Monday, December 14, 2015

The Downton Abbey un-pre-view

"Drinks before dinner? Wait 'til Carson catches you," says Lady Mary

This year, a babysitting snafu led to my not being able to attend the Downton Abbey sneak preview night at the beautiful Crest Theater in downtown Sacramento. I had the tickets in hand! Sadness...woe...I felt much like Sybil did when she was forbidden to attend suffrage rallies...

But good cheer came when my friend Jeannine, who attended with her mom, gave me a little gift the next day. Downton label French Bordeaux! So cool of her! I can't wait to crack it open. And also, the funny cocktail napkins. Thank you, Jeannine dear.

I had passed my tickets back to the Crest so hopefully someone on the waiting list got in. Here's where I blogged the first year I attended, in 2013, with costume contest and trivia and fun hoopla. In the meantime, I will await the official presentation on PBS. Thank you, KVIE, for a fantastic event although I didn't attend!

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Monday, December 07, 2015

Manly and me

I've been returning to the Little House on the Prairie books I loved when I was a girl, sharing them with my own children. The books contain so many references to the songs Pa played on the fiddle, including several stanzas of lyrics in nearly every chapter. There was one description of a song that made me excited to find it online. The song is "Gypsy King," and Laura describes how Pa's voice descends lower and lower on the main chorus until it's almost impossibly deep. I couldn't wait to hear what the song really sounded like.

My online searching brought me to a website where I could buy a CD with Pa's fiddle music. I ordered it right away and couldn't wait to listen. I emailed back and forth with the contact at this site and was bowled over when I opened the package to find this autographed photo inside. It turns out the person who is very humbly answering questions is Dean Butler himself! I was emailing with Manly!

My family laughed at my excited reaction when I figured it all out. You see, watching the Little House on the Prairie series was a big deal for my family when I was growing up. We loved the show. I loved seeing part of the set when I lived in Tucson. I have strong memories of being mystified by my mom crying at the episodes and now guess what...I cry myself.

It turns out Butler took a strong interest in his character and produced a documentary on the real-life Almanzo. Back in 2011, he was part of a PBS special that brought musicians together to play the fiddle songs from the books, and now that music is on CD (there are at least three to choose from). Best of all, the CD booklet has great liner notes about the songs' provenances by musicologist Dale Cockrell. It is sad that the rendition of Gypsy King on the CD titled Arkansas Traveler doesn't solve the mystery of how Pa performed it. From Cockrell's note:

"Wilder remembers Pa's voice doing 'deep, deep, deeper than the very oldest bullfrog.' No sheet music of this song captures that gesture, however, a theatrical moment that was probably improvised by Pa Ingalls, ever the showman it seems."

At any rate, my holiday gift recommendation is a CD from this site for the LHOP lover in your life! I hope to read through the whole series again, pausing to match the text to the music.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Parsons Family Reunion 2015

One of the nicest things about the publication of The Witch's Trinity is that I gained a family out of it. Although I'm from the east coast, the Parsons family has a west coast reunion with people who warmly welcome me as one of their own. I first attended the annual reunion as a guest speaker about our shared ancestor Mary Bliss Parsons, accused of witchcraft in 1600s Massachusetts, but now I go as a "regular."

Pictured are Gary Parsons, our leader and historian, and Harriet Parsons, who sews a quilt to memorialize each reunion. We each decorate a square with fabric pens and she builds a beautiful quilt around them. It's a joy to go through each year's quilt and see the squares of years gone by.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The crimes of my ancestor

This is NOT Mary Bliss Parsons, but a woman of the era
One thing I found fascinating when researching my ancestor Mary Bliss Parsons: learning what her “crimes” were.

In 1600s Springfield, Massachusetts, Mary began having spells while in church, at the same time that the minister’s children underwent the same fits. She was a grown woman with four children of her own at this point. Here’s what’s strange: another woman named Mary Lewis Parsons was accused of causing those fits. The two similarly-named women were not related.

Mary Bliss Parsons actually had to be carried out of Sabbath meeting along with those children. How dearly I would love to know what exactly was meant by “fits”—one description from later testimony was, “Shee would looke fearfully somtymes as if shee saw something & then bow downe her head, as others did on theire fits about that time.”

