Friday, July 31, 2015

Five Essential Westerns For Beginners + Giveaway

I've written a lot about Westerns on this blog, mostly from the perspective of someone who's been familiar with the genre and fond of it all their life. I know some of you are the same; others of you might be just beginning to enjoy Westerns, or interested in trying them for the first time. I once found myself thinking about what movie recommendations I'd give somebody who was looking to try a Western and wanted to know which were good examples of the genre—so to close out Legends of Western Cinema Week, I thought I'd post the list of five that I came up with. These aren't necessarily my own personal favorites (for the record, my top two are Rio Grande (1950) and The Tin Star (1957), and if Legends of Western Cinema Week was twice as long I'd try to write about them too), but rather the five films that I think would make good introductory viewing:



Stagecoach (1939)
Stagecoach is to Western film what The Virginian is to Western literature—not the first, but an early notable that helped shoot the genre to public notice and popularity. If you try to put yourself in the shoes of a 1939 audience, and watch it as if you were seeing for the first time so many elements that became classics and eventually clichés of the genre, you'll notice what a well-crafted film it really is.



Red River (1948)
Red River may not be a perfect film—the romantic subplot leaves something to be desired, and the ending might seem slightly tacked-on—but it's still the classic cattle-drive movie. The middle section where the grand sweep of the drive itself is center stage is terrific.



Shane (1953)
Perhaps the best and most famous depiction of the conflict between settlers and cattleman, and of a figure that also became a fixture of the Western: the mysterious loner who comes to the aid of those in trouble, but must remain an outsider himself.



High Noon (1952)
Here again you'll recognize elements that have become familiar even to those who don't know the genre, and have been re-worked and riffed upon countless times: the showdown in the empty street, the man standing alone for justice while everyone else deserts him. So, as with Stagecoach, why not go right to the source and see where it all began?



The Magnificent Seven (1960)
I had gotten the impression from the film's trailer that it was mostly action, but I ended up surprised by how thoughtful a script it was—portraying the gunfighters as human, flawed men who realize what they lose in living by the gun, rather than superheroes. Plus it's a rollicking good adventure...and there's that unforgettable musical score.

So there you go. A five-film course that will introduce you to the lawman and the outlaw, the cattleman and homesteader, the stagecoach scenario and the shootout. And they're all pretty fine films on their own account, too, especially if you already enjoy classic movies in general.

And now, to top it all off, we've got a fun giveaway! I'm giving away a set of three hand-illustrated notecards from the brand-new Etsy shop The Western Desk. The set includes one of each design seen in the left-hand picture below. Enter via the Rafflecopter for your chance to win!


The illustration on the card seen at right is based on a scene from the movie Hondo (1953)—another good one for beginners!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

This post is a contribution to Legends of Western Cinema Week, hosted at A Lantern in Her Hand and Meanwhile in Rivendell, so be sure to hop over there and see what movies other participants are talking about!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Skirmish at McKendrick's - Part IV

In the mid-afternoon Sally Kincaid walked down to McKendrick’s alone. It was not unusual for her to do so; and surely they might expect someone to come down and see how they had fared, knowing there had been fighting so near there that morning. So she reasoned with herself as she walked. It was a reasoning mixed with a little dread of knowing just what had transpired during the fight, and yet a need to know at least what the McKendricks could tell her.

She was welcomed by the McKendrick girls with perhaps a little less restraint than usual, in the lingering excitement of the day; and had soon heard all there was to tell. She was shown the broken fence-rails lying in the garden, the wreck of the henhouse and the bullet-scarred tree trunks in the orchard; and was treated to a number of opinions on what the action had meant. To these Sally could but listen and try not to let any tell-tale expression of her thoughts cross her face. She knew too much to join in this conversation.

Through all this Sally was only half aware of small Lucy McKendrick lingering near her elbow, following in her footsteps as she walked with the others, but never speaking. If she had paid closer attention she might have seen Lucy watching her, looking up at her with large eyes as if there was something about Sally that she was curious to know, or a decision she was trying to make about her.

When good-byes had been said, and Sally was walking alone across the yard to start for home, she found that Lucy was still with her. She had taken a fold of Sally’s long skirts in her hand, and her face was still upturned to her earnestly. The questioning in it was so palpable that Sally stopped, and leaned down toward her.

Lucy took her hand in both of her own as if to lead her somewhere. “I want to show you something.”

Her voice was hushed and important. Sally smiled down into her big eyes. “You do? What is it?”

“It’s this way,” said Lucy, tugging her toward the woods. “It’s a secret. You have to come and see it.”

Sally smiled again, and allowed herself to be led. Once or twice before she had let Lucy lead her, in what she knew was the imparting of a supreme confidence, to her secret haunt in the woods, where she had been shown a treasure such as a white stone from the creek bed or a bird’s nest in the heart of a honeysuckle bush. She expected another such confidence was in store now. She followed Lucy over the crossing stones in the creek, and deeper into the brush, climbing over the fallen dead boughs that the little girl crawled under.

They had gone what Sally began to think was quite a long way, out of sight and sound of the house. Aspen trees leaned together above them, and tall weeds filled the spaces around the trunks. Lucy stopped, and pulled at her hand again.

Sally looked—she had a glimpse of gray and her stomach jolted suddenly. For a strangely horrible second she was certain that the child had found a dead soldier lying there in the shade of the aspens. Then she saw the chalk-white face, the closed eyes and the bloody sleeve—a low cry escaped her. She rushed forward and fell on her knees beside him in the weeds. “Jim! Oh, Jim—”

Jim opened his eyes in dazed confusion as she choked back a sob. “Sally…how’d you…”

“Lucy brought me. Oh, Jim, are you hurt bad?”

“I don’t know. I got hit in the arm.” He closed his eyes again.

Sally turned to Lucy, who was standing watching with her finger in her mouth, and by an apt chance had the old tin cup in her other hand. “Lucy, will you take that and get me some water from the creek? Hurry.”

Lucy turned and went, and Sally feverishly dug out a small pair of sewing-scissors from the pocket of her dress. She ripped the bloody sleeve and pulled it away from the wound. She shuddered at the sight of the lacerated flesh, but the urgency of the moment overcame her weakness. Turning up the hem of her skirt, she tore a strip from the edge of her petticoat to use as a bandage, wielding the scissors so hastily that she just escaped slicing her own fingers.

Fortunately it was not a serious injury; the bullet had torn through from back to front, leaving an ugly flesh wound that had been bleeding slowly. Sally, with no experience in treating wounds, could not know this, but acted upon common sense. When Lucy returned in a few minutes, holding out the tin cup to her with wet hands, she washed the clotted blood away with another scrap torn from her petticoat, then wrapped the clean strip of cotton around Jim’s arm, tearing the ends and knotting them securely. Jim gritted his teeth and winced, but no sound came from him other than the hiss of his breathing through his teeth.

