my blog post or Facebook posts and sent a donation. There were many others, and I thank them heartily.)

I wrote before about wondering whether my grief helps in any way. It's like the tree falling unseen in the woods thing--does it make a sound if no one hears it? Is there a tally-keeper in the sky who can connect up all the tears--mine from Gold Country, Kate's from wherever she lives, everyone in Gilroy and Morgan Hill and around the world now reading JLK's mom's blog--if there are enough disparate events of grief and prayer, can the talley-keeper collect them into a meaningful whole? A helpful whole? Maybe God gets presented a pie chart and that data influences how things go.

Well, whether it helps or not, I can't stop "donating" my grief. The idea of a six-year-old in radiation therapy for cancer is just wrong. As her mom told us all on her blog, she whispers to JLK's unconscious ear just as she leaves her for her treatment: shrink, tumor, shrink.

This is Giving Tuesday. Please give to JLK's family. What do they need it for?
Money for their astronomical medical bills
Money so Tony, the dad, can take time off work and spend it with his daughter and her siblings
Money for a trip to Disneyland, possibly the last chance she will have to go

If you are reading this after Giving Tuesday ends, consider that you could ask people to give a contribution in your name for your Christmas, Hannukah, or Kwanzaa gift. It's so easy. Paypal'ing a donation takes mere seconds if you already have a PayPal account, and mere minutes if you need to set one up. Or you could send me a check and I'll forward it on.

Thanks for considering it.

. . . . . .

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Perfect Snowstorm, or, Why I'm Obsessed by the Donner Party

Unidentified books in Emigrant Trail Museum exhibit
To me, clearly Tamsen Donner's books

I’m fascinated  by the Donner Party. Believe it or not, my interest has very little to do with cannibalism. That’s of course the attention-getting, morbid fact that initially grabs you by the throat, but after that subsides, what you’re left with is a complex story whose narrative can be almost endlessly examined.

Sexism, racism, ageism, personal responsibility, survival tactics, starvation, greed, murder: all of these big topics fall under the Donner umbrella,  as well as the more mundane (but no less worthy of scrutiny) topic of group dynamics and how people get along—or don’t—during a multi-month road trip.

I was recently talking with historian Kristin Johnson about what fuels our interest in this long-ago community of emigrants. I told her I loved high adventure stories, like Shackleton and crew stuck on a ship in the frozen Weddell sea (well, until it was crushed by the ice and destroyed, whereupon they began living upon an ice floe), or the Everest teams beset by weather in 1996. Two words: Beck Weathers. The Donner Party faced incredible struggle, and roughly half of them survived.

But I realized later that that was only half my answer. When I thought about it more, I realized that a huge part of what appeals to me is the “perfect storm” (or in this case, perfect snowstorm) aspect. In Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm, the titular concept is that many small mishaps combine to form a huge tragedy. If only one of those would have gone differently, either the disaster could have been averted, or at least significantly abated.

I’ve always loved that child’s nursery rhyme about how a single nail (or lack thereof) brought a kingdom down.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Tiny actions have amazing and significant consequences. In the case of the Donner Party, any number of small adjustments (or large) could’ve meant none of us had ever heard of the Donners. The same is true for the sinking of the Titanic, another story I’ve been fascinated by since I was a young girl and read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember.

Let’s take a look at my rough list, off the top of my head, of the small events that gained potency in numbers, in a perfect storm scenario.

If only…
  • The binoculars had been in the lookout as they were supposed to be
  • Captain Smith paid better attention to the ice warnings instead of glancing at them and putting them in his uniform pocket
  • The Marconi operator of a far closer ship than the Carpathia hadn’t turned off his machine and gone to bed (he was not negligent in doing so, by the way, but it would have been nice for all involved if he’d pulled an all-nighter)
  • (relatedly) The Titanic had struck the same iceberg during daylight hours
  • The crew had performed their required boat drill on April 14 and were confident enough to fill the lifeboats to full capacity (there were still not enough seats, but the loss of life would have been diminished)
  • There were enough lifeboats for all passengers (again, not negligent: the Titanic was abiding by the absurd shipping rules of its era—one nice effect of the sinking was that it forever changed these archaic rules and ensured each passenger would have a seat on a lifeboat should the ship sink)
  • Some would add, if only J. Bruce Ismay wasn’t aboard and therefore urging Captain Smith to dangerous speeds on the ship’s maiden voyage
  • If only they had kept full engine speed to successfully turn the ship, rather than killing the engines
  • The iceberg had struck a different spot on the ship, so that each of the watertight compartments wasn’t breached
On and on, a slew of factors which all went wrong, but if any one of them had gone right, we might have a far less dramatic tale to tell about the Titanic.

