Sunday, January 26, 2014

Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb

The last time I saw Napoleon, he was hanging out in a circular tomb with a viewing deck above. My French teacher told me it was his plan that for time immemorial, anyone who visited his grave would be obliged to bow their head to him. Imagine what it would be like to be married to such a guy?

That's the task Heather Webb takes on in her debut historical novel Becoming Josephine.

She's gotten great reviews already (it came out New Year's Eve--an auspicious date for starting a new writing life, and it has already paid off. Heather just got a second book deal for a novel about Camille Claudel, Rodin's lover!) and has been enjoying a great launch for her wonderful book.

Here's the tantalizing description of Becoming Josephine:

Rose Tascher sails from her Martinique plantation to Paris to 
trade her Creole black magic culture for love and adventure. 
She arrives exultant to follow her dreams of attending Court 
with Alexandre, her elegant aristocrat and soldier husband. 
But Alexandre dashes her hopes and abandons her amid the 
tumult of the French Revolution.

Through her savoir faire, Rose secures her footing in high 
society, reveling in handsome men and glitzy balls—until 
the heads of her friends begin to roll.

After narrowly escaping death in the blood-drenched cells 
of Les Carmes prison, she reinvents herself as Josephine, 
a socialite of status and power. Yet her youth is 
fading, and Josephine must choose between a precarious 
independence and the love of an awkward suitor. Little 
does she know, he would become the most powerful man of 
his century- Napoleon Bonaparte.

BECOMING JOSEPHINE is a novel of one woman’s journey to 
find eternal love and stability, and ultimately to 
find herself.

Heather Webb

I've been enjoying the book very much. I think one strength so far has been its unflinching look at the truly violent world of the French Revolution. It was not called the Terror for nothing--and Webb really shows us Paris upended and dangerous. A scene where Josephine watches a nun running for her life (the revolutionaries despised Catholicism and ordered a death-on-sight law for priests in 1793) was memorable and harrowing.

I also appreciated learning that Josephine was not a Parisienne by birth--she was a Creole born in Martinique. Scenes from her childhood on that tropical island fortify her character as a woman who endures much suffering to land on top...temporarily.

Josephine's life was rich, colorful, tragic--and although I haven't finished the book yet, I can see Webb has perfectly told her tale. Heartily recommended!

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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Underwater Mormon Island dwellings now visible

Remaining stone wall of a structure, with Folsom Lake in background
Here in Gold Country (heart of the Gold Rush), there was an 1848 settlement named Mormon Island for its Mormon immigrant settlers who had found gold there. At one point, the population was 2,500, but by 1856 it was all a dream, ruined by fire--and then by water. Fifty years ago, the community was sunk underwater by the creation of the Folsom Dam.

Right now, we're experiencing a drought in California. It's so severe that these dwellings have been again exposed to the air, for the first time in half a century. It's shocking, really: in the past we've gone several times to Browns Ravine to walk around and swim. Where we swam mere months ago, it is now completely dust-dry.

A tree stump that was previously underwater

A collection of elixir bottles and other artifacts left by others on a stump

Metal remains: including a square-tipped nail

The re-emergence of Mormon Island has made international news (thank you, Oakland History Room historian Kathleen DiGiovanni for bringing this backyard news to my attention!). So, as any history buff would do, I set out with my family to see the ruins.

We were surprised how very many people were out to see Mormon Island. My husband estimate there were a thousand people walking the trails from the parking lot to the walls and foundations of the town's saloon, dairy and other buildings. Of course, as was typical for the Gold Rush, many of the original "buildings" were tents which would not have survived. Here's a great, colorful anecdote I found from Theodore Henry Hittell's History of California, Vol. III (an 1898 volume digitized online):

In October 1849 at Mormon Island an altercation took in a tent used as a liquor saloon between an unruly customer and the bar keeper. The former insisted upon getting over the counter while the latter threatened to shoot unless he desisted. At this the former became very abusive and advanced with demonstrations of violence when the latter fired his pistol and shot his adversary down. A crowd soon collected which took the barkeeper into custody and in the evening a judge and twelve jurymen were appointed to investigate the facts and administer justice. On the trial it appeared that the man shot had been intoxicated and very abusive and at the moment of being shot was in the act of climbing over the counter to attack the barkeeper but it also appeared that the shot which was through the shoulder, though painful, was not likely to be fatal.

Interestingly, the courthouse was also lodged in a tent.

Browns Ravine: cars parked where previously there was a lake

On the path to see the ruins

Wall remnants show where a row of buildings once was

We very much enjoyed seeing the stone walls and cellar holes. As this is a state park and no one is allowed to take artifacts from it, people had thoughtfully placed collections of items on tree stumps and rocks to be perused by other visitors.

Looks like this was the remains of a bridge over the river

Crumbled walls in foreground and background

Sorry, building!

If you're local, go to Brown's Ravine in El Dorado Hills (purchase a state park pass and parking is free for a year at any of these wonderful parks: otherwise, $10) and drive all the way to the very end--basically until you can see the water in a semicircle around you. Many people park halfway down and then have a very long walk to the ruins. After you park, head left and you'll see the ruins after ten minutes or so. There are muddy areas, but you can also ford them by being strategic and using stepping stones to get across.

I was delighted to see so many people out, interested in history. For the first time ever, there was a long line of cars driving into the park and a feeling of celebratory interest in the area's past. My husband said it looked like people on pilgrimage. The local historical society should put a table out and sign people up! Well, I'll do it here online. That would be the Clarksville Historical Society: Clarksville was the original name for El Dorado Hills.

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