I am reviewing my most anticipated book of 2021, The Women of Chateau Lafayette, today. I don’t review many books anymore, especially if I have any critiques to make (my thoughts on this in a later post), but there are certain authors who are too famous for my polite criticisms to injure their sales. And when I do make them, you can be sure that it’s because I have a great deal of respect for the author. Usually, I think many issues with books by more well-known authors are at least half the fault of the publishing world. So, with that in mind, here we go… [Note: There are mild spoilers ahead.]
The Women of Chateau Lafayette is a sort of follow-up by Stephanie Dray to her Revolutionary War era books, America’s First Daughter and My Dear Hamilton. Since the Revolutionary War is my favorite era to study, I have read and loved both. I have seen in many reviews and, indeed, on the cover of this new book, that Stephanie Dray is touted as the author of those former books, but she is actually a co-author with Laura Kamoie. The fact that Kamoie wasn’t on this one made me a bit nervous that it wouldn’t be the same as the first two books because, frankly, they are such a dream team.
But having always adored America’s “favorite fighting Frenchman,” The Marquis de Lafayette, I was ecstatic to see he was the next subject one of these authors would be covering. Which, of course, is always a bad way to go into reading a book—with a ton of expectations.
When I received the book in the mail, I was stunned by its size. I haven’t done a page comparison, but I’m not kidding when I tell you that the only fiction books on my shelf which compare in size are War and Peace and Gone with the Wind. Needless to say, I expect no more whining about the size of Southern Rain, as it is quite dainty in comparison. 😉
Another thing that made me nervous about the book was that it didn’t stick with just the Revolutionary Era. There were to be time slips between WWI and WWII eras also. But I have to admit that the idea of Lafayette’s home being used as a beacon of freedom during the very dark hours of Vichy and Occupied France was breath-taking on the grand, sweeping scale of history, and I couldn’t fault Dray for going there.
Now, I am a person who does not mind a lot of things to remember in a book. Give me a family of eight siblings, and I will memorize their names and ages. But to be honest (and hopefully not to be condescending), in a present when many are kind of fuzzy on the distinction between WWI and WWII, and given that the wars do have a lot of similarities from the French point of view (fighting Germany for one), one of the more modern eras should have been left out.
And for me, that era would have to be Beatrice and the WWI time-slip. Beatrice was an amazing woman, and though I had never heard of her, I should have. So I tip my hat to Dray for rescuing her from the abyss of history. But the Beatrice sections were a bit on the boring side. Dinner with a nondescript character here, tea with another character there…. I could tell there were tie-ins with characters from the WWII era, but we weren’t invested enough in those characters, who were barely mentioned or described, for those connections to be exciting in the way that a not-too-distant time-slip can be. I’m not even sure why we started Beatrice’s storyline where we did, or why precious pages were devoted to so many dawdling scenes. What I mean is, it seemed to take forever to get to the point with her portions, and I’m not sure we ever did. (Note: In the Author’s Note, Dray discusses her historical sleuthing that led to some quite remarkable finds about Beatrice. But those would have been a better fit in a biographical nonfiction book. Here, they distracted from the overall thesis of the book. Those discoveries’ connection to Lafayette were too tenuous to sustain the thread between the time-slip.)
I was a little more interested in the WWII Marthe bits because France was so…apocalyptic during WWII. Marthe is bi-sexual, which seems to have bothered some reviewers, but there have been bi-sexual people throughout history. Marthe is a fictional character, so it was Dray’s only opportunity to change things up a bit given the historical characters she was working with. But Marthe’s segments were largely her considering her attraction for a woman who was heterosexual and married (so…it was a storyline that never could develop). It is not much of an exaggeration to say that fifty percent of the WWII bits are Marthe merely exploring this attraction in her mind. Unrequited love is not unusual, but it’s not necessarily very interesting. Again, precious time to be wasting in a massive book which was attempting to cover enormous ground.
For both of these eras, these things just struck me as so much dawdling given the War and Peace size of the book. We could have (and should have) started two-thirds of the way in for both the WWI and WWII plot lines and more thoroughly explored those times, and both would have been much better stories with a tighter connection to Lafayette. I will say that the WWII parts felt very WWII—so well done to Dray for capturing an era. And I also liked Marthe as a character. It was brave to make her crabby and a sort of anti-heroine, and that part worked very well.
The Adrienne parts (American and French Revolution) were clearly the strongest. I wondered if that was because it always should have just been Adrienne’s story. Dray even says in the Author’s Note that this was what was originally intended. (Although, again, very compelling to make a broad sweep of French history, especially WWII.) But due to the necessity of covering two other storylines, Adrienne’s part, which was the largest in terms of years covered and scope, was cheated. Whereas we would see a week here, a few weeks later there with the more modern storylines, we would often see for Adrienne’s, “Three years had passed, and…” Instead of the soaring, poignant statement about a real woman’s role in historical events which leaves you pondering history itself (like the aforementioned two earlier books), Adrienne’s reads more like a biography, albeit a very well-written and succinct one.
There is little plumbing of the depths of her relationship with Lafayette, which I don’t think would have been inappropriate given that they were sort of the reason we’re here reading this book at all. Said plumbing of the depths of a marriage, although not always happy or pleasant, was one of the absolute wonders of both Martha Jefferson Randolph’s and Eliza Hamilton’s stories. The Lafayettes’ marriage was historically fascinating, and, while I know it would have been a huge undertaking to have dived in with both feet to all of that foreignness, drama, passion, and devotion, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t deeply disappointed that we didn’t.
Something that the Adrienne parts did very well was convey the origins of the French Revolution. The starvation and effective slavery of the French people in order to give the nobles wealth which had persisted for hundreds of years is actually included here. Dray highlights this dichotomy and settles the score on that front.
Something that it didn’t do so well was…include Lafayette. It felt like we talked about him more than we actually saw him, which weakened the story a great deal. He was so excluded that, if you didn’t know the background, you would almost have to wonder what the big deal was, why we were even talking about all of this. While in the Eliza Hamilton and Martha Jefferson Randolph books, you really get the impression that these two women play the vital role in shaping the legacy of the men they loved and that they were a driving force behind many of their actions, that wasn’t necessarily the case here. Certainly Adrienne was a remarkable and brave woman, but Lafayette was the driving force behind this particular history, and I think it would have been okay to have admitted that, or at least to have given him a more vital role in the narrative. Instead, it was a thesis (the legacy of Lafayette) based on a background which was never firmly established.
So…as you can see, I struggled a bit to get through this one. It was well-written, and Dray pays attention to prose in a way that not many modern authors do. There were some stunning lines, especially those devoted to concepts of liberty. I always trust Dray historically; you are safe in her hands. But the book needed an editor clipping out chunks, adjusting timelines, accelerating pacing, and removing boring bits. For these failures, I lean toward blaming the publishing industry. The whole thing felt rushed, like if more time had been given to consider what worked and didn’t work, all of this would have been figured out and the corrections made. There was nothing overwhelmingly wrong with the book that couldn’t have been corrected by some very slight adjustments here and there. But this book was obviously going to be a big earner, banking on Lafayette’s popularity in Hamilton, and publishers have a relatively narrow window to capitalize on that before it fades.
In other words, what was a well-written, exhaustively researched book based on a breath-taking premise was a bit boring and rambling when it could have been a showstopper. The searing resonance that I expected just was not present. But I will continue reading Dray and absolutely hope she and Kamoie continue their exploration of the Revolutionary generation. And do I think you should read The Women of Chateau Lafayette? Despite my criticisms, yes. Lafayette’s story and message of freedom should be shouted from the rooftops. I have always thought this, and always will.
The following is a collaboration by Lance Elliott Wallace of New South Essays Blog and Tara Cowan of Tea & Rebellion Blog. We are excited to share a Q&A on Southern life and culture based on questions we have received. Before we jump in, we thought we would give you an idea of our conception of Southern culture. Southern culture is, by its very nature, multicultural. Historically, the South is rich in diversity with heritages including Native American, Spanish, English, Scottish, Irish, African, French, Mexican, and Central and South American, just to name a few! A blending of many cultures and the passage of time has led to certain social trends, habits, and styles that can be identified as distinctly Southern. At the same time, there remain many individual cultures within the South that maintain their own distinctive identities. Self-identification as Southern cuts both ways, sometimes celebrating history and values that are not shared by the subcultures that make up the regional identity. It’s not always pretty, but the complexity provides endless opportunity for exploration and commentary. This is a broad overview to keep in mind as you read!
Q: What are some beautiful places to see outside?
Tara: The South in general has some beautiful national and state parks. The mountains of East Tennessee and North Carolina are gorgeous any time of year. Savannah, Georgia, is renowned for its many city parks. There is a lot of beauty in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. To me, the most beautiful place to be in the South is on the Gulf of Mexico; you can’t beat the pristine white sand or the emerald water.
Lance: Absolutely agree, Tara. Our family has vacationed at Santa Rosa Beach on 30A in Florida’s panhandle for nearly 20 years. The white sand and emerald green water are imprinted on my psyche providing the backdrop for some of our best memories. I have hiked the approach to the Appalachian Trail with each of my three boys beginning at Amicalola Falls in north Georgia, and those vistas still come to mind easily. We have also spent time in the mountains of North Carolina. We enjoyed hikes and driving through the high country of North Carolina during several trips with friends. West Jefferson and Blowing Rock are particularly scenic. One of the benefits of living in the Atlanta area is that I don’t have to drive far to get to beautiful beaches or scenic mountain tops. The cities I like best for their beauty are Savannah, Charleston and Asheville.
Q: Where are the best spots for food?
Lance: We have lived in the Atlanta area for 18 years and have enjoyed many wonderful meals in town for special occasions. Upscale dining in Buckhead offers the full range of world class fare while Midtown’s diversity has everything from updated versions of Southern staples like fried chicken and deviled eggs to Asian cuisine from every ethnic origin to fantastic Mexican flavors. As a native Texan, I have to put in a plug for the BBQ brisket in the Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio.
Tara: Yes! The South is famous for BBQ, and I think there is actually a bit of a competition between Texas and Tennessee (where I live)! For traditional Southern cooking, Tennessee is a great place—Nashville and Pigeon Forge particularly, if you are feeling touristy. If you want traditional blended with other influences (like French and Gullah Geechee), I’ve had fun exploring restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina. For seafood, I highly recommend Destin, Florida.
Q: What historic sites should I see?
Tara: There are so many different points of interest. If you are looking for an immersive historical experience, there is Williamsburg, VA, and several other Southern cities that put a premium on history, like Natchez, New Orleans, and Charleston. Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, is a must-see. McLeod Plantation Historic Site in South Carolina is a great place for a focus on the lives of an enslaved community and its descendants. I recently visited Shiloh National Military Park—obviously, there is a lot for Civil War buffs to see, but there are also Indian mounds preserved within the park, which is unique, and the park overlooks the Tennessee River and has a really stunning view.
Lance: I lived in Macon, Georgia, for 10 years, and it is often overlooked as a historic destination because of Savannah’s obvious claim to that reputation. In his march from Atlanta to Savannah, Sherman went around Macon, so there are great spots that survived the Civil War. If you do go, plan to spend time at Rose Hill Cemetery, take in the view from the Woodruff House atop Coleman Hill, tour the Hay House and see a show at the historic Grand Opera House. Macon’s architecture is amazing, and seeing the city when the Yoshino Cherry Trees are in bloom in March enhance the city’s charm.
Q: What is your favorite Southern tradition?
Lance: Though not nearly as fanatical as I once was, I have a genetic predisposition to enjoy sports. There is nothing better on a fall Saturday than to boil a pot of peanuts and watch college football from noon to midnight, interrupted only by firing up the grill and cooking something delicious. I know they play football all over the country, but in the South, college football is on a pedestal. No matter who you root for, you can find a way to care about any game on TV.
Tara: Grilling and college football—yes, indeed! It’s hard for me to identify exactly what Southern traditions are because I’ve never lived anywhere but the South. But I like the gathering (maybe someday again!), the close-knit families, the extensive Sunday dinners, and the ties to home.
Q: What is the craziest Southern tradition?
Tara: One that I hear people express the most shock over is our funerals. It may be more of a Middle Tennessee thing—I can’t speak to other places in the South. Funerals are a big deal in my area. A lot of what happens strikes me as very Victorian. You need to wear black or at least dark colors to the funeral. You stand in a queue and wait hours if necessary in order to talk with the family beside the casket, where you will be invited to look at the deceased for as long as you wish (and forced to do so if you express a wish not to). The deceased is open for viewing for about two days. The room will be bedecked with flowers people have ordered, which just before the funeral will be taken and set up at the site of the burial. Every person you know brings food until there is literally nowhere to put anything else. At the actual funeral, there is usually a preacher who delivers a message, and several songs will be performed. Funerals can run an hour or two hours long. Then, as if they were the royal family, the family of the deceased is taken to a motorcade where the funeral home employees have discreetly lined up the family vehicles in order of precedence (usually determined by relationship to the deceased). The other mourners fall in behind the hearse and the family if their vehicles have not also been lined up (and usually they have). A policeman (or several) leads the procession, and another usually follows. No matter how distant the cemetery, every person you meet on the road is required by social tradition to pull over on the side of the road. If you are behind a funeral procession, even on a highway, you are not to pass. At the cemetery, a tent is usually constructed over the burial site, where all of the mourners proceed, and you basically have another funeral. Then there is a huge meal. Some of it is amusing and exhausting, of course, but I think most all of it is done out of respect for the grieving family.
Lance: Having recently attended the funeral for my wife’s aunt, a beautiful service despite the pandemic precautions, I agree with Tara that the way Southern families conduct their funerals can be weird for some folks. One of my go-to phrases in conversation is “As they say at Southern funerals, ‘Don’t he look natural.’” Tara’s thoughtful response also reminds me of one of my favorite songs by Southern singer/songwriter Kate Campbell. It’s called “Funeral Food,” and it’s signature line will stick with you: “Pass the chicken, pass the pie. We sure eat good when someone dies.”
I would add that every Southern town has a festival. These border on the sacred in some places and the utterly ridiculous in others. The smaller the town, the weirder their festival. My personal favorite is the Kaolin Festival in Sandersville, Ga. This celebration of white clay mined in the region isn’t a household word in areas of the world bereft of these clay deposits, but this celebration of a substance found in everything from paper coating to toothpaste has a wonderful parade, a Kaolin Queen pageant and the requisite carnival rides out at the fairgrounds. The pandemic has put too many of these festivals on pause. Here’s hoping they can safely return soon.
Q: Why do Southerners sometimes refer to people from the North as “damn Yankees?”
Tara: I do hear that occasionally. It’s unfortunate and not very “Southern” given the emphasis on hospitality and friendliness in the South. The roots of the South using the term derogatorily are historical. Later on, it became a stereotype used when a Northerner did something displeasing to a Southerner, particularly something considered discourteous. Southerners tend to put a premium on social politeness, and there is a perception that Northerners aren’t as concerned with that. So when the stereotype is perceived as coming true, that is the label that gets stamped. Of course, none of this is really thought out by people today and stereotypes are just never fair. But history has a way of handing legacies down to us that tend to be perpetuated—however rude they may be!
Lance: All true, Tara, but let me take a slightly different approach here. Yes, there is still regional animosity between the former combatants of the “War of Northern Aggression” as it is still known with all seriousness in some quarters of the South. The phrase went mainstream in popular culture after the release in 1955 of the musical comedy “Damn Yankees,” which was adapted from the book “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop. It was adapted into a movie of the same name and released in 1958 starring Tab Hunter, Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston. The basic story is that a longsuffering Washington Senators fan, Joe Boyd, sells his soul to the devil to see his team beat the Yankees. I, for one, do not sit in judgment of the fictional Joe Boyd on that count. In real life, the New York Yankees have won 27 World Series titles since 1903, and they have been a nemesis of the teams I grew up a fan of—first the Texas Rangers and later the Atlanta Braves. It was painful to watch the Braves lose the 1996 World Series to the Yankees after jumping out to a 2-0 series lead, winning both games in New York by a combined score of 16-1. The Braves proceeded to lose the next four giving the Yankees their first title since 1978. Not prone to swearing, that series made me want to utter “damn yankees” more than once.
Q: (Three questions actually follow from this one!) When speaking of a modern Southern comedian, Lance recently wrote in a blog post, “…[H]e does have strong Southern bona fides, a recognizably Southern rhythm and pacing to his storytelling, and an authentic Southern voice that isn’t a caricature.” What do you think makes Southerners unique as storytellers?
Tara: Authenticity is key in good Southern storytelling. There is usually something that strikes a chord or touches us in Southern stories. There is a willingness to settle in and weave an intricate narrative. I think that quality is the legacy of cultural heritages renowned for oral storytelling—Native American, Scottish, Irish, and African, to name a few. Storytelling is a learned and practiced tradition from childhood on in the South.
Lance: Time, place and adversity have shaped Southerners into good storytellers. The late 19th Century was a simpler time, and much of life in the South was agrarian. People had more time and spent it together on the front porch because there was no air conditioning. With the advent of radio and TV and the ubiquity of air conditioning, the culture shifted, but for at least a generation the prevailing form of entertainment was listening to your elders tell stories on the front porch after supper or after Sunday dinner with the family. The stories that held the most resonance were filled with humor and heartache, both of which were in abundance at the turn of the 20th Century in the South. Southern stories have an element of self-deprecation, a respect for ingenuity and distrust of progress and technology. The comedians, writers and storytellers that are known for being Southern have mastered their craft by being good listeners and refining their stories after many retellings as they see the response of their audience. That’s why so many Southern storytellers I have been around, famous or just family, can entertain even when they tell the same story over and over. They blend the familiar with a few twists to keep it interesting. We listen to see if it will be different this time.
Q: What makes Southern storytelling’s rhythm and pacing distinctive?
Tara: There is a certain musical flow to Southern stories, something that draws you in gently but immediately and then flows like a river as it unfolds from there. There is a certain pulling from the past/working toward the future dichotomy that makes it circular. And a distinctive tone to Southern storytelling reflects Southern speech patterns.
Lance: My grandmother had a way of stringing the details of her stories together with the verbal pause “and uh” that gave her stories a rhythm. Like a sermon in the African American church tradition, her stories would start slow and build to a dramatic conclusion, usually humorous. She would often laugh at her own stories. She called it “tickled.” I am “tickled” anytime I get to hear such a story. I agree, Tara, Southern storytelling is musical, whether it’s read or heard. To get a sense of what I mean, pick up a copy of Rick Bragg’s latest book, “Where I Come From” or any of his previous works. Read a few paragraphs out loud, and you’ll hear it immediately.
Q: Are Southerners caricatured in media such as movies, books, etc.? If so, what makes a Southern voice have an authentic ring?
Lance: Without a doubt. As a fan of Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” television adaptation of the Cohen brothers film, though, I have to admit that any time a region becomes the focus of a story, the opportunity for caricature exists. I see it most when someone without experience or appreciation of the South attempts to tell a Southern story. They paint with too broad a brush. Because I like to listen to accents, no matter where they are from, it’s often the over-done dialect that makes it so egregious. I like it best when writers, storytellers and actors capture the specifics of a Southern place. There is no one accent or way of life down South. If they know us well enough to grasp the nuances, they can avoid caricature and actually tell a story with authenticity. My favorite theme is the underestimated Southerner that turns the stereotype on its head. I know that can be its own cliche, but I am drawn to stories that flip the script. As for authenticity, I think that emerges from directness, lack of pretense, and color. Honesty is often hard to take, but Southerners can speak from their heart with surprising frankness.
Tara: That is a good point, Lance, that when any region becomes a focus there is an opportunity for or danger of caricature. I also see caricature a lot with religious or ethnic minority groups—any group that is numerically smaller in the broader culture. But yes, Southerners are caricatured broadly to the extent that when a character actually feels like a Southerner, it is a welcome surprise. Behaviors are stereotyped (wearing big hair, being backwards, practicing oppressive forms of religion, being prejudiced more than the general population, etc.). I agree that the accents are often the most cringeworthy. A Southern voice (and as an author, I can add any voice) has more authenticity when the character is first presented as a person and only then as a person who may have certain distinctive regional or cultural traits.
Q: What makes Southern society complex and complicated?
Tara: History. The South has a troubled, or one might almost say tortured history. The presence of slavery deep into the nineteenth century, the forced removal of Native Americans, and an almost caste-based social structure have all made the South and its history complicated, to say the least. There is a history of deep prejudice that still gives the region a troubled legacy today. That’s not to say that the whole country, or every country, doesn’t have the same truth. Prejudice exists in the South and everywhere. To deny that would be to paper over the very real, lived experience of many.
Simultaneously, I think the South has been forced to deal with prejudice on a fundamental level in a way that other regions may not have. I recently read a study that found that quantifiable inequality (unemployment, home ownership, education, etc.) was several percentage points less in the South as a region than in the nation as a whole. But that is not the general perception of Southern society.
Adding to the complexity, the South has also historically been riddled with poverty, to the extent that the default “American” in media or popular imagination is not Southern. Not being the default obviously leads to some problematic handling of the region as a whole by the uninitiated. For example, we wouldn’t normally allow for critical caricatures of people struggling with poverty, but the stereotype of all Southerners as prejudiced somehow makes those depictions acceptable, which does real damage.
And yet, the legacy of an aristocratically tiered social structure does still persist. There is a bit of a “haves and have-nots” element to Southern society that adds another dimension to the complexity, all the more so because it isn’t necessarily in a good versus evil way of a Dickens novel. The complexity of Southern society is profoundly difficult to grasp, but I can say for certain that a lot of it goes back to history.
Lance: Well said, Tara. The South’s agrarian history, which is rapidly being erased, contributes to the complexity. Moving from an inequitable and exploitative rural economy to a high tech and services based economy has changed the landscape so quickly, many who control the systems of wealth and influence have leveraged the old prejudices to stoke division and maintain control. Race is just one level of the conflict. Class is another. And with the growing abandonment and diversification of religious practice, there are even more opportunities for cultural clashes. It’s complicated because it feels like whenever there is progress toward unity, there are ugly, violent events that remind us of the past and erase any gains in trust and goodwill. We’re never that far from what the Baptists call “backsliding.” It feels to me like an addict in recovery. We can never get too confident we’re over the old troubles. We have to take it one day at a time, with humility, and try to do better accepting people for who they are as individuals and not for their membership in a larger group identity.
Q: How is the South and Southern culture changing?
Tara: I think the concept of Southernness may be developing into something that reflects more of the diversity that we have talked about. I feel like there was a time when identification with Southern culture was more common among middle- and upper-class people of European ancestry. But it seems like that perception is broadening today to acknowledge and include the culture and contributions of more and more of those who live in the South. I haven’t researched in this area, so I base this on the fact that I hear people identify as Southern who might not have done so in the past and see Southern magazines exploring the Southernness and contributions to the South of people who may first identify as something other than Southern. This is definitely a great question for Lance!
Lance: This is the very question at the root of New South Essays. I’ve mentioned some of it above. We’re becoming more urban, technology dependent and diverse. Small towns are drying up because people are moving to where the jobs are, and population loss in rural areas is palpable. Family is still important, but jobs are taking people farther and farther away from their roots. We’re experiencing a mix of stubborn pride and pervasive shame over a past that we once reflected on and talked about often. Now, everything about Southern is being reinterpreted. I find particularly interesting the work that The Bitter Southerner and The Oxford American are doing in that regard. I hope one of the messages people take away from my blog is that it’s OK to be Southern and talk about it openly and honestly. It helps to be humble and self deferential with a healthy dose of humor, which I see as growing in the New South.
Q: What is the best thing about the South?
Tara: For me it is the hospitality. Southern history is, of course, fraught and complicated, and, like anywhere else, it still isn’t a perfect place. But at its best today, there is a kindness to Southern culture, a sort of “welcome home” feeling that can and should be extended to all.
The best way to explain would be through a visit to Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room in Savannah, Georgia. There are ten or eleven people seated at a big table that is reminiscent of a Sunday dinner. You pass about a dozen dishes back and forth between you, making conversation all the while like you’re family. People line up and wait for hours for this experience with total strangers. Both times I’ve been, people from different regions or countries want to know all of the details of Southern life, and of course the Southerners are happy to oblige. This leads to trading stories about our homes and the different ways cultures do things. The last time I went, at our table were: my sister and me, a couple from Canada with their two children, an Indian American couple from Manhattan, and a couple from Alabama. All were such lovely people, and if we had met in any other setting, we might never have been acquainted with one another well enough to have known that. But when we left, we all talked about the connection we had felt. I still remember what all of their faces looked like, and for that moment, we were family. It’s a transforming experience, connecting with total strangers just because you can really feel harmony and peace around you. I really think the world would be a kinder place if everyone could experience that type of distinctly Southern setting, because you get to see the goodness in people, and you remember that and carry it with you. Southern hospitality mixing with Southern cooking is just one of the greatest things in the world.
Lance: I can’t argue with that, Tara! We’ve covered most of what I truly enjoy already, but I would be remiss if I didn’t devote some space here to Southern writers. I hope you will check out Tara’s books that weave history and relationships in a way that expose relatable truths. My favorite Southern writer of all time is Clyde Edgerton. I find the work of Larry Brown gritty and real. I’ve always enjoyed Rick Bragg, as I mentioned, and William Faulkner’s well-documented contributions inspired me to take up writing in the first place. You don’t have to be a Southerner to appreciate great Southern literature, and as it diversifies, its impact only grows.
Tara Cowan the author of the Torn Asunder Series, including Southern Rain, Northern Fire, and Charleston Tides. She writes fiction set mostly in the South and loves all things history, travel, and culture. An attorney, Tara lives in Middle Tennessee and is busy writing her next novel.
A former newspaper reporter and editor, Lance Elliott Wallace chronicles life in the New South from his home in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn. He is a Fort Worth, Texas, native who has lived in Central Florida, Alabama and Georgia, gaining a fascination with contemporary Southern culture along the way.
Today is Veterans Day in America. I thought that, in special recognition of this day, I would talk about a class I took in college that meant a great deal to me and greatly influences my writing: The American War Novel. We got to discuss topics like the changing attitudes regarding PTSD throughout the centuries, the conceptualization of women in war literature, realism versus romanticism, and the nitty gritty effects of war on the people who fight them.
Our professor was just out of grad school “up north” as we say in the South, and he brought to Tennessee Tech a passion for war and trauma literature (shout out to Dr. Williams!). It was a small class in which we sat in a circle and discussed the literature assigned.
Going chronologically through history, we started with some essays and excerpts from the nineteenth century. There was a lot of romantic and flowery language during this era, the language of glory in death, etc. It is beautiful language but way off base in accuracy, according to most veterans, in that it doesn’t touch on the realities of war. I always thought that this rhetoric, which was what much of America took into the Civil War, must have led to a huge wake-up call in the wake of what became America’s most violent conflict to date. It may even have prolonged the conflict. You see in primary documents people clinging to this rhetoric of glory and “knights on a charger” even amidst the growing casualty counts deep into the war.
After that, we read The Red Badge of Courage. This book, written about the Civil War by Stephen Crane in 1895 (thirty years after the conflict ended), is, according to Matthew Arnold, “a touchstone for modern war fiction.” In other words, it is the mother of all war novels. While “the war” is kind of universal in The Red Badge, most believe that The Battle of Chancellorsville is the setting. Crane’s work is remarkable in that it obliterates the clichés of prior war fiction, giving us a depiction of a young boy who is simply a human, afraid that he will run at his first battle. Every sentence is literary and could be carefully unpacked. Romantic traditions are rejected in favor of reality and genuine courage. I remember so vividly Henry Fleming’s inner struggle. Even though we as a class could never take away a distinct “meaning” from the book (not a bad thing), it resonates. And I have to think that was due largely in part to the fact that Crane interviewed a lot of Civil War veterans.
We moved on to Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. This is about an American lieutenant serving in World War I in Italy who falls in love with his nurse, Catherine, after he is injured. It is part gruesome and realistic war novel and part romance (although not in a happy-go-lucky way). I liked this one for its narrative ease, for the way Hemingway strips his language down to the bare bones, and for the fact that a woman featured prominently in it. However, the really depressing ending stays with you long after you read it. It does contain one of my favorite quotes, however: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Just don’t read the line after that—hope never lasts long with Hemingway!
Next, we read Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, which was WWII-related and linked to the firebombing of Dresden. It was also part sci-fi, part meta, part really off-the-wall novel! This was not my cup of tea at all, but I am glad we read it to get exposure to all of the different varieties of war novels, and Vonnegut is certainly one of the legends of the war novel genre. My reaction paper for this one was about the sexism used towards every female in the novel and my theory that it was done to highlight the degradations towards women that sexism causes (in other words, in an attempt to help, not to hurt). The sexism was so blatant that my professor commented on my paper, “I really hope you’re right!”
After that, we moved on to Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko. This was my favorite war novel and stands as one of my favorite novels of all time. It is about a Native American soldier who fought in WWII in the Pacific Theater and was forced to take place in the Bataan Death March. After this, he returns to his tribe with what was then called “battle fatigue,” and would now be known as PTSD. We follow his journey to healing, which was aided by the spiritualism of his heritage. It was beautiful. I remember feedback from a fellow student who was commenting on how fascinating the war’s effects were to explore through the Native American experience. She said, “When I try to think, What is the opposite of PTSD, I think, It is balance.” Balance is such an important concept in Native American culture, so in this and in many other ways, you watch an entire culture’s answers to his illness come to the forefront. I presented on this book in my class, and the subject I chose was the history of the Bataan Death March and the physical toll it took on the soldiers. This book was a wonderful contribution to American literature, and, for me, a constant reminder that, of all racial, ethnic, and cultural American groups, per capita, Native Americans served in the largest number in WWII.
Next, we read Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien. O’Brien is a Vietnam veteran who went on to write war novels. I think he is most famous for his book, The Things They Carried. O’Brien has a lot to tell us about the nature of war as it is actually fought and lived. He was almost like a second professor for our class; we read so many of his quotes that they could frame almost every discussion we had. For instance, we talked about the theme of masculinity in war, or the concept in literature that, if war does nothing else, it makes you a man. The thing I loved about O’Brien was that he seeks to present you with the truth; he doesn’t deny any reality about war. His answer to the “war makes men out of boys conversation?” He agrees, but he doesn’t stop there. He says, “War makes you a man; war makes you dead.” Try grappling with that quote! He talks about the beauty of war and juxtaposes it with its grotesque nature. In addition to the Hemingway quote above, another of my favorites is by O’Brien: “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love.” That quote has influenced me so much as I grapple with war themes in my own novels. It gives a first-person perspective to those of us who have not fought in wars but want to honor the experiences of those who have in our own writing. Cacciato is about a soldier in Vietnam who sets off on a journey to find another soldier who has gone AWOL. It was another book that was very heavy on the literary elements. It blends reality and fantasy. It wasn’t my favorite, but Tim O’Brien is certainly worth discovering.
Last, we read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. This one featured an Iraq war veteran who is sent on a victory tour after coming home. It explores the reactions Americans had to troops during the Iraq/Afghanistan wars and the ways in which they might not have been helpful. For instance, really vivid in my remembrance is the scene in which Billy and his group are expected to go down on a football field at halftime while Destiny’s Child performing. It was revealing about the fact that we need to go much, much deeper in addressing the needs of returning veterans. However, it was, in my opinion, a bit too political. Our class was all over the political spectrum, and everyone seemed to agree on that. Like I said, though, there were lessons to be gleaned from it.
We were slated to read In Country, by Bobbie Ann Mason but had to cut it because we ran out of time. I was disappointed by that because it details the home front experiences of a little girl during Vietnam. Most war novels focus primarily on men, and I would like to read more featuring women (one of the reasons I focused so heavily on women’s experiences in Northern Fire). We did discuss women in relation to every book, era, and theme, however, so I felt like I left with a pretty good grasp of war novel trends throughout time with regards to women. If you want to see a movie that plays with a lot of those themes (and don’t laugh…), I actually have to tell you that Mulan (animated) is excellent. You can tell that the writers were students of the war novel genre. Every song could be used as one of the war novel themes we discussed in relation to women. For example, “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” was a recurring theme in early war literature, etc.
I really like the genre of the war novel. It is a field that builds on every previous generation’s theme, almost as if all of the authors from Stephen Crane onward are having a conversation. We discussed many difficult themes, and I think the class helped me to get just a small glimpse inside of the experience of those on the frontlines of wars and conflicts. In the words of O’Brien, “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”
To all veterans, thank you is not enough. “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including the silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” – Tim O’Brien
Hello again, friends! My sister, Hannah, and I sat down for a Q&A about Northern Fire, and I have also included some questions from some wonderful readers. Some are about the book, some are about writing in general, and some are about me! (Just a word of caution, if you haven’t yet read Southern Rain, there might be a few spoilers for that one! However, there shouldn’t be any spoilers for Northern Fire, and I encourage you to read the Q&A before you read it.) Here we go!
Hannah: What was the inspiration for Northern Fire? Was it hard to narrow down your ideas?
Tara: It’s all very hazy now, but I think the inspiration for the Torn Asunder Series came to me while I was taking a walk during my two-month intense isolation/study time for the Bar Exam. I had this idea for this historical heroine who leaves her husband, an absolutely shocking thing for the Civil War Era, and I really wanted to know how that would play out. Hmm, could I pair it with this modern storyline about a preservationist that had been floating in my head? Yes, I could! It’s not usually hard to narrow down your ideas because something always comes to you passionately and has to get out.
Hannah: What kind of audience do you expect to read Northern Fire?
Tara: The tendency is to say women who love Historical Fiction/Romance, but several men have read and liked Southern Rain, too. I think, between the history, the modern romance, and the Women’s Fiction dimension, there is something for everybody. I will refer you to the Q&A for Southern Rain for information about young readers/parents’ discretion, which can be found in its own special tab on my blog at http://www.teaandrebellion.com. As always, you can contact me if you have any questions.
Hannah: What should the reader know going into Northern Fire?
Tara: I think I always underestimated the series, in that, whether modern or historical, I thought it was going to be lighter than it was. There are some heavy topics, which may be difficult for some people. There are a couple of sad scenes and some overarching struggles that may be relatable for a lot of people, in both good and tough ways. I think the advantage of having a book that tends towards heaviness is that, wherever there is pain, there is also a lot of depth.
Hannah: How do you deal with difficult subjects? How do you strike the balance of far enough/too far?
Tara: It’s sometimes hard to know how much is too far. I have learned that a good rule of thumb for me is that if something makes me uncomfortable, I should probably take it a step further even from there and push the boundaries a little bit to experience the truth of the story. When a book does tend towards heaviness, the great balancer is always hope. Human life is so difficult, but there is such beauty in it, too. It’s important not to overlook either.
So many readers: Why don’t you just give Shannon and John Thomas a baby already?!
Tara: So sorry! This is probably the number one question I have gotten. It’s touching that everyone is so worried about their happiness. When I first started reading clean historical romance about twelve years ago, I found some truly talented authors, and many of those books have beloved spots on my shelves. But I noticed a recurring structure: boy meets girl, usual struggles ensue, they get together, happy ending equals healthy baby. That didn’t quite ring true to me. Historically speaking, a lot of couples struggled in conceiving (George and Martha Washington, James and Dolley Madison, Andrew and Rachel Jackson) or in carrying to term (Louisa Catherine Adams, Mary Church Terrell). Sometimes the mother died from something as simple as severe morning sickness during the pregnancy (Charlotte Brontë). If you could have a baby, the birth was an extreme ordeal for which you could thank God if both mother and child survived (Stonewall Jackson’s first wife died from a hemorrhage just after giving birth, and their child was stillborn). Lots of men had two families because the first wife died in “childbed” (Theodore Roosevelt). Many women made it through the birth only to linger and die from puerperal fever or physical complications (Thomas Jefferson’s wife) days, weeks, or months later. Of course, for those who did not have as many difficulties, families were often large due to lack of effective birth control methods, and I think that is perhaps where the idea that “everyone in history had eight kids” comes from. But even for those large families, it is difficult to think of a historical figure who did not lose a child to a childhood illness. All of that is a long way of saying that I’m not sure the notion, historically speaking, of a happy ending culminating in a modern-type birth where there are no worries quite passes muster. I kind of wanted to represent the full range of historical experiences in this story. Shannon struggles, while Marie has a whiplash-inducing honeymoon baby. And, while I won’t tell you here whether Shannon and John Thomas have a baby, or even whether they reunite (this is all just a matter of plot), I will tell you that their ultimate peace, if they find it, will be in acceptance of whatever situation in which God places them, of themselves just as they are, and of God just as He is, which is what I think we all must find before we can get down to the more trivial business of daily happiness.
Hannah: What do you think it takes to make a strong male character likeable, but also real? Do you think John Thomas and/or Adrian apply?
Tara: My sister and I (ahem) talk about this a lot. For me, a main male character (“MMC”) has to be loyal, and his love cannot waver. He also has to be gentle with the female character, physically speaking—there can be no love where there is any sort of fear. I don’t mind a good argument, but I don’t like a lot of yelling or any verbal abuse. I also like the MMC to be capable and to have a good grasp on his situation. I like to write male characters that you know are good ones, deep down. I don’t think that’s an unrealistic expectation at all (and if it is, we’re better off alone, girls!). Other than that, I think the sky is the limit! I love writing all different sorts of male characters. It’s totally okay for them to have their own struggles. They don’t have to be superheroes. Do John Thomas and Adrian apply to my criteria? Funnily enough, I’ve had several people tell me they don’t trust Adrian yet. So I hope this isn’t a spoiler when I say that: yes, they meet all of my main criteria. I will say that they both surprised me with the depth of their emotion by the end of the series, which I loved.
Hannah: Do you relate to Shannon or Adeline personally?
Tara: I always say that there is a little bit of me in all of my characters. I relate to Adeline’s love for history, desire to keep the peace, and awkwardness. I don’t relate to her laid-back personality, or her ability to not overthink things, unfortunately. I think every human being can relate to Shannon, since she kind of represents the human condition, that knot of tension that grows in all of us from childhood on, through numerous and varying causes. She also represents the choice we have of letting those dark forces overtake us or of overcoming them through the only way I know how—clinging to God.
Hannah: You put a lot of work into side characters. Do you ever wish the main plot had followed them instead of your MMC and MFC?
Tara: I know you’re asking this because you love Frederick and Marie. Sometimes, I wish I had made Frederick’s story on equal par with Shannon’s. However, sometimes, there is something enticing about a side-character only when the person is a side character, so I think it worked out fine.
Tammi: What other interests do you have, in addition to history and crafting stories?
Tara: That’s a great question! My day job is a lawyer, and I’m fortunate enough to work with my brother. I do a lot of property law, but my favorite thing to do is estate planning. I read a lot of historical fiction. I watch pretty much any historical drama that comes on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu. I really enjoy Audible for books that I would love to read but don’t really have time to dig into, like historical biographies and religious/theological books. I have been studying Contemplative Prayer and have found a lot of meaning in learning to listen for God’s voice in new (to me) ways. I love antiquing, particularly buying old furniture. Of course, I absolutely love touring historic homes. I just bought an old house, so there is always something to keep me busy. The History Chicks Podcast and Ben Franklin’s World Podcast have become something I love to have on in the background while I’m cleaning or working in the house. I like to listen to music and have several playlists on Spotify. I played piano in another life and would like to get back to that soon. I like Royal Watching and follow the “From Berkshire to Buckingham” Instagram page and blog for fun analysis. I love going to plays and am fortunate to have three excellent amateur theaters nearby. I’ve recently gotten back into shopping/fashion in an effort to step up my wardrobe. And I have been dieting for about four years now and in the course of that have picked up a lot of healthy eating habits, so I’m always looking for great vegetarian or organic options.
Josette: What is your favorite historical book?
Tara: I always have trouble narrowing this down because I love so many. For historical fiction, I’ll have to give you four, loosely in order of my preference: A Bride Most Begrudging, by Deeanne Gist, Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer, The Silent Governess, by Julie Klassen, and America’s First Daughter, by Laura Kamoie and Stephanie Dray. For books that were written in historical times, I would have to say: Persuasion, by Jane Austen, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë, and The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery.
But if I had to pick an absolute favorite, that would probably be A Bride Most Begrudging. I’ve read it so many times, expecting it to disappoint as I get older, but it never does.
Tammi: Do you listen to music while you write?
Tara: I make a playlist on Spotify for every book or series. Sometimes I listen, and sometimes I prefer silence. I always play a song which I’ve chosen as a kind of theme for the book when I write the last scene and just push replay over and over until the scene is finished. I really like music with choir or strings and piano. I love The Piano Guys, Scala & Kolacny Brothers, Paul Cardall, Helen Jane Long, and 2Cellos. I had never heard of a lot of them until I started listening to the Scala & Kolacny Brothers Pandora Station (after hearing their music for the Downton Abbey trailers), and now they’re some of my favorites!
Tammi: How much time do you spend writing each day?
Tara: I used to spend about an hour or two writing every day, even while I was in law school. Now, sometimes I’m not able to do that because of eye strain from said law school. So I usually end up writing on the weekends. I like to write in bulk and might write for eight hours one day and none for the next four days. If I’m really feeling inspired and am able, I usually write for about two hours per day.
Tammi: Where do you write?
Tara: In my living room. I like a room with lots of windows and light. I have a desk that I wrote three novels on in college and still sit there sometimes, but I often write on my couch now.
Tammi: How did you become interested in writing historical fiction?
Tara: My mom would bring me home Christian Historical Fiction books that she had bought on the sale shelf at our local Hastings bookstore. I absolutely devoured them (Deeanne Gist, Julie Klassen, Lynn Austin…) One day, I said, “I just love these!” And my mom said, “Why don’t you write one?”
Tammi: When did you start writing?
Tara: When I was seventeen, pretty much right after that conversation with my mom. 🙂 That’s been about eleven years now. My first manuscript was written in a composition notebook and was set in Nineteenth Century England. It was terrible. 🙂
Tammi: When did you develop your love for history?
Tara: My mom was a 5th and 6th grade Social Studies teacher during my childhood, and my dad likes history, too, so my siblings and I grew up in a very history-friendly household. My mom would tell us fascinating historical tidbits. My parents knew how to make history fun, taking us to Washington, D.C. and Charleston when we were little, with the emphasis always on history. I remember one Sunday, they took us (after wrangling us all to church and back, no less!) with the grandparents to Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville. I remember when we walked through the door and the docent directed our attention to the ruby glass above the door. “Pretty,” she said, “but there to serve no other purpose than displaying the Harding family’s wealth.” Me: Oooh. My brother and I found that fascinating. Then came the time for the trip down to the mausoleum. (I should note that in Middle Tennessee, mourning customs were heavily followed and are always a huge part of most any tour.) I was petrified. I was not going down there. Luckily, my grandpa felt the same. Skirting the cooling pad (yes, where they laid out the bodies—it was just lying in the hall, for crying out loud!), he found a bench and said, “Sissy, I think I’m going to sit right here.” My response: “Me, too, Pa!” That trip is one of my fondest childhood memories.
Matthew M.: How did you get interested in the American Civil War?
Tara: I actually started out with an aversion to the Civil War. I always liked history, but I remember looking at pictures of the battles in my 5th grade textbook and feeling horrified. I kind of stayed away from the Civil War until I needed to fulfill my history credits at Tennessee Tech, and one of Tech’s history professors was teaching his nearly-famous course on the Civil War and Reconstruction. He really brought the Civil War alive for us. It was an intensive course, with multiple books, articles, papers, etc., and we were required to learn battle movements and plans for all of the major battles and recite them in narratives on our tests. We covered all aspects—the home front, the lives of the enslaved, theories that developed in the post-war era… After that, I wrote a series which follows several siblings in Civil War Era Virginia. I think setting a family drama in that era and researching minute details for so long is what finally tipped me over the edge for the Civil War. The opportunities for drama are boundless, the range of human emotions breath-taking. We see the best and worst of humanity, and, as an author, that’s exciting to explore. I realized that if I could get a little braver in dealing with a very tough time period, there was a wellspring of experiences to be discovered and retold!
Matthew M.: Do you use any primary source material for your novels?
Tara: Yes, I absolutely love getting my hands on a letter which gives special insight to the time period. You can find some great letters in online archives, and I have a book called War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars by Andrew Carroll, which has been great. I also find that docents are excellent to read you parts of letters when you tour historic homes. And touring historic homes is something I love to do to get a feel for the time period, and, if it’s close enough to my setting, the place. Seeing an antique from the time period can really ground you in the era, too. I also read diaries and recipes from the era, and I look at a lot of photos or portraits for the fashion.
Reaching out beyond that, I also look at scholarly works or biographies. For the Torn Asunder Series, some of the books I read in preparation were:
At the Precipice, by Shearer Davis Bowman The Civil War at Sea, by Craig L. Symonds An Antebellum Plantation Household, by Anne Sinkler Whaley LeClercq Grant, by Ron Chernow
Hannah: Not all authors enjoy the subjects of their own books. Would you devour this one?
Tara: I would read it, yes, and I think I would enjoy it. I have written other books that are more to my taste. I think this one is geared more towards my sister’s taste (wink). But there is, I hope, always an element that I strive to put in my books that makes you want to keep reading or read the next one. Can I tell you a secret? There’s another cliffhanger in Northern Fire! Gotta run now before readers attack me!
Stop by the Southern Rain FAQ Page for some more questions answered about the series and my writing in general. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me!
Review: Summer by the Tides and Lake Season by Denise Hunter
I’ve been a huge Denise Hunter fan for about ten years. If she writes it, I read it. I actually delved into Summer by the Tides, a stand-alone novel that comes between the Blue Ridge and Bluebell Inn Series, back in July of 2019 while I was on vacation, but I never got around to reviewing it. I’m actually glad, because I think the two books are good to review together, since both represent new literary angles for Denise Hunter.
Okay, you know the drill by now. I always try to let you know my biases up front so that you can judge for yourself how seriously to take my review. 😊 I was fortunate enough to begin my Denise Hunter journey with The Convenient Groom. It was exquisitely magical. I followed it up almost immediately with Surrender Bay. It was perhaps even more enchanting. I loved the books so much that I, as a high school senior, broke surreptitiously into my mom’s Christmas stash, where I knew a copy of Seaside Letters was just sitting there, waiting for me, unread and lonely. I had a third of it read between getting home from school and driving to volunteer at a Kids of the Community Christmas event. Needless to say, the Nantucket series set the bar pretty high for me. It has, unfairly, always been the measure by which I judge every new Denise Hunter book.
Now, you should know that I devour every new Hunter book as soon as I get it in the mail. They’re always eminently readable, another reason she is one of my favorite authors. But for me, there are tiers of Denise Hunter Books. In the top tier are those in which what I have termed “Denise Hunter Magic” are present and include: The Convenient Groom, Surrender Bay, Seaside Letters, Dancing with Fireflies, Falling Like Snowflakes, and The Goodbye Bride. There’s just a little something special to these books, a certain tightness of plot, deep romantic chemistry, and a little fairy dust. The second tier are those books which are still better than any other modern books and have a great romantic plot, but which are lacking in said fairy dust. Those include: Sweetwater Gap, Sweetbriar Cottage, Blue Ridge Sunrise, On Magnolia Lane, Just a Kiss, and Married ‘til Monday.
The third tier are those in which there is less romantic chemistry for me. I still buy them, I still read them quickly, I still enjoy them – they’re just not soul-stirring. Unfortunately, both Summer by the Tides and Lake Season fall into the third tier for me. That being said, I want you to keep in mind that this is all just a matter of taste. I could really see a lot of people going crazy over these two books, especially Lake Season. We all come to the table with different backgrounds and biases, and I’ve already told you that my bar is extremely high, and I’m guessing you’ve realized by now that I’m also an extremely picky reader. Neither of these books should be easily written off, and that’s why I’m going to give them both a review. Here we go!
Summer by the Tides:
When I picked up this book by the pool in Florida, I read it really quickly and enjoyed it quite a bit. Summer by the Tides is Denise Hunter’s first foray into Women’s Fiction, which is characterized by putting all or most of the emphasis on the female protagonist, with a lot of attention paid to female friendship or family relationships. There is usually a romantic thread, but it takes a back seat to the woman’s journey or growth. I love Women’s Fiction. I think it’s actually more realistic for most people than a heady romance. I loved that Denise Hunter was flexing her writing muscles in this modern direction – go Denise! But because of the biases I discussed above, I want romance from Denise Hunter, doggonit! 😊 I fully acknowledge that this is not fair at all.
There was romance in the book, and I actually remember liking the male lead quite a bit. But…that’s about all I remember about it, to be honest. I has been only about nine months since I read the book, and I couldn’t remember a single thing about the book or the female lead, which is very unusual for me. So I had to go back and refresh myself.
Once I did that, I was actually quite impressed. There was a lot of work put into the characters and into the storyline. I think it was just that I was longing for the romance to be the focus, coupled with the fact that, while the Women’s Fiction element was good (the female lead’s relationship with her sisters), it actually felt a little formulaic to me, like a plot from a Women’s Fiction generator. By that, I mean that I’ve seen very similar things done in Women’s Fiction books several times; there wasn’t a fresh angle.
But if you get a chance to go on vacation this summer, take it, read it, enjoy it. Your reading experiences might be so different from mine that it will be your perfect book. It will be a great summer read, either way.
Lake Season represents another departure from Denise Hunter’s norm. This is actually a time-slip novel, in which we alternate between present day and the 1960’s. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but, while we’ve seen flashbacks in a character’s own life, I don’t think there has been a Denise Hunter book yet which follows a historical thread of different characters. I also thought there was a general difference in atmosphere: this book was a little moodier, almost putting you in mind of a Nicholas Sparks book.
Speaking of Nicholas Sparks…the male lead, an author, definitely draws some inspiration from him, and there are references to The Notebook throughout. I liked Adam. He is a beta hero, which is always endearing. I also liked Molly. However, I don’t think Molly was ever three-dimensional for me, and there was just something lacking in the chemistry between the two. The kissing scenes were great. Other than that…no sparks.
I think the modern story line put too much dependence on the historical storyline. Even though the modern portion really constituted the bulk of the book, there just wasn’t enough substance there, not enough emphasis on the emotional things of the present day. It focused almost entirely on the historical mystery, and, frankly, I guessed the secrets, all of them, about the historical storyline almost immediately. The historical part suffered from being a really predictable plot.
The beginning of the book plods along, but the second half is, admittedly, quite a bit better. Every one of the elements for a really moving book were there in the strong finish, but somehow, it just didn’t all come together for me. But again, it might for you!
There are going to be two more books in the Bluebell Inn Series, with one set to release on May 19, and another this October.
Last night, my mom, sister, and I had a movie night. Since we are all huge Jane Austen fans, we decided on Emma, which, even though the movie wouldn’t normally be out of its theater run, has been made available for streaming from various sources since theater-gathering is currently discouraged.
Emma is one of my favorite Jane Austens, largely because of the extremely cozy village she was able to create in Highbury and because Mr. Knightley definitely rivals Mr. Darcy in swoon-worthy gentlemanliness. I have read and enjoyed the book, and this is the fourth film adaptation of Emma I have seen, so I was coming into this with some rather pre-conceived ideas about what a successful adaptation of the story should look like. So there you go: I always try to let you know my biases up-front.
There were things the 2020 adaptation did better than any of its predecessors. For one, the cinematography is excellent. The vistas and ballrooms are stunning, and I have heard that a lot of work went into choosing an appropriate and eye-catching color palette, which was a creative idea. You leave with an impression of color in your mind’s eye, and take away beautiful and cheery lighting. My only reservation was that, just occasionally, the color could be slightly too much, and you felt like we had strayed into candy land. But that was only very occasionally, such as when there was a big fluffy cake sitting on the table or when we’re shopping for ribbons in a lollipop of color. The outdoor scenes are unrivalled in beauty, though.
The costumes are exquisite, and I noticed particular attention was paid to the shoes. You could tell the designers really looked at fashion plates from the Regency Era, because there is nothing (except maybe one pair of earrings) that jerks you out of the time period. In addition, there are special details on the dresses, etc. that are very Regency-appropriate that I’m not sure I have ever seen any other Regency film use. In short, 10 out of 10 stars for the costuming department. My one question was whether Mr. Knightley would have worn his shirt collars quite so high. Georgette Heyer has led me to believe that only dandies wore their collars so high that they had difficulty turning their heads. But in contrast to being a dandy, Mr. Knightley always struck me as a country gentleman, a man of sport and the land, preferring to ride a horse to fancy dinner parties than take his carriage. However, I do not profess to be an expert on the subject of all of the subsets of Regency gentlemen (dandies, Corinthians, fops, etc.) and Georgette Heyer is admittedly my only source. And maybe my vision was clouded by the fact that this particular Mr. Knightley was ten times as handsome when we could glimpse his neck. 🙂
The next thing that was well-done was attention to historical details. We get to see a lot of antiques and how they were used. We see (humorously) the function of fire screens, and we also get to watch a very fun parlor game in progress. Also revealing was the intimacy that dancing induced (I had forgotten that one was supposed to stare into one’s partner’s eyes). It was a little easier after watching a dance performed in that way to understand why there were so many rules of etiquette surrounding the art of dancing, and why so many feathers were ruffled when the rules were broken. I love when visual history explains something we wouldn’t otherwise understand!
The characters were also jazzed-up a little. At first, I was a little nervous about the changes that I knew were going to be made to Mr. Woodhouse (Emma’s father) and Miss Bates. But I would go anywhere Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart want to take me. I cannot think of better or more trust-worthy choices if you are going to change up well-known characters. And, while I am a stickler for following a book exactly, I actually didn’t mind these changes. They weren’t drastic, and both were in keeping with the spirit of the characters. If I’m being honest, I actually enjoyed these characters more than ever before because, in the real story, while we love them and appreciate their absurdities, they can be a little tedious. Here, they were delightfully quirky and provided excellent comedic relief. I like the idea of Emma’s father having all of his hypochondria while still being spunky, and maybe even a little wired. I think that was a reasonable interpretation of his character, even though most have interpreted him as a more feeble old gentleman. And when Miss Bates screams suddenly, and out of nowhere, at her deaf mother, that “Miss Woodhouse has invited us to Hartfield!!!” we were all in giggles.
