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The National Road – part one

Posted by on Jan 22nd, 2021 in Blog | 0 comments

Have you ever driven between Pittsburgh and Ohiopyle State Park? Then you’ve travelled one of the oldest roads in the United States and our nation’s first federally-funded highway.

Today’s US 40 was, in the early nineteenth century, The National Road, an important route for traders and settlers. Conceived by Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin and built between 1811 and 1818, the 600-mile National Road started in Cumberland, Maryland. It then crossed present-day Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana, before arriving at its terminus in East St. Louis, Illinois.

You can still drive the whole length of the road today. We may do that someday, but, for now, Al and I decided to drive just the Pennsylvania section. Today’s blog post covers the eastern section of the road between Addison and Confluence. Future posts will cover other sections of the road.

Addison

We started on a snowy January day in Addison, PA, near the Maryland border. Long before the arrival of white people, Indians hunted along the nearby Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers. Signs of Indian encampment and burial ground exist on Fort Hill, but there is no evidence that a fort ever stood there. The earliest white settlers named their little town Turkeyfoot. Later town leaders renamed it Peterburg after Peter Augustine, who laid out the town.

Six thousand Federal troops camped out on Augustine’s farm in Addison in 1794, on their way to stop the Whiskey Rebellion. Augustine himself was Whiskey rebel, so the troops apparently didn’t feel much remorse about eating his produce and trampling his fences. The Augustine family sent the government a $500 invoice for damages. It was never paid.

 The town’s name changed one more time, in 1831 when it was renamed Addison, after Judge Alexander Addison. Ironically, Judge Addison had defended the law during the 1791-4 Whiskey Rebellion. So, the renaming of the town was another, posthumous defeat for the Whiskey rebels.

The Addison Tollhouse

the tollhouse

Addison is a tiny town, with a pretty little park across the street from its main claim to fame: the Addison Tollhouse. The toll house dates to 1835, when tolls were first collected on this part of the road. It has been rebuilt and repaired to reflect its 1835 appearance.

A sign hung on the tollhouse wall shows the 1835 toll rates: twelve cents for a chariot or stage coach, four cents for a horse and rider, six cents for every fifteen hogs, and so on.

The town is also known for its National Chainsaw Festival every year in June.

Nearby Pumers Pub looked to have a good menu, and we hoped to get some lunch, but it was closed – apparently due to the pandemic – and we were freezing, so we got back into our car.

Somerfield

Our next stop on the old National Road was the Somerfield Dam and Bridge, a few miles west of Addison on Route 40. 

The drowned town of Somerfield had an interesting history. Like most of Western Pennsylvania, the area was originally inhabited by the Monongahela people. Later, the Shawnee, Seneca, Delaware and Erie camped and hunted there.

In 1753, George Washington and Christopher Gist crossed the Youghiogheny about half a mile upriver from the future site of Somerfield. Washington was on his way to warn the French to vacate southwestern Pennsylvania. The ignored warning led to the French & Indian War, and in 1755 General Braddock also forded nearby on his march to Fort Duquesne.

White settlers started to arrive after the Fort Stanwix treaty of 1768. One of the first settlers in what became Somerfield was Jacob Spears. Spears bought a piece of riverfront land on the east side of the Youghiogheny in 1789 and named his homestead Nobbley Nowl (or Knobby Knoll).

The National Road Comes to Somerfield

The construction of the National Road brought the first bridge to Somerfield. Great Crossings Bridge, a three-arch stone bridge, commemorated Washington’s and Braddock’s crossings. The bridge was dedicated on July 4, 1818, with President James Monroe in attendance.

Also present at the dedication of the bridge was Philip Smyth, who had bought out Jacob Spears and renamed the town Smythfield. The name of this town also changed later. In 1830, the town applied for a post office and discovered that there was already a Smithfield post office elsewhere in Pennsylvania. They renamed the town Somerfield in honor of a local reverend.

Relay station houses still dot the National Road, in various states of repair

The National Road brought prosperity to the little river town. Drivers needed to change horses every 10-12 miles when travelling over the mountains, and we saw the remains of many relay stations along Route 40. Somerfield was home to one of these: a stone tavern with an inn and stables,

built by the bridge contractor, Kinkead. A Virginia tavern keeper named Thomas Endsley bought the tavern from Kinkead in 1823, and apparently ran it with the help of eight enslaved people he brought with him from Virginia.  

The National Pike declined with the coming of railroads, and Somerfield declined along with it. By the 1880s, only 80 people lived in the town.

The Drowning of Somerfield

Mabel McKinley

But, as the railroads take, so they also give. By the early 20th century, a rail line came through and Somerfield began to grown again. The town transformed itself into a resort area for sportsmen: fishermen, hunters, boaters. President William McKinley spent six weeks in Somerfield each summer. He had relatives in the area, including a niece, Mabel Mckinley, who later became a renowned singer and composer.

Somerfield’s next change of fortune was less lucky. In the 1930s, local governments and the Army Corps of Engineers became concerned about flood control along the Youghiogheny. The Corps determined that the river should be dammed. Somerfield would be drowned by the river that had first given the town its life.

Somerfield in the 1930s

The dam and bridge project started in 1939, halted temporarily during World War II, and finished in 1946. By then, Somerfield had been torn down and all 142 (some sources say as many as 176) residents relocated.

A new bridge spans the lake today, and new marinas, camp grounds and inns house our century’s sportmen and their boats.

But in dry years, when the Youghiogheny Lake is especially low, the foundations of Somerfield’s houses and the remains of the old three-arch stone bridge re-emerge like ghosts.

The remains of the three-arch stone Great Crossings Bridge, uncovered during a drought

My 5-Star Books of 2020

Posted by on Jan 16th, 2021 in Blog | 0 comments

I review every single book I read on Goodreads, and review occasionally on Amazon and Book Bub as well. And I’m very stingy with 5-star reviews. I’m an old-fashioned reader. I love skilled use of the English language, but I don’t enjoy books that use language so creatively that it feels show-offy, and beautiful language isn’t enough for me. To earn five stars from me, a book must have a disciplined, well-paced plot, fascinating or relatable characters, and an overarching theme that I find inspiring or at least very interesting. I read over fifty books this year. Here are the five that warranted 5-star reviews.

