Prairie Hill – pondering the sources of fiction

Prairie Hill cover

Now and again people ask me whether my novel, Prairie Hill, is autobiographical. I answer “no” but it’s not strictly true. Looking over the novel I find all sorts of odds and ends of details which come from my life – a dingy, cobwebby basement I once explored, pigeons flapping from rafter to rafter inside an abandoned building, a ruby-crowned kinglet taking me for a walk along the railroad tracks, and a man dressed in an oversized rooster costume waving to passersby, advertising the best chicken in town.

I like to think about the sources of fiction. These tidbits from “reality,” close observations of friends and family and strangers, overheard conversations and glimpses through the windows of daily life, combine with an author’s perceptions and imagination to create setting, characters and story. None of the characters in Prairie Hill are exact replicas of people I know or have known. However, even when a writer describes a real person as accurately as possible, the filter of his or her own sensibilities moves the writing a step or two toward fiction.

I’ve kept a journal since the summer I turned ten. It evolved from an account of my activities from breakfast to bedtime, to seemingly endless declarations of teenage angst, to a more conscious attempt at capturing life around me – people I encountered, places I spent time in, daily life lived through. The many thousands of pages made me a more thoughtful observer and a better writer. The journals also provided me with a huge amount of useful material. Have I used any of it in my fiction? Not directly, but I have a good example of how what I absorbed long ago proved useful when writing a novel many years later.

In my 20’s I knew an old woman named Franny who spent much of her day pushing a mop across what seemed like acres of linoleum floor. Her feet hurt her and she’d need to rest and so she often came by where I was working and talked with me, or “chewed the fat” as she liked to call it. She was bitter and given to scowling, but the lines would soften on her face when she reminisced. We became friends and she’d bring me little presents such as apples from a local orchard. I liked her colorful way of speaking and I began to write down what I recalled. Her voice stayed with me for many years and it is Franny’s voice and a touch of her appearance and personality that I gave to Hulda Bjorklund, the old farm woman who becomes friends with and even a mentor of young Jenny Diggles and Jimmy Lathrop in Prairie Hill.

Here, for comparison, is some of Franny’s dialogue, taken from my journal, followed by an excerpt from Prairie Hill told from the perspective of Hulda Bjorklund.

A journal from the late 1980’s

11/21/88

“I still miss that of my mom, her bread. Every Sunday at noon she’d fry some bread dough before puttin’ the bread in. My girlfriends, they all knew when she’d be makin’ bread. They could smell it outside the house.

“My dad gave me a licking I’ll never forget. They gave me a brand new snow suit, and we went to the hill for sleighing. I tore a hole in that snow suit and my sister went and told my dad before I ever got home. He was waitin’ at that back door for me with a razor strop. He took my snow pants off and whipped me till my mom told him to stop. They said ‘money don’t grow on bushes around here,’ that’s what they says back then. It was the Depression. I was young then, maybe that’s why I didn’t like him. My mom said he and me we’re too much alike.

“One time up at our cabin he showed us where he went huntin’, way down in what they called a hog’s head. We girls got bored and walked back and got lost in the marsh, and we had to call him when it was dark to find us.”

“He had enough guns ta buy a house. He wouldn’t clean them guns once a year. He’d just take ‘em out of them three gun cabinets and rub ‘em down with a rag. There weren’t ever no fingerprints on them guns. That son of a bitch up at Taco John’s, he got most of my dad’s guns. My nephew chased him home once and told him never to come to his door again. He wasn’t gonna get no more guns.

“Before he passed away I had to drive him around. He liked to drive fast, too. But the doctor said he couldn’t drive no more. He had cataracts in both eyes. But did he like the way I drove?

“He was stubborn, and I ain’t saying I’m not.”

From Prairie Hill:

