Book Review: Sold on a Monday

Sold on a Monday was not what I expected.

When we’re first introduced to reporter Ellis Read, he’s killing time taking photographs. A couple of boys playing in front of a run-down house catch his attention. It’s not until he’s snapping their photo that he sees the sign on the porch: 2 children for sale.

Read’s editor wants to run the photo with a story, but the photo gets ruined. When Ellis returns to re-take it, the family is gone. In desperation, he takes the left-behind sign and stages a similar shoot with neighbor children (who are not for sale).

Sold on a Monday isn’t about either set of children. Rather, it’s about Ellis Read. How far will he go to make his career? More importantly, how far will he go to set things right when the far-reaching consequences of his actions are revealed?

Forgiveness, of self as well as others, is a major theme of the story. As one character states, “Even decent, well-meaning people could make poor choices under pressure.” How then can we determine, both individually and as a society, when leniency should be extended and when it should not? At what point should society make a judgement of a someone (for example, that a couple are not fit to be parents and should not be allowed to adopt children)?

Kristina McMorris obviously did her research for this historical novel. Elements of daily life in 1930s New York are sprinkled throughout, providing a firm setting. I could pick a few nits, but for the main part the book is well written. The characters are engaging and the chain of events is poignant. The pacing varies, as it should in any good story; however, it does drag in a couple of areas while racing too quickly in a couple of others. Overall, a good read worth the time. Four stars.

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Sousanna

If you follow me on social media, you know that one accomplishment for me this year was the publication of SOUSANNA: THE LOST DAUGHTER by Sousanna Stratmann. This is the fictionalized memoir a woman who was taken from her family in Greece under false pretenses and adopted in the US in the late 1950s.

I learned some history I didn’t know while working on this book. I also heard, through the voice of one who’s lived it, the thoughts of a young child taken from her loving family and put into a foreign place, and how it affected the rest of her life.

Sousanna had her first book signing event tonight. There was a great turnout despite a cold front blowing in. I feel honored to have played a part in bringing her story—and the story of thousands of others like her—to the world.


Book Review: We Were the Lucky Ones

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter is based on the true story of the extraordinary holocaust survival of an entire Jewish family from Radom, Poland. Well-off and assimilated, they seem too pampered when we first meet them to endure the hardships that will come their way – especially knowing (as we do now) that fewer than 300 Jews of the 30,000 that lived in that town in 1939 survived WWII. As the family is separated and sent to different parts of the globe, each member has to find a way to survive the particular circumstances that come their way. 

It is a compelling story, and one that deserves to be told. This telling of it, however, is lacking in several ways.

Each family member (2 parents, 5 children + spouses, and a grandchild) has several chapters dedicated to their experience. While I understand why the author chose to use multiple perspectives, it did not allow enough time with each character to develop a connection with them.

It also did not allow the full story of any of them to be told. Chapters often ended with a “cliffhanger” but by time the story got back around to that character, time had passed and there was no follow through of the action. For example, (slight spoiler) in one place Mila hides her young daughter Felicia in a sack of fabric when the SS show up at her workplace. Mila has to leave Felicia when all workers are ordered outside. In the hiding place, Felicia hears the boots of the soldiers all around her. They start kicking the bags around her. The chapter ends here, and the story doesn’t get back to them for ten chapters. By then, it’s almost a year later and we join Mila and Felicia on a train. So obviously the soldiers didn’t find Felicia, but we don’t get the rest of that scene. Most chapter are that way.

In addition, the omniscient point of view created distance between me as a reader and the story, so that I could never feel immersed in it; I was being told the story rather than experiencing it with the characters.

The lack of any faults among the characters also made them unrelatable. Every one of them was beautiful, smart, brave, patient, selfless—none of them ever fought or even complained. No one is that perfect, especially in such trying times.

The story tries to be told in present tense, but there is so much remembering and backstory that there is just as much past tense, and the switch was jarring at times. And there were several instances of anachronism.

I give it three stars.

How Urban Legends Are Born

I love research, and I love holidays. So it should come as no surprise that researching holiday history and traditions is a special hobby of mine. Sometimes, this leads to bunny trials that go so far, it becomes impossible to trace the ending back to the beginning. That’s the case in a recent discovery: how did I get from old Christmas traditions to witch’s ladders? However it happened, I discovered along the way how urban legends are born.

Almost all information these days says witch’s ladders are an old, traditional, homemade cord spell. Legend has it that witches would knot a string (or rope, hair, etc.) with feathers while cursing someone, then hide the string. The only way for the victim to escape the curse was to find the string and untie every knot.

Deeper research reveals another story.