THE EVENING AND THE MORNING by Ken Follett

Well-plotted historical novel

England, in the year 997. Edgar is a young boatbuilder who barely escapes death when the Vikings raid his harbor town. His family loses all that they have in the raid, and they migrate further inland, to scratch out a living farming in a town dominated by a lazy ferryman and a corrupt priest. 

Normandy, the same year. Ragna is a smart, headstrong, beautiful noblewoman. She could marry the wealthy French baron chosen for her by her doting parents, but chooses instead a dashing Englishman nobleman, Wilwulf, who visits her father to seek a treaty that will protect the English coast from the Vikings.  Ragna finds friends, enemies and danger in her new life in England.

I’ve often found that prequels are disappointing. But this prequel to Follett’s masterful The Pillars of the Earth is very worthy. Ragna, Edgar, the principled monk Aldred, Wilwulf’s wicked brothers, the slave girl Blod, and others, are all vivid characters with passions and motivations of their own. Their conflicts are expertly developed, and keep the reader turning pages.

As in Pillars of the Earth, Follett takes the side of the people who are builders and dreamers, lawmakers and rule-followers, people who help others and make the world a better place. They often are punished by men who want power for the sake of power, and who thrive on chaos and disorder. But, at least in the world Follett creates, they prevail in the end. A comforting tale for our times – and a warning of what a lawless world can be like.

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving

A classic worth the time investment

Owen Meany has a birth defect that left him with unusually small stature and a grating falsetto voice. His story is narrated by his best friend, Johnny Wheelwright.

Johnny and Owen grow up in New Hampshire in the 1950s and 60s. The story opens with a tragedy: Owen’s one good hit in Little League strikes Johnny’s mother in the head and kills her. This sets Owen and Johnny on a years-long quest to discover the identity of Johnny’s father, which his mother never revealed. Meanwhile, Johnny is raised by his grandmother and his loving step-father.

Owen’s family is odd, and Owen has an odd aversion to them, so Owen is also taken under the wing of Johnny’s grandmother and step-father. His height and voice aren’t the only strange things about Owen. He is exceptionally smart, self-confident, and bossy – and he is eerily prescient and wise. Fairly early in the book, he starts insisting that he has foreknowledge of the date of his death and he has a recurring dream that he believes foretells how he will die. And it develops that his father has a startling notion about how Owen was conceived.

This story takes some patience. First, it’s a long book, so it is a commitment. Second, it isn’t told quite chronologically. It bears careful reading, to keep track of what happened when. Third, it is just odd. It was hard for me to tell what it was even about until half-way through. I thought maybe it was a coming-of-age story, but it is so much more than that. My patience was well-rewarded. I absolutely loved this book by the end.

A truly great novel is either timeless or perfectly of its time. This one was a little of both. Taking placing in the 50s and 60s, and written in 1989, it also uncannily foresees our own time.

FOR THE LOVE OF IRELAND edited by Susan Cahill

A tribute to Ireland

A friend in my Irish dancing group lent this book to me.  It’s a literary travel guide to Ireland, highlighting Irish authors from pre-history through current day, from each of the nation’s provinces and counties.   Cahill prefaces each piece with some background on the author, and follows each with a small travelogue to places of significance either to the author or in their work 

As with any anthology, I didn’t like every single work that was included.  For example, I will just never be a James Joyce fan.  But the pieces I did like, I really, really loved, which is why the book rates 5 stars from me.  Although I love the English language, I don’t generally read for beauty of language, which is probably why I’m not a big poetry reader, even though I am the mother of a poet.  I like story; I read mostly for character and plot.  But the language in some of the pieces in this book literally took my breath away:  how Roddy Doyle just nails the lilt, cadence and quirks of Dublin’s dialect, the crystal beauty Seamus Heaney brings to the simple memory of his father digging peat, Joyce Cary’s dreamlike description of the landscape of his childhood. 

I added several books to my reading list, thanks to this sampling, and feel inspired to return to Ireland to see some of the wonders that we missed on our first trip there in 2014. 

THE GIRL WITH THE LOUDING VOICE by Abi Dare

Very appealing heroine

Adunni is a 14-year-old girl growing up in a village in Nigeria.  Before she died, her mother gave her a strong sense of her value and a passion for education.  But let’s just say that her father is not quite as energetic and devoted to his children as her mother was.  When the family’s finances deteriorate, Adunni’s father ends her education and sells her in marriage to a much older man, Mofufu, who already has two wives.

The senior wife, Labake, treats Adunni cruelly, but she finds a friend in the second wife, Khadija.  When tragedy befalls Khadija, Adunni is involved and must flee both Mofufu’s house and her home village.  An unscrupulous broker sells her into domestic servitude in Lagos in the house of successful businesswoman Big Madam and her useless alcoholic husband, Big Daddy. 

Adunni is a true heroine.  She never loses her strong sense of self-worth.  Her work ethic and her cheerful, friendly disposition win her friends who can help her in spite of her seemingly hopeless circumstances.  

Adunni’s magnificent voice is the heart of the novel.  Dare made the risky choice to write in the sort of pidgin English that a Yoruba teenager like Adunni might actually speak, and it was a brilliant choice.  Her unique use of language both strengthens the reader’s sense of entry into a different culture and supports Adunni’s vibrant personality. 

The disgraceful treatment of women in a Nigerian culture transforming from traditional to modern is unsparingly portrayed.  Even Big Madam and Adunni’s mentor, Ms. Tia, are not immune to its blows. It is a testament to Adunni’s inner strength and goodness that she recognizes this, has compassion for it, and wants to dedicate her life to changing it. 

A wonderful book, with one of the most unique, likable and admirable heroines I’ve read in a while.

THE GLITTERING HOUR by Iona Grey

Heartbreaker!