Hulda Bjorklund

I’ve lived a long time in this house, seventy-three years from the day I was born. In them days there weren’t too many farmer kids born in the hospital and I was no exception. I had a real good childhood, better than them kids today. Daddy was tough on me, no doubt about that. I weren’t good enough to suit him, he said, but I could tell deep down I was. They said I wasn’t that all fired good looking, but I coulda married. There were a couple fellers hanging around, even after Daddy gave them the third degree, but they didn’t hang around long enough to catch me. I grew older and lost what looks I had and the folks needed me more and I just stayed on, working the place until I was the only one left. Every now and again I wonder what will happen to this old house and barn and what’s left of the acreage. My brother’s family don’t want nothing to do with it. They’ll just sell it. “Hulda,” they say, “nobody vacations in Prairie Hill. Nothin’ there.” But that just makes me mad. You don’t hear the whippoorwills like you did when I was a little girl and the foxes are gone – good riddance if you ask me – but I still feel awful good on a spring morning listening to them birds, eyeing them pretty flowers and knowing I got food on the table I grew on my own land. It hits me sometimes that they’ll tear my home place down and pave it over like all the rest. You know, I couldn’t believe it when they put up that shopping center, Fox Hollow (ain’t been no foxes there for thirty years!) on the edge of town where the Nilsson farm used to be and they kept the silo right there sticking up like a big corncob at the end of the parking lot, with a bed of petunias planted all around it. Looked damn silly. I asked Norman Cobb about that silo and he said the shopping center people wanted it for atmosphere. I craned my neck to look way up at that silo and remembered how tickled the Nilsson’s were when they got it ‘cause it stored a sight more corn than the old cement kind. I wondered if there was a single kernel left in that big old thing. The pigeons found the silo before the shopping center came and they never left.

Jimmy rapped on my door and I opened up, old Ollie bursting past me and jumping up on the poor fellow. “Get back you crazy fool,” I says, “get back.”

Jimmy don’t care none. He gives Ollie a big ole hug and pats him all over and I can’t remember the last time I saw Ollie’s tail tick so fast, back and forth, back and forth. Anybody Ollie likes is alright by me. “You know dogs, Jimmy, dontya.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I had a Labrador retriever named Shadow, the sweetest-tempered dog you could ever meet. She was alive last I knew, but old. Her muzzle was turning gray, but she still couldn’t wait to go out for long walks.”

“You ain’t been home in awhile,” I said, knowing it was true.

He nodded.

“Your folks must miss you.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, Hulda.”

“Ain’t you in touch with them?”

“No.”

“Ain’t they in touch with you?”

Again he said no.

I gave him my best scowl. The Lord’s blessed me with a face that’s good at ‘em.

Advertisements

A Writing Family Pt.4 – My Great Aunt, Florence Beckett Bennett

Florence Beckett


Although I never knew my great aunt Florence Beckett, who died before I was born, over the years I heard intriguing tales about her career as a professional musician and about her mouth-watering New England-style cooking skills. After my father died in 1997, I began the process of sifting through the mountainous heaps of manuscripts and papers. One day while rummaging, I pulled out a creased and tattered manila folder labeled “Auntie Flo Memoir.” The folder revealed a stack of brittle yellow pages filled from top to bottom with her neat, flowing script, which had the look of a schoolgirl’s, even though Florence wrote it in her 70’s. Sometime later I turned up a typescript entitled The Sharp, the Flat and the Natural (An Autobiography) by Florence Beckett as told to Basil Burwell. The typescript sample, stamped with the imprint of my father’s literary agent, Bertha Klausner, must have made the rounds of publishers, only to reside for the next 60 years in its decrepit folder.

Florence Emeline Beckett was born on August 24, 1876, in Portland, Maine. Her mother, Antoinette Schnare, hailed from St. Margaret’s Bay, in Nova Scotia, while her professional musician father, Edward Parry Beckett, emigrated from Cambridge England to Canada, where according to legend he worked as “bandmaster to the Queen’s Own.” After the eldest, my grandmother Amelia, was born, Edward took his young family to the United States, where eventually he and “Annie” had three more children, all of whom performed as professional musicians, although other than Florence, only the youngest, Alice, persevered in show business. Alice worked for years with Allen’s Western Minstrels. The Beckett family traveled, but spent much of their time at Crescent Beach (now Revere), Massachusetts. The children grew up in a colorful world of performers and met famous people like General Tom Thumb, Peter Tchaikovsky, John Philip Sousa, and their father’s friend and mentor, composer and conductor, Victor Herbert.

Florence fell in love with the flute, her father’s primary instrument. She became proficient at an early age and then far more than proficient. At 14 she joined the Marietta Sherman Orchestra, played in smaller units at society functions and that winter debuted as a soloist with a full orchestra. Over the course of the following 15 years she worked with numerous women’s orchestras and played in concerts all over the United States, performing alongside opera stars, famous orchestra conductors, and theatrical luminaries such as Lillie Langtry. She also toiled in summer resorts, vaudeville theaters, and honky-tonk music halls. The locations ranged from cosmopolitan cities to small town America, from the World’s Columbian Exposition to rowdy frontier towns and isolated Indian reservations. Newspaper publicity sometimes billed Florence as the “leading lady flute player of the world.” Although she sometimes played in mixed orchestras, there were clearly fewer opportunities for fame and fortune if you were a woman musician at the turn of the century.

