|Frank and Ellen Strong, on whom Earth's Imagined Corners is based|
My historical novel Earth's Imagined Corners is out! Today I'm posting the Dear Reader letter, in which I talk about what's historical and what's fiction. Tomorrow I'll post an excerpt. Thursday I'll post blurbs about the next two book in the Round Earth series. Friday, I'll let you know what's next for me.
What should I say about Earth’s Imagined Corners? There’s so much to tell.
This is the first book I wrote, and the first novel. I had been writing my whole life, but it wasn’t until 1999 that I claimed “writer” and began writing lots of fiction. I almost immediately tried to write a novel—this novel.
Very quickly, I realized fiction is one long resistance against writing the first thing that comes to mind, against cliché, and that I knew nothing about writing fiction, not really. And so I continued to work on the novel but then I also wrote loads of short stories. Short stories are so demanding, little diamonds that demand perfection, and that taught me so much about writing. These stories became the collection How to Be a Man.
I wrote on and off for years and finally achieved a first draft. Then I got feedback from some very patient writing friends, though the manuscript had a long way to go. They were insightful but very kind, as true writing friends are. Then I tried to get an agent, with minimal interest. When I say minimal, I really do mean minimal. And so I put it away and wrote another novel, which is Deep Down Things. After 11 years, I got my lovely agent, and then we queried publishers with both the novels. In the process, I majorly rewrote them both—again, from scratch, just keeping the plot. Earth’s Imagined Corners almost turned into two novels, but I really felt the parts needed to remain together. Then, after feedback from my agent, Earth’s Imagined Corners was shaped into final form.
The story is based on the lives of my great grandparents, Frank and Ellen Strong. Ellen Noble grew up in Iowa, while Frank grew up in Illinois under the name “Frank Wood” and moved across the country with his mother, Elizabeth Zenana Robinson Mattison Wood Strong Howard Staats. She was born in Virginia, and family legend says she danced at Tom Thumb’s wedding, married five times, and died in Red Willow County, Nebraska. She’s an elusive figure, and I had a heck of a time tracking her down through genealogy. I still know very little about her.
Legend also says that Frank worked for an uncle for a year and was not paid, and so that’s why he stole two horses and was sentenced to the Additional Penitentiary in Anamosa. Family legend turned out to be true. This is from the records of the penitentiary.
A. Henry Zierjacks being sworn testified as follows, am 33 years of age, reside Franklin Twshp. Bremer Co., a farmer, have known Frank Wood 4 or 5 years. I worked for Harper R. Smith know that he Smith lost a horse about Jan. 12th, 1882 saw tracks going north from the stable, followed the tracks towards Henry Adams and found that Frank Wood had eaten supper at Adams that night and had left about 9 o'clock, the day after F. W. was arrested he told me in the Bremer Co. Jail at Waverly that he took the horses asked me to do what I could for him to get him off easy, he said he watched me the night he took the horse until I went to bed. I talked with him today he told me he took the horse.
John Carstensen sworn testified as follows, age 23 years, Residence Waverly, am Deputy Sheriff of Bremer Co., Ia. Know Frank Wood, first saw him about Jan. 14th, 1882 in custody of Sheriff of Floyd Co. in Chas. City I served a warrant on him and took him into my custody, he said it was all right commenced crying and said he had stolen the horses and had sold them to Waller Bros. Charles City. On my way to Chas. City saw Louis Harper who told me he saw a man with two gray horses he was riding one and leading the other which had a harness on. The description he gave me both of the man and the horses agreed with the description of the horses and Frank Wood when I found them at Chas. City. Met several other men on my way to Chas City who gave me descriptions of a man with two gray horses in his possession going in the direction of Chas. City each description agreed exactly with the horses and Frank Wood when I arrested him. When I brought the horses back Mr. Stotts claimed one and A. Henry Zierjacks claimed the other for Harper R. Smith. I never heard F. W. deny the stealing of the horses but have heard him on several occasions admit to the stealing and claimed it was poverty that drove him to.
Frank and Ellen met at the town pump while Frank was still incarcerated—not, as I have them, after he gets out. Ellen, of course, knew that he was in prison. They married, changed their name to Strong, and then moved to Kansas City, as Sara and James do. Above is Frank and Ellen’s wedding portrait, upon which I base the scene in the photography studio.
The Strongs had a grocery store, and we still have the advertisement that ran in a KC newspaper on July 16, 1889.
|Reproduction of advertisement for the Frank Strong Grocery in a July 16, 1889 newspaper|
Their daughters, including my Grandma Bessie, were born in Missouri and Kansas. They eventually move west across Nebraska supplying ties for the railroad, and they are in the vicinity of the Wounded Knee Massacre. At one point, Frank chased Ellen with an ax, and at another point Ellen went out to confront an angry mob of Frank’s employees while Frank hid under the bed. Ellen cooked for the crews, and the story goes that she cooked breakfast one day, gave birth to my Grandmother Bessie, and then went back and cooked the evening meal. At least that’s the story. This part of their lives is the subject of the second book in the series, Numberless Infinities.
Finally, they settled in northern Wyoming and started a hotel and livery in what was initially called Strong but is now Lovell. The Mormon community moved in and looked askance at what went on there. I don’t know if it was a brothel, but I don’t think so. The liquor was probably enough to be looked down on. The Strongs went in partners with other townsfolk to start a brick and tile factory, which eventually burned down, and there was much finger pointing. At one point, the whole town was moved two blocks south in one night. These events are the basis for the third part in the trilogy called This Lowly Ground. After the brick and tile kerfluffle, my family moved 25 miles north to the base of the Pryor Mountains. This is the ranch on which I and my six siblings grew up. Frank passed away in 1914, and Ellen, who was known to everyone as Ma Strong, lived until 1950.
I came across this entry in the book Progressive Men of the State of Wyoming (A.W. Bowen & Co., Chicago, Ill., 1903).
Strongly endowed by nature with clearness of vision, quickness of apprehension and alertness in action, so that the opportunity presented for advancement have neither escaped his knowledge or been neglected in use, Frank S. Strong has made steady progress in the race for supremacy among men and the acquisition of this world's good from time to time, when, at the age of twenty, he lifted the gage of battle in life's contest for himself, until now when, at but little over twice that age, he is comfortably provided with a competence, being well-established in his chosen line of business and secure in the respect and esteem of his fellow men. Mr. Strong's interesting and adventurous life began in the state of Illinois on February 8, 1861. His parents, John and Elizabeth (Robinson) Strong, were natives of New York and early settlers of Illinois. When he was ten years old they moved to Iowa, and there he completed his minority, lacking one year, and received a common school education. In 1881 he started out in life for himself, coming to Nebraska and locating in Red Willow county, where for a number of years he was actively engaged in farming. From there he went to Fort Scott, Kan., and was engaged in railroad work for a number of years, and then in Kansas City he opened a merchandising establishment. In 1889 he left the comforts and allurements of city life and went to the wild country of the Black Hills, casting in his lot with its rush of fortune seekers; but, instead of following the almost universal occupation of mining, he engaged in railroad work and found it profitable until 1892, when he came to Wyoming for the purpose of joining the great army of enterprising and hardy men who were engaged in the stock industry. For three years he prospected for a suitable location for his enterprise, working at various useful occupations, and in 1895 took up land on the border of which the town of Lovell has since grown up. He owns 720 acres adjoining the townsite, and in the town itself he owns and conducts a hotel, livery barn and saloon. He also owns 320 acres of land in Montana and has on it 150 fine cattle and fifty well-bred horses in addition to the stock he owns in this state. He was united in marriage with Miss Ellen J. Noble, a native of Wisconsin, but reared in Iowa, at the time of marriage a resident of Denver, Colo., where the ceremony was performed on October 19, 1885. They have two children, their winsome daughters, Lulie E. and Bessie F. Mr. Strong is not only a prosperous and enterprising man who pushes his own business with vigor and success, but he is a broad-minded, far-seeing and public spirited citizen, whose interest in the welfare of his country and state, and in the town in which he lives, is manifested by continual activity in behalf of all means of advancement and improvement for them and the benefit of his people. He is well-esteemed as a leading and useful citizen, whose services are of high value and whose example is an inspiration to others in the line of every good work.
I wish I could have met Ma Strong. She was a strong and amazing and kind woman, and she was always adopting strays and helping people. We named my daughter Elizabeth after her—Elizabeth’s middle name is “Strong.”
The lives of my great grandparents aren’t the only things that I fictionalized. I did a tremendous amount of research for this book. After all, it’s much easier to research than to write the damn thing.
The American Memory Site of the National Archives is an amazing resource for researchers, and much of their material is online, and so I didn’t have to travel to Washington D.C. to access it. Fortunately, there are birds-eye views of downtown Kansas City from 1879 and 1895, perfectly framing my time period. I could have gone so far as to tell you which streets Sara and James walked down.
And I also have the tremendous good fortune—for me, not for the residents of KC West Bottoms—of having a vast photographic evidence to draw from. That’s because the Bottoms flood regularly, and people take lots of photos during these natural disasters.
There are many other things based on fact.
Work began on the “Additional Penitentiary” in Anamosa, Iowa, in 1873. In 1884, the name was changed to the “State Penitentiary.” In 1885, it held 281 inmates. Electric lights were actually at the prison when James would have been there—they were first used in December of 1882. Fictional purposes—sorry. The inmates wore the broad horizontal black and white stripes and built their own prison, first in wood and then in stone.
The cookbook The Compleat Housewife by Eliza Smith is fact. First published in 1727 in London, the cookbook was republished almost verbatim in 1742 by the Virginia printer William Parks. It was the first cookbook published in the Colonies. The description of the book and its title page is real.
“The Patch” was a 4.5-acre area in the West Bottoms north of James Street and west of Ohio Avenue. It lay west of the Armour Packing Factory. If anything, I built it up a bit. The Kansas City Journal reported in 1910: “On this little spot of land fifty-nine houses have been built, of every kind of building material from pieces of driftwood to scraps of asphalt paving. The little shacks are built up against each other, and many front doors in the settlement look out on some neighbor’s cow lot.” Citizens of the Patch were evicted in April of 1910 and the land was sold for $200.
In 1900, The 18th Annual Report of the U.S. Commissioner of Labor reported the following prices in Chicago: a one pound loaf of bread $0.05, a quart of milk $0.06, a pound of flour $0.02, and a one-pound rib roast $0.13. Small, dark, two- to three-room apartments rented for $4-10 a month, while better housing could cost $100 per month. Men worked an average of 290 days a year and made $553.52, while women worked an average of 295 days a year and made $313.42. I extrapolated backwards to estimate wages and prices.
Inventions such as electricity were making their way across the continent. Electrical infrastructure began reaching Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas in 1882. Kansas City had mule-drawn cable cars in 1881, but by 1885, they were powered by electricity. If you remember, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in just 1869.
In 1881, an African American man named Levi Harrington, 23, was lynched—hung and shot—from the Bluff Bridge for killing a policeman named Jones, a crime Harrington did not commit. It got little coverage in the papers because it happened the same day that Jesse James was shot in Saint Joseph. The lynching that Moses and Auntie refer to previously is that of Joseph Lawrence, a black man from Girard, Crawford County, Kansas, for the charge of rape. It happened on July 6, 1885.
I moved the flood from 1881 to 1885. There was a great flood in 1844 that came through the West Bottoms with a deafening roar and filled it bluff to bluff. It was reported that, during the night of the flood, cries were heard but the flood was too overwhelming to attempt rescue. The next day, rescuers found Louis Tromley perched in a tree, his wife in a tree a hundred yards farther on, and his son sitting on the peak of the swaying house. Later that day, onlookers saw Tromley’s house floating with the current, with Tromley’s favorite dog perched on its top. Tromley yelled out the dog’s name, and the dog let out a mournful wail. Tromley almost plunged into the water to save it. And then, in 1881, the spring was cold and wet, and sleighs were seen in the city as late as March 19. The 1881 flood peaked on April 29. There were more large floods in 1903 and 1951.
Little things. President Cleveland did have a mistress. Sara’s paste opal jewel exists, and in 2003, it was for sale by The Three Graces, Houston, Texas, for $1,380. The description of passengers getting cozy during a train wreck that is told by Moses is from Bill Nye’s 1882 Forty Lies and Other Liars. I based the rats at the river on an account given by a man who grew up in Kansas City in the twentieth century—the 1960s, I think. The description of the packing factories owes a lot to Sinclair Lewis’s The Jungle. On September 15, 1885, Jumbo the elephant was crushed by a train in Saint Thomas, Ontario, Canada. Thomas’s Tsististas are the Cheyenne, and the words from the Cheyenne language is from the Dull Knife College web site, but their spelling is my own.
I thought a lot about the story’s dialog. Who knows how people talked in 1885? The past is another country. Just like today, what was written was probably much different than what was said. But I also wanted it to sound to the reader like real people talking. To compromise, I wrote the dialog as I would any other, and then I tweaked it and took out the words that either weren’t contemporary or don’t “feel” historical and then put in words that do feel historical. For me, communication and clarity rank above “truth” (as if there is only one truth).
In a few places, I tip my hat to particular images or turns of phrase from writers I admire. I think of them as grace notes. When James first goes into the bowels of the packing factory, Joseph says hello to Jurgis—Jurgis is the main character in Sinclair Lewis’s The Jungle. When the moon rises in KC “like a fired pine knot,” it’s a small homage to Jean Toomer and “Blood Burning Moon.” There were many more, but they were taken out in revision. Imitation as the sincerest form of flattery.
When I wrote the first draft of Earth’s Imagined Corners, I had not visited Kansas City. And so it was a surreal experience to drive through the West Bottoms for the first time after I had so fully imagined it. It was the same but not the same. Today, overpasses lace between buildings that Sara and James would have seen out the cable car window. A wastewater treatment plant and a Fedex warehouse lie next to narrow empty streets crowded with abandoned nineteenth century buildings, their lower windows shattered and their elaborately painted signs still visible behind graffiti. Driving through them, even in broad daylight, feels a little like one of those horror movies where no one’s around and you’re just waiting for something nasty to pop out from an alley.
To this day, I can’t help thinking of all those people who lived and worked in those giant husks, people who felt itchy in wool and got sunburned and loved that early morning splash of water on the face. People like Sara and James, like Frank and Ellen Strong. I look forward to continuing their journey in the next book.