London in 1925.  Britain is still stunned and reeling from the catastrophic loss of life in WWI, and a new generation of Bright Young Things is determined to cast off the failed conventions of the past and heedlessly live for the moment. Selina Lennox is among the Brightest.  Her life is changed one spring night by a chance meeting with a poor young artist.

Fast-forward to 1936.  Selina’s shy daughter Alice has been left with her cold grandparents and Nazi governess in her mother’s ancestral house while her parents travel to Burma on business.  Her only friends are the family’s gardener Patterson and Selina’s former maid Polly.  Alice lives for the occasional letter from her beloved mother.  Selina has sent her on a treasure hunt, and each letter contains a clue.  But her mother has kept some secrets that don’t fit in boxes or jewelry cases.

The story is told on alternating timelines, between 1925 and 1936, with occasional perspective changes.  The shifts of perspective and timeline are very well-handled, and the secrets slowly and expertly revealed.  We are always just a few steps ahead of young Alice and at each step we are allowed the sad pleasure of watching her discover what we have already figured out.

An absorbing and heartbreaking read. 

Here’s to great reading in 2021! Here are some links to books that almost made my cut with 4-start reviews:

The Testaments

Why The Dutch Are Different

News of the World

Lady of the Rivers

American Dirt

My Interview With Author Armen Pogharian

Posted by on Jan 8th, 2021 in Blog | 1 comment

My Interview With Author Armen Pogharian

Armen Pogharian is the author of the Warder and Misaligned young-adult fantasy series, originally published by SynergEbooks. The first book in the Misaligned series, Penny Preston and the Raven’s Talisman, was recently reissued by CamCat Publishing.  It’s a delightful book (see my Amazon review). Here is my recent interview with Armen.

KATHY: Did you always want to be a writer, Armen? What got you interested in writing?

ARMEN: I never considered becoming a writer. In college I did my best to avoid classes with heavy writing loads. I even took Medieval Times as pass fail because it was a ‘paper-based’ class. FWIW, I got an A in the class, even though it shows up as a P. Having kids who were bigtime readers changed things for me.

KATHY: Penny Preston and the Raven’s Talisman is a fantasy that includes multiverse theory and Welsh mythology. Where did you get the idea for this combination?

ARMEN: I wanted to do something Arthurian, but I wanted it to be original. I knew that Tintagel was often cited as a possible location for Camelot. After some research, I found that the King Arthur story has its roots in Welsh mythology. As for the multiverse, well, I’m a bit of a nerd and I thought it would be a neat way to ground the ‘magic’ of the myth in science.

KATHY. I thought your uses of the multiverse was very original. Is the notion of misalignment based on science at all, or did you completely make it up?

ARMEN: Very loosely, in the sense that string theory posits 11 dimensions that interact with each other through complex math. As for evidence that interacting with those dimensions offers solutions to paranormal activity, well let’s just say there’s not a lot peer-reviewed work on the subject.

KATHY: Both of your series, Misaligned and the Warder series are fantasy. What attracted you to this genre?

ARMEN: The Hobbit was the first book that really grabbed my attention. It kindled my imagination and I quickly devoured similar books in the genre. My children also enjoyed fantasy. Since they were the inspiration for my writing, it was a natural place to start.

KATHY: Do you have a favorite character in the story? Can you tell us what it is about that character that speaks to you?

ARMEN: I don’t mean to be a weenie here, but I really don’t have a favorite. There are aspects to each character that I really enjoy. As a writer, I enjoy the relationships between the characters. The Penny/Duncan relationship was a lot of fun to write, especially since it’s primarily from Penny’s perspective. I also really enjoy the Mr. Myrdin/Master Poe dynamic because it allows me to appeal to adult readers.

KATHY: I liked the relationship between Penny and Duncan, too. It seemed very authentic for a couple of 13-years-olds. Do you have any tips for anyone thinking about writing a fantasy/sci fi novel?

ARMEN: Nothing that hasn’t been said better by others. Although if pressed, I’d say the biggest pitfall is writing yourself into a corner and then inventing a magical trapdoor. Avoid that by outlining your story and leaving hints and clues to sharp turns.

KATHY: Which authors do you like to read? How did they impact you as a writer?

ARMEN: Obviously, I enjoyed Tolkien, but I also liked Raymond Feist, David Eddings, and Piers Anthony. Of the more ‘modern’ authors in the genre, I like everything I’ve read by Jonathan Stroud.

KATHY: I was a Tolkien fan, too, when I was young. Could you describe your writing process? Do you outline? Do you always know how the book is going to end?

ARMEN: I always begin with a 1-2 page outline. The points can refer to characters, plot, or even world-building, so they typically don’t conform to chapters. Then I start to write. I tend to write linearly from start to finish, but in almost every book I will do a little bouncing around. As for the ending, I have an idea, but the details are not set in stone.

KATHY: What have you done to market your books? Have you found any marketing strategies to be particularly effective?

ARMEN: Effective marketing is the hardest part of the writing business. For me interacting with readers works well, unfortunately, most YA and middle grade readers are not the buyers. It’s also hard, as a middle-aged man, to interact with that age group over the internet. I’ve had the best success with book signing or meet the author types of events. Of course, those aren’t really happening right now. If by chance you’re a librarian or teacher and interested in booking an in person or virtual visit, please let me know. My rates can’t be beat.

KATHY: Yes, this has been a hard year for writers who depend a lot on personal appearances for book sales. I hear you on that. Did you learn anything about yourself from writing Penny Preston and the Raven’s Talisman?

ARMEN: More than I care to share. I will say that sleep is an incredibly powerful creative tool. Apparently, my conscious mind throttles my creativity. My go to tool for a creative issue or writer’s block is a 10-15 minute nap. The key is to begin writing as soon as I wake up.

KATHY: More than you can share? Now I’m intrigued! Tell me something that your readers would be surprised to hear about you.

ARMEN: I’ve never watched the movies Titanic or Ghost.