Florence [top, second from left] with the Boston Ladies Orchestra at Mt. McGregor, 1893

Florence met Myron Bennett in Sanford, Maine. They married in 1903 and had one child, Dorice, and for a time lived on a houseboat, but the marriage did not work out. To be closer to her mother and sister Amelia, Florence moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where as Florence Bennett, she lived in the 1920’s and 1930’s, playing flute in the Madison Symphony Orchestra and to make ends meet, she also gave private lessons and led orchestras in moving picture theaters during the heyday of silent films.

Accolades from a Madison newspaper, 1930

She must have retired by the 1940’s, but much of her life after leaving Madison remains a mystery, even the date of her death.

Florence Beckett Bennett in 1941

In oral history interviews, my parents recalled her visits during the 1940’s and 50’s. Dad remembered details of her phenomenal cooking: “In her later years, she would travel about from one branch of the family to another, taking her special cooking tools, her pie crinkler, her cake tester, and so on. She always had to have the right tools as well as the right ingredients. She would make her delectable potato starch – kind of sponge cake and turn it into a Washington cream pie or Boston cream pie, as the case might be, and make fabulous pies of all descriptions. Of course I’m particularly fond of apple pie and this was a fantastic thing to watch her make. The tender loving care with which she would lay apple slice upon apple slice in a really geometric way was something I’ll never forget.”

My mother reminisced about a visit from sisters Florence and Alice when she was just a “shy young thing,” not long after she’d met my father: “Florence had a loud voice. She was very jolly…I met them at a restaurant in New York City and I’m sitting in the middle and here’s Alice and here’s Auntie Flo and they’re talking over my head – ‘Oh! You remember that time? Oh yes…ha ha ha ha!’ Oh God was I embarrassed, but it was very funny. They were theatrical. Extrovert. Dear people. But oh my, was I embarrassed. I’m in the middle and the whole restaurant is hearing wild conversation with loud, loud voices. But they were delightful.”

I wish I’d known Great Aunt Florence, yet another member of my “writing family.” Her passion for music continues to run through the family veins. Perhaps one quiet night, if I close my eyes and think about her and listen as hard as I can, I’ll hear the sweet notes of her flute.

Excerpt from Florence Beckett’s memoir, as edited by my father, Basil Beckett Burwell. From the first chapter, entitled “The Magic Flute.”

“Girls should learn to be ladies; and no lady every plays a flute,” said Father, glowering at me across the music stand in the parlor and tapping his foot. The foot gave him away. He wasn’t as angry as he was pretending. The foot tapping was a trick he had learned from some actor at the Boston Museum. Now he raised his eyebrows as if he was reaching for a high note. “No, Fodie. The flute is the noblest of instruments and the most ancient; it is to be found in every land where man has dwelt; the Greeks played it on the slopes of Olympus and the Indians before their council fires; but to my certain knowledge it was not played by women.”

“But Father, I love the flute and I can’t stand the violin. I want to play the flute like you.”

“If only you had been a boy,” he said with a sigh. He had just finished his finger-limbering exercises and in a few minutes he would be on his way to Boston to play a matinee at the Boston Museum. It was the best time to speak to him. I watched him now as he stood his flute up in a corner to drain out the moisture. He straightened up and stood looking at me meditatively as he stroked the tuft of hair that grew Louis Napoleon fashion from his nether lip. “Fodie,” he said, “the violin is also a noble instrument. With the tail-hairs of a horse tones of incredible beauty can be drawn from the stretched gut of cats. What is more miraculous? My father used to talk to me by the hour about Paganini, the great virtuoso. He had heard him once in London between voyages. The man was a magician; he could play anything. Sometimes he would be annoyed at the audience and he would stop playing and make the instrument baa at them like a sheep or grunt like a pig. But when the audience was right and the spirit was on him he could outplay an angel. Hearing about him made me determine to play the violin. Unfortunately, circumstances caused me to enter the army and become a bandsman. In the British army, at least, one cannot march and play the violin. I chose the flute. I have, perhaps, a shade of regret. That is why I should like you to learn the violin.”

“But Father, you never even heard Paganini, but I have heard you. I want to play the flute.”