When she had finished Sally bent over him again, sliding her hand beneath his head. “Can you walk, Jim, if I help you? They told me at McKendrick’s that the Yankees are still looking for stragglers—they’ll come back and find you here.”

“I can try,” he said.

He pulled himself up, slowly, to a sitting position, and then with Sally helping him, managed to get on his feet. Sally put her arm around him, giving him her shoulder to lean on. But after only a few steps he shook his head, signaling her to stop, and collapsed against the foot of the nearest tree, trembling all over from the effort.

“It’s no good,” he gasped, shaking his head weakly. “My legs feel like water.”

Sally dropped down beside him. “But you’ve got to, Jim! You can’t stay here.”

He had his eyes closed again, leaning against the tree with his injured arm cradled in his right hand. “Sally, where am I supposed to go? The troop’s gone…they’ll have counted me dead or prisoner. The Yanks are all through the town.”

“If you could only get home—it’s just across the bridge. I could go over and tell your pa, and he’d come and get you—”

Jim opened his eyes. “No! Don’t let him come—with the Yanks crawling all round here, he’d get arrested if they caught him helping me—thrown in some stockade or hung.”

Sally wilted down disconsolately in the grass, her elbows on her knees and her fists clenched by her ears. “If you could just find someplace to lay and hide till the Yankees have settled down, or moved…not our place; they might search it…and you couldn’t walk that far.”

Suddenly she lifted her head. “The old smokehouse! Jim, remember? It’s not so far off—there’s the cellar underneath it. And it’s on the McKendricks’ land, too. The Yankees know they’re Union sympathizers; they wouldn’t search there.” She was on her knees, her hand touching his shoulder. “Listen, Jim—if you rest here till after dark, could you make it as far as the smokehouse? I’ll come back when it’s dark and help you. Then you’ll be safe for a little while, and we can think what to do.”

Jim nodded, slowly. “I can make it. Try, anyway.” He looked at her. “But Sally, I don’t want you taking any chances—”

“I won’t. I’ll be fine.”

She had forgotten, until she turned her head, that Lucy McKendrick had been standing by the whole time, watching them and listening. A new flicker of apprehension crossed Sally’s face. Hesitantly, she turned to the little girl and put both hands on her shoulders. “Lucy,” she said, “will you do something for me? Will you not tell anyone about Jim being here? It’s very important, Lucy—that nobody, nobody at all, knows about it till after the soldiers are gone—until—”

“Until the war’s over,” Lucy filled in.

Sally laughed a bit hysterically. “Yes, that’s right. Till the war’s over.”

“She knows,” said Jim with a faint smile. “I told her all about it yesterday.”

Sally gave him a quick look. “Yesterday? Then—she knew—” She looked at Lucy again, the pieces fitting together. Sally smiled, a little tremulously, and leaned forward and kissed her. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Lucy’s round eyes followed her as she stood up, perhaps not fully understanding.

“Try and crawl back here in the bushes a little,” said Sally to Jim, bending over him to help; “that way you can lie still in there, and if anyone comes by—they shouldn’t see you. Then Lucy and I’ll go home,” she said, “and I’ll be back—tonight.”


* * *

The old smokehouse, disused for many years, stood a few rods back in the woods behind the McKendrick farmhouse. It had been built against the side of a slope on a chinked stone foundation, with a small wooden door in the front giving access to the cellar-like space underneath. The older McKendrick children and their playmates had made good use of this dark and damp space in years past, turning it into a house, a fort, a cave at will; but of late years even this use had ceased, and the smokehouse stood silent in the green forest, the cracks between its boards widening and moss growing over the stone foundation and the crumbling roof.

After dark, when she was certain her mother and brother were asleep, Sally slipped out of the house, with two old blankets under her arm. Rolled up inside them was a small bundle of food, a pair of candles, and the rest of her torn petticoat ripped up for clean bandages.

The night was moonlit, with an occasional unsettling rush of wind through the treetops, and only the thought of Jim kept her going through the black shadows that strewed her path, her heart beating in small hammer-blows of nervousness. At the end of her journey, when she thought she had found the place under the aspens, it took her a few worried moments of groping about in the brush to find him—his whisper, once he was certain it was her, guided her to the spot. As she clasped his hand in the dark half her fears seemed to fall away; the warmth and life in it was enough to reassure her.

The trip to the smokehouse was made…long, slow and fumbling…though mercifully by the end of it both had lost all sense of time. Jim leaned heavily on Sally, forced to stop and take a breath what seemed like every few steps. In patches of blackness under the trees where the moon did not reach, both stumbled, unable to see what was under their feet. Branches impeded their path, reached out at them like the prickly fingers of silent adversaries surrounding them; and every once in a while Sally’s heart leaped into her throat at the uncouth shape of a bent tree gray-white beside them, transformed by terror into a silent watcher.

But at last the moonlight shone on the open space in front of the tall black shaft of the abandoned smokehouse standing up above, and the ordeal was over. Slowly still, they made the last few steps across the little glade. Jim slid to his knees and leaned against the mossy foundation of the smokehouse, while Sally felt along the little wooden door for the rusty hook that held it closed. She found it, fought with it a minute, then wrenched it open, and the door moved with a creak that made Jim start and jerk his throbbing head up abruptly.

Sally crawled in, battling her revulsion at the feel of the cold, damp, dirty ground beneath her hands, littered with crumbled old leaves and twigs which instinct told her were more than likely the remains of rodents’ nests. She worked open her bundle, struck a match with some difficulty against the uneven stone wall and lit one of the candles. Its flicker showed nothing more dreadful than the cramped, dirty space she had expected. But it seemed so much smaller than when they were children, as she wedged the candle in a corner and unfolded one of the blankets; too small even to spread the blanket all the way out. Sally could just sit up without her head brushing the roof.

She helped Jim drag himself inside and lie down; then pulled the door shut, wedging it with a stub of rotted wood to keep it that way. The candle wavered in a draft from some unseen chink in the stonework. Sally sheltered the flame with her hand and glanced uneasily up at the walls, hoping there was no crack big enough for the light to show through.

She crawled into the narrow space between Jim and the back wall, trying not to jar his wounded arm. She expelled a quick, short breath, and let herself down on one elbow beside him, feeling suddenly weary.

Very gently, she brushed his temple and the cheek with the thin scratch across it. Jim turned his head a little bit, to look up at her. The light from the single uncertain candle was too low for them to see more than the outline of each other’s faces.

He sighed, a whisper of a sigh that turned into a slight cough of pain. “All I’ve been wanting...for a long time,” he whispered, “was to have you near me…” He closed his eyes and smiled. “Took kind of a lot to get it.”

Sally did not answer; something held at her throat so she could not.