KATHY: Wow, even I saw those movies, and I was knee-deep in raising children in the nineties and hardly ever saw a non-Disney movie! I know that the next two books in the Misaligned series will be published by CamCat in the near future.  Are you working on another series now? Can you tell us a little about it?

ARMEN: I’ve got a sixth Warders book, The Pyramid’s Puzzle, that got caught up in CamCat’s acquisition of my old publisher. After lengthy discussion with the publisher, we both agreed that the Warders wasn’t a good fit for them. So, I’ll be self-publishing the entire series, including the never released Pyramid’s Puzzle. Beyond that, I have several loose ideas for a seventh Warders book and a few completely new concepts, too. Basically, once I get through these launches and relaunches, I’ll hunker down and sort through things.

KATHY: Where can we find out about you and your writing?

ARMEN: The best place would be my website http://www.armenpogharian.com/ which also includes my blog, interviews with other authors, and book reviews. I also maintain a Facebook author page https://www.facebook.com/AuthorArmenPogharian. I have a Goodreads page, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/56160609-penny-preston-and-the-raven-s-talisman, which I sadly do not spend enough time on right now.

KATHY: Thanks, Armen. I enjoyed talking to you. Good luck with your projects!

ARMEN: Thank you, Kathy.

Christian Themes in The Saint’s Mistress

Posted by on Dec 1st, 2020 in Blog | 0 comments

Saint Augustine of Hippo in old age

Readers sometimes ask me about the religious themes in The Saint’s Mistress.  I admit that I struggled with this aspect of the book.

I’m a Christian, but I didn’t write the book to evangelize for Christianity.  I wrote it to tell a story that I thought was interesting.

Augustine and Christianity

Of course, when you’re writing about Saint Augustine, you can’t avoid the topic of religion!  And one of the things that made me want to tell this story was that it takes place in at an interesting period in Church history, and one that is little-explored in fiction:  that turning point right after Christianity became the state religion, as the early Church established orthodoxy and battled the last vestiges of paganism, that hinge between the ancient and medieval worlds.

I took Augustine at his word in portraying his spiritual journey.  He well described in the Confessions how he was entranced first by the pagan philosophers, then by Manicheism, then by neo-Platonism, before accepting Christianity.  I portray him as a young man of enthusiasms, a passionate seeker of truth. He ultimately became the great leader he longed to be only when he attached himself to something larger than himself.  I’ll put it out there:  my position, as a Christian, is that God made use of him.  But you could also read my portrayal of him as a man who came into his own as he matured and subsumed his ego in a larger cause.  Again, I was not trying to evangelize.  I was trying to portray my character in a way that was true to my understanding of him.

My writing and Christianity

I could take Leona in any direction I wanted, since she left no record of herself.  And, as with Augustine, I tried to write her true to how I imagined her.

Inevitably, though, my Christian bias probably comes through, and I don’t apologize for that.  One of the things I’m interested in doing in my writing is to explore questions of faith.  Plenty of books portray Christianity in a cynical light.  And plenty of Christian fiction portrays Christianity completely uncritically:  Jesus fixes everything, The End. I plan a future post on my objections to Christian fiction.  What I try to do is write from the questions, not from either cynical or uncritical answers.

See previous blog posts on why I wrote my book:

Interview with the author of The Immortal Twin

Posted by on Nov 14th, 2020 in Blog | 0 comments

D. B. Woodling is the author of seven books, including historical fiction, mysteries, YA, and now her latest, The Immortal Twin, a paranormal romance about a mortal twin brother and sister adopted by vampires. (See my Amazon review here).

I like to help other authors by promoting their books, so I recently interviewed Deb over email, to learn more about her books and her writing process.

 Did you always want to be a writer? What got you interested in writing?

 At a young age, I often wrote poetry. Later, while in high school, despite the encouragement of   several English teachers to tap into my ‘talent’ for creative writing, I set my sights on a theatrical career instead. Twenty years and a thousand or so performances later, my passion for the theater waned. Soon discovering that I needed a creative outlet, my attention turned to writing. Like many writers have often confessed, this doesn’t seem to be a vocation one chooses, but rather one that chooses us.

Where do you get your ideas?

All seven of my novels began with a single opening line that came to me out of nowhere.

Describe your writing process. Do you outline? Do you always know how the book is going to end?

In the beginning, I never outlined. When I began the sequel to my detective series, I found it prevented glaring errors when transitioning from the first book to the second. After that, although having fought the idea of anything so regimented in the past, I found it extremely helpful. That said, despite the best of intentions and a meticulously detailed synopsis, the ending doesn’t always follow the prescribed course, the characters often taking the story in an entirely different direction.

How long does a first draft take you to write? How many edits do you usually do before you feel your book is ready to be submitted?

The timeline varies. I work best under pressure, so I tend to procrastinate until forced to comply with a deadline, which usually constitutes a two-to-three month period. I never submit a work until I’ve dissected and examined it four to five times. I’m an obsessive perfectionist, so I never truly feel the book is perfect.

You have written several books. Which is your favorite and why?

I have a soft spot for Shannon’s Revenge: Broken Promises—a contender for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for literary fiction and recognized by The Copperfield Review, a renowned literary journal. A fictional account of the circumstances that led to the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the battle itself, I hope I’ve successfully captured the story as told from both sides.

Name your favorite books by other authors.

There are so many. If pressed, I’d have to say Howard’s End by E. M. Forster and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, works that dive deep into the human spirit and, to some extent, reveal something of the authors themselves. My guilty pleasures are anything written by Janet Evanovich and several titles by Stephen King, Michael Connelly, and Karin Slaughter.

One thing I wondered about The Immortal Twin is why the Toroks adopted Celeste and Nick. Can you explain that?

Guilt. Despite repercussions from the Omniscients, they could have given their parents immortality and chose not to.

Is The Turning of Nick Torok a sequel to The Immortal Twin? Will CamCat be publishing it in the future? Will there be additional books in the series?

The Immortal Twin is a revised, longer version of The Turning of Nick Torok. I am hard at work on the sequel to The Immortal Twin, with the hope it will find a home with CamCat Books later next year with a series to follow.

Tell me something that your readers would be surprised to hear about you.

During hunting season, I persuade countless deer within the safe confines of our property, enticing them with bags of corn and oats.

D B Woodling, author of The Immortal Twin

Purchase The Immortal Twin

Learn more about D B Woodling

Reflections on The Saint’s Mistress (part two)

Posted by on Nov 3rd, 2020 in Blog | 0 comments

Part two of a story wherein a very amateur writer who is already too busy feels compelled to write a novel about Saint Augustine and his mistress…. (Read part one HERE)

The Writing Process for The Saint’s Mistress

I had an opening scene in a pear orchard, based on an experience Augustine describes in the Confessions. Other than that, all I had was an irrational passion to tell this ghost-woman’s story.  I borrowed more books from the library, and stayed up late doing internet research.  In our crowded household, there was no quiet place to write. So, I got up at 5 a.m., was in Bruegger’s or Au Bon Pain with my laptop the minute they opened, and wrote for an hour in coffee shops before work.  Every day.  For two years. I did eventually tackle the Confessions, and had to read it twice to understand it.  My husband and I travelled to Milan, where Augustine and Leona lived for several years, and to Ostia, where his mother, Saint Monnica, died.

Then came a year of editing, rewriting, and harsh-but-loving criticism from my two beloved writing groups.  I slashed whole chapters that led nowhere, and changed confusing character names.  Hundreds of dead-weight adverbs and adjectives lost their lives.  Characters disappeared.

The Search for a Publisher for The Saint’s Mistress

And that was easy compared to the five years that it took to find an agent or publisher. 

Try being a first-time novelist with zero contacts, trying to sell a novel in the middle of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, and while the publishing industry is in the process of the biggest transformation since the printing press.  Or, on second thought, don’t try it.  It isn’t fun.

The Saint’s Mistress was finally accepted by a very small publisher, SynergeBooks. It came out in 2014 as an e-book, and then in print in 2016. When your publisher is small, you do most of your own marketing, similar to self-publishing. I bought Goodreads ads, and offered author talks at local libraries. I ended up making a little money on the book, but not much. In 2019, Synerge was bought by CamCat, larger publisher with more resources. They asked me to revise my first chapter, gave the book a re-edit and a new cover, and re-released it in September 2020. The staff and other authors at CamCat have been helpful and generous, and I’m very excited about the re-release.

Worth It?

My book project has certainly been a long journey, and a hard, discouraging one at times. But, overall, I have loved it.  With every page I wrote, both Saint Augustine, whom the world knows, and Leona, a mere ghost, felt more real to me.  Sometimes I forgot that I was making it all up, and felt like I was telling the story the way I knew, absolutely knew somehow, that it had really happened.  I loved them.  I still do. A trail of books led me to them, and I hope that my own finished book accurately expresses their time, their love and their spirits.

The John Frew House

Posted by on Oct 13th, 2020 in Blog | 2 comments

An 1883 depiction of the Frew House

One of the great pleasures of being a writer is the unexpected connections that I make. One of my Irish dancing friends – who didn’t know that I blog  – accidentally came across my recent post about pre-1800 buildings in Pittsburgh. As she read, she was excited to realize that, not only did she know the author, but she knew the owners of one of the houses. She asked if I’d like to see the inside of the John Frew House. Would I ever!

Mona and I spent a delightful morning touring the house and learning a little about its history from the current owners, David Majka and Connie Eads. The view from the street is deceptive. The house sits almost directly on the street and the front, with its two distinct wings and added-on garage, isn’t especially graceful. But step inside, or walk into the back yard, and you are in a different world.

First, a little history

The springhouse and the original three-story section of the Frew House were built in 1790 of locally-quarried cut sandstone. The Greek Revival addition was added in 1840. John Frew originally owned ninety-four acres between present-day Crafton Boulevard and Noblestown Road, on a Revolutionary War land claim. Frew planted an orchard on the property, and built a cider mill directly across the street from where his house still stands. Their barn stood on the present-day site of the Poplar Apartments.

John Frew and his wife had nine children. Over the course of the nineteenth century successive Frews, Sterretts and Chesses owned, subdivided and lived on the original Frew farm. After 1900, the house was rented and fell into disrepair. The farm was subdivided one last time in 1941, leaving the poor, dilapidated house on a mere eight-tenths of an acre.

The house was in pretty sad condition by the time this photo was taken around 1935

In the 1940s, Robert Goron, a horticulturist at the Phipps Conservatory, and his friend, Clifford McFall, bought the Frew house and spent the next decades restoring the house and gardens. It deteriorated again towards the end of Mr. Goron’s life, and was greatly in need of love when Dave and Connie bought it in 1996.

Our tour of the Frew House

We entered the house on the bottom floor of the 1790 section. The cozy room features a large stone fireplace and original ceiling beams of pit-sawn white oak.

The magnificent original fireplace in the bottom floor of the 1790 wing

Ascending a set of steep, narrow stairs, we found ourselves in the living room which is dominated by Connie’s grand piano and by mid-nineteenth-century paintings of a riverboat captain and his wife, painted by David Gilmour Blythe. David Majka has a fascination with Blythe and has published a collection of his poetry and other writings.

The Blythe paintings

Other than the sleek 1990s kitchen and two enviable bathrooms, Dave and Connie have lovingly decorated the house in nineteenth-century style, and have made every effort to maintain the integrity of their home. Old family photos and early-era paintings and photographs of the house hang on the walls. Early nineteenth century tiles decorate a bedroom fireplace. The original wood-plank flooring has been refinished. Original iron latches adorn the outside shutters. Even the windows sashes are original six-over-sixes. All of the seven fireplaces except one still work. Closets and cupboards are ingeniously built into walls and between dormers, so that they are completely unobtrusive. Dave and Connie installed floor and ceiling heating and air conditioning, so that the walls remain undisturbed by ductwork.

The 19th-century tiles surrounding the bedroom fireplace depict Bible scenes.

Oh, and the yard!

After touring the house, the owners showed us the .8-acre grounds. You’d never guess that their house stands within the Pittsburgh city limits, a mere ten-minute drive from downtown. Their boundaries are wooded, so the back yard feels very secluded, with a porch and large lawn.

We also saw Robert Goron’s legacy in the back yard. He had planted several geometric exhibition gardens on the property. Dave and Connie have let most of them go fallow, but the structures survive. The property also boasts a large, mysterious pool, now empty. Dave and Connie aren’t sure what its original purpose was. They don’t think it was a swimming pool, because it lacks a drain. But it still has all the plumbing for a fountain and a waterfall, so they think it was just a beautiful water feature at one time.

The lovely wooded yard, showing part of the mysterious pool.

I so enjoyed seeing this beautifully maintained piece of Pittsburgh history. Think of all the lives lived there! The sharp, fruity smell of cooking cider. Sledding on the hills of Greentree during crisp Pittsburgh winters. Backyard parties beside the fountain on summer nights in the 1950s. When we preserve old places, we also preserve the memory of Pittsburghers who lived, loved, worked, laughed and cried before us.

Restoring a 200-year–old house is all fun and games until you have to scrape off 7 layers of wallpaper!

Reflections on The Saint’s Mistress

Posted by on Sep 28th, 2020 in Blog | 0 comments

The new cover. The original cover was different.

Six years later…

SynergEbooks, a very small publisher, published my first novel in in 2014 as an e-book. The publication and marketing journey was rough and winding, with many twists and turns. I had lots of fun giving author talks in various local libraries, and meeting with reading groups who had selected my novel. In 2016, the book came out in print, and, last year, CamCat publishing bought SynergE. CamCat is re-releasing The Saint’s Mistress later this month with a new cover, improved editing, and some nice art work.

As part of the marketing effort for the re-release, I’m re-blogging some posts from 2014-15. I’ll develop some new material, too. Here’s Part One of a two-part post, describing how I wrote the book. These posts became the basis for my author talks at libraries.

How I got the idea for my first novel

I came to write The Saint’s Mistress via a trail of books.

At the library one April night in 2006, a book called The Well-Educated Mind caught my eye.  The Well-Educated Mind recommended Saint Augustine’s Confessions as the first example of a modern autobiography.  That intrigued me, but I was a little daunted by the prospect of a book written in the 5th century by an early Father of the Church.

A few months later, again at the library, I noticed a short biography of Augustine by Garry Wills.  I remembered my interest in the Confessions and thought this short, modern book might be a way to ease myself into Augustine.  In the Wills book, I first discovered Leona – or, more accurately, the faint, ancient scent of her.

Wills wrote a little of Augustine’s beloved, whom he mentions briefly, but never names, in his Confessions.  I learned that this unnamed woman had been Augustine’s mistress of many years, and that they had had a child together who died as a young man.  Wow, I thought, what must her life have been like?  Then:  Hmmmm, what WOULD it have been like?  And so a flame was lit.

So many reasons NOT to write this book…

The wonderful thing about Leona is that history knows nothing about her, other than what little I learned from Wills.  She was Augustine’s mistress.  They are believed to have met in Carthage.  They had a son.  The son died.  After that, history is absolutely silent.  I could make up anything I wanted, including her name.  My only constraints were the historically established facts of Augustine’s life and 4th-5th century Christianity.

I was an amateur, sporadically published, writer of short stories, travel articles and essays.  I had finished one novel that I wasn’t quite satisfied with and had no idea how to submit for publication anyway.  And I had no experience with historical research.  My life also included a demanding full-time job, a husband, a son in college, and a daughter and baby grandson who had just moved back in with us.  So, of course, I had to write this book….TO BE CONTINUED

Here are some images from some of my author talks and book festivals. One of the best parts of being an author is meeting other people who love books!

Whiskey Rebellion (part two)

Posted by on Sep 3rd, 2020 in Blog | 0 comments

Whiskey Rebellion (part two)
The Whiskey Rebellion Flag

In my previous post on the Whiskey Rebellion, we left the Rebels gathering near John Neville‘s stately home, Bower Hill, intending to tar and feather the U.S. marshal they believed was staying there, and possibly to do harm to Neville himself . . .

The Burning of Bower Hill

Neville didn’t get to own 10,000 acres of prime frontier real estate by being a fool.  He knew the rebels would be back.  But by the time they returned the next day, July 17, Neville was still defending his house with the help of only his slaves (wonder how they felt about that?) and a small detachment of federal troops led by Abraham Kirkpatrick, another veteran of the Revolution, who also happened to be Neville’s brother-in-law.

Captain McFarlane was killed in the brief ensuing gun battle, and became a martyr to the rebel cause.  He was given a hero’s funeral and is buried at Mingo Creek Cemetery, near Finleyville, PA. 

Neville escaped his house before it was breached by the approaching rebel militia, and hid in the nearby woods.  Kirkpatrick was taken prisoner but later released.  History is silent on what became of the enslaved people who had been conscripted to defend their master. 

Bower Hill was burned to the ground. 

David Bradford and the U.S. Mail

It took only a day for word of the uprising to reach David Bradford in Washington, PA.  Bradford was a militant Washington whiskey rebel (see my previous blog post on Bradford), and saw the fighting at Bower Hill as the signal for a larger battle.  By July 18, he had gathered Washington County rebels at Mingo Creek Meeting House near present-day Finleyville.  There, they made plans to intercept the mail between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, to determine who was a friend to the rebellion, versus who might betray them. They also began planning a march on Pittsburgh. 

Bradford’s men accomplished the mail theft on July 26.  Bradford, a former assemblyman of both Virginia and Pennsylvania, was now a federal criminal. And the rebels’ fears were confirmed.  Among the stolen mail were letters from several prominent Pittsburghers urging that the rebellion be put down forcefully. 

And Bradford wasn’t the only person who was galvanized to action by the burning of Bower Hill.  The Whiskey Rebellion now had the full attention of President George Washington. 