“No, Fodie. You cannot flatter yourself into a flute,” said Father, rolling up his music and preparing to go. “You will obey me and continue with the violin.” He looked at me hard. He had brilliant blue eyes and sometimes they could be very cold, but they were not cold now. There was something queer about them as if he was secretly laughing. He called goodbye to Mother and to my sister, Millie, who were in the kitchen, and then hurried off. I watched him go past the front of the house with his chin in the air and his lips puckered as he whistled a snatch of the overture he had been practicing. There was something dashing and military about him with his turned up waxed moustache and I was proud to have such a handsome father. I was only fourteen in 1890 and, as yet, had not been attracted by other men. I adored my father but I was not in awe of him the way my mother and my sister, Millie, were. I had a temper which I had demonstrated more than once in the past two years since Father had insisted that I learn the violin. Millie had to study the viola and she didn’t like it any more than I did the violin. She wanted to play the cornet. But while she obeyed orders philosophically, I had tantrums which could be heard all over Crescent Beach, Revere. The tantrums hadn’t accomplished anything so now I was trying “sweetness and light.”

When Father passed out of sight down Garfield Avenue I turned around and saw his flute standing in the corner. He had never left a flute at home before. He always took both his flutes with him. I went over and picked it up, holding it as I had watched him hold it, putting my fingers in the same places, and pressing it against my lower lip just as he did. I blew and it made a sound.

“I can do it,” I thought. “I can do it.” I blew hard. A sound like that of a factory whistle at noon shrilled through the house. For a moment I froze, half fearing that that tone might penetrate as far as the narrow-gauge railway station and bring Father hurrying back to reclaim his flute. Then, delighted with myself, I blew again, pressing a different key. A new sound, fuzzy and blurred and less loud presented itself. I began with many false notes and new beginnings to pick out the scale. At first, not all of the notes were in the same octave, and I discovered that the firmness of the mouth and the pressure of the lip against the flute seemed to affect the pitch. A somewhat slack mouth made a low note and a tense mouth a high note. That was the trick. The fingering scarcely troubled me at all. I had watched Father often, even sitting with him in the pit at the theater. How thrilled I had been when he played a solo! It was this experience, I think, which was at the bottom of my longing to play the flute. Now, with the instrument in my hands, I felt happier than I had ever felt in my life before. Time did not exist, nor place, nor family, only the flute and my swiftly growing knowledge.

No doubt the sounds I made at first must have sounded outlandish to Mother and Millie in the kitchen. They must have wondered what had brought Father back to the house and what was causing him, the master of the flute, to bring forth such incredible and discordant sounds. The door opened behind me and Millie looked in at me. “It’s Fodie!” she called back to the kitchen. Mother came at once, wiping her hands on her apron. “Land sakes,” she said, “so you’ve got a flute in your hands at last. I thought someone had stepped on a cat’s tail.”

“Father left it behind,” I said, defensively. “I couldn’t help myself.”

“Well, you did help yourself,” said Millie, “and Father isn’t going to like it.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Mother, her eyes bright with humor. “I have an idea he left the flute on purpose. It’s his way of giving in. Men are just too stubborn to give in without pretending that they’re not. Fodie, if you can’t play something for him by the time he comes home after the matinee, you are not the girl I think you are.”

“I will, Mother, I promise.”

“That’s my girl. Millie, you come with me. If Florence is allowed to give up the violin for the flute there’s no doubt you’ll be allowed to give up the viola for the cornet. Meanwhile we’ll make apple-dumplings. They always put your father in a good mood.”

After supper, as Father scraped up the last of the lemon sauce that had covered his dumpling, I excused myself from the table and went into the parlor. Picking up the flute, I stood nervously, listening for a pause in the conversation in the dining room. When it came I blew a wobbling note on the flute and, gathering courage, continued to play a fairly acceptable version of “Yankee Doodle.”

As the last note dwindled, Father came into the parlor. “Is that how you practice the violin?” he asked, his face blank and non-committal.

I didn’t know what to say. Tears came into my eyes. “I do so want to play the flute,” I said.

He came over to me and put his arms around me. “Then you shall,” he said and kissed me. I looked up and there were Mother and Millie smiling in the doorway.

Florence Beckett in 1894

[Postscript: Florence practiced the flute nine hours a day. After three months, Edward brought home a difficult flute part from an overture and told Florence that once she mastered it, she’d be ready to join an orchestra. She played it right through perfectly, auditioned for Marietta Sherman and then joined her Beacon Orchestral Club. My grandmother Amelia (“Millie”) became a prize pupil at the Boston Cornet Conservatory.]

Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary – Desoxy

Desoxy: The state (or art) of being desoxed [see also desoxcombobulated]

Giorgio had a problem with sox. His sock drawer was not only full of sox (among them, Bostonian Redsox and Chicagoan Whitesox, but alas, no Philadelphian Pucesox) they constantly seemed to multiply and spill out onto the floor. Every day he’d cart armloads of sox down to the Salvation Army Store, but by the time he came home they were back again, multiplying to the point that they entirely filled his bedroom and he had to sleep on the living room couch. After a week of soxiness, his entire house was bursting with sox. He was desperate to desoxify his house. He called in exterminators, but they knew nothing about desoxing. He put an ad in the paper and all sorts of crackpots called or wrote or showed up at the door with absolutely ridiculous ideas.

“Feed them bubblegum toothpaste,” said one old crone. The idea!

“Read plumbing manuals to them. They hate that,” said a man who kept tripping over his beard.

Finally, one sunny day, just as a gang of sweat-stained athletic sox forced him out of his front door, a tiny voice spoke in his ear. He rummaged around with a finger but there didn’t seem to be anyone hiding there. However, the voice was quite clear. “To desoxify your house you, yourself, must be desoxy.”

“Dagnabbit, how in tarnation does a feller do that?” Giorgio asked – lately he’d been reading Western novels as an escape from sox – “They say you can lead a horse to water, but there ain’t a cactus in hell can make these here newfangled hosiery drink.”

“Trust me,” the voice said. “Take one bicarbonate of desoxycorticosterone and mix it with two teaspoons of desoxyriboncucleic acid, mix it in some prune juice and pour it in your sock drawer – that is, if you can fight your way into the bedroom.”

Giorgio sighed, plunged through a drift of ever-clamoring argyles and managed to clear a path into the kitchen where naturally he had the ingredients on hand – he always kept desoxycorticosterone and desoxyriboncucleic acid handy for an emergency and prune juice because it reminded him of his birthplace in Sicily.

By the time he reached his bedroom, Giorgio looked more sock than human and the formerly bubbling vibrant green liquid had thickened with sock lint. He found the sock drawer writhing with formal dress sox, poured in the gunk, and then fainted. When he woke up there wasn’t a sock in the place, not even on his feet. His girlfriend Pandora arrived for the first time in days, gazed at the curiously empty house and said, “Giorgio my dear, you may not be very sexy, but you sure are desoxy.”

Actual meaning: earlier form of “deoxy” which means something that has less oxygen than its original compound, also used as a chemical prefix.

New Publication: Baseball Pioneers 1850-1870

Base Ball Pioneers 1850-1870


I have a chapter entitled, “Olympians of Beloit College,” in Base Ball Pioneers 1850-1870, a lovely oversized paperback recently published by McFarland Books. While the history of baseball after 1870 has proven fertile ground for exhaustive scholarship, we know much less about its earliest period, as teams sprang up and popularized the sport across the nation. Founder of the “Pioneer Project,” Peter Morris, asked me to write about the Olympian Base Ball Club of Beloit College, a highly successful but short-lived congregation of battle-toughened Civil War veterans and fresh-faced youngsters. I delved deep into the Beloit College Archives, uncovered vivid accounts in diaries, letters and newspapers, and pieced together the story of a dynamic club from a tiny Wisconsin school on a bluff above the Rock River. The scholars of Greek and Latin somehow lived up to their Olympian name by becoming the champion base ball team of Wisconsin in 1867 before fading away. Along with coverage of their activities on the diamond, I included biographies of each player. It was a time when baseball had not only become a national pastime, but a national passion, as one Beloit College student noted in the college newspaper: “The Base Ball mania has prevailed quite extensively during the year, but has proved fatal to none except visitors. The Olympians have met all of the principal clubs in the State the past year, and not suffered a single defeat. This would not seem to indicate that the students of Beloit are a puny race. No, we develop muscle as well as brains.”

Olympian Club of Beloit College. Courtesy Beloit College Archives

For those interested in baseball’s pioneering days, I highly recommend dipping into Base Ball Pioneers, which features detailed and colorful accounts about teams from all over the country. The book is available at bookstores and online. Here is a link to the McFarland Press page for the book:
Base Ball Pioneers 1850-1870

Prairie Hill – Find me on Goodreads, Librarything, Facebook and more


Hello everyone,

I’ve set up author pages at a few popular book oriented sites. Please feel free to connect with me at your favorite sites and help spread the word about Prairie Hill – and future books! I look forward to sharing books and talking about writing and reading with you. Thank you!

Here is a link to my author page at Goodreads:

Fred Burwell at Goodreads

At Librarything:

Fred Burwell at Librarything

At Facebook:

Fred Burwell at Facebook

At Shelfari:

Fred Burwell at Shelfari

Amazon’s author page:

Fred Burwell’s author page at Amazon.com

%d bloggers like this: