Sunday, April 6, 2014

AT LONG LAST . . . HOME

This is a photograph taken from a boat in the middle of the Rappahannock River.  Somewhere on that far shore is the house where my grandparents lived when I was a child.  It has nearly doubled in size since the time I knew it.  I cannot recognize it.  And, until the day I took this picture, in 2009, I had never viewed it from the river.  As a four and five-year-old, I used to stand on the steep bank at the end of their lawn and gaze toward the opposite shore.  I used to watch boats chug up and down the waterway from my high vantage point where the Rappahannock stretches a mile from one side to the other.  In those days, my brother lay in a hospital bed in Philadelphia and then Baltimore and then Philadelphia again, struggling with a mysterious illness which no one ever really diagnosed.  He was not expected to live.  And so, I was sent to stay with my father’s parents in this historic Tidewater town while my mother stayed with my brother in the hospital and my father looked for a house in Birmingham, Alabama where he had just been transferred for his job. Is it any wonder that this tiny place lies so deeply embedded in my memory?  It was a place of refuge during a period of chaos at home.  Years later, I would learn that my father was not my brother’s biological father.  My mother had been married before and her first husband had died.  In many ways this changed nothing.  In other ways, it changed everything.  No wonder my grandmother was so solicitous of me.  No wonder she brought me a kitten in a picnic basket after I returned home, despite the well-known fact that my mother detested cats.  I had talked endlessly of how much I wanted one and so, my grandmother made sure I got one.
 Tappahannock is the oldest town in Essex County.  John Smith landed there in 1608, but was driven off by Native American people.  In those days, when I was feeling so unsettled, when my mother was unavailable, my father was a traveling salesman and we were in between a rented house in Wilmington, Delaware and a new home in Birmingham, Alabama, I lived for a few months with my grandparents in one of the oldest towns in America.  It felt solid and permanent.  And I did not really want to leave.
 So now, decades later, I find myself moving into a house that is only 60 miles from the place where my grandparents lived.  And yes, even though our furniture is not here yet, already it feels permanent.  For the first time in . . . too many years to count, I feel like I am coming home.  And it feels good, I can tell you.  It feels absolutely and perfectly fine.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

NO BORING PARAGRAPHS

So far, 2014 has been quite a tumultuous year, starting with the chemical spill that affected the water supply in Charleston on January 9th and continuing with my move to Williamsburg.  I've been living out of my suitcase for more than 2 months and it's a little scary to admit I'v grown used to it.
With all of this upheaval, it warmed my heart to see my new novel, ALL THAT'S MISSING, on the Teen Books shelf at the Williamsburg Barnes and Noble in New Town yesterday.  Another bright spot came when I found a recent review by a Goodreads reader who wrote about what he liked in my book.  Here is part of what he said. 
"I haven't read a book like this, probably in my whole life. Most books seem to go all perfect, relationships are connected strongly, and it's almost like a unicorn flying on a cloud. But this one, there are trials. There was even a city that doesn't exist, mixed with Richmond, VA. The scenery changes as well, the background switches places with another. I learned a lot from this book. It makes me realize how important families are, and to make the best of life. Your family is so important, and this book shows you what happens without family. It teaches you how to solve problems, such as when Arlo was alone. I also learned how to make the best of your circumstances, and your life as well. Great book. I would suggest this book to anybody. (There aren't boring paragraphs that you want to skip. Read every single word.)"
It doesn't get any better than this.  Grateful.  That's how I'm feeling.  Extremely grateful.


Monday, March 17, 2014

DAFFODILS

Waking up to a thin crust of snow on cars and rooftops,
I want to run outside and offer encouragement to these daffodils.
"Don't give up.  This must be the last snow.
Another few days and we're home free."   
Two days ago they were standing tall.
This morning they're shivering in sleet and rain
and -- yes.  Okay.  I admit it.  Snow.
But, this is part of spring.  The early blossoms.
The cold snap that bends them back down.
Then stalwart flowers snap right up when the sun returns.
I hope to snap back with them.
And soon!

Meanwhile I will observe St. Patrick's Day in snow and sleet.  Thanks to Liz for bringing green-iced shamrock cookies this morning.  Cookies and daffodils -- a lovely way to celebrate in my new home!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

SORTING

My winter project is clearing the clutter out of my house.  I spent last weekend going through a full-to-bursting closet, determined to reduce its contents by half.  It was harder than I'd expected.  What did I find?       

1 box of very old Halloween masks     

1 plastic container holding my childhood doll collection

1 box of napkin holders     

1 large box of memorabilia saved by my father (I guess there must be a touch of "packrat" in my genetic structure.)        

1 box of Christmas ornaments from my parents' tree


Some things were easy to throw away.  Others . . . not so much, especially the ornaments.  Both my mother and father loved to keep bird feeders in the yard.  They were enthusiastic bird watchers.  And, over the years, my mother collected ornaments related to birds.  This is one of them.  I have saved them all.  Someday, I tell myself, I will buy one of those tiny trees and decorate it with these ornaments. But, I don't.  That's not really why I keep them.  I just need to know they are there, as if the memories attached to them will disappear if I give them away.  I know that won't happen.  But, I also know they won't have the same meaning to someone else and, for that reason, it feels disrespectful to let them go.  

Oh, the complications of memory and longing.  It's so hard to be rational when it comes to remembrance.  But, sometimes being a tad irrational is okay.  Isn't it? 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Post-Apocalyptic Betwixt and Between


I had expected the early months of 2014 to be busy.  In our holiday cards this
http://www.nps.gov/meve/photosmultimedia/index.htm
year, Rick and I announced that we had purchased a home in Virginia and would be moving over the coming months.  Little did we know the backdrop against which our move would take place.

