Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How to See the Elephant - Part III

Traveling across Pennsylvania by train, the relationship between Thetis and Sheba breaks down further:
Juggling the doughnuts, and licking my fingers, I came back to find Sheba standing right where I had left her, staring at the women on the washroom line.
“What are you doing here?”
A skinny woman in a roughly-pinned shawl turned from the line and said:
“Is that one yours, miss?”
I didn’t know how to answer this. The woman went on:
“You better watch her, that’s all.”
“She tries to go in there,” another woman said, nodding towards the latrine, “there’ll be trouble!” I sighed. “No, she’s going in the bushes. Sheba, I told you…”
A thin, fluttering woman, with gold-rimmed glasses and false curls, rather like my old Sunday-School teacher, came out of the line and put her hand on my shoulder.
“I don’t know where you two are going, or where you’re coming from, but for her own good, miss, you ought to teach her what she can and can’t do.”
The washroom door stood open now, temporarily forgotten. All the women on the line were agitated, and I saw we had attracted the attention of a few young boys, too.
“I’m sorry,” I said to them, “I told her not to…”
“You let it happen once and they’re all over the place, next,” another lady said.
“I know, ma’am.”
I couldn’t take Sheba’s arm because of the donuts, but I went up to her, gesturing with my head, and tried to hurry her down the platform towards the stairs. She stood there, sullen, staring around her, not willing to move until one of the boys stepped forwards and pushed her, yelling “Get out of here!” She stumbled after me, and as I hurried her away I heard something hit the ground behind up with a sticky gluck. Mud. High cackles of laughter followed.
“I told you this would happen!” I hissed to Sheba
I could feel my face going hot and cold. Some of those women would surely be on the train – perhaps even in our car – and I didn’t see how I could face them again. I had tried to explain it wasn’t my fault… Perhaps I they would take pity on my youth. Perhaps they would realize, on reflection, that I wasn’t the one…
We got to the end of the platform. I pointed silently down the stairs and waited for Sheba to go ahead of me. At the bottom of the stairs I pointed again at an area of brush and waist-high weeds. She disappeared into it. The half a doughnut I had eaten was stuck somewhere between my mouth and my stomach. I was getting coffee if it was the last thing I did. Sheba came out and I handed her the doughnuts and went myself. (After all, I wasn’t going to wait on that long line.) We climbed the stairs silently. People were getting back on the train. The washroom line had shrunk and only a few hostile faces looked towards us. I saw Sheba to the car and made sure she was seated.
“Now you stay there. I’ll be right back.”
I dashed away, up to the big silver coffee urns inside the now-empty restaurant.
“With cream, please.”
“Train’s about to leave, miss.”
“I drink fast. Come on now, lots of cream.”

He was already pouring the coffee. I scooped up the cup and stood drinking – nothing ever tasted so good – warm, milky, scalding my parched tongue and throat. The train whistle blew a long woo-woo. I set the cup down empty and tossed three cents next to it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Synopsis redux

Not long ago, someone on the Adventures in Writing blog asked, how do you know when a book is finished? Well, I'm possibly not the best person to answer this, but I would say you know a book is done when you feel like screaming with joy and dancing around. I realize anyone reading this blog would conclude that I am seriously manic-depressive since not 6 weeks ago I was all I-hate-myself-I-don't-know-how-to-do-this but now it really does seem that I've finished the revision to How to See the Elephant and it is a respectable 72,000 words which is still long, I know, but not as bad. And I think I've made some really good revisions and brought about a satisfactory little novel. Perhaps the best sign is that it wasn't that hard to bring the synopsis, which follows, in at just under two pages. I've tried to follow the guidelines -- only 3-4 characters, just the general outline -- but I would appreciate any criticism. (Also hidden typos, which I have just found two of, and I'm sure there are more.)