Mary cried out a warning that witches would creep under someone’s bed.  She struggled so hard in those church fits that it took two men to restrain her. It was said that Mary’s fits arose out of being locked in her own cellar by her husband, where she was tormented by spirits that would not leave her alone.

A neighbor testified that Mary told her she had gone to the river to wash clothes, and there spirits appeared to her in the shape of dolls. Whether this was hallucinated “truth” or a neighbor’s yarns, I feel anguish on her behalf if such terrifying visions presented themselves.

Three years later, Mary and her family moved to nearby Northampton, which her husband and others had purchased from the Native Americans for 200 yards of wampum (shells on strings), ten coats and a few trinkets. She had several more children.

In Northampton, Mary became viewed as not just a victim of witchcraft, but the source of it. When 11-year-old John Bridgman went into the woods to chase down the family cows, a force struck him on the back of the head. A while later, he stumbled and put his knee out of joint. The surgeon treated him once he had made his way home, but he was in agony for a month. In the early hours one morning, he cried out, waking his parents. He said Goody Parsons was trying to pull off his knee and was sitting, visible only to him, on the shelf.

(Goody is short for goodwife, a less prestigious version of “Mrs.”)

John was not the only one to point a finger at Mary. She was said to make spun yarn diminish in volume (clearly a bicker over reimbursement for cottage work); accused of making a cow die, an ox die and even a sow; and said to have the ability to go into water and come out dry. Another accusation that makes one worry for her domestic situation with her husband: she could always find the house key even when he hid it against her. Locked in the basement, locked out of (or in?) the house… Even without witchcraft, Mary’s life seemed full of trouble.

The most chilling accusation came from a woman besieged by bad luck. Sarah Bridgman, the mother of John whose knee had been so grieviously injured in the woods, had lost three newborns in succession. She blamed Mary for the death of baby James.

It’s one thing to make an ox die from rattlesnake bite on its tongue; quite another to cause a child to die. The stakes were suddenly much higher for Mary.

Talk was dangerous, and so to address the situation before it became worse, Mary’s husband filed a slander suit against Sarah Bridgman for calling his wife a witch. Dozens of people testified in this suit, and Mary’s husband won. Sarah was found guilty of slander and forced to either publicly apologize to Mary or pay a £10 fine (unknown which she chose).

Eighteen years later, Mary was again accused by the Bridgman family, this time of using witchcraft to murder Mary Bridgman Bartlett, Sarah’s grown and married daughter. Sarah was long dead by this time. Mary spent three months in a grim dirt-floored prison in Boston awaiting the trial where she was acquitted.

Mary lived a long life, dying in 1712 at the age of about 85. She had outlived her husband by 30 years. She escaped execution as a witch, but it is certain that gossip and suspicion must have followed her all her days.

My novel The Witch’s Trinity is set in medieval Germany where researchers say some villages burned a witch every three or four years over hundreds of years, as just a matter of course. There were even two villages where the women had been so systematically executed that only one remained. Can you imagine being that one woman left standing?

I chose to write about a character who was accused of witchcraft by her own daughter-in-law, and was not completely certain she wasn’t a witch. While in the course of writing the book, I first learned about Mary Bliss Parsons. It seemed an extraordinary coincidence that I only learned of my witchcraft lineage while writing a book on the topic.

I dedicated my book to her, because her story was so compelling and unfair and clearly illustrated how much she was a victim of her time.

My novel contains an Afterword about Mary, with more details about her life and neighbors’ testimony against her. If you are interested in googling Mary, please be sure to use her entire name (Mary Bliss Parsons) to avoid confusion with Mary Lewis Parsons.

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P.S. In looking for an image to accompany this post, I learned Mary Bliss Parsons has her own Facebook page. The web/world is so odd.....

P.P.S. I ended up using an image that is often identified as being a painting of Mary Bliss Parsons but is most definitely not her. I blogged about it in the past:

P.P.P.S. I'm participating in a Twitterchat tonight under the hashtag #HistoricalFix with bestselling authors Katherine Howe and Cat Winter. It takes place 5:30-6:30 PST (8:30-9:30 ET) October 20, 2015. Lots of questions and giveaways: join us.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Reinventing ghosts

It's October 13, also known as Halloween for the Dyslexic.

I was thinking today about The Shining, one of my all-time favorite books and movies, and how genius it was that Stephen King broke one of the foremost rules about ghosts in it: that they have no substance.

That used to be the wonderful thing we could rely on about ghosts, that you could get through the night in the haunted house if you could just keep your eyes closed and chant the Barry Manilow libretto. But King gleefully dashed our hopes on the diaphanous wraith front.

I'll never forget how terrified I felt when Danny was actually displaying strangle marks on his neck. Thanks, Mr. King, for taking ghosts to a whole new level. And also for giving my sister Red Sox tickets off the radio.

A few other scary reads to recommend for this pumpkin-spice-infused month:

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Writing Advice: the Printout

1. Print out your novel. You must. There are so many things that glide by on a screen that become glaringly apparent once you look at a hard copy. Then, read through the printout briskly two times, following the instructions in the next two bullets.

2. Read through the printout in a "doesn't feel right" run. Hold a highlighter in your hand and whenever writing quality flags, simply swipe the highlighter through that paragraph. Keep reading. The important thing is simply to note the places where the manuscript doesn't feel right, not to stop and fix those places. That comes later. You want to keep your eyes fresh, so keep going.

3. Then pick a different color highlighter and do a "bon mots" read-through. My goal is to have one well-turned phrase per page (or solid metaphor or incisive snatch of dialogue). If I swipe, I can visually see pages that don't have that, and go back in and add later.

3. Giving new meaning to "hot off the press": as you print out your novel, sit on it. This was the suggestion of the youth in my household, who waxed enthusiastic about the warm paper. Freshly-printed novels make great seatwarmers. She also noted that the heat transfers: "Feel my butt! Feel my butt!"  This is how fine literature is made.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

Preston Castle

Officially termed the Preston School of Industry, Preston Castle is a boys' reform school established in 1894 in Ione, California. I had the good fortune to go tour it this weekend.

The first thing you notice upon entering is that this place is falling apart. At one point, the plan was to demolish the behemoth and its roof was taken off. Years of rain damaged the interior until a new roof was put on. It's on the National Register of Historic Places.

What many of the floors look like

The wards of Preston were boys as young as 8 and as old as 16, we were told. They were there as juvenile delinquents, including for the "crime" of being homeless. The entire building radiates sadness. The site is really very remote and was likely more so at the turn of (that) century.

Hallway upon entering

Upstairs boys dormitory

We were taken upstairs to the boys dormitory, where 50 beds once nestled close together. The ceiling is really quite extraordinary, with criss-crossed wooden beams. Boys had carved their names up there in the rafters. I wondered if the gorgeous ceiling must have been covered with a dropped ceiling back in the day, to make the room easier to heat or cool. As we left the room, a vintage photograph did indeed make it look like the ceiling was dropped and mundane.

Pigeon-stained rafters with carved names

The dormitory with beds & dropped ceiling

The adult guardian's bathroom in the dormitory

I'm not sure if that plunging method works
We visited the staff dining room. I'm kind of in love with the asylum-green paint color there.

Maybe the one pretty thing there?

Next, we went to the infirmary. Very uncomfortable-looking metal bed frames and the hint of illness still circulating...

Original wicker wheelchair
Next to it was the operating room. The docents have a clear sense of humor, as evidenced by the skeleton in the chair. I'm always sensitive about this stuff...but I don't think it was respectful. Scared boys shaped by tough circumstances came here for a chance to be clothed, sheltered, fed and instructed.

What is that machine? Many guessed it delivered electroshock therapy

Can you guess?

Another skeleton, in construction hat. Not sure why?

In the room where the skeleton pensively looks out the window, surgeries were performed on the floor. You've had enough time to think about the machine--post your guess in the comments?

I guess in some way I can't fault the impulse to position skeletons around; the place really does seem like a stereotypical Hollywood haunted reform school. And then we learned about the ghost.

The kitchen
We entered the kitchen, in which I immediately noticed the beautiful Hoosier cupboard. Apparently I am not a "sensitive" soul, because I was standing only feet away from where a violent murder occurred, and yet I didn't feel any echoes from that sad event.

We were told that the young cook came upon two boys in the kitchen, scolded them and told them to leave. As she went to climb the stairs up to her apartments, they pulled her back down and bludgeoned her to death. Or, well, the story goes that one of them did. He stood trial and benefited from a hung jury, in part because the other boy informant was known to be a big liar. The acquitted boy went on to later stand trial for two other murders.

The cook's body was stowed in a room off the kitchen, under the stairs.

So here's what's wierd. I tried to photograph the staircase she was pulled from. I couldn't. My cell phone's screen was black. I thought for a second the phone had turned off. I kept trying to get a picture of it, but blackness seemed to be seeping, exuding from the stairs. The best I could do was to capture the door frame of its entry. After the tour moved on, I remained, thinking that I could get a picture now that no one was standing in front of the room's window blocking the light. No. Still no light to illuminate that photograph. Here are my three tries:

A pool of blackness
Still can't get it

Much better now the room is empty, but still can't see the steps

I'll be the first to admit my cell cam is pretty crappy, but it was odd it just couldn't show me the steps. Now, the only reason I knew about Preston Castle was that I attended the book launch of Angelica Jackson, whose book Crow's Rest is in part set there. (I'm halfway through the book and totally, enthusiastically recommend it!) The night of our visit, I continued reading and came across mention of the main character's camera's failure to work properly at the castle. I got a little frisson of shock reading that.

The plunge

Across from the kitchen is the plunge, adorned with coffins (sigh). A plunge is an old-time word for swimming pool, and my opinion is that that's what it is. However, we were told it was once filled with lye and was used to decontaminate new boys, even down to the chilling detail that a long stick would hold you under until you swam the entire length. I'm a little dubious about a huge vat of lye devoted merely to registering new boys.

This place lends itself to disquieting photography.

Downstairs dormitory and door to freedom
In the basement was another dormitory, also said to hold 50 beds. When we heard the boys were housed in the basement, I felt a sharp disappointment that they would held in dank quarters when the whole structure was there for them! Yet the word basement was a bit misleading--it is really ground level, and there was actually a lot of windows and natural light flooding in. The door to freedom was the way boys exited when they aged out; a bus sat outside waiting to take them away. The superstition is that you can't ever look back, or you'll return for good. We learned the names of many notable wards of Preston, but the only one I remember or knew of beforehand was Merle Haggard. Apparently he doesn't talk about Preston. I'd like to read his autobiography.

"I will not bludgeon other students"

Also in the cellar was the schoolroom. The chalkboard displayed more macabre humor.

Ceiling showing light from floor above: not sure what room

In the schoolroom, I noticed slung netting covering portions of the ceiling. In that netting were some pretty big chunks of ceiling plaster. I'm glad the net was there to protect our heads. It wasn't until we exited the structure via the boys' dining hall that I looked back and saw this above the door:

Well, so that gave me pause.

Aesthetically pleasant exterior with curving ramp

Out in the courtyard, we were shown a metal ring and told bad boys would be chained there and beaten. I didn't photograph it because if it was true, I'd be a ghoul. But I don't think it's true. We saw three more of those rings out in front of the castle.

You'd like to think maybe this was a place of true rehabilitation, and that the boys were treated well and fed well. I'm fascinated and want to learn more. Preston closed in 1960, and so there are surely many boys still out there now men, with their stories.

. . . . .
P.S. Logging in the next day to say I hope I wasn't too hard on the docent and the volunteers that run Preston Castle. It's certainly worth discussion, the idea of how we talk about places where traumatic things happened. For instance, I was personally appalled to learn that the site of the Lizzie Borden murders is now a B&B... yet without its being preserved in such a way, the public wouldn't get a chance to go and look. What do you think? And I want to go on record as saying THANK YOU for the volunteers of the foundation who donate time and energy to keep Preston Castle open. It is a great gift.

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Monday, August 03, 2015

More on Wendover

They had a great display of pin-up plane art

Wendover airfield, a major WWII base in Utah, is now a historic site. The museum is well worth visiting, and the spirit of the place is hard to describe. You can almost hear the buzz and machinery of the past, whereas I literally didn't see another person there other than my own family.

Model of the base in its heyday
Apparently Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay, was given three bases to choose from, and he selected Wendover because of its remote location. It truly is far from anything, with horizon for miles, and much of it the Great Salt Desert (more on that in another post. It's very close to the Bonneville Salt Flats, now in the news because they can't hold their races there for the second year in a row, possibly because salt mining is depleting the resource and making the flats too slushy).

The 1942 control tower
If these structures and empty hangars could talk, what tales they would tell....

More on Wendover in another post (and also see below). Stay tuned.

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Historic Wendover Airfield

"Little Boy" replica: the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima

Five states in four days...that was our drive from California, through Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, to arrive in Colorado. We had an amazing road trip and I have lots of historical stuff to share. I'll start first with the Wendover Airfield in Utah and its role in the launch of the atomic bomb (and I'll post again about the base in general, so stay tuned).

This airfield was an important WWII base nestled in the Great Salt Desert. Today, where men once teemed to ready their planes, the base is desolate, the hangars empty. There is a veritable atmosphere to the place.

Inside the very nicely-put-together museum, you can see a replica of "Little Boy," the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the Enola Gay. It is astonishing to see how very small a device it is, to have wrought so much destruction. The replica shows signatures from the flight crew, including Col. Paul Tibbets, who was the pilot.

The museum features an audio of the Enola Gay being loaded on that fatal day, Aug. 6, 1945. You press a button and hear the busy airfield readying itself for the flight, the bomb being loaded, men talking, calling out to each other. I got a distinct chill listening to it, and listened to the brief clip several times. At the end, there's a little burst of jazz music and a woman singing--did someone turn on a radio? I was trying to imagine that day and how the men felt. Apparently, the true mission of the Enola Gay  was kept quiet to all but Col. Tibbets until the plane was actually underway, but you have to wonder...

"Press here for audio playback of the loading of the Enola Gay"

Here's a scale model of the plane itself.

The day before the bomb dropped, Tibbets named the plane for his mother.

And a photograph of Col. Tibbets:

At Tinian Island, near Japan, where the crew went after the bomb drop

Tibbets died in 2007, and his cremated remains were scattered over the English Channel. He had feared a funeral or tombstone would provide a gathering place for those who objected to the use of the atomic bomb.

On Sept. 26, 2015, you can attend Wendover's 2015 Warbirds & Wheels WWII Commemoration celebrating the 70th year since the end of WWII. 

Wendover's website is

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Saturday, July 04, 2015

Interviewing Pixar's Inside Out creators

Last month, I had the intense pleasure of a phone interview for Oakland Magazine with Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera, the director and producer of Pixar's Inside Out (they both have Oakland/Piedmont ties). I found the movie to be an extraordinary, moving film far deeper than what children might be able to garner from it. Its target audience basically is parents, a thesis which Docter and Rivera agreed to. Yet don't let that stop you from bringing your kids; there's enough there to entertain and amuse as young as five years old.

Due to the article wordcount I wasn't able to include all the great things they told me. I'll add one here. Jonas Rivera said that his favorite part of the movie is a short scene where Joy doesn't want Riley to go to sleep and they put on their favorite song and "she skates along with her. It's an impossible relationship; it's the only time they're on screen together." Riley doesn't even know Joy's a poignant thought that the single most important aspect of her young personality is unknown to her.

I watched a special media showing before the official release date with friend and fellow historical novelist Erin McCabe, and boy, were we both sniffling, as was the entire audience. Friends who cry together stay together, right? I watched again later with my family, and noticed more the second time. For instance, I had noted that Joy has blue hair, but it didn't really register until the second viewing. Joy must always be tinged with sadness, because the remembrance of joy is the remembrance of something we once experienced and can't ever again in the same way. Which reminds me, I really need to read Proust sometime.

My article begins, "Pixar’s magic: making the events on the big screen somehow related to our small, foible-filled lives. And this year’s offering Inside Out proves that enchanted formula works again, but this time to a degree that leaves audience members in tears of reflection." Read the full text at Oakland Magazine's website.

. . . .
P.S. I previously interviewed Brave's filmmakers and got to visit the much-vaunted Pixar campus in Emeryville, California. Read that post here.

P.P.S. One more tidbit. I felt the film may revolutionize how people think about thinking. For instance, if we have concrete ways of thinking about emotions, it might be easier to say, "I'll let Joy take the helm and push Anger aside." I asked Docter and Rivera if they intended that, as a bit of self-help for viewers, and they pshawed me. "No, we're just trying to entertain." Sure.:)

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Big Day of Giving

Today is the Big Day of Giving, where we focus on charities and make donations. I'm going to donate to 916 Ink, a group that helps Sacramento-area teens become published writers. But there's another nonprofit I donate to each month on the 12th, in memory of Jennifer L. Kranz, a six-year-old who died on the 12th (of February 2014). Would you be willing to donate $12 each month on the 12th to fund pediatric cancer research? Visit the GiveUs12 link.

I have two things to share in this post. One is an op-ed I wrote after having an epiphany about cancer: that it's not forever, not incurable, not the monster that will forever rule our fears. A cure is coming, so long as we can fund innovation.

Speaking of innovation, I'm delighted to share a video by the Kranz family, explaining about their nonprofit Unravel, founded in memory of their daughter to keep other families from going through that incredible tragedy. Let's watch that first.

There is progress coming; there is. Here is my piece that originally ran at the wonderful, big-hearted blog Sweatpants & Coffee.

Handing Cancer its Termination Notice

by Erika Mailman

Cancer's never going away, is it? It's the Grim Reaper large as Godzilla, with not one but two scythes, and really sharp incisors inside that skeletal jaw.

For many years—since I watched a friend in her early forties twist and moan in the pain of cervical cancer until it won—I’d considered cancer the beast that was omnipotent, and all we could do was bow our heads and hope it passed by those we cared about.

But recently I’ve been buoyed up by optimism. I foresee an end to cancer. I’m taking a lesson from history and am officially and ironically handing cancer its termination notice.

What spurs this confidence? Let me backtrack.

I teach English at a community college in Sacramento. In a chapter of our textbook titled "Homonyms and Commonly Confused Words," I learned the difference between sympathy and empathy. Basically, as my students and I understood it, sympathy involves a mild feeling of distress, while empathy entails actually crying.

I spent a lot of time being empathetic in 2014. I capped off each night by looking at the blog written by Libby Kranz about her daughter's breathtakingly-quick—less than four months—decline and death from a tumor in her brainstem. Jennifer Kranz was six; the one-year anniversary of her death is next week, Feb. 12.

She and my daughter were in the same playgroup of a mom's group in Gilroy, California, and thus the news hit home in a way nothing else ever has. I sank to my knees night after night, not just crying, but sobbing, hyperventilating, in rockgut despair for my friend's loss.

Each morning I showered away the ravages of the previous evening’s grief, and met my students with a smile. Along with the grammar text, I assigned them a novel, Year of Wonders by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks. This book is about the Bubonic Plague and is set in medieval Eyam, England, a village remarkable for the fact its residents quarantined themselves to avoid spreading the plague. They were sympathetic (if not empathetic) to the imagined plight of neighboring villages should they bring the "plague seeds" with them as they fled.

The Black Death, as the Bubonic Plague was called, swept over Europe, Asia and the Middle East, a pandemic that lasted for hundreds of years (mainly 1300s-1600s). Statistics vary, but it is said that a full third of the Middle East and Europe's population died from the plague.

Brooks's novel describes the buboes (dark, swollen lymph nodes from which "bubonic" derives) that would appear in people's groins, armpits, necks: the first sign of a fast ride to death that would involve high fever, vomiting of blood, and coagulating blood in fingers and toes, leaving them gothically, repugnantly blackened as if by fire. Deaths were so rampant that soon mass burials took place so corpses could be speedily dispatched; periodically, modern-day construction crews come across these pits.

Since the medieval world was awash in fleas (puce--French for "flea"--was a favorite clothing color at Versailles, to provide camouflage for the ubiquitous pest) and fleas carried the plague from rodent to human with their bites, the disease spread with alarming rapidity. Fleas famously can leap over a foot away and can continue living in bedding and clothing (in Brooks's novel, a tailor's shipment of cloth from London is to blame for the plague reaching Eyam), so short of completely contaminating a home, there would be no way to stop the miniature agents of disease--even if it had been known they were responsible.