And here’s the same listing for the Donner Party:

If only:
  • They didn't take the Hastings Cut-off, which ironically added weeks to their time
  • They didn't waste a week waiting for Hastings to come back and guide them through the Wasatch mountains
  • They had located the hidden cut-through that would have gotten them through the Wasatch just fine
  • Indians hadn't stolen and killed so many of their oxen and cattle (both slowing them and also deleting their food stores)
  • Hastings had correctly given the time required to cross the Salt Desert, rather than halving it; they might've better provisioned themselves before the attempt and not lost so much livestock
  • George Donner's wagon wheel hadn't broken
  • George Donner's hand hadn't been significantly injured by trying to repair the wheel (infection set in and ruined him...wish I could slip him some penicillin)
  • Snow had fallen just three or four days later; they were so close to crossing the mountains to safety
  • The emigrants had somehow fastened their cows so they weren't lost when literally buried by snow
  •  They had backtracked and wintered in a more forgiving landscape
  • Stanton had allowed the snowshoe company to continue forward instead of keeping a foolish promise to protect the mules over the emigrants (the mules died anyway, and so did Stanton...hindsight is so deliciously wretched, as well as 20/20)
Now, you'll notice I don't say:

  • If only they hadn't stopped for the funeral of Sarah Keyes and other stops others have subsequently objected to. As Kristin Johnson points out, cattle need to rest.
  •  If only they hadn't gotten such a late start. They caught up to other westbound trains and made up for their late start. If they hadn't taken the Hastings Cut-off, they would have been fine.
I have to admit, I love/agonize over the "coulda, shoulda, woulda" of the Donner Party's circumstances. I'm the kind of person who dissects my failures and falls prey to self-recriminations; the Donner Party narrative rewards such a personality. I'm sure that for the rest of their lives, the people who survived the trauma never ceased their sleepless nights, their burning feelings of "Why didn't I....?"

The women in particular must have suffered helpless self-excoriation, for they truly did not get a vote. It's always said of Tamsen Donner that she was sulky or grumpy about the choice--made by men of the party--to take the cut-off. She must have chastened herself that she wasn't more persuasive, that she couldn't gain George Donner's ear the way she would've wanted to.

To me, one of the most poignant exhibits at the Emigrant Trail Museum near Donner Lake shows several school books. Almost without a doubt, they must have been Tamsen's, as she planned to set up a west coast school. (The plaquing at the museum does not specifically identify the objects in that case, although I'm sure somewhere in their records the books' provenance is logged .) She was one of those women who bristled at the constraints her century forced upon her gender. The decision-making of the wagon trains did not permit women's voices to be heard. 

As she tended her husband, dying from a simple hand wound that traveled up his arm to kill him from an infection we'd swiftly derail with medication today, did she have to bite her tongue to not question him for the fatal choices he'd made--not only on his behalf, not only on grown women's behalf, but on the behalf of the dozens of small children that composed the Donner Party?

And that's what wrenches me most about the Donner Party story. There were kids involved. Newborn babies who died because their mother's milk dried up. Toddlers who starved to death. Young kids who tried valiantly and just couldn't make it.

There's a great morbid interest around the Donner Party, especially for those who read the harrowing accounts of body parts and organs left stranded around the camp. But those bodies weren't strewn because of a ghoulish lack of concern. It was because the residents of the camps were so close to death themselves. They were weak--it's hard to carry or drag bodies even when you are in full health. They needed to leave the bodies close by enough to cut tissue from them to eat. In Keseberg's cabin, it's said the bodies were left where they died. A horrible fact to contemplate, as the living continued their fragile existences mere inches away--but the cabin was so buried in snow (above its roof) that the unhappy inhabitants had had to carve snow steps up out of the snow. How on earth do you pull a corpse up those steps when you yourself have eaten nothing, or simply trace amounts of, say, buffalo hides, for days?

Prisoners liberated from Mauthausen concentration camp, 1945

When I think the people at the camps, I picture people from another kind of camp. I think of the photographs of starved, gaunt Jews from the concentration camps. The hollow cheeks, the sudden architecture of the forehead, the eyes so stark and large...that's what I believe the Donner Party victims looked like too. In fact, it is said that when the snowshoe party wandered into a Native American village, the inhabitants there were terrified and thought the Donner Party people were ghosts. 

I feel pity for the Donners and the other families stranded in the Sierra that terrible winter of 1846. They perhaps didn't make the most savvy decisions--but they were pioneers in every sense of the word, doing something very few had done before. And let's be honest: the snows of the Sierra are so much more heavy/deep than anything these midwesterners had ever seen before. They knew snow; they just didn't know snow. They thought they were doing fine. 

And they would've been fine, if only one of the myriad things that went wrong had instead....gone right.

. . . .