A Small Segue:  Pittsburgh in 1794

Pittsburgh 10 years after the Whiskey Rebellion
Pittsburgh in 1804

While Bradford, Washington and our old friend Hamilton wait in the wings, let’s pause and consider the position of the growing city of Pittsburgh at the time of the Whiskey Rebellion. 

Pittsburgh’s population in 1794 was only about 376.  The city consisted of about 200 buildings of brick, frame and log, and a warren of muddy, unpaved streets, stretching from the Point only as far as present-day Grant Street.

But this modest town was what passed for The Big City on the 18th-century frontier.  By 1794, the city boasted a post office, a newspaper (The Pittsburgh Gazette), at least one iron furnace, and several smithies and boat works.  Already, the air was smoky and dusty from the coal burnt in homes and new small manufactories.  The rivers swarmed with commerce.

And commerce makes money.  Money makes gentlemen.  And gentlemen usually like to maintain the status quo. 

To the whiskey rebels, ramshackle little Pittsburgh was the seat of the moneyed elites who kept them from making a decent living. 

Men like Hugh Henry Brackenridge, founder of The Pittsburgh Gazette and prominent Pittsburgh citizen, sympathized with the Whiskey Rebellion.  He called it “a stand of the democratic, poverty-ridden West against the encroachments of the aristocratic Money Bags of the East, a people who feel themselves taxed in order to fasten the yoke of Plutocrats about their necks.”  But Brackenridge was also a businessman and business thrives on law-abiding order.  Doubtless, most Pittsburghers felt the same, even in the working class.  Their city was prosperous and growing and the future looked bright. 

Now an angry mob of rye farmers with guns threatened that.

Meanwhile in Braddock…

Braddocks Field a key site in the Whiskey Rebellion
Stereopticon image of Braddock’s Field as it looked about 100 years after the Whiskey Rebellion

Bradford had mustered as many as 7000 rebels at Braddock’s field, intending to march on Pittsburgh and burn it.  Brackenridge, playing both sides, urged them to merely march through the city as a show of force.  Meantime, he had also advised the Pittsburghers to welcome the rebels, and offer them food and drink. 

It worked.  Bradford and his militia completed their march, enjoyed the hospitality of the young city and left it unharmed. 

The Whiskey Rebellion falls apart

On August 14, 1794, Brackenridge and Albert Gallatin met with the rebels again at Parkinson’s Ferry in Monongahela, PA, and convinced them to allow time for negotiation with the federal government.  Brackenridge and Gallatin must have been persuasive, because Braford and his men stood down – for a while. 

But negotiations failed.  The federals were willing to reduce the tax further, but would not guarantee amnesty to the rebels.  On September 19, President Washington personally led a 13,000-man army out of Philadelphia, on their way to the west to crush the rebellion. 

George Washington on his way to crush the Whiskey Rebellion 1794
Washington personally led 13,000 federal troops west to crush the Whiskey Rebellion

Washington turned back at Bedford, PA, leaving his army in the hands of Hamilton and “Light Horse Harry” Lee.  Hamilton and Lee continued west, arriving in Washington County on October 24. 

Anyone smart enough to survive on the frontier is also smart enough to know that a rabble of 7000 farmers doesn’t stand much of a chance against 13,000 trained federal troops. 

David Bradford escaped down the Ohio River, eventually resettling in Spanish Louisiana (see my previous blog post on Bradford).  An estimated 2000 of the rebels left western Pennsylvania for parts further west, primarily Kentucky.  Most of the rest laid low. 

On November 19, Hamilton and Lee arrested and imprisoned about 150 rebels on a cold, sleety night known as “The Dreadful Night.”  In the end, they released most of the prisoners, transporting only twenty of them to Philadelphia for trial.  All were ultimately pardoned.

By 1799, even Bradford, the leader of the 7000-man militia, had been pardoned.  And on April 6, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson repealed the whiskey tax.  Turns out it was hard to enforce. 

but it lives on

The new U.S. federal government had prevailed in the first test of its sovereignty.  But Pennsylvania became, and still is, a microcosm of one of the most stubborn fault lines in American politics: rural, working-class, anti-taxers who mistrust the distant federal government versus elites in the big cities who favor big business and big government and tend to be the ones making the rules.  The little guys suspect that the elites are looking down on them and making rules to favor themselves.  Our nation’s two-party system owes its existence to the internal conflicts exposed by a few thousand struggling farmers in southwestern Pennsylvania who didn’t want to pay their taxes. 

Sources

Bradford House Historical Association; The Bradford House: A National Historic Landmark; Washington, PA; 2015

Lorant, Stefan; Pittsburgh, The Story of an American City; Lenox, MA, Authors Edition, Inc.; Fourth Edition, 1988

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whiskey_Rebellion

http://www.maptherebellion.com/neatline/show/the-whiskey-rebellion#records/10

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bradford_(lawyer)

Whiskey Rebellion (or: Why Hamilton’s portrait is hung upside-down in Washington, PA)

Posted by on Aug 21st, 2020 in Blog | 0 comments

This is how Alexander Hamilton was viewed by the Whiskey Rebels. His portrait is still hung upside down at Liberty Pole Distillery in Washington, PA.

Some of us who live in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia jokingly call the rest of our state “Pennsylbama,” referring to the rural nature of northern and central Pennsylvania and to the anti-government, anti-tax political sentiments of the area’s residents.  But most of us aren’t aware that the roots of those sentiments go all the way back to the first major challenge to the sovereignty of the young United States.  That challenge was the Whiskey Rebellion, and it took place right here in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Hamilton – AGAIN

Anyone who’s seen the musical “Hamilton” or read the excellent Ron Chernow biography on which it is based, knows that the first Secretary of the Treasury advocated federalizing the finances of the young nation.  He fought for a national bank.  He wanted the federal government to take over state debts resulting from the Revolution.  But how to raise the revenue to pay off that debt? 