“In the town of Wellington, in Somersetshire, [stood a] building of considerable antiquity…Some eight or nine years ago [1878] it was discovered that this building was in so unsafe a condition that its instant demolition was become a necessity…In pulling down the upper storey [sic] there was found in a space which separated the roof from the upper room, and to which there was no means of access from below—First: six brooms. Second: an old arm-chair. Third: a rope with feathers woven into it.”

The above is from an article entitled “A Witch’s Ladder” by Dr. Abraham Colles in the 1887 Folk-Lore Journal (Vol 5, No 1).

The original “witch’s ladder,” AKA sewel.

The article goes on to say, “The workmen who made the discovery of the articles declared them with confidence to be for the following purposes:—The chair for the witches to rest in: the brooms for them to ride on: the rope to act as a ladder to enable them to cross the roof… they had no hesitation in at first sight designating the rope and feathers ‘A witches’ ladder.’”

An associate of Colles, Edward Burnett Tylor, a Reader in Anthropology in Oxford and Keeper of the University Museum, presented the item to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science later that year. Immediately two members of the audience stood up and informed him the object was a sewel, and would have been held in the hand to turn back deer when hunting.

SEW’EL, noun Among huntsmen, something hung up to prevent deer entering a place. —American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster, 1828

Sew’el, n. [Etymol. uncertain.] A scarecrow, generally made of feathers tied to a string, hung up to prevent deer from breaking into a place. –Webster’s New International Dictionary, 1909

Undeterred, Colles’ continued to try to connect the object with witchcraft. He asked some elderly women thought to have knowledge of witchcraft, and a couple of them supposedly mentioned a “rope with feathers” but denied knowing what they were for or how they were used.

Colles published the article quoted above in an attempt to gather more information. He got several responses; among these was a claim that such items were used in Germany and Scotland for “getting away the milk from the neighbor’s cows.” Another came from a man in Italy, who wrote that in that country, such a tool was called a witch’s garland and was used to cause ill fortune. No documentation could be found of either, however.

Then, in 1893, a Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould wrote about a witch’s ladder in his novel Mrs. Curgenven of Curgenven. Colles’ associate, Tyler, wrote to Baring-Gould to ask where he’d gotten his information on witch’s ladders. Unfortunately for the two seekers, the author said he’s made it all up. But on entreaty by Tyler, Baring-Gould asked a local woman known as a witch about the object in question. She said it was “nothing but a string set with feathers to frighten birds from a line of peas.” Another novel about a witch’s ladder appeared a few years later, but again with no documentation.

With no further information to be found, the feathered string was forgotten until 1911, when Tyler’s widow sent it to the Pitt Rivers Museum of Oxford with a note that read, “The “witches’ ladder” came from here. An old woman, said to be a witch, died, this was found in an attic, & sent to my Husband. It was described as made of “stag’s” (cock’s) feathers, & was thought to be used for getting away the milk from the neighbours’ cows – nothing was said about flying or climbing up. There is a novel called “The Witch Ladder” by E. Tyler in which the ladder is coiled up in the roof to cause some one’s death.”

The string is on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum, labeled as: “Witches ladder made with cock’s feathers. Said to have been used for getting away the milk from neighbour’s cows and for causing people’s deaths. From an attic in the house of an old woman (a witch?) who died in Wellington.”

See how a sewel became a witch’s tool? Urban legend born.

A Writing Retreat

Earlier this fall, I had the chance to attend a mini writing retreat with some members of one of my local writing groups. It was the first writing retreat I’ve done, and I loved it. An entire weekend of no chores, worrying about what’s for supper, or other distractions. Just days of writing-related activities.

I say writing-related, instead of simply writing, because we had varied goals. Some of us posted our goals for accountability. Whether it was a word count, a number of blog posts (I could take a lesson from that gal), or, as in my case, a timeline and outline, every person who attended met their goal.

Accountability to stay on task.

They laughed at my timeline. Well, it is pretty outrageous, as you can see below.

You can’t really tell from the photo, but this was a pretty long hallway. But the timeline had to cover a couple of decades, so…

But in this case, it’s necessary. This novel has three point-of-view characters. In addition, part of it is set in the 1930s and ‘40s, among historical events. This timeline will ensure I keep the characters not only ageing at the same rate as each other, but also appropriate to what’s happening in the historical setting. If Ruth is 5 during the Night of the Long Knives, she can’t be 10 when the Nuremburg Race Laws were set (the next year), now, can she?

Some of this is purposely blurred. You don’t want spoilers, do you?

I have a pretty good concept of what happened throughout the ’30s and ‘40s, but dates tend to get jumbled in my head, so a good timeline will keep me straight.