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The delights of Soho, then and now: C.C. Humphreys guest blogs today

Today I'm delighted to host C.C. Humphreys on my blog, a wonderful writer of the Jack Absolute series. His latest is out, The Blooding of Jack Absolute. Is that not an incredible book jacket? Publisher's Weekly describes Jack Absolute as "an 18th-century 007 lifted from Richard Sheridan's play The Rivals." And if that doesn't interest you, then I don't want what can be done for you.

Today Humphreys tells us about his favorite (although he'll add that British "U"--I love it) neighborhood (wait--"neighbourhood") of London. I'll let him take it from here.

The first half of ‘The Blooding of Jack Absolute’ is, at least in part, my love letter to the area in London I love best: Soho.

            When I left school at 18, I decided to take a year off before I went to drama school. My parents had just moved to Spain, so I needed to work to live. After a brief, underpaid spell with a bank, I decided I needed to earn much more money, so I became a motorcycle messenger, that mad breed whizzing around the metropolis delivering papers to businesses. It was dangerous work – taxi drivers seemed determined to kill us! But if you worked hard you could earn a lot of cash. That also depended on getting to know London really well, all the short cuts, all the illegal cut throughs – you were paid per delivery.

            The company was based in Soho, just off Soho Square. Since this was the '70s, the area still retained its sense of sin, with striptease bars and invitations to visit ‘Buxom Model: First Floor,’ on cards in many a doorway. There was still a famous brothel in Meard Street and, on quiet days, the working girls would delight in leaning out of the windows and making this naïve youth blush beetroot!

            It was also – still is – a very 18th century part of the world for that was when it was really developed. The houses are mainly those classic, narrow, three storey affairs. So it was natural for me to set a lot of my new novel in the streets I loved. I got hold of John Roque’s map from 1746 and enjoyed what was the same, what had changed. The area where Brewer Street meets Wardour Street has lost its name since then – it was called ‘Knaves Acre,’ a title I had to use. There’s also Thrift Street that, after some time of Cockney pronunciations – they cannot say ‘th’ making it ‘f’ has become what it is now: ‘Frith Street.’ And in the little alley that runs between Dean Street and Wardour Street, where I used to go and get a bacon sandwich between rides, there’s little dog-leg halfway along it – that’s where Jack visits the occasional prostitute, Matilda.

            Ah Soho! I still love going back now. I am a member of a club, Blacks, in Dean Street, in a house where Samuel Johnson had a dining club. It's cleaner now, less sinful But I still blush when I remember some of the things those working girls said to me, when I was near as young as Jack Absolute!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I'm touring...virtually!

I have just released an ebook version of Woman of Ill Fame (traditionally published by Heyday Books in 2007)...for the first time, Nora gets to please the fellas in electronic form!

I'll be touring in early December with the wonderful Amy Bruno of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. She's promised to be a wonderful media escort and separate the M&M chaff from the wheat (ie., only green M&Ms!!! Or I'm gonna trash the green room, no pun intended!)

I'm looking forward to giving Nora Simms a second launch. She really is a delightful Gold Rush woman of ill fame, and she deserves a chance to wiggle her way into your Nook or Kindle.

Here's the link to the tour.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Buy lunch for JLK

JLK being silly
We give money to strangers throughout our lives. You may have just sent money to the Phillipines via the Red Cross. We gave money after Katrina, after Sandy, after's a noble thing to send a donation to people you don't even know.

Today I'd like to persuade you to take a stranger to lunch.

JLK is Jennifer, a six year old girl in Gilroy, California. She had her sixth birthday very recently. On her birthday, she was given a diagnosis that may not permit her to be a seven year old. She has DIPG, a particular kind of tumor that attaches to her brain stem. Because many important functions--like breathing--are controlled in that area, doctors can't just go in and excise the tumor. There's no surgery for this tumor. There's no cure for this tumor. The symptoms that brought her to be examined were simply vision problems and headaches. Very minor symptoms that led to a devastating diagnosis.

What will happen, and is currently happening now, is that Jennifer gets radiation therapy for six weeks to shrink the tumor and buy her some time. After she recovers from the therapy, she will have a period of feeling good and being back to "normal." But statistically, after six to nine months, she will start to feel bad again...and that's supposed to be it. As in, that's all there is.

Her family has been connected to the Make A Wish foundation, and Jennifer's wish will be expedited.

Her family has to process all this, and quickly, and figure out how to make the most of what time they have. Jennifer has a mom and dad, Libby and Tony, and three younger siblings.She is cute as a button, and although we moved from Gilroy several years ago, I remember her vividly.

Libby has been journaling about Jennifer at, and reading through her posts is like reading a holy tome. There is a stark elegance and chaos to these bewildered words. Throughout history, women have agonized at the circumstances that rob them of their children. I feel like I am turning pages of heavy parchment, as I enter Libby's world and read about her attempts to face the worst thing that can happen to a mother. She is a beautiful and talented writer, and although I know she couldn't care less at this point, she probably has a book in her.