Hamilton proposed a tax on whiskey, and Congress enacted it in 1791. You can see why they thought it would be a good idea.  They believed that the tax would fall on a small minority of citizens.  And sin taxes are common sources of revenue.  Since sin is pretty consistent, they also tend to be very reliable sources of revenue.

What Hamilton failed to consider was that, on the western frontier, fully one man in five was running a whiskey still. 

“Look, when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky; Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whiskey

A broadside protesting the tax

The reaction to the tax was intense.  Western Pennsylvania was the frontier in 1791, a virtual wilderness.  It was expensive for area farmers to transport their grain to the east for sale.  But whiskey was both easier to transport and more profitable.  The rye that they grew sold for 40 cents a bushel.  A packhorse could carry four bushels east, earning the farmer on $1.60.  But the same pack horse could carry twelve bushels if they had been turned into eight gallons of whiskey – which sold for $1 a gallon.  Eight dollars versus $1.60. Even 18th-century farmers could do math. 

Also, currency was in short supply on the western frontier.  Deer hides and whiskey were used for barter just like cash. One farmer put it this way:  He never saw more than $10 cash in a year, spent mostly on “salt, nails and the like; nothing to wear, eat or drink was purchased, as my farm provided all.” So, to many small farmers in southwestern Pennsylvania, the whiskey tax amounted to an illegal income tax.

Perhaps worst of all, the tax seemed intended to favor large distillers over small ones.  The sales of large distillers were easier to measure, so they were taxed on what they actually sold.  The little guys were taxed on the size of their stills, which may or may not correspond to what they actually produced and sold. Small distillers who couldn’t afford to post a tax bond also had to pay their tax up front, and they had a harder time passing the cost of the tax on to customers.

The Whiskey Rebellion begins

The tax act passed in the U.S. Congress on March 3, 1791.  It took a while for the news to make its way west and for the guys with stills in their backyards to reach the conclusion that Secretary Hamilton was trying to put them out of business in favor of rich, smart guys like himself.  Angry small distillers from all four southwestern counties – Allegheny, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland – met on July 27, 1791 at an old French & Indian War fort in Connellsville.  They agreed that rebel groups would be formed in each county, meeting in the county seat to plan resistance measures.

The Allegheny County rebels met for a three-day brainstorming session at the Whale and the Monkey Tavern (later renamed the Sign of the Green Tree) in Pittsburgh, between September 6 and 8, 1791.  The tax rebels signed a formal petition that went both to the U.S. Congress and the Pennsylvania state legislature. 

Their petition was actually successful. . .sort of.  Congress reduced the tax by one cent. 

Let’s just say that the westerners were less than satisfied.

Tar, Feathers and Haircuts

Whiskey Rebellion in action

The rebels issued a decree that said, in part, that any person “who had accepted or might accept an Office under Congress in order to carry (the tax) into effect, should be considered as inimical to the interests of the Country; and recommending to the Citizens of Washington County to treat every person who had accepted or might thereafter accept any such office with contempt, and absolutely to refuse all kind of communication or intercourse with the Officers, and to withhold from them all aid, support or Comfort.”

It was open season on excise tax collectors for the next two years.  A farmer, hunter and small distiller named Daniel Hamilton (no relation to Alexander) was a ringleader of the violence.  Hamilton had a reputation as a bully. His gang attacked tax collectors – and anyone who helped them – in all four counties.  Their first victim was Robert Johnson.  The mob cut his hair, then tarred and feathered him.  When John Conor tried to serve warrants on Hamilton and his men for the attack, they whipped, tarred and feathered him.  Then they blindfolded him and tied him up in the woods.  Thorough men, they also didn’t forget to rob him of his horse and his money. 

Many similar attacks took place over the next two years.  The rebels took vengeance on anyone who paid their tax. A man who complied with the tax law was likely to have his barn burned or his still damaged.  Men were also attacked merely for renting offices to the tax collectors.  Tarring and feathering, destruction of property and whippings were meted out so diligently that the federal government soon had a hard time finding anyone to take the job of tax collector.

Oliver Miller and John Neville

Oliver Miller homestead, near where U.S. marshal tried to serve a write on William Miller. This stone house was built in 1830 replacing the log structure that was on the site in 1794. The Homestead is named for the original Oliver Miller, William’s father, not his nephew who was injured in the Whiskey Rebellion.

One gentleman who was not afraid to enforce the tax was John Neville, a wealthy landowner (and slaveholder) in present-day Scott Township and Bridgeville.  Neville had a large distilling operation and it was in his economic self-interest to see the small distillers put out of business by the tax.  (See a little more about Neville in this previous post)

On July 15, 1794, Neville brought U.S. Marshal David Lenox to the property of William Miller. Their purpose was to serve a writ on Miller, fining him $250 for operating an unregistered whiskey still.  Miller was required to appear in court in Philadelphia.  For a frontier farmer, the travel was almost as great a hardship as the $250 fine.  William, who had already sold off part of his farm and was planning to move to Kentucky, refused to accept the writ.  Other nearby farmers heard the argument and fired shots at Neville and Lenox, forcing them to depart. 

The next day, William Miller and 30-40 other farmers marched on Neville’s home, Bower Hill.  Their goal was to capture Lenox, the U.S. Marshal, who they believed was at Bower Hill with Neville.  Oliver Miller, a relative of William’s, was wounded in the skirmish that followed.  The rebels retreated to another old fort, Couch’s Fort (near present-day South Hills Village) to gather reinforcements.  By the next day, more than 500 men had gathered.  They were led by a Revolutionary War veteran, Captain James McFarlane.  And they were mad.

Park Two of the Whiskey Rebellion coming soon!

Sources

Bradford House Historical Association; The Bradford House: A National Historic Landmark; Washington, PA; 2015

Lorant, Stefan; Pittsburgh, The Story of an American City; Lenox, MA, Authors Edition, Inc.; Fourth Edition, 1988

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whiskey_Rebellion

http://www.maptherebellion.com/neatline/show/the-whiskey-rebellion#records/10

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bradford_(lawyer)

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