This novel is taking me a while to write. Partly because of the other jobs I have (editing & etc.), but more because it is so research intensive. I love that, though. Research might be my favorite part of writing.

Anyway, we stayed in this old farmhouse that has been turned into a B&B. It was large enough that each of us could find our own little private nooks in which to work away, but then as we needed breaks we could gather in the kitchen or elsewhere and visit.

This was my private corner.

Now that I’ve experienced one, I can’t wait for more writing retreats in my future.

Ma’s Lemon Pie

“Now for the lemon pie,” Ma said… “Laura you wash the lemons carefully and cut off any dark spots, while I make the crust.”

Ma added a pinch of salt to some flour. With her fingers she crumbled lard through it, until the particles would pact [sic] together when pinched. Then she added a little cold water as she mixed it in lightly to make a dough.

Now she rolled the dough out thin and lined a pie-tin with it. She cut the lemons into very thin slices and laid them on the crust until the pie-tin was nearly filled. Then she covered them with sugar – Oh lots and lots of sugar. Over this she placed the top crust, with its small pine-tree cut in the center, and she baked the pie until the flakey crust was a delicate light brown.

From the manuscript of Little Town on the Prairie (this scene didn’t make it into the published book)

The lemon pies I always knew had a smooth filling topped with meringue, so when I first discovered the above passage, I was fascinated. Could one really make a pie that way? Turns out, it’s a popular way to make them!

The recipe was originally created by the Shakers, who considered lemons important to their diet. They believed it was a sin to be wasteful; thus they used the entire lemon.

An authentic Shaker lemon pie (also called Ohio lemon pie, as the Shakers who developed the pie were from that state) would use only true lemons, white sugar, and eggs in a double crust. Today, Meyer lemons are most often used. This lemon-orange hybrid is not only sweeter than a true lemon, but it also has a thinner skin.

Other changes have crept into modern recipes, too. Some people add vanilla or spices; others thicken and smooth the filling with a little butter and flour. Some even cream the ingredients (including lemons) together in a blender.

What everyone agrees on is that the lemons must be sliced as thinly as possible, and left to macerate in the sugar as long as possible – at least a couple of hours and up to overnight.

Here’s the original recipe:

2 large lemons

4 eggs, beaten well

2 cups sugar

2 pie crusts

Wash lemons and slice them thin as paper, rind and all. Combine with sugar; mix well. Let stand at least 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Stir in beaten eggs and mix well. Turn into 9” pie pan lined with one crust, spreading lemon slices evenly. Cover with top crust; pinch closed around edge; slit to vent. Bake at 450 for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 and bake another 20 minutes, or until knife comes out clean. Cool before slicing.

For a more modern taste, you might try adding 1 teaspoon vanilla, 4 tablespoons melted butter, and 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour with the eggs. You could also bake without a top crust, or with a lattice top.

Have you ever had a Shaker lemon pie? Did you enjoy it? And what would a lime pie – or an orange pie – made this way (but with adjusted sugar amounts) taste like?

Book Review: Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town

A unique coming-of-age story with real characters, real history, and lots of heart, Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town is a captivating read. 

Ever since Brooke Decker’s mother died a year ago, she’s been spiraling out of control—and doesn’t even realize it. Her father does, and comes up with an unusual solution to get her away from alcohol, sex, and bad influences and back to herself and the family: they’ll participate in a reality show set in 1861. No booze, no pot, no piercings. No phones, electricity, or toilets, either.

Though her ten-year-old sister, Rebecca Lynn, is thrilled at the idea, Brooke wants nothing to do with it. In one of the more touching scenes in the book, a rare  moment of connection with her dad shows her how important this is to him, so she reluctantly agrees. Over the course of the four-month show, Brooke learns a lot more than how to wear a corset and milk a cow.

The author captures the voice of a teen, and especially a teen trying to find her way, perfectly. Anyone who knows a teen will recognize her immediately; and those who feel they don’t understand today’s young folks will gain insight by the end of this novel. Brooke’s father and sister are also well drawn, although Rebecca Lynn is a little too “good” for a typical ten-year-old sister.

The amount of research the author obviously did to recreate life in the mid-nineteenth century backcountry is impressive. She portrays enough fascinating detail to keep you grounded in the setting without overdoing it. The one thing that misses the mark is that the person they’re supposed to be living like—Laura Ingalls—wasn’t even born for another six years after 1861. The lifestyle was basically the same, so it doesn’t take anything away from the story.

A revelation by Brooke’s father in the middle and a twist at the end add surprise elements to Brooke’s struggles.

Poignant and funny by turns, Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town touches the heart through both the tears and the laughter.