As I read through her posts with sobs wracking my body, I wonder, does my grief help at all? In those remote and cold heavens, does anyone pause to listen, scraping back their chair to listen to the lamentations below? I know many people believe fervently in prayer, and I will pray too. I have. I have tried to make strange bargains with God for Jennifer. I hope that my small scratchings, like a mouse behind the wall, have helped in some way. Because otherwise I feel helpless.

But actually there is one thing I can do. I can use this blog to get the word out, and to hopefully encourage people to help this family financially. What can money do? It can let Tony take time off from work to enjoy his can pay for the expensive can send them to Disneyland. If Jennifer gets into an experimental trial it can pay for that.

Here's my request. That you, reading this, send $15 to the family. You will buy them lunch. After each treatment, I learned from Libby's journal, Jennifer, she and the family member or friend who held newborn Charlotte (can you imagine this? Libby is going through all this with a babe-in-arms) go to the hospital cafeteria and have lunch.

Let's picture the lunch you will treat them to. Jennifer has a gluten-free selection, because on top of everything else, she has Celiac disease. Let's give Libby a roast beef sandwich so she can dig her teeth into this meat and borrow some savage animal spirit to fight this fight. The friend who held Charlotte can have a crisp, cold, chef's salad. Eating lunch out everyday adds up; it's expensive. Although you won't be there in the cafeteria at the cash register, opening up your wallet, you can still take these sweet people to lunch.

How do you do it? Visit and click on "Help our Family." You can paypal money or use the gofundme link. And then....go fiercely hug the ones you love.

. . . . . .

Monday, November 11, 2013


It's been a whirlwind the last few days--a trip out of town to see my best friend who I haven't seen in several years, trying to catch up on some pretty hefty freelance deadlines, cleaning our house and getting rid of stuff in preparation for a move, grading a backlog of student essays...oh, and talking to a wonderful editor in New York!

I'm delighted to announce that a young adult novel of mine has been picked up by Michaela Hamilton of Kensington in a three-book deal. The series is about a young American teen and her family who must go live in the ancestral mansion in England, only to learn that it's not....quite...uninhabited. It's Gothic fun and the series is tentatively titled The Arnaud Legacy. We have to come up with a new title for the first book. We also have to come up with a new title for me; this book will go under a pen name to separate my adult fiction from my young adult fiction.

Michaela's wonderful, and I'm so happy my tormented teen has found a home at Kensington.

More later... the book was based on a nightmare I once had.....

. . . . .

Monday, November 04, 2013

Interview on Illuminations by Mary Sharratt

I’m so happy to host Mary Sharratt today. She and I are both witchcraft authors; her novel The Witching Hill focused on the Pendle (England) witches of 1612. Because of our witchy connection, we presented together at the Historical Novels Society and have developed a warm camaraderie. Besides being a well-spoken advocate for witches, Mary’s a fantastic writer (I also loved her earlier novel The Vanishing Point, set in Colonial America).

Her latest book Illuminations focuses on perhaps the best-known anchoress of all time, Hildegard of Bingen. Anchoress, you say? So…she was a sailor in charge of the anchor?

No, an anchoress was someone who chose to remove herself from society for religious reasons and often was permanently enclosed in a cell attached to a church. She bricked herself in to meditate, pray, and offer counsel through a window to the outside world. Says Wikipedia,

In the Germanic lands from at least the tenth century it was customary for the bishop to say the office of the dead as the anchorite entered her cell, to signify the anchorite's death to the world and rebirth to a spiritual life of solitary communion with God and the angels.”

An anchorite is a male anchoress (so Wikipedia messed up! Surprise.)

Hildegard of Bingen (Germany) lived a rich life despite her confined adulthood. Let’s learn more from Mary…

Who was Hildegard of Bingen? 

Born in the Rhineland in present-day Germany, Hildegard (1098–1179) was a visionary abbess and polymath. She composed an entire corpus of sacred music and wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, cosmology, botany, medicine, linguistics, and human sexuality, a prodigious intellectual outpouring that was unprecedented for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine. An outspoken critic of political and ecclesiastical corruption, she courted controversy. Late in her life, she and her nuns were the subject of an interdict (a collective excommunication) that was lifted only a few months before her death. Hildegard nearly died an outcast. 

In October 2012, over eight centuries after her death, the Vatican finally canonized her and elevated her to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for the most distinguished theologians. Presently there are only 33 Doctors of the Church, and only three are women (Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, and Thérèse of Lisieux).

What inspired you to write a novel about this 12th-century powerfrau?

For 12 years, I lived in Germany where Hildegard has long been enshrined as a cultural icon, admired by both secular and spiritual people. In her homeland, Hildegard’s cult as a “popular” saint long predates her official canonization. 