Synopsis - How to See the Elephant

Since the deaths of her mother and brother from cholera, Thetis has accompanied her father on his salesman’s route, travelling by wagon and train through Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York. Thetis enjoys this life and considers it her job to manage her father, who is given to rash decisions. But in March of 1862 she is unable to dissuade him from his most recent one – to join the Union Army. Thetis is given a choice – temporary residence with the Shakers or an education at Miss Barclay’s, the boarding school where her older half-sister teaches. Thetis, now 15, chooses Miss Barclay’s, and travels to Wilmington, Delaware to start at the school.
Miss Barclay’s is run by MISS VEDA SKAGGS, a sweet-natured, accomplished woman, and Thetis hopes she will be able to absorb from her the refinements she has missed since her mother’s death. Miss Veda is the owner of three slaves, including SHEBA, a girl of uncertain age whom Miss Veda treats as a pet. She makes a point of treating her slaves with kindness and upholding the virtues of slave-owning against those who “don’t understand Negroes.” Wanting to admire Miss Veda, Thetis revises her previous opinions about slavery. Nevertheless she is unpopular at Miss Veda’s, and wrongly tarred as an abolitionist. The students are taken to a concert by a famous pianist and Thetis, developing a crush on him, determines to become his student. Her absorption in music makes it possible for her to bear life at Miss Veda’s, even though she knows she is not particularly talented. These fantasies are shattered when Miss Veda tells her that a professional career as a musician is not an appropriate goal for one of her students. Freed from her admiration for Miss Veda, Thetis begins to question everything she has learned from her.
News arrives that Thetis’ father, fighting in Kentucky, has been wounded and possibly captured. Forbidden to go to him, Thetis plans to escape Miss Barclay’s but is forced at the last minute to bring along Sheba, who wants to run away as well. The two girls flee from Delaware to Ohio, first by train, and, when their money runs out, by foot, begging food and sleeping outdoors. Thetis initially dislikes Sheba because she is spoiled and helpless and plans to abandon her as soon as she decently can. However, as they travel across Ohio, meeting both hostility and help, a tense partnership emerges and Thetis is brought to realize that Sheba is not a child and can take care of herself. Her experiences on the road with Sheba also give her the basis to form a realistic opinion about slavery, without the influence of Miss Veda. In Cincinnati they find that no riverboats are running and that Louisville is under attack by Confederate forces. Sheba, who has little experience of the outside world, breaks down and refuses to go on, but Thetis convinces her that she cannot go back to Miss Veda’s, and the two eventually find a boat downriver to Louisville. There they are put under arrest and confined in military headquarters, but Thetis escapes again and makes her way to the army camp outside of town, where she finds her father wounded but alive.
Under the guidance of a veteran nurse, MRS. HANCOCK, Thetis cares for her father and other patients at the camp hospital. News of the battle of Perryville is brought and Thetis and Mrs. Hancock go to the battlefield to care for the wounded. Although Thetis is horrified by the sights she sees there, she finds that she is a good nurse and is proud of her ability to be useful. After six weeks in Perryville, she returns to Louisville to begin work with Mrs. Hancock in an army hospital. Sheba is now living in a “contraband” camp there, and Thetis, visiting her, realizes that though neither of them has found exactly what they expected when they left Miss Veda’s, both of them have found something better.

Monday, August 17, 2009

My generation

I spent the weekend reading Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick, who has a blog, Fine Lines, which is devoted to YA favorites of the 70s and early 80s. I knew my generation's books of passage included Deenie, lots of Lois Duncan and -- you know you read them -- Flowers in the Attic and its many sequels. But I didn't realize that others had also loved Blossom Culp, heroine of Richard Peck's Ghosts I Have Been, or surreptitiously read their mother's copy of Wifey. (Best Pawley's Island vacation ever!) It was nice to feel a little vindicated by this book...and, yes, I went today and got a copy of Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself so I could re-read it.
One of the strange things about time is that every generation becomes a little more innocent than the one before it. Certainly I never would have regarded the 1970s as an innocent time to grow up in. We were constantly told that our world had been corrupted by pollution, war (real and potential), divorce, drugs and sex. Innocence was for the past: we lived in a harsh present, one devoted to sorting all these issues out. (Today, of course, it all seems so quaint. We were allowed to go outside and play for hours by ourselves, imagine that!) And our fiction reflected this. How many novels in those years began with the family moving to a new town because the parents were getting a divorce? ("You'll like it here in Millersburg, Amy. And Grandma will be so happy to see us.") Add to this bullying (which in those days was just called "life," and which has never been better described than in The Chocolate War), racism and child abuse (The Summer of My German Soldier), rape (Are You in the House Alone?), the Holocaust and/or Siberia (The Endless Steppe) and abandonment in the wilderness (Julie of the Wolves, Island of the Blue Dolphins.) Even if we were lucky enough to be reading a relatively mild novel, there were angst, misery and guilt for all in practically anything by Paul Zindel as well as The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and other novels which enshrined unpopularity as the only respectable alternative to high school. Strangest of all, with about 5 exceptions (you know who they are), there was absolutely NO fantasy. My generation would have laughed at the idea of saving the world in the eternal battle between light and dark. We just wanted to survive to the end of junior high school. (I think this is probably one of the reason why I read so much YA fantasy today -- making up for lost opportunities.)
Now, I have to admit I was a bit of a rebel amidst all this. I never really took to those angsty books. (I was unpopular myself and didn't need reminders of it.) I backed away from I Am the Cheese and those other gloomy, well-thumbed teen paperbacks on the library racks. Not having fantasy as an outlet, I took to historical fiction, with predictable results. But I like to think that these books of the 1970s marked me in several ways. First, they left me with the strong belief that there was no subject that might reasonably be faced by young adults that could not be written about. No censorship, no barriers. If it happens, and you have the talent and guts to do so, write about it. Second, there was a kind of tender bravery to even the angsty novels. This world isn't an ideal one, they seemed to say, but it's survivable, if you face it. Perhaps, come to think of it, this was our particular fantasy.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Underwear Question, or, Problems of the Historical Novelist, #1

