Category Archives: second song

Election Day and Book Talks

lyonsIt’s sort of odd talking about historical novels set in the 1850s so close to the 2016 election. Unfortunately, the similarities in the tone of political discourse are all too obvious. Which is concerning, to put it midlly. Americans in the 1850s accused one another of having hatred in the hearts, being un-American, and being deplorable sub-human rapists and monsters. And I think the people of the 1860s would say this to us: “Don’t go down that road.”

I don’t mean to say the persistence of slavery would have been preferable to the war. It would not have been. I only mean to say that I believe there is always a non-violent solution to conflict. Perhaps if Americans engaged one another in a more constructive way in the 1850s–indeed, before that as well–John Brown would have been wrong in saying the only way our sins could be purged was with blood. Perhaps he was yet, in fact.

Whatever happens today, it’s imperative we begin to change the way we speak about and to one another. We must re-learn how to engage as human beings first, Americans second, and members of political parties third, if at all.

I spoke about this on Saturday at the Denver Public Library, and will do so again tomorrow night in Lyons.

I hope you’ll join me. 

Where Waters Converge

This weekend I sent my “final” draft of Where Waters Converge, the Second Song, to my editor. Obviously, it isn’t final, as the editor (who has worked with me on many drafts thus far) will have plenty of remaining suggestions for changes. Over the last few years we’ve removed several characters, introduced new ones, and cut probably 15,000 words from early drafts. But we’re close. I’ll have one more chance to complete the novel and publish it in March.

As a librarian, I will then consider that the “final” draft of the novel. It will be the version I’m ostensibly on public record having published, as it were. But as a writer I don’t see it that way. The only reason it’s finished is because, for sanity’s sake, I’ll have to move on.

Like much of the world, I’m saddened and shocked by the death of David Bowie. I can’t say I was his biggest fan–I know a lot of people who know far more about him and music in general than I do. But he has always inspired me. He’s made me feel a whole range of emotions with his art, everything from awe to discomfort, love to yearning, pride and shame and hope and despair.

Which is why I love this portion of an interview he did with Charlie Rose in the 90s. The sense of frustration and anger artists feel is very real–this almost cathartic need to express, which doesn’t always happen when and where and how we want it to. The feeling of “finishing” a novel to me is really more of “okay, this is good enough, I’m proud of it, and I can finally move on.”

But, to what?

This is what Bowie mastered, of course, and what others have waxed fare more eloquently than I in recent days: reinvention. Metamorphosis. Re-imagining one’s self. Bowie reminded us over and over, culminating with his final act, his final album and passing, that life and death are so illusory. Rebirth is what is real. We all understand it. Deep in the layers of our existence, we know this to be the only truism. Change.

So, I will publish Where Waters Converge in March and move on. To the Third Song, tentatively titled Cover Thy Sun, O God, and planned for release in late 2017. But this novel won’t be “finished.”

Because there is no such thing. There is only transformation.

This River

In some of my recent book talks, I’ve spoken about the Missouri River and its role in my life over the years. Growing up in Denver, where our Platte River and Cherry Creek pale in comparison to this rolling behemoth05370033, I suppose every year when I see this river, I am always taken aback by it. Its size, currents, color, smell, and feel are all nearly surreal to me. In the First Song the river is something of a character unto itself, I suppose, and it can be felt and sensed from a mile away. In the Second Song, I describe the grief of a character as the river’s tonnage lifting from its banks and pressing on his shoulders. I think it has played a similar role in my life: it’s just always there.

And yet, it’s not. I don’t live near it. I only see it on family visits, once or twice a year, usually. I don’t think I understand this river, or the plains, nearly as well as my cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents. Nor as well as a colleague and friend of mine, Jonna Gjevre, who is working on a new novel, River Rising. In just the first chapter I knew she understood the rivers of the Plains so much better than I. It’s an amazing draft.

Jonna also told me about an Indian myth she heard: that tornadoes don’t strike in the area between two rivers. There are a lot of myths about tornadoes, many of which I have grown up with. Some attribute this particular myth to the Osage (#2), and it includes the notion they don’t cross rivers. I haven’t taken the time to find a good source for this myth, and I can’t say I remember hearing that one, but one of my aunts, who lives in west Atchsion, has told me she’s seen twisters approaching the town, then make an abrupt turn to the north.

This RiverAtchison isn’t exactly at the confluence of two rivers, at least not in the way the myth purports to provide safety (Denver is, actually). Atchison lies at a great bend in the Missouri, what the 18th century French explorers called Le Grande Detour. Through it runs a small creek, the White Clay, which Lewis & Clark named 4th of July Creek when they camped there on that day in 1804. The next night, a few miles north, they camped near what they later named Independence Creek, which is much larger (I grew up calling it a “river,” in fact). My grandpa taught me to fish at this confluence, in fact, and it was the subject of our last conversation before he passed last year.