I was particularly struck by the pathos of her story. The youngest of 10 children, Hildegard was offered to the Church at the age of eight. She reported having luminous visions since earliest childhood, so perhaps her parents didn’t know what else to do with her. 

Mary Sharratt

According to Guibert of Gembloux’s Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, she was bricked into an anchorage with her mentor, the 14-year-old Jutta von Sponheim, and possibly one other young girl. Guibert describes the anchorage in the bleakest terms, using words like “mausoleum” and “prison,” and writes how these girls died to the world to be buried with Christ. As an adult, Hildegard strongly condemned the practice of offering child oblates to monastic life, but as a child she had absolutely no say in the matter. The anchorage was situated in Disibodenberg, a community of monks. What must it have been like to be among a tiny minority of young girls surrounded by adult men?

Disibodenberg Monastery is now in ruins and it’s impossible to say precisely where the anchorage was, but the suggested location is two suffocatingly narrow rooms built on to the back of the church.
Hildegard spent 30 years interred in her prison, her release only coming with Jutta’s death. What amazed me was how she was able to liberate herself and her sisters from such appalling conditions. At the age of 42, she underwent a dramatic transformation, from a life of silence and submission to answering the divine call to speak and write about her visions she had kept secret all those years.

In the 12th century, it was a radical thing for a nun to set quill to paper and write about weighty theological matters. Her abbot panicked and had her examined for heresy. Yet, miraculously, this “poor weak figure of a woman,” as Hildegard called herself, triumphed against all odds to become one of the greatest voices of her age.   

What special challenges did you face in writing about such a complex woman?

Hildegard’s life was so long and eventful, so filled with drama and conflict, tragedy and ecstasy, that it proved mightily difficult to squeeze the essence of her story into a manageable novel. My original draft was 40,000 words longer than the current book. I also found it quite intimidating to write about such a religious woman. In the end, I found I had to let Hildegard breathe and reveal herself as human.

If Hildegard has long been venerated as a “popular” saint in Germany, why did it take the Vatican so long to canonize her? Why Hildegard and why now?

The first attempt to canonize Hildegard began in 1233, but failed as over 50 years had passed since her death and most of the witnesses and beneficiaries of her reported miracles were deceased. Her theological writings were deemed too dense and difficult for subsequent generations to understand and soon fell into obscurity, as did her music. According to Barbara Newman, Hildegard was remembered mainly as an apocalyptic prophet. But in the age of Enlightenment, prophets and mystics went out of fashion. Hildegard was dismissed as a hysteric and even the authorship of her own work was disputed. Pundits began to suggest her books were written by a man.

Newman states that Hildegard’s contemporary rehabilitation and resurgence were due mainly to the tireless efforts of the nuns at Saint Hildegard Abbey. In 1956, Marianna Schrader and Adelgundis Führkötter, OSB, published a carefully-documented study that proved the authenticity of Hildegard’s authorship. Their research provides the foundation of all subsequent Hildegard scholarship.

In the 1980s, in the wake of a wider women’s spirituality movement, Hildegard’s star rose as seekers from diverse faith backgrounds embraced her as a foremother and role model. The artist Judy Chicago showcased Hildegard at her iconic feminist Dinner Party installation. Medievalists and theologians rediscovered Hildegard’s writings. New recordings of her sacred music hit the popular charts. The radical Dominican monk Matthew Fox adopted Hildegard as the figurehead of his creation-centered spirituality. Fox’s book Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen remains one of the most accessible and popular books on the 12th-century visionary. In 2009, German director Margarethe von Trotta made Hildegard the subject of her luminous film, Vision. And all the while, the sisters at Saint Hildegard Abbey were exerting their quiet pressure on Rome to get Hildegard the official endorsement they believed she deserved.

Pope John Paul II, who had canonized more saints than any previous pontiff, steadfastly ignored Hildegard’s burgeoning cult, possibly because he was repelled by her status as a feminist icon. Ironically, it is his successor, Benedict XVI, one of the most conservative popes in recent history—who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, defrocked Matthew Fox—finally gave Hildegard her due. Reportedly, Joseph Ratzinger, a German, had long admired Hildegard.

What relevance does Hildegard have for us today?

I think that Hildegard’s legacy remains hugely important for contemporary women. While writing this book, I kept coming up against the injustice of how women, who are often more devout than men, are condemned to stand at the margins of established religion, even in the 21st century. Women priests and bishops still cause controversy in the Episcopalian Church while Pope John Paul II called a moratorium even on the discussion of women priests.

Modern women have the choice to wash their hands of organized religion altogether. But Hildegard didn’t even get to choose whether to enter monastic life—she was thrust into an anchorage at the age of eight. The Church of her day could not have been more patriarchal and repressive to women. Yet her visions moved her to create a faith that was immanent and life-affirming, that can inspire us today.