She looked up at the candlelight moving against the undersides of the old floorboards, hauntingly the same as years ago, yet the pattern of the wood unfamiliar from the years of moldering that had passed between. How much less painful life had been in those days when the battles they fought, and the wars from which they had taken shelter in the old smokehouse, were only the harmless wars of their own imagining.
To be continued...

Monday, July 27, 2015

My Darling Clementine (1946)

In all my years of watching Westerns, this one was somehow inexplicably the one that got away. Honestly, how did it take me this long to get around to watching a 1940s John Ford Western with a cast full of familiar faces? But now that I think of it, perhaps I wouldn't have appreciated it as much years ago; I think I watched it at just the right time.

This isn't really a formal review; it's more of a rambling appreciation—perhaps that suits better, because the film has a rambling, hard-to-identify quality of its own. The basic premise is simple: after the murder of his youngest brother, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) takes a job as marshal of Tombstone, with his brothers Morgan (Ward Bond) and Virgil (Tim Holt) as his deputies. They form an unlikely alliance with melancholy, alcoholic gambler "Doc" Holliday (Victor Mature), and eventually evidence about the murder leads them into the famous showdown with the Clanton family, led by sinister Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) at the OK Corral.

If you've done any amount of reading about the historical OK Corral shootout, which I haven't, you'll know right away that the characters and events presented in this version are largely fictional. And I didn't mind that. Taking it as fiction frees you to simply enjoy it as such.

I don't know whether My Darling Clementine is a film that would appeal to every viewer. It's a surprisingly quiet film, in that it has a rather slow, measured pace; it's made up of a series of small scenes and incidents that connect loosely to each other. The style reminded me a little of They Were Expendable, another Ford film I love, though the latter has a much stronger thread of actual historical events holding it together. (There's some visual similarity too—the likeness between these two shots jumped out at me right away.) Much of the dialogue is brief and spare; there is a good amount of time spent in silence, simply observing the actions of the characters. And yet at the same time, it takes the time for a full rendition of Hamlet's soliloquy, begun with pathetic dignity by an inebriated traveling actor (Alan Mowbray) atop a table in a smoky saloon, and quietly finished by Doc Holliday, in a scene that somehow tells us everything we know or need to know about Holliday himself. (It was a curious coincidence that I had just finished reading Hamlet the very day I watched My Darling Clementine.) The inevitable confrontation with the Clantons is always coming, always hanging in the background, though it's put aside for quite a while to focus on Holliday and his own troubles.

Yet in spite of its understatedness, or perhaps because of it, the film can still hit hard when necessary. There's perhaps one of the most shocking murders you'll ever see on film—not shocking in a graphic sense but simply in its jump-out-of-your-seat unexpectedness and cold-bloodedness (and I even knew that that particular character was going to die; I just didn't know how and when). The two most tragic moments are silent, framing striking, wordless shots that convey the stunned grief of the characters involved.

Both important female characters are entirely fictional. I really loved the character of Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs)—a young woman from the east, a friend and it is implied once a sweetheart of Holliday's, who comes looking for him to try and persuade him to return home. She's sweet and serene (in the loveliest of simple, period-correct hats and dresses, no less) but also quietly practical; she understands people better than her seemingly innocent appearance suggests. She's not overwhelmed by the roughness of Tombstone, and has sense of humor enough to appreciate Wyatt Earp's painfully awkward attempts at expressing his admiration for her. I was a bit puzzled at first by the character of Chihuahua (Linda Darnell), who seemed meant to be part Mexican or Indian or both, but whose mannerisms and accent were entirely American. But I thought Darnell did a good job conveying her wistful, jealous love for Doc Holliday, which is evidently not returned in the way she wishes, and her distress and indecision in the scene where Wyatt questions her insistently about an important piece of evidence in the murder case is well done too.

But the real star of My Darling Clementine is the visuals. It's probably the most beautiful black-and-white cinematography I've ever seen (where in the world was the Oscar nomination?). The opening shot of the cattle coming up over the hill with Monument Valley in the background almost literally took my breath away, and throughout the whole movie I just loved looking at it. The atmosphere of the Tombstone scenes is crammed with detail—the night scene where the Earp brothers first ride into town, for instance, the streets seething with activity and raucous with music and voices. Then by contrast, a bright, quiet morning with crowds of the more upstanding settlers walking, riding and driving into town to attend a social on the site of the town's first church. Every shot is framed in a way that makes you pay attention to detail.

When I finished watching the movie, one of the things it left me wondering was exactly how I would describe it to someone...and yet here I've apparently spent a number of paragraphs trying to do just that. Like They Were Expendable, it has a lot of those little moments that get under your skin and make you think about them again afterwards. I can say one thing pretty definitely, though: if you're a serious Western fan and My Darling Clementine has escaped you for as long as it did me, I certainly recommend giving it a try.

This post is a contribution to Legends of Western Cinema Week, hosted at A Lantern in Her Hand and Meanwhile in Rivendell, so be sure to hop over there and see what movies other participants are talking about!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Skirmish at McKendrick's - Part III



It began in the gray early morning, when trails of fog were drifting like sluggish ghosts across the road and fields. A squad of Confederate troopers who had moved up soundlessly in the pre-dawn fired on the Union pickets at the bridge, who responded in kind. This exchange kept up for a few minutes, until reinforcements had been stirred awake in the town. Then the Confederates withdrew, whisking out of sight in the uncertain lighting. A company of blue-clad cavalry thundered across the wooden bridge and pursued them down the road, between fresh wet meadows with a silver sheen of dew over their green.

Pale beams of sunrise reached over the trees from a salmon and yellow sky as the squad of troopers rejoined the rest of their company, which waited across the road at the crossroads. When the head of the flying blue column came in view, they fired a volley, checking and confusing the advance; then wheeled and retreated, some out the main road, others through the woods and down the broad lane to McKendrick’s farm. The backs of these last were what caught the eye of the Union officers as the blue column regathered and poised for pursuit, and they gave chase down the lane. The Confederates led them on, spitting scattered fire backwards, as the newly-rising sun brought into relief the shady figures of men and horses flitting through a haze of smoke.

Across the fields at the Kincaid farm they heard it, and stopped to listen. The door stood open, a few yards from the table where breakfast had been laid. Sally Kincaid, a dishtowel in her hand, stepped to the door and listened to the distant shots—stared across the misty fields beginning to warm with sunlight, yet not seeing them. Her fingers closed slowly around the wooden edge of the doorframe, and held it. Her mother and brother, exchanging looks and hushed words behind her at the table, could not see the look in her eyes, nor how her lips moved in silent prayer.

The skirmish spilled into the farmyard at McKendrick’s, through the orchard and past the house as the gray troopers wheeled and fired in near-collision with the pursuing troops that had caught up to them, then spun and retreated again. They jumped their mounts over the split-rail fence, knocking rails to the ground, trampled across the end of the vegetable garden and crashed into the underbrush beyond it. Bullets sliced through the leaves and chipped the bark from tree trunks; trails of smoke from revolver shots wandered among the trees and lost themselves in other clouds of smoke drifting down from the farmyard. The Confederates were in genuine retreat now, their pursuers close on their heels as a result of the clash in the yard.

The familiar ground of house and yard had flashed by Jim Benson’s eyes in a blur as the troopers swept through in a confusion of smoke and shots and shouts. He twisted to fire his revolver over his shoulder, swung his mount toward the trees and ducked to avoid the branches. They scattered through the woods; two or three of his fellow-troopers were ahead of him. He was leaning to avoid the sweep of an aspen branch when a searing pain ripped through his left arm. He dropped his revolver, lost the reins; lost control of his horse as it veered through the trees, still plunging headlong after the others. A leafy branch crashed into him and swept him from the saddle. Some fine branch-end whipped his face and his head glanced off something with a dull blow that sounded like wood, and the noise of the skirmish suddenly dropped to nothing.

Moments later the sounds of the encounter had already faded from the spot. Scattered shots were heard intermittently further on, and the shouts of officers, as the Union troops searched for the remnants of the raiding party that had melted away into the woods before them. And at McKendrick’s the skirmish was over, thin little clouds of smoke still drifting in the sunny morning air, broken rails lying by the fences and a henhouse splintered, the garden trampled; and the bodies of three troopers, one in blue and two in gray, lying in the yard and lane. The sun was up and the air was curiously clear and still.

* * *

It was golden afternoon just past the crest of midday before Lucy McKendrick was able to slip away from the house and make for the woods beyond the trampled garden. So much had happened that morning, and she had not yet had time to sit down and think about it. There had been a battle, a real battle in the yard, though to her it had been only a roar of noise outside heard from a back bedroom where the family had taken cover, with one of her sisters making her keep her head down in case any stray bullets should find their way through the house. Then there was the endless speculation of the family on what it meant and what might happen next—deeply interesting to listen to at the breakfast table. There was the mounted officer who had stopped in the lane to talk to her father. The traces of the fight in the yard.

Lucy was a wide-eyed, silent child who saw much and said little, whose favorite pastime was to slip off into the woods near the house and solemnly confide her opinions on things to the birds that twittered in the bushes around the hollow log in her own particular nook. They heard many curious things, which the adults around her would likely never have imagined.

She crossed the creek, balancing on the half-submerged rocks that made a path for her, and slipped so one button boot splashed in the water just before she gained the other bank. Twigs poked through her pinafore and caught at her hair as she ducked through the bushes; the sunlight struck red-gold glints down the long braids that lay over her shoulders.

Deeper in the woods, she came upon further traces of the battle: broken branches and leaves scattered on the ground, marks of horses’ hooves gouged deep in the moist spring soil. Lucy skirted the ruts, observing the scene with interest.

She stopped suddenly. Her eyes, moving along the ground a few yards in front of her, had discovered a scuffed cavalry boot…a leg in faded gray trousers. Looking closer, she picked out a further outline of gray—an inert body, motionless in a screen of weeds.

Lucy was not easily startled. Inexorable curiosity pulled her forward—one step, and then another. The soldier lay on his back. She leaned forward over the tangle of crushed grasses, bending until her long braids almost brushed the gray uniform. And at that moment Jim Benson’s eyes opened, and stared uncomprehendingly for a few seconds at the round childish face above him.

“Go home,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “Get away…from here.”

Lucy did not move; she still stood looking down at him. He tried to inject more energy into his voice, bringing out the strained note of pain in it. “Get away…go!”

Lucy took a slow step backward, as though forced by his command, but held by her own inclination. She took two more steps, while Jim lay still, breathing faintly but heavily. Then he turned his head partly toward the little girl. “Wait,” he said, through a dry throat unable to produce anything but that nearly-inaudible whisper. “Can you get me—some water?”

He did not see whether she nodded, for he had closed his eyes, but he heard her moving away—whether to do as he asked, or whether she was simply leaving, he could not tell. His head felt larger than its normal size, and sore at the least movement, and there was a faint ringing in his ears. It was the blow his head had struck against a tree trunk, more than the wound in his arm, that had left him lying there half-conscious all those hours since the skirmish.

Among the miscellaneous treasures hidden in the end of Lucy’s hollow log was an old tin cup, which had done the honors at many imaginary tea-parties in the woods. She climbed over the log and pulled it out, and made her way down to the creek. She filled the tin cup and carried it back gravely, spilling only a little of it before she reached Jim again. She spilled a little more on her pinafore in kneeling down next to him. With commendable effort, she put the cup as close as she could to his mouth and tipped it—most of the water went down his neck and some went in his ear, but a little got into his mouth. He choked on it a little, and then swallowed. Lucy held the wet empty cup in both hands and watched him, her eyes drifting to the large ragged stain on the sleeve of the arm that lay stiffly beside him.

“Go home now,” said Jim after a minute. “It’s not safe here—understand? Go on, Lucy.” He turned his head aside, his face twisting a little with pain.

And Lucy went.
To be continued...

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Weekend Odds and Ends #24

Odds and ends and whatnot:

  • This long rambling letter from G.K. Chesterton to his future wife is hilarious and romantic and an absolute must-read. (HT: Hanna)

  • I enjoyed this post at by Sky at Further Up and Further In because it summarizes many of the same feeling I'm having as I approach the end of my first rewrite: 5 Things I Learned From My First Rewrite.

  • There's a fun Western blog event coming up: the Legends of Western Cinema Week, hosted at A Lantern in Her Hand and Meanwhile in Rivendell. I'm planning a couple of posts for this, I think! Go here for details.

  • Melissa Marsh tweeted a link to this amazing video: a 40-minute silent color film showing people and everyday life in a North Carolina town in 1941. More than that, it's part of an entire collection of such films in both color and black-and-white!

  • And this is pretty darn neat: my novella Corral Nocturne made Hamlette's Top Ten Tuesday list of favorite books read in the first half of the year. The other authors on that list are quite the flattering company to be in!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Skirmish at McKendrick's - Part II


Where the creek bore to the right, Jim kept straight ahead through increasingly tall and tangled weeds. The creek skirted the south side of the McKendrick farm, and ran on to intersect with the road to town at the bridge half a mile beyond the crossroads near McKendrick’s. Jim had left his horse on the near side of the crossroads, tied in a thicket out of sight and sound of the road.

He stepped over a crackling tangle of last year’s dry goldenrod, laced over with creeping spring vines. Then he tripped. As he caught his balance he heard a slight rustle in the brush to his right, almost at his feet. He swung toward the sound and pulled up his revolver from its holster.

“Come out of there!” he said roughly.

The brush crackled slightly, and his grip on the revolver tightened. Then he suffered a shock. His eyes had lit on the thing that moved. Through the screen of weeds he saw two long red-gold braids; a smudged pinafore; and two large, round eyes that stared up at him in startled surprise.

Instantly Jim let the revolver drop and holstered it as he went to one knee. “Hey,” he said, guilt and wonder mixed in his voice. “I’m sorry, honey, I didn’t mean to scare you.” He beckoned to her. “Come on out—I’m not going to hurt you.”

The little girl, on her hands and knees in the thicket, crawled slowly to her feet without taking her eyes off him. Jim leaned forward and helped her up. She was perhaps six years old, a stocky child with a round, solemn face. Standing up, she could look into Jim’s face as he knelt in front of her. He smiled somewhat awkwardly, trying to reassure her; but the awkwardness was mixed with relief. “I’m sorry I scared you,” he said again, gently. “I thought you were one of them Yankee soldiers.”

He reached up and brushed a bit of grass out of her hair. “What’s your name, honey?”

“Lucy,” she said. She looked at him with more curiosity than fear. “Lucy McKendrick.”

Jim’s face changed abruptly. Bits and scraps of thoughts jostled each other through his mind: the troopers waiting up on the ridge; the need for surprise; the known direction of the McKendricks’ sympathies; a child’s innocent revelation of things she had seen. He looked uncertainly into the little girl’s face, fingering the checked calico of her sleeve where his hand rested on her shoulder, and trying to think what was best to do.

He tried to smile. “I guess you don’t remember me much,” he said. “You must’ve been pretty small last I was around here. I’m Jim Benson—you remember me at all?”

Lucy nodded assuredly. “Oh, I know you. You’re Sally Kincaid’s beau, aren’t you.”

Jim grinned a little self-consciously. “Now how did you know that?”

“Everybody knows,” said Lucy, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“You know Sally?”

Lucy nodded vigorously. “I like her a lot. She taught me cat’s cradle—and she let me show her my birds’ nest.”

“That’s good,” said Jim. He paused, biting the side of his lower lip and figuring out his words carefully. “Listen, Lucy,” he said, “will you do something for me? Will you not tell anybody—anybody at all—about seeing me here?”

Lucy put her head on one side curiously. “Why?”

Jim struggled again with how to explain. “Well…there’s soldiers in town.”

“Blue ones,” Lucy confirmed.

“Right. They’re the ones your folks side with. But me, I’m in the other army, you see. If the blue soldiers were to catch me here, they’d most likely shoot me—and Sally, she’d be awfully upset about that. So you got to promise not to tell anybody I was here, so the soldiers don’t find out. See?”

A tiny line of a frown came between Lucy’s eyebrows as she puzzled this out. “Not tell anybody, ever?”

“Well, not for a good long time, at least.” He watched the round face, trying to guess what her unfathomable child’s mind might be reasoning.

She considered another moment, and then brought out a suggestion. “When the war’s over?”

Jim smothered a laugh. “That ought to do just fine,” he said. “When the war’s over you can tell anyone you like. But not till then, mind.”

“I won’t.”

“Good girl,” said Jim. He got to his feet. “You better get on home now. And don’t go wandering so far in the woods like this tomorrow, hear?”

“Why tomorrow?” inquired Lucy, innocently alert.

“Well, any day. All these soldiers around, somebody’s liable to mistake you for something else, just like I did.” He patted her on the shoulder. “You run on home now.”

“All right.” Lucy turned away from him and started in the direction he had indicated, forging a circuitous but determined path through the brush on short legs. Jim watched her for a minute until she was nearly out of sight, and then moved away on his own course, looking rather more unnerved by his encounter with this small woodland sprite than he could have been by a clash with the ‘blue soldiers’ in person.

* * *

The company of troopers was dismounted in the shade when Jim rode up into the cover, their horses tied in groups under the trees, the men reclining on the ground. Jim slid from his horse and reported to the captain, who was sitting with his lieutenant, the two of them discussing a map in low tones.

Briefly but clearly Jim repeated what he had learned from Sally about the disposition of the Union troops. The captain listened, with once or twice an expressive glance at the lieutenant when something Jim said confirmed what they had surmised.

“Who did you hear all this from?” he asked when the boy ceased speaking.

“A girl I know, sir. She lives on a farm a ways back from the road, but she’s talked to people who’ve been in town and seen the Yank troops for themselves.”

“Do you know how long ago they saw them?”

“Not more’n two days, sir.”

“Hmm,” said the captain. He cocked his head slightly. “This girl you spoke to—she can be trusted? How well do you know her?”

The telltale color was in Jim’s face again. “Known her since we were born, almost. We—I aim to marry her when the war’s over.” The captain smiled only faintly, as though the doings of people and things outside the boundaries of the war had no power to engage his mind. “Her folks are safe, all right. Her pa and brother’s in Virginia somewhere with Longstreet.”

The captain nodded briefly, satisfied. But Jim hesitated a minute, as if he was reluctant to speak but felt bound to do it. “I ran into some bad luck coming back, though, sir. When I was coming through the woods I met a little girl.”

The captain’s eyebrow lifted. “Another one?”

“Little girl, sir, not more’n five or six years old. She was playing by herself out in the woods, and I almost fell over her. Thing is, she’s a McKendrick.” The captain glanced at him, awaiting illumination. “They own the farm by the crossroads and most of the land by the road there, and they’re hot for the Union. Have been ever since the war started. They’ve got sons in the army”—he checked slightly in his speech as he recalled the bitter amendment to this last.

“And the child saw you—knows you’re a Confederate soldier?”

“Well, I talked to her—she knows who I am a little, from before the war—I think I got her persuaded not to tell anybody she’d seen me, not for a while at least. It’s just she’s so little, I dunno how long she’ll remember.” He paused, rather helplessly. “I done my best, sir. I’m sorry…”

“Well, you’re hardly to blame,” said the captain. He leaned forward, and the lieutenant, who had been listening with quiet amusement to this dialogue, thought it best to sit up a little too. “In any case it means we move early. Get something to eat and some sleep while you can.”

“Yessir.” Jim touched his cap in salute, and turned away to obey.
To be continued...

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Book Review: Gentle Julia by Booth Tarkington


Excluding bad cooks and the dangerously insane, the persons most disturbing to the serenity of households are young lovers.
Julia Atwater is the belle of her town, with dozens of smitten suitors haunting her front porch and showering her with candy, pet animals and poems of their own manufacture. She also has an irascible father who can't stand most of her suitors and their intrusion on his peace; and a large family of aunts, uncles and cousins who discuss her affairs freely and derive both entertainment and exasperated head-shakings from them. The story mostly concerns what happens when Julia's thirteen-year-old niece Florence takes a shine to the most ungainly, unlikely, and most smitten of her aunt's suitors, a young man called Noble Dill, and decides she wants to do something to help his cause. Between squabbles with her cousin Herbert, that is. Eventually, Florence and Herbert between them manage to bring about an occurrence that affects Julia and her suitors with a vengeance!

Tarkington covers a bit of the same territory as he did in The Flirt, with a town belle and mischievous children, but here in an entirely comedic vein. Julia is incorrigible, but not in the least malicious—her family avers that her failing is being entirely too kind-hearted; she simply can't bear to hurt any of her suitors' feelings, so she has to encourage all of them! It's probably the funniest Tarkington book I've read yet. Some scenes—the incident of the umbrella, Noble getting dressed for the dance, Mr. Atwater's introduction to the poodle—had me literally shrieking with laughter. And it has that lovely atmosphere of a pleasant Edwardian-era town with tree-lined streets, gracious old brick houses, front-porch social calls in the evenings and children's backyard pranks that Tarkington is so good at evoking. It's perfect for a charming, light summer read.

Gentle Julia, first published in 1922, is in the public domain, available free on Kindle and at Project Gutenberg.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Skirmish at McKendrick's - Part I

This story was originally written several years ago, and then found itself in the awkward position of an "orphan" manuscript that I didn't know quite what to do with. I'd decided I didn't want to publish any more individual short stories as ebooks for the present, and I didn't have enough Civil War stories to form a collection. And it was just too long to submit to most contests or magazines that accepted historical fiction. Then recently, when I saw how popular some charming blog serials were with readers (for instance, Rachel Heffington's John Out-The-Window and Emily Ann Putzke and Emily Chapman's Ain't We Got Fun), I realized this might be a fun way to finally let "Skirmish at McKendrick's" out in the open. And it would also cut down on the time I'd have to invest in blogging during the summer, when I spend much more time outdoors and am often hard-pressed to keep up a regular posting schedule. I posed the question "Would anybody be interested in this?" to my blog and Twitter followers and got an enthusiastic response, so I decided to go ahead with it.

So here we go: the first installment of a weekly serial, a story set during the American Civil War. Check back on Wednesdays for each new part!

Skirmish at McKendrick's


Up on the ridge behind the leafy screen of the trees the line of troopers waited, resting, turned sidewise in the saddle, or with a foot thrown out of the stirrup. Their jackets, faded to a dozen different shades of gray and tan, looked dusty where spots of sunlight fell on them through the leaves. Their horses lipped at the tangled grass, swished tails at flies; but silently, as if they knew they were keeping under cover. At the head of the column the captain was inspecting the territory below with field-glasses, his neck stretched forward a little as if that would help bring his object into better focus.

He lowered the glasses; his tanned, weather-lined face showed that he was not satisfied with something. “They’re bivouacked in the town, or beyond it,” he said to his lieutenant, “but there’s no way of telling from here if it’s the main body, or just a few squads of cavalry left to screen a retreat.”

“If it’s the main body—we draw them out?”

The captain nodded, his eyes still fixed on the meadow below. “But if it’s not, there’s no point in stirring up those scouts, giving away just how small our patrol is. I wish I knew.” He fingered the eyepiece of the field-glasses with his thumb.

A young trooper sitting a few yards back touched a heel to his mount and moved up closer to the officers. “Sir?”

The captain looked back at him. “What is it, Benson?”

Jim Benson touched two fingers to his cap in salute. “Sir, I was born and raised in that town down there—my folks live just the other side of the bridge. I know pretty near every foot of ground hereabouts. If you want me to try it I could sneak down on foot, talk to somebody on one of the farms—find out if they’ve been in town and seen what troops are there.”

The captain looked at him, sized him up with eyes hard not so much from distrust as from long hours of command, of calculation, of planning for every eventuality and still knowing it might all go for naught with one slip or misfortune. “You think you can do this without being seen?”

“Yessir.”

“There’s pickets at the bridge; you won’t be able to pass them.”

“I hadn’t in mind going that far, sir.” There might have been a slight color under the tan of the boy’s lean face, but his eyes did not waver. He lifted his hand and pointed. “I aim to stick on this side of the creek; I know the folks there too.”

The captain followed the direction of his hand, frowning slightly at the landscape of thicket and meadow below that lay bright under the late-morning sun. “All right,” he said after a moment. He glanced at the boy. “Find out what troops are in the town and where they’re camped, if you can. And try to be back in a couple of hours.”

Jim Benson nodded, and reined his horse around the mounted officers toward the edge of the trees.

* * *

In a ploughed field in a bend of the creek, a boy and a girl were working. The thick young green woods that rimmed the low-lying field hid the creek from view, and only a trail of smoke from the chimney marked the location of the farmhouse, hidden by the trees away above the alternating fields of hay and new corn. The boy and girl were barefooted: the boy about thirteen; the girl, three or four years older, with her sleeves rolled above her elbows and her skirt tucked up in the waistband of her apron. They were hoeing the shoots of young corn; almost half the small field was already done.

Through the sunny stillness a bird trilled with a melodious ripple. Sally Kincaid stopped, bent over her hoe. For a few seconds she did not move. She looked ahead at her brother, who was still working undisturbed. She began hoeing again, slowly, and rather ineffectually; her whole attention seemed to be concentrated in waiting for something else.

The bird-trill came from the woods again. This time Sally straightened up, and looked all around her. She looked again at her brother, and appraised the remaining length of the row they were working on.

She let the shaft of her hoe drop to the ground and brushed her earth-stained hands together. “I’m going to go wash my hands,” she said. “You keep working on this row till I come back.”

She crossed the corner of the ploughed field toward the cool green thicket, not hurrying. Once out of sight among the branches, however, she quickened her pace, pushing rapidly through the young trees and looking to left and right as she went. She was running by the time she broke out on the open creek bank. She stopped short for a second to look about her—and saw, a few yards further along the bank, a tall figure in gray step from behind a willow tree. She flew to meet him. Jim Benson caught her tightly in his arms and held her. After a minute she loosened her arms a little from about his neck and tipped her head back, and he kissed her, long and hard.

It left her breathless, looking up at him with starry eyes. She smiled tremulously, a little shyly. “You never used to kiss me like that!”

He grinned, a little unsteady himself. “What’s the matter, don’t you like it?”

For answer she put her lips to his and they kissed again.

Then Jim drew her hands down from his shoulders, glancing around into the woods. “Come on over here—where nobody’ll see us.”

He pulled her by the hand into the willow thicket, and they sat down together against the roots of the big old tree. “I can’t stay long,” said Jim. “I’m on scout for our troop. That’s why I came down here. I thought maybe you could tell me what the captain wants to know. Have there been any Yankee troops by here lately?”

“Every day, almost. They haven’t bothered us since we’re so far back here, but they’re passing by on the road by McKendrick’s all the time. Sometimes we can hear them.”

“Any camped near town?”

Sally nodded. “All through town, and there’s a camp on the other side of it.”

