Bad News, Good News (2)

I got another personalized rejection in response to a query letter recently. If you remember, the first agent liked the characters and plot of WHISPERS IN THE CANYON, but she felt my writing was too brusque. I’ve taken steps to correct that.

The new agent likes my writing and the plot, but rejected it because she did not “connect with the characters” within the first few chapters. And that, to me, is a much more critical problem.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to do. So I shared the results with a good friend, also a writer, who read the first few chapters for me and felt the problem might be too much backstory. The portions of these chapters that told the family history were too long. They interrupted the flow of the story and prevented the characters from becoming the centerpiece of it.

Her recommendation was to remove some of it and “sprinkle” it through the later chapters.

“Sprinkle”. I really like that concept. Like you do for the lawn. If you just put the hose out there on the lawn, a small portion of it will be waterlogged, while the rest suffers drought. But if you set the sprinkler up to reach the entire lawn, all of it will be healthily saturated.

So I am again editing, and this time, I’m sprinkling the family history around. Perhaps the next agent who requests pages will find them irresistible. I live in hope.

Slainte!  And a tip of the Stetson to T. C. B. (You know who you are!)

Cast of Characters (3)

It’s been awhile since I posted about the Donovan books’ characters, but now let me present:

The Siblings

John Patrick and Molly Donovan had ten offspring, Adam and Brian being the eldest and twins (see Cast of Characters 1).

When her sons were born, Molly had honored the Donovan family tradition of naming the first-born male of the new generation for the first man in the Bible. Then for her pride in her own family, she had named her second son for the greatest High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, from whom her father had claimed descent. A third son followed, and was named Conor, the honor going this time to John Patrick’s mother, Katie O’Conor Donovan.

Katie teased John Patrick and Molly about the names their first three children bore, calling them “my little alphabet”. But when the fourth boy was born, she suggested he be named Daniel. When their first daughter came into the world, John Patrick and Molly christened her Evelyn. The tradition continued: twin boys were born again, and named Frank and Geordie. Then little Henry, who died of influenza when he was two years old. Another daughter, Irene, and finally an eighth son, named John James and called “Jake” to distinguish him from his father.

Conor Donovan was nine months old when the family left Ireland. During the eight-week voyage he learned to stand, and then to walk, with a sailor’s rolling gait. Eventually he went back to the sea, the Captain of his own ship, the M‘Lady. Conor does not often get to visit his home and is sorely missed.

Daniel is essentially “odd man out” in the Donovan family. Neither farmer nor cowboy, he does not work the land he loves, and yet he lives closer to it than any of the others. He wears buckskins of his own making. The local tribe of Navajo have dubbed him The Woodsman for his skill in hunting and tracking.

Daniel is a sensitive, thoughtful man, slow to anger and quick to laugh at himself. His voice is deep and gravelly as the result of a childhood accident, and it is Daniel who is the first to discover Jesse’s tragic secrets.

Evelyn is the image of her mother. Tall, regal, with a generous figure and fiery red hair, Evelyn is Adam’s closest confidante. Willful yet persevering, she is first to volunteer when Adam wants to help Jesse Travers, and her kind-hearted empathy with the younger girl helps pave the way for Jesse’s acceptance of the family’s assistance.

Frank and Geordie, the younger twins, prefer farming to ranching. Like the older twins, they have totally different personalities: Frank with a mind always focused on money and a face and body always in motion; Geordie calm and seemingly detached, seeing much more than his family realizes. But when it comes to looks they are, as Brian puts it, “as like as two ears on a jackrabbit. One’s jus’ a little bit longer and does a sight more twitchin‘, but find ‘em standin’ still and it’ll take some doing’ t’ tell the right ear from the left.”

Irene is sixteen and as tall as Evelyn, worried about becoming taller still. With black hair, ivory skin and deep blue eyes, she is the female version of Adam, as lovely as he is handsome. Still the spoiled baby, not above pouting and sulking to get her way, Irene is also generous, soft-hearted and naïve.

And finally, Jake. At fifteen, his school days are over and he’s struggling with manhood. He apes his brothers, imitating Adam’s hint of brogue or Daniel’s deep southern drawl. He flashes from pillar to post with Frank or relaxes with Geordie, straws sticking from both their mouths as they lounge in the grass. And he follows Brian around like a puppy. Almost as tall as Adam and thin as a rake, with shock of bright red hair and freckled skin, Jake has an innate optimism that’s rarely shaken.