The cornerstone of Hildegard’s spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating lifeforce manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone was God, though not the whole of God. Creation revealed the face of the invisible creator. 

Hildegard’s re-visioning of religion celebrated women and nature and even perceived God as feminine, as Mother. Her vision of the universe was an egg in the womb of God.

Hildegard shows how visionary women might transform the most male-dominated faith traditions from within.

What’s next? Do you have a new novel in progress?

I’m working on a new novel, The Dark Lady’s Masque, which explores the life of Aemilia Bassano Lanier (1569–1645), reportedly the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The highly-cultured daughter of an Italian court musician, she was also an accomplished poet and the first English woman to publish a collection of poetry under her own name. 

Mary, thanks so much. I wish the best success for your novel and for the world to get to know Hildegard, who was so deeply extraordinary.


To view a book trailer for Illuminations, click here.

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Saturday, November 02, 2013

Shelters of the Donner Party

Members of the Donner Party were not all housed together. Far from it. The literal Donners--George and his family, and Jacob and his family, and their teamsters and a few others--fell behind the others and were forced to create makeshift shelters as snow literally piled up on them. They built those shelters at Alder Creek. George and his family built their shelter against a tree. The images show the tree that was long believed (but since disproved) to be that tree, and a drawing of how it could've worked. Jacob and his family built a separate shelter.

The tree? Probably not.

Building against the tree trunk
Gratuitous selfie in Alder Creek parking lot

A full seven miles away, on the shores of what is now Donner Lake, three other shelters served the non-Donner members. One was a fairly decent log cabin used by Moses Schallenberger two winters before (like the Donners, he wintered at the lake, and his memoirs make good reading). Patrick Breen and his family were presumably the first to arrive at the lake, and first come-first served. On the site of the Breen cabin now stands the Pioneer Monument, a fairly ghastly depiction of man, woman and child groping their way to California.

Pioneer Monument
Famously, the base of the statue is 22 feet, the snowfall the winter of 1846. Lots of people dispute that number, saying it was the accrued snowfall that melted and refell--that at no time would 22 feet of snow stand. But check out this factoid from Truckee's wikipedia entry: "The maximum 24-hour snowfall was 34.0 inches (86.4 cm) on February 17, 1990." Unfortunately, there were no meterologists monitoring things at Donner Lake that year, but we have reports of unrelenting snowfall from Breen's extant diary.

Here's a close-up of the plaque on the monument. I cannot believe it mentions virility, since it was the men who made the disastrous decision to take the fatal Hasting's Cut-off, while poor Tamsen Donner clearly advocated staying on the proven trail. A fellow traveller's journal reports her sour disposition as the men overruled her.

Here's a drawing of the Schallenberg cabin as it might've appeared when the emigrants first arrived, before it dawned on them that they weren't going over that mountain range anytime soon...

And the same cabin now covered in snow, only its two chimneys visible. Sobering sight.

The Breen cabin, windowless, with no true roof and covered by buffalo hides, was the best of the shelters. The Murphy family built their shelter against the side of an enormous rock.

Murphy cabin site with docent

Here's a drawing of how the rock/cabin combo might've worked.

Yet a third structure was built, for the Graves and Reed families. Here's what's so extraordinary. Of course the Donners were far away at Alder Creek; George had become injured fixing his wagon, so they had to stop and reassess. But the families that made it to the lake--why did they build their structures so far apart? After all, there is safety in numbers, especially for people that had seen firsthand how Native Americans could endanger them (major historical irony). Historian Kristin Johnson thinks they were just so exhausted by dealing with each other--after the worst.roadtrip.ever.--that they chose to set their cabins far apart, even if meant terrible slogs through 22-foot snow to reach each other with news or to ask for food.

Standing at the Pioneer Monument (i.e, the Breen family cabin), you can barely see in the distance the tall Shell gas station sign (a yellow blob atop a pole in the center of this photo: look just to the right of the green road signs) which marks the approximate spot of the Graves-Reed site. In the opposite direction, walking from the Breen site to the Murphy site is a good, brisk walk in decent weather, and would be quite an undertaking in snow.

The layout:
 Murphy rock ---> Breen (pioneer monument) -------> Graves-Reed

Walking from the Murphys to the Graves? You'd need a car.

At Breen site, looking towards Graves-Reed

Tired of the Donners yet? There's more to come.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween posting on witches

I'm featured at Stephanie Renee dos Santos's blog today, part of a three-part series where three witchcraft authors weigh in on the connection between Halloween and witches. (The other authors are: yesterday, Suzy Witten, and tomorrow, Mary Sharratt.)

Click on over to read! The link is here.