My research on two novels, one set in the 19th century, one in the 1920s, has led me to conclude that the greatest revolution of the late 20th century is in what women wore under their clothes. This may, of course, be connected to that other great revolution of the late 20th century, but it is certainly an overlooked one. In fact, one of the perils of research in this subject is that there are basically two kinds of books on the history of underwear. One is the slender kind, with lots of illustrations, usually written by someone who never paid much attention in college but who now writes for some recondite fashion magazine. In addition to the copious illustrations of women in garters and teddies, this kind of book will tell you what underthings Marie Antoinette, Lily Langtry, Mary Queen of Scots, etc wore, and will relay a few historical anecdotes which are now exploded and get a few names and dates wrong. Their version of history will begin with the Roman Empire. It is possible to pick up from a book like this bits of general information, such as when elastic was invented, and to get an idea of what an extremely chic character (should one ever stray into your novel) might have worn. It will tell you nothing about the average woman, however.
The other kind of history of underwear is usually written by a historian of women's studies. It will tell you about the genderization of underwear -- in other words, what men thought about women's underwear, and what women thought about women's underwear. (Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever written anything about what men think about their own underwear.) It will support its assertions by quoting the diary of a single crank who lived in 1820 and extrapolating this into a generalization that will fit all of 19th century society. What the average woman wore under her clothes will sometimes be mentioned, but only in very scattered instances, because it is not the function of such books to give practical information about average women's lives. This is serious history, and serious history is mostly about what people think about, and what they think about what they think about. It doesn't get any more solid than that.
Now, I'm being amusing here, but this is really serious. A girl in the 1920s wore, as near as I can figure, "step-ins" (what we call today "granny panties," and considered, in those days, highly erotic), if not longer underwear, garters, stockings held up by the latter, girdles, plus, at times, a belt contraption for sanitary napkins. You think walking around with all that under your clothes doesn't affect your character's state of mind? It is at this point that the historical novelist considers going downstairs and making one of those large, colorful icy drinks and maybe putting a little umbrella in it.
All I want is a good honest history about what the average woman might have worn underneath. I can skip reading another book about D-Day or the Tennis Match that Changed Life as We Know It or another biography of Jane Austen. Give me a historian who can write and point him or her towards the subject of women's underwear. Please.


August is a hot, dead month here. There's a scene in How to See the Elephant where Thetis is remembering walking around the cemetery where her mother is buried and, wanting to do something beyond the usual cemetery-rain-sadness scene, I thought of walking around in August with dried-up grass crunching underfoot and everything in sight scorched and dead, and I wrote that into the scene instead. This August has been a bit of a relief from the usual. When I go out to water in the morning it's coolish, and we've had a number of days when the highs were only in the 90s. (As fate would have it, on those particular days we took a local vacation and complained mightily that the hotel pool was "freezing.") Not much rain, either, no regular moonsoon. My South African succulents are gone. (Why, WHY, do I buy them every year?) The rosebush was doing well until it got rust and I had to cut all the diseased branches off. Now it is growing back, slowly. Well, I'll won't complain and I'll hope for a little more rain before the monsoon is over. In the rest of the country people are making summer last. Here in LV we look forward to fall. (We know it's almost fall when the local news gets pre-empted by football games and Walmart puts 15-cent notebooks in the center aisle. Otherwise, no idea.)