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Things We’ve Recently Learned from Books

By Kathryn Pritchett
April 30, 2021

In order to write historical fiction, a writer must know or research many things from different eras—architectural and landscape features, clothing, cuisine, modes of transportation, medical practices, inventions, superstitions, politics—even the weather.

Accordingly, Paper Lantern Writers not only write, we read. Often we’re devouring resources pulled up on the internet, but this week, we share interesting tidbits from actual books as we answer the question – “What have you recently learned from a book?”

 

Rebecca shares a story about horse-riding librarians from rural Kentucky in the 1930s . . .

Recently my book club read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. Reading historical fiction always teaches me something, and the emotional connection of a novel helps me to remember it. 

Book Woman is the story of Cussy Mary, a young woman in the hills of Kentucky in the 1930s. She is a librarian for the Pack Horse Library Project, which was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The librarians brought books to the poorest and most isolated areas, traveling by horse, mule, and sometimes even by foot or rowboat. Almost all of the librarians were women, traveling as much as a hundred miles a week. All of the books, magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets were donated, and the librarians made scrapbooks of helpful information, such as recipes or household tips, that their clients provided. In the years of its service, more than a thousand women took part in the project. 

Cussy Mary is also one of the blue-skinned people of Kentucky. Their skin color was caused by methemoglobinemia, an extremely rare disease. In the case of the Fugate family of Kentucky, it was congenital, caused by a recessive gene. The inherited disease is an enzyme deficiency, which reduces blood oxygen, changing the color of the blood, and thus the color of the skin. General health wasn’t affected, although it is believed that there are no more Fugates with the condition.

Mari has been tracking down grade school curriculums from 1897 New York.

The most memorable thing I learned recently from a book was from a historical document I picked up reproduced on Amazon, “Directory and Course of Instruction of Catholic Schools,” produced by the Archdiocese of New York. One of my characters, Frankie Delaney, is in fourth grade at a Catholic grade school in New York in 1897, and I needed to know what classes he would take. This was an absolutely magical find, as it contains the curriculum for K-6 just around my time period (though not much else), and it turned up at exactly the right time.

“[After History and Math class,] the rest of Frankie’s day was the same as all the other boys at St. Ignatius, including Brendan. They had English next, then penmanship, then lunch with the brothers—the girls ate with the nuns at the convent. The noon meal was included with tuition, but came with accompanying scriptures. After lunch, they had geography, calisthenics, and music. Then afternoon chapel, followed by confession on Wednesdays.”

 

Edie shares some things she’s learned about Alexander Dumas’s half-black father, Thomas-Alexander Dumas.

This last year I read The Black Count, a biography of Alexandre Dumas’s father, Thomas-Alexander Dumas, who was a General in the French Revolution. His life was the basis upon which Alexandre wrote many of his stories, including the Three Musketeers (challenging three men to a duel all in one day, one in the morning, one at noon, one at night).

Alexandre Dumas’s grandfather was a white, French Marquis and after running into massive debts, disappeared to French-controlled Carribean, where he basically stole his younger brother’s slave plantation. He ran that into the ground financially, sold it all off with the exception of the woman he declared his “wife,” and then hied off into the mountains with her, leaving his brother with all the debts. For twenty years, he was unknown and declared dead, his title and estate in France reverting to the financially ruined brother. Then, the grandfather shows up in France with his half-Black son, who is a powerhouse of a human being: taller than most men, stronger than most men, smarter than most men, more attractive than most men. The Marquis takes back his title and doesn’t bother to thank his little brother who had recovered the estate financially, and gives Thomas-Alexander the education of a gentleman, including military training.

The rest I couldn’t even make up if I tried. Only the truth is this bizarre and fantastical. And that’s just in the first 50 pages of the biography! There are issues of race, slavery, the French Revolution, Napoleon’s ego, not to mention the back story of great French adventure literature.

As for me (Kathryn), my current WIP is partially set in turn-of-the-last-century Salt Lake City. Accordingly, I’ve been reading a book about Saltair, an amusement park that once sat on the banks of the Great Salt Lake. Built in 1893, Saltair was billed as the “Coney Island of the West.” Along with private dressing rooms that led to the sandy beaches, this Moorish-themed resort included a grand ballroom, big band performances, animal acts, a penny arcade, hot-air balloon rides and observation areas to watch the sham naval battles enacted on the lake. Eventually, a hippodrome was built to accommodate the popular cycling races. Turns out Salt Lake City was once a mecca for competitive cycling. 

Something I’d still like to know is whether Asian immigrants would have been allowed to participate in all the fun. A first-person account from the 1920s mentions Japanese and Chinese workers staffing the concessions and arcade games, but in Saltair’s early years would they have been allowed to even enter the gates? Could they have taken a refreshing swim or danced the Cake Walk while Christian Christensen’s orchestra played Scott Joplin? 

I’ll keep researching even as I try to imagine an even later incarnation of Saltair that hosted Micky Paramore and the “Swingettes”—an eleven-piece all-female band—in the 1950s. Also, the diving mules who leapt from a high platform into the lake. Horse and mule diving were outlawed in the U.S. in the 1970s, but I wonder about those mid-century airborne mules. Before they hit their salty marks, did they feel like they were flying?

Kathryn Pritchett
Written by Kathryn Pritchett

Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.

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