The image:

Credit: Brian Levack: The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe (Longman 1987)
A demon encourages witches –including men—to trample the cross, depicted in the 1610 book Compendium Maleficarum, by an Italian monk.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The movie Donner Pass

A few nights ago, I watched "Donner Pass," since it streams for free on Netflix. I want my hour and a half back. Besides being a hardly-scary horror movie (they filmed some stuff in broad daylight, which was so corny it was least give us some darkness to lend an air of fright. I guess it's harder to figure out lighting in night scenes and this was a low-budget film.)

But instead of taking pot shots at its quality (two words: fish and barrel), I'd like to focus attention on something far more deplorable. In the opening scene of the movie, George Donner shoots three other men and sinks to his knees to ferociously rip out their innards and eat them.Worse, modern-day characters later say that he lured the party to the mountains to eat them.

Really? George Donner? That poor elderly man whose world came to a halt after his hand got cut? Antibiotics would save his life today, but in 1846 he and his family had to hunker down in the snow at Alder Creek, seven miles from the rest of the people trapped at Donner Lake, while the infection traveled from his palm to his shoulder and killed him. He made a lot of mistakes, but undergoing endless months of strength-stripping travel simply to feast on flesh at the end does not make a lot of sense.

The Donner Party people were victims. They did not kill each other to eat (oh wait, yeah, it's believed a small subgroup of the party, far from the camps and trying to make it out through the pass, did intentionally murder Luis and Salvador. And those were two men who had come in relief parties to try to help them. Horrible! But the people trapped in the camps only ate flesh of corpses, and that with great reluctance.)

They were victims. They were starving to death, trapped in snow so high that they could barely walk. Try to hunt in that. Try to cut down a tree for firewood in that (it sinks down through the snow and you have to dig to retrieve it). Try to locate your lost cattle in that so you can eat their frozen carcasses--you won't be able to find them although you'll endlessly try with a nail stuck to a pole, sinking it into the snow and hoping to feel the pole stick on something.

A movie like this is kind of like a movie about the Titanic disaster in which the people deliberately try to drown each other with demented glee.

This movie made me outraged on behalf of the Donners. Had I lived through such suffering, I would be bitter that the circumstances of my months of terror were now fodder for a cheap horror movie.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Halloween op/ed

Witches burn town in 1610 Compendium Maleficarum

I've posted this before, but as Halloween is approaching, I'd like to take a break from the Donner Party and switch gears to witchcraft. Here is a link to my op/ed on our modern take on witches at Halloween time. It appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 2008 and several other newspapers nationally.

Ding, Dong, The Witch Isn't Dead

Last October, my neighbor stretched synthetic cobwebs among the branches of her tree. Against this creepy backdrop, she hung a broomstick and a badly made female figure, clearly a witch. The sight made me wince.
How did we evolve to find this display lightly amusing? Our forebears did hang women from trees. I imagine the devastation a time-traveler might feel as she realizes people crudely pantomime the appalling circumstances of her death each Halloween.

I may take this more personally than some. Townspeople accused my ancestor, Mary Bliss Parsons, of witchcraft in Massachusetts, three decades before the Salem hysteria. The court acquitted her, but neighbors pointed the finger at her again, 18 years later. I imagine she never relaxed in the interim. When the woman in the next cottage averts her eyes because she believes you know the devil, you can't exactly run over to borrow a cup of sugar.

Surprisingly, the courts freed her a second time. Our stereotype of witchcraft times presumes that once someone is accused, they are sure to hang (or burn, if in continental Europe -- England and New England were the only places that did not burn their witches). But magistrates acted fairly reasonably, releasing more than a quarter of the accused in 17th Century New England, according to author John Putnam Demos. Due to luck or power, my ancestor walked past the tree that might have hanged her.


Scholars argue about how many executions occurred during Europe's 400-year holocaust (consider that the United States has not been a country for that long). In "The Da Vinci Code," author Dan Brown caused great controversy when he put the number at 5 million, describing it as a relentless effort by the Roman Catholic Church to subjugate women. Far fewer died, but this was at a time when minuscule Europe was repopulating from cyclical scourges of the Black Death. We do know that two German towns slaughtered their women until only one per town remained.

How much time must elapse before these tortures ripen enough to be entertaining? Several summers ago at a carnival, I watched kids gleefully glide down an inflatable slide in the shape of the Titanic ... isn't that funny, kids? Ooh, they struggled to swim in water so cold it produced icebergs! In his novel "The Last Witchfinder," James Morrow mocks Salem's annual Haunted Happenings. This monthlong "festival" capitalizes on the famous witch trials where 19 people hanged, one suffocated by rocks piled on his chest and five perished in prison. Currently, the Haunted Happenings Web site promises "a month of fun for the entire family."

Today, parts of Africa still persecute witches, with attempted lynchings in Congo as recently as April 2008.