The Black Death inspired terror for hundreds of years--now imagine telling someone in the 1300s that a simple vaccine would make mention of the plague shrug-worthy. And that even once contracted, the disease could be stopped by antibiotics if caught early on. They might not have been able to believe it. Plague had been too terrible, too sweeping, too much part of their lives.

And that's how we think about cancer.

We've spent decades feeling helpless about cancer's wretched march through the cells of those we love. Words like "metastasized" and "stage four" bring dread to our stomachs; these are words we have no armor for. When we hear about "the cure," there's a certain incredulity that there ever will be one. Cancer is so powerful. But I'm heartened by the analogy that we can eradicate cancer like we did the plague.

There will be a breakthrough. Today, for the most part, only third world countries suffer plague outbreaks, like Madagascar very recently. I'm honestly not concerned about buboes; they don't come up on my maternal radar too much, although 600 years ago my English ancestors probably worried about them constantly, with good reason.

I’m picturing the near future, a day when people marvel that cancer ran so long unchecked…when they pity us for our “Dark Ages” disease. That day is coming. Cancer researchers make strides daily, like Dr. Olson, who has developed “tumor paint” to make it easier for surgeons to excise diseased tissue while leaving good tissue intact, as well as working on anti-cancer compounds, optides. These optides improve the wretched process of chemotherapy which targets healthy and cancerous cells alike—the optides only attack the bad cells.

Jennifer Kranz’s parents have squeezed metaphoric lemons in desperation and grief to pummel them into pulp and lemonade. Their nonprofit organization Unravel promises to “unravel” pediatric cancer through fundraising to support researchers who are eager and innovative and only lack funding. Unravel monies recently permitted Dr. Olsen to hire not one but two interns. Being part of such a tangible step forward towards a cure makes me sleep better at night, although my eyes still burn with empathetic tears when I think about Jennifer, forever lost.

To read Libby's blog or to contribute to Unravel, her pediatric cancer awareness and fundraising nonprofit, visit

Thursday, March 26, 2015

4th annual Chin Up for Writers Day

See that chin? It's elevated

I'm appalled to realize the fourth observance of National Chin Up for Writers Day somehow passed by me with proper parading, bannering, badging, and T-shirting. Yes, March 19 eluded notice, but I will still make my annual post.

I know why I was distracted; a month ago I had another novel come out under a pen name. I was caught up in events and social media for the launch.

And I have two things to say about that:

1. The Chin Up posts were as much for me as they were for anyone reading this blog. Although I had had two novels published, a desert of years had opened up in which I focused on offspring of the literal, rather than literary, kind. My Chin Up posts were me kicking the sand in that desert, reassuring myself and my chin that another publication day would arise. I don't regret those years; I think my husband and I have "authored" some pretty amazing people, but I needed a little bit of self-affirmation that my writer self still existed.

2. The book that just came out is a total poster child for keeping your chin up. The file is in storage that reveals the horrible truth of how very, very long ago I wrote this book (the file has the original handwritten pages I scribbled after the nightmare that engendered the book)--I don't remember the year offhand but let me say that it predated kids, predated my published novels and predated Richard the Third's original burial.

This rock is totally keeping its chin up

Books can thrive with undaunting cheerleaders (the writer!), fearless revisors (also, the writer!), and stalwart queriers (still the writer!). I didn't let my chin sink with this novel, nor did I stop trying to improve it, and the outcome has been wonderful: a book out in the marketplace that I'm proud of.

Chin up, writers: what you wish for can be accomplished.

If you'd like to read the previous years' posts on Keep Your Chin Up Day:
First year
Second year
Third year

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Sunday, March 08, 2015

Donner Party Later On...

NOT the Breens

The latest issue of the East Bay Monthly (out of Berkeley) contains my article about J. Ross Browne, a famous-but-lost-to-time author who dined with members of the Breen family after their rescue from what is now called Donner Lake. His imagination got the best of him and he imagined his hosts as blood-thirsty cannibals, which is actually very sad when we consider that they were not ghouls but people pushed to the outer limits of hunger.