Still, I somehow believe this myth. Not as a fact. I wouldn’t hide near a river from a tornado, and though Atchison has never been hit by one (knock on wood, and it came close last year), I wouldn’t think it immune at all. But the myth speaks to the power of rivers. Their majesty, Their steadfast march in the face of the brief violence of storms, like time and mortality.

In the Second Song, which is nearly finished, and which is going to be titled Where Waters Converge, I can’t help but play with these themes of water, rivers and rain and floods, and how they are not land or wood or rock.

Because somehow this river is every river to me.



Loveland Public Library

Looking forward to Thursday at 7pm, where I’ll be at the Loveland Public Library reading from the First and Second Songs. 


I’ll talk some about my family’s historic relationship to the land in Kansas…


And since it’s Halloween weekend, I might 05380032share a Kansas ghost story or two as well.

She’ll pull it all together

Sometimes you have to finish a draft of a book to figure out what’s missing, and what may pull it all together. In the last couple weeks, since finishing the Second Song (working title is now Cover Thy Sun, O Lord), I’ve discovered Clarina Nichols. Like a flash of lightning, I realized she is what what missing in the last three years I’ve been working on this novel.


Clarina Irene Howard Nichols

I’ve read about her before and saw an exhibit that included her at the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka; but the mountains of information I sift through to write these books are sometimes such that I miss important events or characters. Clarina was one of them, I’m almost ashamed to admit.

Clarina was a Free State reformer, but she brought to Kansas another issue: women’s suffrage. She labored to give Kansan women the right to vote, having emigrated from her native Vermont with the wise approach that a new state’s constitution would prove an easier political battleground than an established one. Her upstanding reputation, sharp logic, and wit were all tools she used to build public support for her cause. She is a fascinating character, and one that until recently was the “forgotten feminist.” I’m glad that is no longer the case.

And, every once in a while in historical research you come across a book so well written, one that brings its subject to life so well, you feel compelled to follow suit and do your best put the story into fiction. This book is a great example. Blackwell and Oertel had me in the first few pages. It’s certainly one of the more riveting tales of a territorial Kansans I have come across.

So, watch out for Clarina in Cover Thy Sun, but perhaps more importantly, her more inconspicuous daughter, Birsha.



On Nellie Part 4

I still have a few records to hunt down, but it’s quite likely I’ll never know what really happened to Ellen “Nellie” Farrell, my great-great grandmother. I know she was “adjudged insane” in 1886, just weeks after her baby boy died. The cause of that insanity is probably lost to history.

Elizabeth Packard

Elizabeth Packard

History has an unpleasant story to tell about “insanity” in women in the 19th century, too. One of the more infamous stories comes from “Elizabeth Packard, who differed with the theology of her clergyman husband, was forcibly placed in an Illinois state hospital. She remained there for 3 years. At that time, Illinois law stated that ‘married’ women could be hospitalized at a husband’s request without the evidence required in other cases” (NLM, Diseases of the Mind). After her release she wrote three books, bringing public attention to the state of asylums in the United States.

Despite a truly benevolent beginning, asylums began to devolve by the time Elizabeth, and Nellie, experienced them. Misunderstanding and unfair, even masochistic, treatment of women in mental health was rampant throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. I still think other explanations are quite plausible, but circumstances suggest Nellie’s life in Topeka was grim and that she was likely committed for grief, not an uncommon occurrence: “The grief experienced after the death of a loved one and domestic troubles were also diagnoses given to women (Pouba & Tianen, 2006).”

This may not surprise many of us, and I suppose that is a good thing. Understanding the injustices of the past may help us avoid them now, and in the future. But for it to be so personal, in my family, is an odd experience. Adding to this discomfort is the possibility my great-great grandfather had something to do with it: “Women diagnosed with insanity by domestic troubles were frequently admitted by their husbands (Pouba & Tianen, 2006).” Perhaps just as Ms. Packard’s husband did.

I will look into Kansas law at the time, but if Nellie’s husband’s testimony is what lead to her being committed, this is the image of that man. Edward Hugh Farrell, my great-great grandfather.

Despite his beard, I don’t think it’s fair to automatically assign nefarious purposes to him.

Edward Hugh Farrell

Edward Hugh Farrell

Compassion for him within me suggests he may have been scared by his wife’s grief, grieving for his son himself, lonely, lost, ignorant, and subject to the influence of his community and culture.

But Nellie, oh Nellie. To grieve, to be torn away from your family, and die young in an institution among strangers. Life in the 1880s had plenty of suffering to offer humans, as it always has and always will, but this is a particularly terrifying, and all to common, offering. And certainly one of the darker stories in my family history that will lead to something in the Songs.