The Past Is Another Country
by Tamara Linse
I’m honored to be hanging out with Andrea today on the fabulous Andi’s Book Reviews!
She asked me these great questions relating to my historical novel Earth’s Imagined Corners: Why do you feel you belong in the 1800s? If you could blend today's society and that of the 1800s, what aspects of each would you include?
Well, it isn’t so much that I feel that I belong in the 1800s. In fact, I think it would have been pretty tough to be a woman in that time period. You were property in the true sense of the word: for most of the period, you couldn’t own anything because it belonged to your husband or father. You did not “own” or have any legal rights to your kids. You were at the mercy of the men in your life and had not legal or social right to much of anything.
It’s not that I feel I belong there. It’s that I joke I was raised in the 1800s. That’s because I was raised on a ranch in Wyoming that did things old style. Over the summer, we would take cows to summer pasture and live without running water and electricity and ride horses to get pretty much everywhere. Over the winter, we rode the bus 25 miles both ways to get to school, and the pipes would often freeze so you had to go to the outhouse. We had a party line for a phone, which meant you could listen in on your neighbors. There were always dangerous animals around. If it wasn’t my uncle’s buffalo and ostriches and kangaroos (wallaby), it was the bears coming down off the mountain to eat the apples in the orchard across the creek.
And it wasn’t just the physical environment of the ranch that was like the 1800s. The ideas of the West and of cowboys are very chauvinistic and Victorian. Men are respected and women are not, so a lot of the women I know wanted to be men. They performed this mental trick where they thought of themselves as this third gender—they weren’t women for heaven’s sake because that would be awful, and they couldn’t be men, so they would be as masculine as possible. All their friends would be guys, and those women would be the first to make women jokes. It’s very destructive to the psyche.
But to the second part of your question: which aspects of today and the 1800s would I like to live?
First of all, having grown up on the ranch without modern conveniences, I really like indoor plumbing!
Second, I’m really glad to be a woman in today’s society. The lack of power and infantilization of the Victorian period would have been horrible. My poor Sara really throws herself to the wolves when she disobeys her father.
Third, what really struck me as I was doing research for Earth’s Imagined Corners is that we very much were a melting pot back then. It was like my experience of present-day London in that there are immigrants everywhere, and all you have to do is walk down the street to hear lots of different languages and cultures. And the food! Oh my. I love being able to eat food from Ethiopia, Thailand, and Kerala India on the same block. My experience of present-day U.S. is not that way. We’re pretty homogenous, especially in Wyoming. And so it was great fun to have all my characters’ cultural and ethnic inheritances play out on the page.
There were a lot more poor people in the U.S. back then, and there was no such thing as a safety net. Even though my James has his bad moments, I really empathize with his poverty. When I think of that poor little boy, starving as his mother flirts with men to try to get them something to eat, my heart breaks.
Maybe because of my upbringing, I don’t romanticize the past as much as some. I fear I would have been that poverty stricken drudge who cleaned sculleries and mucked out stalls and had to sell herself in flop houses. And so, I have to say, I prefer present-day for my real life. But the past is the perfect crucible for fiction, and I love trying to dramatize what my ancestors went through. My heart goes out to them.
Earth’s Imagined Corners
by Tamara Linse
The Round Earth Series
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Willow Words
Date of Publication: January 31, 2015
Number of pages: 472
Word Count: 130,000
In 1885 Iowa, Sara Moore is a dutiful daughter, but when her father tries to force her to marry his younger partner, she must choose between the partner—a man who treats her like property—and James Youngblood—a kind man she hardly knows who has a troubled past.
When she confronts her father, he beats her and turns her out of the house, breaking all ties, so she decides to elope with James to Kansas City with hardly a penny to their names.
In the tradition of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Earth’s Imagined Corners is a novel that comprehends the great kindnesses and violences we do to each other.
Read an excerpt:
Anamosa, Iowa, 1885
Sara Moore should have nothing to fear this week. She had been meticulous in her entering into the ledger the amounts that Minnie the cook requested she spend on groceries. She had remembered, just, to include her brother Ed’s purchase of materials to mend sister Maisie’s doll house and to subtract the pickling salt that she had purchased for sister Esther but for which Esther’s husband Gerald had reimbursed her. She stood at her father’s shoulder as he went over the weekly household accounts, and even though her father owned Moore Grocer & Sundries from which she ordered the family’s groceries, he still insisted she account for the full price in the ledger. “No daughter of mine,” he often said, though sometimes he would finish the thought and sometimes his neatly trimmed eyebrows would merely bristle.
Despite the buttressing of her corset, Sara hunched forward, somewhat reducing her tall frame. She intertwined her fingers so that she would not fiddle with the gathers of soft navy wool in her overskirt, and she tried not to breathe too loudly, so as not to bother him, nor to breathe too deeply, in order to take in little of the cigar smoke curling up from his elephant-ivory ashtray on the hulking plantation desk.