Last month, police fired shots into the air at a soccer game in eastern Congo, attempting to break up a melee of rioters who believed one of the players was a witch: 15 fans died from trampling. The latest trend is penis theft, where witches either steal outright, or render smaller, a male's member. Deja vu. The Malleus Maleficarum, the famous witch-hunting bible from 1400s Germany, spends an inordinate amount of print on this issue, concluding that the best remedy is to ask the witch to restore the phallus. And then, of course, burn her.

In the western world, we stuggle to imagine thinking someone could work evil spells or creep out at night to meet Satan. Harder still to imagine testifying about that spell-casting, knowing the result could be death. Instead of a stuffed, painted pillowcase, my neighbor down the block could've wanted me in her tree swinging.

So while spirits run high at Halloween -- actually one of my favorite holidays -- please consider those who were not of green tint, with wart-ridden noses, cackling maniacally while riding a broomstick straight into a tree (another "funny" decoration where the witch breaks her skull in an accident that would not be survivable if real) ... but who suffered incredibly for the same word: witch.

*Note: these dates are from October 2008. There have been many more recent occurrences of witchcraft persecutions and executions since then (including in February 2013, when a woman in Papua New Guinea was burned alive in front of hundreds who watched and jeered. If you are interested, please see the Labels archive on the righthand side; if you click on "Modern Day Witchcraft Persecutions" you will see posts where I covered media reports as they happened.

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Monday, October 14, 2013

The Patty Reed Doll

My registration with the annual Donner Party Hike permitted me free entrance to the Emigrant Trail Museum. I think this was my third visit. Each time, I watch their half-hour video in the theater and each time I regret it. Why don't I learn?!

Seriously, although small, this is a fascinating collection. And there are dioramas, which I can never get enough of. History + Dollhouses = Diorama. Please don't get me started on the gigantic, ever-circling diorama at the O.K. Corral, narrated by Vincent Price. I hope it's still there.

Anyway, the museum displays a doll that apparently once claimed to be (well, the doll herself didn't claim; her humans did) the original one hidden by Patty Reed when her parents demanded they leave everything behind when they had to abandon the wagon(s).*

Let's back up. A few weeks prior, I visited Sutter's Fort. The true Patty Reed doll is on display there. I asked a docent if it was really was, because I knew there had been some controversy over the two museums' displaying of the doll. He rolled his eyes and diplomatically reported that there had been much trouble over the doll. Patty Reed left it to Sutter's Fort upon her death, in thanks for the free and generous care given to the emigrants when they finally made their way down to Sacramento--not to mention the fact that Sutter organized and funded the rescue parties--but apparently the museum at Donner Lake had it for a while and wanted to keep it. It's also traveled to Washington, D.C., to be exhibited at the Smithsonian.

This is from Gabrielle Burton's fine memoir, Searching for Tamsen Donner:

"A sign said that the original doll was on display at Sutter's Fort, but the ranger told me privately that over the years and the swapping back and forth, the original and the replica had gotten mixed up; no one knew anymore which museum had the original. I was appalled that even the experts didn't know, even more appalled when I got to Sutter's Fort and saw a shiny wooden copy of the doll that no one could possibly mix up with the weathered doll at Donner Pass. The ranger, training for his summer job, was passing on a good story, but not a true one."

I don't know much about object sharing between museums, but I believe a paper trail must accompany any shipment of an artifact. I don't buy the ranger's story that they got confused over the years--he makes it sound like they threw the doll in a cardboard box and sent it over the pass in a pickup truck. Also, possibly the two dolls have been switched since 2009 when Burton's book published, but I'd wager the Emigrant Trail Museum doll is the shiny one with overly-bright cheeks, and with a dress that looks like someone rubbed some dirt on it to make it look vintage. Who knows? I don't have an expert's eye and I believe that's why I was never asked back to be an evaluator on Antiques Roadshow. ;)

Judge for yourself. Below is the Emigrant Museum's doll in her fabricated snow habitat, and below that is the Sutter's Fort doll (supposedly the original).


I wish I had been able to obtain better images--you can google around and find excellent professional photographs. One last thought: the Sutter's Fort doll is certainly treated like she's the real deal. She's in an enclosed, temperature-controlled exhibit case (see below). The doll itself is surprisingly small, perhaps 3-4 inches.

*It's maybe just me, but I'm sure the parents knew. How can you not play with a doll you have when you're snowbound for four months, and how can your parents not notice? Perhaps they smiled privately and enjoyed letting her think she had gotten away with it. After all, in Ethan Rarick's book he closes with the lovely anecdote that after the rescue, Patty sat by the fire enacting the voices of the rescuers, using her doll. That shows that she played with the doll by voicing it--something she surely hadn't been able to suppress during the long entrapment. She was only eight, after all.

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