How can any of us predict how we would act in the same circumstances? The urge to live is strong, and the Donner Party people lived under the hope that rescue was imminent if they could just hold out one more day. All accounts show how desperate and shamed the people were who had to partake in human flesh. Definitely not their first choice!

The article can be found here.

One unexpected bonus of this article is that I was contacted via email by a descendant of the Breens. She very graciously and diplomatically pointed out that the photo that ran with the article, identifying Patrick and Margret Breen, was not in fact of a photo of them. I thanked her profusedly, offered to collect an oral history, and let her know that I would pass the information along to the magazine. The magazine will be running a correction. In the meantime....I'm so excited to have had email contact with someone with a true connection to the Donners. She is my version of a celebrity!

J. Ross Browne's lithograph of a sperm whale hunt

The photographs and illustrations that ran with the story (including a great lithograph of a sperm whale surfacing, about to be harpooned: J. Ross Browne's harrowing stories of whale hunting inspired no less than Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick)  were under the magazine's art direction, and it'd be hard to fault them for using that photograph. That photograph is circulated everywhere with the misidentification of the couple depicted; it reminds me of another situation, in which a portrait has been repeatedly shared on the web as depicting Mary Bliss Parsons. It's not. There are no known portraits of Mary Bliss Parsons, my ancestor accused of witchcraft on at least two occasions. Here's my blog post about that particular situation. 

Anyway, I think it's important to remember that some people's lives continued after the disaster in the Sierra. Marysville, California, for instance, is named for Mary Murphy, another Donner Party survivor, and many went on to become important town leaders wherever they settled. Louis Keseberg: another matter.

Speaking of other matters, my friend Lynn Carthage's book Haunted: The Arnaud Legacy launched last week, and I've been watching her progress with interest. The book is a young adult neo-Gothic thriller (a fancy way of saying "haunted mansion story") and I highly recommend it.

Members of local Historical Novels Society help Lynn Carthage launch her novel. From left,
Erin McCabe (I Shall Be Near to You), Susan Spann (Blade of the Samurai),
Jennifer Laam (Secret Daughter of the Tsar), and Lynn Carthage.
Three other HNS folks were at the reading but unfortunately departed before
photo time: Mark Weideranders, Kathy Boyd Fellure, and Pam Munn.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Haunted bookstore dates and win a free ARC!

Some of you know that I'm now writing young adult fiction under a pen name, Lynn Carthage. My rule is going to be that I'll promote from Erika to Lynn, but not vice-versa. As an author with a historical novel featuring an unapologetic prostitute narrator (Woman of Ill Fame), I don't want young readers to google me and read that too. Of course, nothing on the internetz is secret, and I noted in the Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) that the title page just outright lists me as the author, but it's my attempt to keep the innocent sort of innocent.

I have two readings arranged to launch the first book in the series: Haunted: The Arnaud Legacy. The book launches Feb. 24, 2015, and I'll read in El Dorado Hills and Oakland. I'm also arranging an event in Morgan Hill and possibly one in San Francisco (all of these in Northern California). Haunted is a neo-Gothic thriller about a teen who moves to England with her family into the ancestral mansion that isn't...exactly...abandoned. Danielle Paige and Michelle Gagnon gave me great cover blurbs for the book. So the two events are:
  • 6:30 p.m., Friday, March 6 at Face In A Book bookstore, 4359 Town Center Boulevard, El Dorado Hills, CA, (916) 941-9401.
  • 7 p.m., Saturday, March 14 at A Great Good Place for Books, 6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland, CA, (510) 339-8210.

And now about the ARCs. These are copies created in advance of the book's actual printing, to send along to book reviewers and newspapers and bloggers. My publisher Kensington is giving away 25 free ARCs now. You can visit the Goodreads page for Haunted to enter to win one. While you're there, please friend me and mark the book as "want to read" if in fact you want to read it!

After several years off from the publishing world to raise some offspring and oh, move, a couple dozen times, I'm thrilled beyond belief to have another book hit the world! I hope you will enjoy it.

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