And there you have the Donovan siblings. Good people, hardworking, generous and instilled by their father with the belief that without family, a man has nothing. And without being a good neighbor, a man is nothing. And that’s the philosophy that lays the groundwork for their story.

an Gorta Mor (or The Great Irish Famine, 1845-1852)

Most of the time I find history boring. But every once in awhile, I stumble over something fascinating. And usually, that something makes me cry.

I’d heard quite a bit about the Irish Famine at different places along the way, like in English class in high school when we read Jonathan Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal (if you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend it. It gives an incredible satiric look at the British government’s feelings on “the Irish problem.” The problem, in short, was that there was such a thing as “the Irish”.)

At any rate, the subject cropped up now and again. But it wasn’t until I started writing my Donovan series that I realized how closely related I was to it. My father’s family emigrated from Ireland in the early 20th century, chased out by the British Army (or so the story goes). As I started my research into Irish history, it suddenly hit me: my father’s family must have lived through the famine.

Wow! When you consider that a million Irish citizens perished within that eight-year period, it’s kind of amazing that I exist at all.

So what happened in Ireland in 1847? What caused the famine? The simple answer is “potato blight”, a fungus that causes the tuber (the edible part of the potato) to turn to black stinking mush underground. (Ever had a potato go bad at the bottom of the bin — yeah, that black, stinking mush!) But the stems and leaves of the plant aren’t affected, so no one knew of the damage until harvest time.

The blight hit many countries in Europe. Belgium, Poland, even Western Russia were badly affected. But in those countries, the failure of the potato crop was not catastrophic (unless you count the impact on vodka production for a few years). Why? Because those farmers raised other crops as well, and had other sources of food.

In Ireland, the staple crop for tenant farms was the potato. In many cases, it was the only crop they grew to feed their family. There were a slew of social, economic and political factors that caused this, and I won’t enumerate them here, but the upshot was that the potato could meet a peasant’s dietary needs all by itself. It was easy to grow, easy to harvest, easy to prepare and tasty. So it was grown almost exclusively and became the diet for hundreds of thousands of people.

“But Ireland is an island, surrounded by water. Why didn’t they just eat fish?“ I can’t count the times I’ve heard that question, and sometimes from people who think they’re being funny.

But the fact of the matter was that the fishing industry was controlled by the English, as were the livestock industry, the grain industry, and the flax and wool industries. And the English weren’t about to give up their rich diets and fancy clothing just to save a few Irish peasants. (After all, they are a problem, aren’t they?)

During the famine, some scholars estimate at least thirty shiploads of food were exported to England per day. That’s right, per day. During a former potato crop failure in 1782-1783, Irish ports were closed to exports, despite the objections of merchants to falling prices. By the time of the Great Famine, up to 75% of Irish soil raised crops or animals for export. This time, Queen Victoria and the Parliament took no action to close the ports.

Ireland raised enough food to feed its people, but exports were the money makers and the overlords simply refused to sell their crops in Ireland.

Not everyone was completely blind to the disaster. The Society of Friends ran soup kitchens, and American corn farmers sent their grain free of charge to Ireland. The Choctaw Nation of Native Americans donated to the cause, remembering their own history of starvation on The Trail of Tears just years before. Most of the cash contributions, however, were made through the British Government, and we all know what “administrative fees” can do to charity.

On top of all of that, the British overlords began a systematic eviction of tenant farmers from their land. In History of Ireland, John Gibney tells us that, in 1847 alone, one family named Mahon evicted 3,000 tenants, but still dined on lobster soup.

And the Mahons were by no means alone. Thousands of peasants’ houses, cabins and shacks were razed. Hundreds of thousands throughout the Isle were dispossessed, and they trudged in weary lines to the port cities, hoping to find passage to America. With no food and little to no money, inestimable thousands died along the way and were buried in mass graves.

In the annals of history, it seems to me that this entirely preventable tragedy stands in a class of its own. So it makes me wonder why, among so many deaths, my family survived.

Perhaps so that the story gets told once more.