“You’re sure about that?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Your pa told me about it the other day—he’s been through town and seen them.”

Jim drew a deep breath. “Captain was right then. Any idea what kind of troops they are?”

“Your pa said there were a couple batteries drawn up on the other side of the square, near the Methodist church. I know there’s cavalry—there might be infantry over in the big camp, but I can’t say for sure.”

Sally’s limpid brown eyes searched his face, wide and a little concerned. “There’s going to be a battle here, then? You’ll be in it?”

“Not really a battle. There’s only two companies of us. We’re supposed to draw the Yanks out of town, make enough noise that they think there’s a couple regiments behind us ready for a fight. Keep ’em busy long enough for some of our other troops to move where they need to be.”

Sally said nothing. Her hands, still clasped in his, lay in her lap. She looked down at them—studied the pattern on her calico apron in the quiet, with the ripple of the creek in the background.

After a short silence, Jim spoke again. “Ma and Pa all right?”

A slight wistful smile brightened Sally’s face. “They’re fine. I go over and help your ma with her housework, once or twice a week, and she lets me read your letters whenever she has one.”

“D’you let her read yours?” said Jim, the corner of his mouth twisting back a little mischievously.

Sally’s eyes met his with a laughing sparkle. “I read her parts of them.”

“I’ve missed you,” said Jim. “Missed you awful sometimes. There’s been times I just wanted to see you so bad it almost hurt. Mornings, before it gets light, and we’re waiting for the order to move…or when I’ve been on picket for hours in the cold…I’ve felt like I could die of being homesick.”

“Sometimes,” said Sally quietly, “it’s so peaceful here that—I forget. When it’s so quiet in the morning, with the sun coming up, and the birds singing, and it feels like nothing could ever be wrong in the world—and I imagine for a minute that the war’s over, and you and Pa and Bill are all home safe again, like none of it ever happened.” She lifted her face a little to look up at the tracery of branches overhead—her words came soft, almost a whisper, breathing the elusive pain of which they spoke. “I really think it, for a minute…and then it hurts, when I have to remember it’s not true.”

Jim’s hand caressed hers gently. “It’s not going to last forever,” he said.

“I know,” said Sally. She looked at him, and he could see the chill of fear in her that she was trying to keep from showing. “I just don’t want anything to happen to you.”

Jim looked down at the ground for a minute, at the coarse moss creeping over the roots of the big willow, the tiny tender ferns uncurling themselves along the creek bank; and then he looked back at her.

“You been all right back here, then? How are things with the McKendricks?”

“All right,” said Sally. “They haven’t been too hard toward us. I still go over and see the girls pretty often—but it’s not like it was. Harry’s still away in the army somewhere, I don’t know where.” She added, more slowly, “Levi was killed last month.”

 Jim stared at her. “Levi?” he said, unbelieving.

 Sally nodded.

 Jim put his head back against the trunk of the old willow, and stared off across the creek for a moment. “It seems like it was just last week,” he said, “you and me and Harry were playing at Indian fighting right here in the woods, and climbing in the cellar under the old smokehouse for a fort...and Levi was tagging along after us, and we’d tell him to go back to the house ’cause he couldn’t keep up. Now he’s dead and Harry would probably shoot me on sight.” A shade of bitterness passed over his young face, for a moment making the lines of it hard and old.

 “I don’t know,” said Sally. “Harry’s changed, I know...it seemed like the war made him angry. Right from the beginning. I don’t know if it was angry at us, or just at the whole thing for happening.”

 “I expect he’s got more reason to be angry now, with his brother dead,” said Jim. He threw a small pebble into the rippling heart of the stream.

The sparkles on the water seemed to recall him to a sense of his duty, and he looked up at the sun, and then over at Sally again. “I’ve got to get back,” he said. “Captain’s waiting on me.”

They stood up, and he took her hands again, drawing her close. “I won’t see you again for a while, most likely,” he said. “We’ll be pulling back after tomorrow—no telling where we’ll be going.”

Sally nodded—but her curiously bright eyes flitted away from his face, unable to look straight at him. He saw by the set of her lips that she was struggling to keep them from trembling.

“Sally, don’t,” he said in a suddenly strained whisper.

“Jim,” she said in a tremulously choking low voice, “Jim, just—promise me you’ll come back.”

“I’ll do my best.”

His fingers tightened on her arms. “Don’t cry,” he said; “don’t—just kiss me one more time—”

She obeyed, clinging tightly to him for too-short seconds…and then he pulled away and left her, with a farewell glance. He ducked away into the woods along the creek bank. Sally stood alone, with her head thrown up a little, the sunlight pouring down on her, and fought back the tight ache in her throat and the burning in her eyes. She drew a deep breath. Then she turned and started back in the direction of the cornfield, going softly barefooted in the green-carpeted woods.
To be continued...

Friday, July 3, 2015

Snippets of Story: #wordplaywednesday Edition

My tentative goal for One of Ours was to finish rewriting it by the end of this summer, if at all possible. Now it looks like that goal may actually be in sight. Yesterday I finished a crucial scene that I'd been basically terrified of writing as I approached it, and the rest of the story is pretty well outlined from here. So with that scene done, the pressure is off a bit, and I can enjoy our upcoming week of family vacation with a clear conscience and still have plenty of summer left to hopefully finish the rewrite!

I've been sharing bits of my work as I go along via the #wordplaywednesday hashtag on Twitter, so for today's snippets post, I thought I'd collect them in one place for the benefit of non-Twitterers. (If you'd like to see the original tweets, you can click here.) These represent the last three months of work:

Sandy McAllister turned his head toward Horner slowly. His look seemed to say he might have found it possible to resent Horner's tone, if he had not found it more interesting to remain unruffled and see what he would do next.


Britt knew that people must talk. No incident is ever closed until it has been discussed and re-hashed and everyone has decided for themselves exactly what it meant.


"I feel I don't know myself at all, or know my own mind, and I thought I did. It's like walking in the dark, and not even knowing whether you're in danger of falling."


There was silence for a few seconds, the sun beating down in the dust outside the shed; a meadowlark singing somewhere far out in the fields. "So you see," said Britt, "they were all right about me—they just found it out a little late."


In the very hour that she had stepped forward forever into a new chapter of womanhood, only the exuberance of childhood seemed adequate to express her happiness.


No one wanted to speak; they did not feel inclined to quarrel at breakfast, yet none of them had swayed a whit from the convictions that had splintered them apart the day before.


Britt looked steadily back at her, understanding, with the perception that sometimes comes with heightened moments; but he still cut his words crisp for Lavinia Fullerton's benefit.