Now I travel the 350 miles between our new home and our old home.  Never could I have imagined that I would be carrying dirty sheets and towels from our old house to our new house where I can wash them in water that I trust.  Never would I have guessed how grateful I could feel for safe water gushing out of a faucet that I can use to wash my hands as many times a day as I wish.  I took this and so many other things that come with safe water for granted.  I don't do that anymore.  I may not for a long time.

On January 9th, an unspecified quantity of a chemical used for cleaning coal, (estimated at 10,000 gallons) leaked into the Elk River and contaminated the water supply for 300,00 people. My heart hurts for friends and families affected by this disaster.  I am angry at government and industry.  And the love/hate relationship I've had with West Virginia grows ever more complex.


I remember the last time I visited Mesa Verde in the Four Corners region of Colorado, where the Ancient Pueblo people, also called the Anasazi, lived from about 600 A.D. to around 1300.  At one time, according to a National Park Service guide I talked to, there were nearly 400,000 people living in a widespread region that encompassed parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.  What happened?  Among the explanations researchers have offered is the fact that the region endured prolonged drought.  A society which had grown and prospered for hundreds of years migrated elsewhere and never returned because (according to many) of the loss of a reliable water supply.


While I understand the differences between the circumstances in the Kanawha Valley in 2014 and the impact that a prolonged drought had on the Ancient Pueblo civilization in the 13th century, I cannot stop thinking about the parallels between the two situations.  The Freedom Industries spill was not the first chemical emergency the Charleston area has experienced, though it has certainly caused more far-reaching consequences than any of the others.  Still, actions which could have been taken to address issues such as proper monitoring and inspection of aging chemical storage tanks located just above the intake for the community water supply, were not taken before.  Will they be taken now?   
It is my fervent hope and prayer that community, government and industry leaders will work with residents of Charleston and the other localities affected by the spill to fix the water supply and take preventive measures to assure this never happens again.  You cannot have a thriving community without clean water.


If you build it, they will come.  But, rest assured, if you take away a safe water supply, they will go.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

MISSING DECEMBER POST

This is the post I had written and somehow neglected to add to the blog. Wonderful news came as the month of December turned up on my calendar.  The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books gave ALL THAT'S MISSING a starred review.  A STARRED REVIEW, people!  Have you ever squealed with delight?  It's not the sort of thing I'm inclined to do, but there are times when the unexpected is called for and this was certainly one of those times.Next came word of VOYA'S review in its December issue.  I'm especially fond of the last sentence.  "Some suspense, much heartache, a few tears, and smiles all tie together nicely in the end to create an outstanding debut novel."  VOYAWhen you are toiling away in isolation, working on rough drafts and then revision after revision, you have to turn your thoughts away from things like reviews and reviewers and focus solely on the story and what will make it work.  Finally, the day arrives when the book is released into the world and there it stands, all alone and defenseless.  It's almost unbearable to stand back and watch.  
So, now I am breathing again.  The reception has been warm.  There is much relief.  



  

Friday, November 15, 2013

THE ART OF HENRY OSSAWA TANNER

One of the best parts of writing is doing research.  When I wrote All That's Missing, I needed to create a character who was an African-American artist living sometime prior to 1950.  I spent hours online and ordered used art history books and biographies.  The artist's stories were fascinating.  I loved looking at the work they created.  

Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Henry O. Tanner 1900

Ultimately, it was Henry Ossawa Tanner upon whom I focused.  I researched the details of his life in order to create a plausible biography for Solomon Brokenberry, the fictional artist in my novel. Solomon Brokenberry is not meant to be a stand-in for Henry Ossawa Tanner.  Rather, I relied upon the facts of Tanner's life to create what would seem real in a fictional character.  Purely by coincidence, it turned out that the first
View of the Seine, Looking Toward Notre Dame, 1896
major American exhibition of Tanner's work was being mounted around the time I was doing my research.  As a result, there were new resources to consult.  The exhibit opened in January, 2012 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and traveled to the Cincinnati Art Museum  and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.  (Here's a link.)  


I ordered a copy of the catalogue and pored over it.    
If you are interested in learning more about Tanner and his work, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  I included an Author's Note at the end of All That's Missing  in which I told a little about Tanner's life and included a list of resources upon which I relied in creating my fictional artist.  This book is included among those resources.


Tanner is the first African American artist whose work forms part of the White House art collection. His painting, "Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City", was purchased by the White House Foundation during the Clinton administration.
Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City 1885
Learn more about Tanner and the painting here.  (http://www.whitehousehistory.org/whha_tours/whitehouse_art/art_genl-sand-dunes.html)   

There is an audio clip accompanying the photo of the painting.  Please take the time to listen!  

According to several sources, Tanner's best-known work in the United States is "The Banjo Lesson," shown here.    

The Banjo Lesson 1893

It was painted after Tanner returned to the United States from Paris around 1892.  He had fallen ill and was forced to come home to recuperate.








As soon as his health was restored, Tanner auctioned as many of his painting as he could and returned  to Paris.  He received his first major recognition there when his painting "Daniel in the Lion's Den" received an Honorable Mention at the Salon in 1896.  

Daniel in the Lion's Den, 1896



Faith Ringgold created a beautiful picture book to accompany the exhibit, HENRY OSSAWA TANNER: MODERN SPIRIT.  It was published by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and provides an excellent introduction to Tanner and his work.


There are certain gifts which come with the hard work of writing.  One of them is the reward of accomplishing a difficult task.  Another is the gift of discovery that comes as a bit of serendipity along the way.  Discovering the story of Henry Ossawa Tanner and his work was such a gift.  If you do not know about him, here is a story you need to know.

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