As always, the heavy brocade curtains armored Colonel Moore’s study against the Iowa day, so the coal oil lamps flickered in their brackets. Per instructions, Sipsy the maid lit them early every morning, snuffed them when he left for the grocery, lit them again in anticipation of his return at seven, and then snuffed them again after he retired. It was an expense, surely, but one that Sara knew better than to question. The walls of the study were lined with volumes of military history and maps of Virginia and Georgia covered in lines, symbols, and labels carefully inked in Colonel Moore’s hand. In its glass case on the bureau rested Colonel Moore’s 1851, an intricately engraved pistol awarded to him during the War of Northern Aggression. Sipsy dusted daily, under stern directive that not a speck should gather upon any surface in the room.
Sara’s father let out a sound between an outlet of breath and a groan. This was not good. He was not pleased. Sara straightened her shoulders and took a breath and held it but let her shoulders slump forward once more.
“My dear,” he said, his drawl at a minimum, “your figures, once again, are disproportionate top to bottom. And there is too much slant, as always, in their curvatures. I urge you to practice your penmanship.” His tone was one of indulgence.
Inaudibly, Sara let out her breath. If he was criticizing her chirography, then he had found nothing amiss in the numbers. The accounts were sound for another week. Later, when he checked the numbers against the accounts at the grocery, there was less of a chance that she had missed something.
He closed the ledger, turned his chair, and with both hands held the ledger out to her. She received it palms up and said, “I will do better, Father.”
“You would not want to disappoint to your mother.” His drawl was more pronounced.
So he had regretted his indulgence and was not satisfied to let her go unchecked. His wife, Sara’s mother, had been dead these five years, and since then Sara had grown to take her place, running the household, directing the servants, and caring for six year-old Maisie. Ed needed little looking after, as he was older than Sara, though unmarried, and Esther, the oldest, was married with two daughters and farm of her own.
Sara straightened her shoulders again and hugged the ledger to her chest. “Yes, Father,” she said and turned and left the room, trying to keep her pace tranquil and unhurried. She went to the kitchen, where Minnie had a cup of coffee doused with cream and sugar awaiting her. Minnie gave her an encouraging smile, and though Sara did not acknowledge what went unsaid between them—one must shun familiarity with the servants—she lifted her shoulders slightly and said, “Thank you, Minnie.” Minnie, with the round figure and dark eyes of a Bohemian, understood English well, though she still talked with a pronounced accent, and Sara had only heard her speak the round vowels and chipped consonants of her native tongue once, when a delivery man indigenous to her country of origin walked into the kitchen with mud on his boots. Sara tucked the ledger in its place on a high shelf and then allowed herself five minutes of sipping coffee amid the wonderful smells of Minnie’s pompion tart. Then she rose, rinsed her cup, and applied herself to her day.
The driver had Father’s horse and gig waiting, as always, at twenty minutes to nine. As Father stretched his fingers into his gloves, pulling them tight by the wrist leather, he told Sara, “When you come at noon, I have something unusual to show you.”
“Yes, Father,” she said.
It seemed odd that he would concern her with anything to do with business. He left her to the household. He had long tried to coerce Ed into the business, but Ed’s abilities trended more toward the physical. He was a skilled carpenter, though Father kept a close rein on where he took jobs and whom he worked for. All talk of renaming the business Moore & Son had been dropped when Father had recently promoted the young man who was his assistant, Chester O’Hanlin, to partner. Mr. O’Hanlin had droopy red muttonchops and a body so long and thin he looked a hand-span taller than he really was, which was actually a bit shorter than Sara. Mr. O’Hanlin didn’t talk much, either, and he seemed always to be listening. He held himself oddly, cocking his head to one side, first one way and then the other, his small dark eyes focusing off to the left or right of the speaker. His nose, long and wedge-shaped, seemed to take up half his face. “Chester, the Chinaman,” Maisie called him outside of his presence because of the way he stooped and bobbed whenever their father entered the room.
Tamara Linse jokes that she was raised in the 1880s, and so it was natural for her to set a book there. She is the author of the short story collection How to Be a Man and the novel Deep Down Things and earned her master’s in English from the University of Wyoming, where she taught writing. Her work appears in the Georgetown Review, South Dakota Review, and Talking River, among others, and she was a finalist for an Arts & Letters and Glimmer Train contests, as well as the Black Lawrence Press Hudson Prize for a book of short stories. She works as an editor for a foundation and a freelancer.
Find her online at www.tamaralinse.com and her blog Writer, Cogitator, Recovering Ranch Girl at www.tamara-linse.blogspot.com
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