And what to say about Mr. Knightley? We see a lot more of his personal life than we ever do on the book, and than we ever have in any other adaptations. We get to see him dressing, which was certainly a gift. 🙂 We also get to see the moment his feelings started to change for Emma and the agony that leads him to suffer over the next few months. I think I actually like that, and here’s why: I believe they simply showed the emotions Jane Austen knew he was having but we don’t know about until the end of the book. The scene where Emma and Knightley dance at Christmas is shown as the moment they both start to shift their feelings for one another, and I think that is accurate, at least for Mr. Knightley, although it has been a while since I’ve read the book. But every other adaptation has made this attraction quite subtle. Here, though, we see Knightley throw himself on his drawing room floor in frustration. It’s not in the book. But it actually made me understand a little more why Knightley invited his Highbury acquaintances to pick strawberries at Donwell soon thereafter, and why he said something about only allowing Mrs. Knightley to manage his house, once she is in being: he wants Emma in his house, and he is contemplating, for the first time, there being a Mrs. Knightley. I had never thought about that aspect of his psychology, so that was a great hidden nugget. On the whole, I liked Johnny Flynn’s interpretation of Knightley, even if I was initially thrown off by his blonde hair. He handled the role quite delicately.
And that brings us to what I didn’t like so much. I’m usually not this direct, but I will just have to be honest: I did not like this interpretation of Emma’s character. Anya Taylor-Joy is lovely, and I like that her acting reminded us that Emma is only 21 and also showed how her wealth has left her in a spoiled cocoon. Further than that I cannot say, because this interpretation made Emma absolutely unlikeable. Jane Austen’s Emma is a deeply flawed character, and I love that about her. But Austen was careful to give Emma redeeming qualities and a certain maturity that balances her over-confidence, privilege, and snobbery. Here, she was drawn as petulant, which I don’t remember that Emma ever was. While there was a certain immaturity to Emma’s course of action in the real plotline, she never acted like a simpering, pouting child. While she could be sharp-tongued, and while that trait often led her into scrapes, she was never crabby/irritable just because she seemed to be that way by nature. I’m not sure if the goal was to make Emma more coy, or what, but she actually lost almost all of the nuances to her character and was kind of boiled down into a one-dimensional incarnation of the snotty rich girl archetype. Not my cup of tea. And the main reason is that we cannot for the life of us see what Mr. Knightley sees in her.
Another thing that I was not a fan of was the overall production. You really need to go into this adaptation with a basic knowledge of the intricacies of the plotline, because you won’t get them from watching this film. It felt, actually, more like watching a play or, more accurately, perhaps, an opera. A great deal of attention was put into theatricals, such as ladies lining up with the flourish of the background music, and overly-loud music accentuating the feeling we were supposed to get from the dialogue. The music playing during scenes really distracted and took away from the storyline. I just kept wishing we could settle in on a scene, like a real movie, and enjoy acting and character nuances instead of flitting here and there. With music playing overly loud, and some of the actors being forced to deliver their lines overly-dramatically, you’re sped through the scenes and don’t get the details of a very intricate plot. But what was really odd was that somewhere in the middle of the movie, we did slow down and take a breather, almost as though we had switched directors. The music stopped being as frenzied, and we enjoyed a couple of stable scenes. Which I found…odd. I like consistency, even if I don’t agree with the choice made. Without it, the production doesn’t feel polished/tight.
Another oddity was the choice in music itself. I’ve already mentioned that it was often too jaunty and loud. But even more bizarre was the choice to put in chorals here and there. Don’t get me wrong: I love anything sung by a choir, and these were really beautiful. They were just totally out of place. I’m sure the songs were time-period-appropriate (although I would have to look on a couple), but the presentation was not (by this, I mean that the arrangements reminded me a lot of O Brother, Where Art Thou?). It’s weird to be travelling in a carriage and just randomly start hearing a hymn sung dramatically by a choir, no? At least, it was in Emma.
But in the end, there were enough things that I did like that I will probably watch it again. The over-all grandeur and urgency being slightly hyped-up was very well-done, and very compelling as a viewer. I found myself wishing that I was a master movie-maker and could pluck parts from all of the adaptations of Emma and make the perfect movie. Which leads me to a ranking of the Emma adaptations that I have seen, which might be useful if you are wondering where to start. I’ll rank from least-favorite to most-favorite.
4. Emma (1996) with Gwyneth Paltrow. I have heard many people say this is their favorite, so know I am in the minority here. But there is just something annoying about this version to me. There’s also no chemistry between Knightley and Emma or any of the characters, really.
3. Emma (2020). [Discussed above.]
2. Emma Mini-Series (2009). This is a 4-part mini-series that goes into great detail and follows the storyline pretty closely. This Emma still annoys me slightly, but she is the least-offensive of the three I have mentioned.
1. Emma (1997) with Kate Beckinsale. This adaptation is phenomenal. It is the reason, probably, that I’m so hard on all of the other adaptations. I have watched it over and over and never leave disappointed. I love the nuance Kate Beckinsale brings to Emma’s character. She fully explores her flaws but shows all of the redeeming qualities, too. I love the passion Mark Strong brings to Knightley’s character. No one tells Emma off quite the way Mark Strong does. He makes all of the other Knightleys look weak, with the exception of the most recent 2020 Mr. Knightley. He shows Knightley’s hot temper but also his great kindness and depth of feeling. And as far as the village feeling – there could be nothing cozier. It accomplishes in one movie all that the above-mentioned mini-series attempts to do in four episodes. The cinematography is not beautiful or sweeping, so I think that might be the reason this one is often overlooked. But I promise you won’t notice that once the actors take the story into their hands.
In the end, it doesn’t matter which Emma is technically more accurate or delicately-handled, I suppose: it is which one you enjoy watching that matters. I do recommend that you watch the new Emma. It’s a great way to pass the time, and if you have enough people in your home quarantine, it’s actually cheaper than going to the movies would have been. I streamed it for $20.00 from Amazon Prime.
(Note: if you have children in the room, there is one little nudey scene where Knightley is dressing, and another slight one when Emma is, just to give you forewarning.)
I was sitting in a law school classroom when it first hit me. It was my third year, and I was taking a class titled Law and Literature. We would read a piece of literature and then come to class and discuss the great questions of life and humanity that the readings provoked, much like a college English class (which was bliss to me!). I was surprised when I saw multiple Old Testament readings on the list.
We were a class made up of believers and skeptics, atheists and agnostics, the dormant and the devout. And when I opened my Bible to read the passages, that fact was all I could think about. For the first time in my life, I was having a Bible study with people who hadn’t been taught to think the “right” way. They were from all over the country, from deeply varying backgrounds, and a lot of them were reading those passages for the first time. And suddenly, that was how I was reading the scripture, too. I was stripping away everything, all of my own preconceived notions, every sermon I had heard preached on the passage, and every point I had ever felt compelled to prove, and I was just…reading. Because I knew when I got to class the next day, absolutely no one in that room would carry the same lenses to the table. And that was when it finally struck me: this was what I should have been doing all along.
What does this have to do with Amanda Hope Haley’s latest book, Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow: How to Trust the Bible When Truth and Tradition Collide? Everything. God’s revelation to me that I was reading scripture with “lenses” set me on a course of laying aside everything and simply searching for His character in scripture. What I didn’t know was that my cousin (yes, cousin!) was writing a book on that very topic!
Amanda delves deep into the very structure of the Bible, exploring how the holy manuscripts were written, compiled, and translated and teaching us to cherish each passage for its unique literary structure and voice. That contribution alone would have been enough, because she lays out that complicated history in such an easy-to-understand format that the reader leaves enlightened rather than overwhelmed.
But she goes deeper, teaching us how to view science’s relationship with the Bible in a healthy manner (the passages on creation literally made me tear up!), how to look at scripture in context rather than “cherry-picking,” how to read slowly and carefully, and ultimately, how to strip everything away, everything you have ever heard, everything you are “supposed” to read into scripture, and just listen.
Particularly helpful, I thought, was the chapter entitled “Too Many Cookbooks in the Christian Kitchen,” which talks about the problem, not new to our generation, of preferring to follow a doctrine, or a denomination, or legalism, or a man, which is so easy for us to do, isn’t it? I think a lot of times these problems start as we try to boil our beliefs down into a teachable message to take out into the world. But we forget to fluff the stew back up again to learn God in the fullness of His glory. Amanda does a wonderful job reminding us of just how important it is to do that.
Her tone is conversational and easy-to-read. I found that the scripture she used as examples throughout was particularly well-chosen. You feel like you’re in a really fun classroom and she’s the teacher at the front with a blackboard breaking it all down into understandable language. And finally, I will add that what Amanda does is more than just teach hermeneutics (a word we learn in the last chapter!). She presents the beautiful, awe-inspiring picture of God’s plan. It seeps in when you least expect it, moving you to emotion and prodding you to reflect on what an awesome God we serve.
Highly recommended! Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow: How to Trust the Bible When Truth and Tradition Collide is now available! See below for a link to your favorite retailer.
History Behind the Story #1: French Huguenots in South Carolina
In celebration of the recent release of Southern Rain, I announced that I would be doing a series on the History Behind the Story. Today, I bring you the first in the series: a look at French Huguenots in South Carolina!
It was very subtle in Southern Rain, but there were a few indications of the heritage I chose for the lead family, the Ravenels. I was surprised during my research of the Charleston aristocracy of the 19th Century to find that a huge proportion of them were descended from French Huguenots. That was a bit of a head-scratcher: how did a people go from being oppressed, persecuted, and run out of their country to being at the very top of the food chain and oppressing others in just a few generations? But first, what is a Huguenot?
Think 16th and 17th Century France. A little event called the Protestant Reformation was happening after the bombshell dropped by Martin Luther. The ideas that were being espoused were things like personal faith rather than church intervention and that scripture alone was authoritative. Obviously, the desire to reform the Catholic Church stirred up a lot of tension and threatened the power structure of Europe.
It’s important to remember that, while they were religious minorities, most Huguenots in France still had a great deal of wealth and power. The very term “Huguenot” is ethnoreligious and cannot be translated purely into the word “Protestant.” The Protestants in France, while largely ethnically similar to the Catholics, became almost a separate ethnic group, but one in which many of the members had aristocratic ancestries similar to the noble Catholic families.
In certain areas, tensions ran high, forcing the Huguenots to give up their faith or flee France as refugees. A war was begun with the Massacre at Vassy, in which royal troops ambushed and murdered or injured hundreds of Huguenots in their place of worship. Political intrigue and death ensued. Mass slaughters of Huguenots were enacted throughout France.
Happily, this conflict ended in the Edict of Nantes, which granted a great deal of concessions to the Protestants. For a time, there was peace (sort of). The peace was ruptured utterly by the Edict’s revocation by Louis XIV (The Sun King), which resulted in cultural or literal genocide of Huguenots, either by forced conversions, executions, or what many saw as no choice but to flee.
Do I see Charleston in the future of many of the Huguenots? Yes! Now, Huguenots were fleeing all over the world by hundreds of thousands, so the Lowcountry was just one refuge. But it was a refuge that ultimately stuck for those who did immigrate to the area. A Huguenot Church was quickly established there and is in operation to this day!
The Huguenots settled throughout the Lowcountry near Charleston along the Ashley and Santee Rivers and near the Sea Islands. Anne LeClercq says of those who settled there, “The French Huguenot had come to Upper Saint John’s after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and found in the somber beauty of the Santee Swamp, with its forest walls of oak and cypress, an area inhabited only by wild animals and widely separated villages of Santee Indians.” They were no longer oppressed. In fact, they thrived.
Those who settled the area were either of elite heritage or were highly skilled artisans and tradesmen. They quickly assimilated, often intermarrying with other settlers, and were very prosperous because of a mixture of hard work and industry, a background of knowledge of what it took to amass power and wealth, and a dogged determination to make something of the second chance they had been given. In short, while the elite in Charleston were made up of families from all over Europe, the Huguenots quickly became one of the largest groups that made up the elites. LeClercq names a few of the family names: “Porchers, Gaillards, Mazycks, Palmers, Ravenels, Cordeses, Marions, Dwights, and Gourdins.” I chose the surname Ravenel from a list of French Huguenot names since I wanted the central family to be of that heritage. The way I have heard it pronounced in Charleston in present day is Ravv-uh-nell, with a slight emphasis on the first syllable.
The Huguenot assimilated in another way, too: they affiliated with larger Protestant denominations and, in a generation or two, largely lost their Huguenot ties. You’ll notice when you read Southern Rain that the historical Ravenels are Presbyterian. You might be wondering about that, since that denomination is largely associated with Scotland, but that was one of the churches into which the Huguenots poured over in America. For one, they had the same roots (Presbyterianism also grew out of the Reformation), and they also maintained similar beliefs.
And what about the fact that the Huguenot and their descendants became some of the largest slaveholders in the South? One would almost guess, based on the Huguenots’ oppression and commitment to faith, that they might have been friends of abolition, and perhaps some were. But in large part, they were not. The amassing of wealth and aristocracy in South Carolina happened quickly, but its full fruition did occur over the course of several generations. For instance, from the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 to 1859 when we see the height of the Ravenels’ wealth, five or six generations have passed, and the descendants were probably very similar in their beliefs to the majority of South Carolinians of European descent. And yet, that isn’t to say that slaves weren’t owned by those of Huguenot heritage generations before the Civil War, or even by that first generation. While one can’t say with certainty what initiated the slaveholding status of Huguenots, Nancy Maurer sees it as another evidence of the assimilation necessary to achieve wealth and status. And that may be largely true, since it quickly became obvious that the most successful occupation in the Lowcountry was that of planter. By the third generation, nearly all South Carolinians of French heritage (and South Carolinians in general) were slaveowners. We’ll talk about the enslaved people of the Lowcountry in the next article, including their heritage and daily lives.
Many sources seem to indicate that the Huguenots assimilated so effectively that they lost all cultural identity as French and all cohesiveness as an immigrant group. I don’t find that to be true. You have only to visit Charleston to find French influences in everything from architecture to naming, and especially in its unique and wonderful cuisine.
I’ll leave you with a bit of a cliffhanger! You’ll notice that in Southern Rain, Frederick Ravenel, who is the ancestor of the modern Ravenels, says with all of the political incorrectness of his era, “I wouldn’t want Catholic children,” and seems to hold to that determination throughout. Yet, we know that the modern Ravenels are, in fact, Catholic. Hmm…how did that happen? Guess you’ll have to read the second book in the Torn Asunder Series to find out! 😊
 LeClercq, Anne Sinkler Whaley, An Antebellum Plantation Household (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006), pp. x.
To celebrate the release of Southern Rain tomorrow, I am launching a series of fun articles dealing with the history behind the story. I thought it might be fun to look at some the circumstances that molded the plot lines for the book and give you an opportunity to ask any historical questions you might have. Right now, I’ll give the list of topics I’m planning to cover. Let me know if there’s a topic you would like to see that isn’t mentioned, and I’ll cover it, too!
French Huguenots in South Carolina
Enslaved People of the Lowcountry
Fashion on the Brink of the Civil War
Societal Rules and Quirky Charleston Customs
Kissing Cousins – Did People Really Marry Their First Cousins?
A Break-down in Civilities – Rhetoric Before the War
Reading has always been a part of my life. I was fortunate enough to be born into a family who made reading a priority (and who was patient with my bookworm ways!). My mom is an elementary school principal who believes very strongly in the cognitive, social, and emotional benefits of reading to children from their earliest years. She wears a lanyard which says “Read 20 every day,” encouraging parents to read to their children for at least twenty minutes. Just yesterday, while babysitting my two-year-old niece, we read no less than ten books together. And the really neat part is: she LOVES it and seems to think there’s something magical within the covers. Her parents read to her all the time, so she will probably always have a love for reading.
I strongly believe that the benefits of reading are just as huge for adults. It keeps our minds active, calms us, opens our eyes to new worlds, piques our interest, gives us something to think about, and, often, it changes us. There are books that have altered the entire way I view the world. Books give us empathy, whittle away at our prejudices, let us walk in someone else’s shoes. Then there are humorous books that lift our spirits and have us altering our bleak outlook and realizing that everything is going to be okay. And finally, there is the sheer enjoyment value. There’s nothing like a really good book to spark the joy of living. And the best part is, if you don’t have a background as a reader, it is absolutely never too late to start!
And so, in honor of all of this, I thought I would give honorary awards to books that have meant something to me. Here we go!
Best Young Children’s Book: The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats
Best Intermediate Children’s Book: The Doll People, by Ann M. Martin
Best YA Book: Stormbreaker (The Alex Rider Series),by Anthony Horowitz
Best Historical Christian Fiction: A Bride Most Begrudging, by Deeanne Gist
Ties with The Lady of Milkweed Manor, by Julie Klassen
Best Modern Christian Fiction: Surrender Bay, by Denise Hunter
Best Christian Suspense: Shadows of Lancaster County, by Mindy Starns Clark
Best Mystery: The Lord Peter Wimsey Series, by Dorothy L. Sayers
Best Mainstream Historical Fiction Biopic: America’s First Daughter, by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie
Best Perspective-Shifting Book: The Blue Castle,by L,M. Montgomery
Most Heart-Changing Book: Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers
Most Hilarious Book: Now That You Mention It, by Kristan Higgins
Best Mainstream Historical Romance: Bath Tangle, by Georgette Heyer
Best Literary Romance: Persuasion, by Jane Austen
Best Historical Biography: Thomas Jefferson and the Art of Power, by John Meacham
Best Historical Non-Fiction Flyboys, by James Bradley
Best Nonfiction Relationship Self-Help: Who’s Picking Me Up from the Airport (and Other Questions Single Girls Ask), by Cindy Johnson
Best Book on Prayer: Open Mind, Open Heart, by Thomas Keating
Ties With Discerning the Voice of God, by Priscilla Shirer
Let me know which books your awards would go to! Happy National Read a Book Day!