(P.S. - Look out for the beginning of my summer blog serial, "Skirmish at McKendrick's," on Wednesday the 8th!)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Coming Soon - The Silent Hour: A Mrs. Meade Mystery



Things are moving along with the next of the Mrs. Meade Mysteries, The Silent Hour. Right now I'm aiming at early October for a release, though that date could move up a bit if editing and pre-publication work goes more smoothly than expected. You can now add it to-read on Goodreads, and we have a book description!

Major Cambert and his grandson Jim were known to have quarreled bitterly over Jim’s choice of a wife, so when the Major is found shot dead by his own fireside the next night, Jim is the prime suspect—and a suspect without an alibi. But there were others who may have held a grudge against the Major too: an obnoxious ex-soldier, a sullen ranch hand…and Jim’s fiancée. And none of them can account for their whereabouts during the dark hour when Major Cambert was murdered. With no other evidence to go on, Mrs. Meade will have to apply all her wits to discover who is really guilty…

Also, if you're not already on my email mailing list, I currently have a new offer running: subscribe, and you'll receive a free ebook of The Parting Glass, the second in the Mrs. Meade series! Click here if you'd like to sign up.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

One-Year Anniversary: Left-Hand Kelly

I've never observed any of my books' publication anniversaries before, for the simple reason that they always slipped past me while I was busy writing the next one. But I happened to notice recently when checking one of my Amazon pages that June 25th would mark one year since the release of Left-Hand Kelly, and that seemed like an occasion worth observing with a post.

As I wrote about in some detail before, Left-Hand Kelly took almost four years of off-and-on work to write and publish. I have a general idea, from journal entries, of when I starting actually writing it, but the single sheet of lined paper bearing the original idea is undated. I still have it in my catch-all binder, and I dug it out this morning to share it with you. The front side bears a brief synopsis of the plot, amazingly close to the finished product:

click to enlarge

On the other side, a list of character names, which also fell into place with remarkably little effort, and a few scraps of sentences that made it into the book in slightly altered form:

click to enlarge

I also pulled my old journals out of my hope chest today and paged through the entries relating to Left-Hand Kelly. Most of them are not very illuminating to anyone but the author—brief, slightly addled remarks that reflect the chaotic nature of the book's creation: the difficulties of ending chapters properly, or picking up in the middle of a conversation left off several months before; worries over whether certain characters talk too much or not enough, even speculations on exactly who the protagonist might be. Endless recaps of exactly how much editing I guessed certain chapters would need. Frequent references to working in a creative haze (Jo March would call it a vortex), and fruitlessly wishing that mundane things like eating and sleeping didn't have to get in the way.

February 21st, 2013: ...I'm torn between thinking this story is really good and thinking it's a mess. In other words, business as usual.

Last spring into early summer, if you recall, was occupied by pulling our whole house apart and painting every room—and at the same time, I was doing final edits on Left-Hand Kelly and formatting it for publication.

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014: I learned how to right-justify a table of contents last night! By setting tabs! With running leaders! The little things that can excite me.

Finally, I found the journal entry for June 25th of last year. This, my friends, is the life of an indie author.

June 25th: Exhaustion. Total exhaustion. Kitchen torn apart for painting—dog in heat—pouring rain—new book released.

Was it all worth it? Oh, yes. Not just for the thrill of good reviews or award nominations, but the fulfillment of seeing a story that spent so much time wrapped around my heart and mind turn into a real book. Even after a year, it's a little hard to believe.

So if you're curious enough to see where all this led...well, you could buy the book. You can sample the first chapter for free at Western Ebooks. And for a visual glimpse into the story, check out my Left-Hand Kelly Pinterest board:

Follow Elisabeth Grace's board Novella: Left-Hand Kelly on Pinterest.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Memories Between the Lines


The other day, I was looking through my reading record book, which goes back to the autumn of 2010. I'd been trying to make some lists of books, and I always enjoy skimming back over my records of reading from time to time. Let's face it, my memory is such that if I didn't keep a physical record, I'd never be able to recall what I read and when. Books that I enjoyed would stick in my head, but I'd never be able to retain the complete picture. But I never realized, until the other day, the other side of that coin—just how much memory is captured between the lines of a reading list.

As I skimmed down the titles, I found myself recalling sights, scents, colors, seasons—where I'd read the books, and how, and what was happening around me. I spotted where I got my first Kindle (Christmas of 2010) because I remembered that Her Prairie Knight was the first ebook I loaded on it. I could remember the smell of different library books, what the covers looked like—or the pesky not-to-be-removed cover slips on my plentiful interlibrary loans, which kept me from ever seeing what the covers looked like. I've never found any interesting scraps of paper or margin notes in library books; just one maddening copy of To Kill A Mockingbird where somebody had underlined phrases and sentences in pencil on almost every page—it looked like it had been diced up for some sort of grammar lesson.

Some books that I loved absorbed me so I don't recall a thing about the reading experience; with others, sharp details jump out of the reading list as if it was yesterday. I remember reading Nine Coaches Waiting and My Antonia curled up in the rocker-recliner in our parlor, forcing myself to stop every few chapters and save some for the next day, so I could savor the gorgeous writing longer. Pastoral and Kathleen I read up on the deck by our pool—and that sparks a memory from before I began keeping a record book, of reading Life With Father up there by the umbrella table on a late summer afternoon. Or sitting down on the deck steps, glued to The Woman in White for hours. Reading The Glassblowers sitting on the floor next to my bed one night, by the light of a single lamp, and finishing it even though I'd resolved to only read a few chapters before bed. The Way We Live Now and Little Dorrit were read over many afternoons on the lawn swing...Old Rose and Silver and Susan Coolidge's entire What Katy Did series kept me from boredom during a particularly nasty illness.

Something Fresh and Pendragon's Heir imperiled meals, as I continued reading them straight through the process of cooking supper. I remember blundering all over the house, trying to keep one step ahead of a housecleaning in progress, while devouring Dear Enemy by Jean Webster..."cramming" on Texas Civil War history (research for One of Ours) in the dentist's waiting-room because of non-renewable library books due the next day. Spilling orange juice on my Kindle trying to read Until That Distant Day during a solitary breakfast...snacking on a bag of salad croutons left over from a graduation party while absorbed in Cards on the Table...catching a few chapters of They Were Expendable while waiting for the Superbowl to begin and the meatballs to finish cooking (the year the Seahawks won)...reading Chekhov's The Lady With the Dog at the kitchen table while trying sausage and peppers for the first time, and deciding that I liked the sausage moderately well, but couldn't stand Chekhov.

Books seem to spark more vivid memories than any other inanimate objects—perhaps because they're not really inanimate once we begin reading them. Perhaps because we become so mentally engaged with a good book that it weaves itself into the fabric of our experience and memories. I suppose that's why many people have been able to write memoirs built entirely around their reading life. I'll bet it's surprisingly easy—glancing back over this post, I see every scrap of memory could become a story. At any rate, it gives me one more reason to be glad I started keeping a reading log almost five years ago.