So, call me a rebel against iron-clad tradition, but the truth is that my daughter and I don’t really care for the usual spread of Thanksgiving dishes. OK, turkey is fine. We like turkey just fine, although a whole one of the smallest available at HEB is usually way too much for the two of us, or even three if you count Wee Jamie, who is flirting cautiously with grown-up food of late. We’ve usually just gone with a breast or a half-breast – anything to avoid a whole month of leftovers, which was the case when I was growing up. Mom invariably went for a bird of twenty pounds or more, and we ate leftovers for the following month … and just as we finished the last of eternal turkey strong to save, it was time to face up to the Christmas turkey and another month of leftovers! (We avoid turkey for Christmas, these days – usually settling for Beef Wellington.)

But as for the other traditional side dishes – well, mashed potatoes and gravy are just fine, but bread stuffing just doesn’t warm over well. Baked yams with the usual trimmings of marshmallows and brown sugar are indigestible and sweet, and baked green bean casserole is just disgusting all around. And besides, all of them together are just too heavy, and even worse as leftovers. I don’t like eating myself into a stupor, and then to have rolls and cornbread on the side, and top it off with pumpkin pie…

Nope, just nope and nope again. We’ll serve up mashed potatoes and make giblet gravy with the roasting pan drippings, but for our Thanksgiving sides we’ll do oven-roasted brussels sprouts with red onion and slivers of kielbasa, and corn pudding. Pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust for dessert …

And we’ll go next door to our neighbor, and her niece and her friend from California with all of this. (Our neighbor, of whom we are very fond and have lived next door too since 1995, suffers from declining health. Niece and Friend have settled in to help care for her.) That will certainly take care of the 12-pound turkey that I bought on sale after last Thanksgiving at .99 cents a pound, and stashed on the bottom shelf of the big freezer, against the expected rise of food prices this year. And that’s our plan for next week – yours?

The local HEB was absolutely insane this weekend. We will do our best not to set foot in the place until after the holiday. Yeah, like we say this every year – and still wind up running into the grocery store on Wednesday afternoon …

the notes from the end of That Fateful Lightning, which is now available for pre-release order in Kindle.

Like the story told in my previous series of books, The Adelsverein Trilogy, a lot of the background to this story was new to me. I wasn’t raised in the South, and the ancestors of my one American-born grandparent was a fire-eating abolitionist. Frankly, all I knew about the chattel slavery in the South was what there was contained in generalist history books pertaining to the Civil War and articles in my mothers’ issues of American Heritage. There was nothing much in my store of knowledge about the nuts and bolts of actual practice, as it was in the time in which the first half of this book takes place, so a deep dive into contemporary accounts of travels in the South were required.

Richmond, Virginia, was the second-largest wholesale and retail market in the South: I have tried to describe what Minnie would have seen and experienced in that visit to Shockoe Bottom and create conversations that she would have had with Southerners like Pres Devereaux and Levi Chaffin, Susan Edmonds and with slaves like Hepzibah – all of whom would in real life in that period would have said something like the dialog which I wrote for them. There is a word for readers who will assume that such words are my own thoughts on the matter of chattel slavery, as they are very much counter to contemporary mores. That word is “idiot.” That term also extends to writers who bolt conventional contemporary attitudes onto characters set in another place and time. It is a disservice to readers who honestly want to explore other places, times, and situations, and a grim transgression against the art of building a story, in that it basically puts 21st century characters in unconvincing costumes.

Details are taken from contemporary accounts. Minnie would not have witnessed a slave auction first-hand; so far, all the accounts and pictures that I have found have only men attending the auctions.   For most Southerners, a slave was a luxury good. A first-rate young field hand was worth $1,500-2,000; something on the order of $25,000 to $30,000 in today’s dollars. A slave trained in a particular skill might command an even higher price.

The escape by rail travel of Miss Bonnie Beauchamp and her servant/husband was based on a similar occurrence; that of William and Ellen Craft from Macon, Georgia in 1848. Ellen Craft, who appeared sufficiently white to pass as such, dressed in male clothing, bandages, and spectacles, claiming that injuries prevented her from signing hotel registries and deafness as an excuse to not chat with fellow passengers. They posed a wealthy young planter and his manservant, and gained safety in Philadelphia, Boston and eventually England, after many close calls and fraught moments.

Boston was practically the epicenter of the American abolitionist movement, a movement which roiled the political world in the U.S. for more than two decades, finally culminating in open war. Whether it was slavery, or economics which served as the touchpaper to war is a matter still disputed by historians, but to the real-life contemporaries of Minne Vining, there was no question at all: slavery was the issue.

The existing pre-Civil War US Army was a small one as national armies of the times counted, with a correspondingly tiny medical corp. All of that went out the window when the fighting began. Congress authorized the creation of the Sanitary Commission in June, 1861. The Sanitary Commission served the Union Army much as the combined military medical commands, the Morale, Recreation and Welfare offices and the Red Cross serve our armed forces today.

Although the national leadership of the Commission at the upper levels were male, women made up an extraordinarily large number of mid-level workers, fund-raisers, administrators, nurses, and general support personnel. Being also proud of their contribution, many of those women contributed memoirs written after the war. Those accounts make for stirring reading and I have depended on several of them, especially a memoir left by Rebecca Pomroy to fill out Minnie’s experiences. The account of Minnie’s daily routine at the Columbia College Hospital was taken from Mrs. Pomroy’s memoir. There was a lot of overlap between abolitionists, temperance activists and women’s rights advocates during that period. Many of the best-known women volunteers were active on all three fronts, as well as being friends with each other. Minnie’s friend, Mary Ashton Livermore was one in real life. She also served as reporter and editor for a newspaper which her Universalist minister husband owned.

As related, Mary Jane Bickerdyke was an early volunteer nurse in the western theater. Perhaps we do not realize today how much of a woman’s domestic duties then involved caring for the sick and invalid, before sanitation, sterile surgery, and vaccination for common childhood diseases. Both Mary Bickerdyke and Rebecca Pomroy had cared for invalid husbands for years; they and other volunteer nurses had already done a lot of practical nursing, without the benefit of formal medical training. General Grant endorsed her presence and actions as Union forces advanced down the Mississippi. It was the peppery-tempered General Sherman who responded one of his subordinates complaining about her, demanding that he do something about that ‘damned bossy woman’ by saying, “I can’t – she ranks me.” Mary Bickerdyke was, for all intents and purposes, the head of the Western Army’s medical command. She participated in Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, DC, at General Sherman’s express request.

Mary Jane Safford, the nurse at the Cairo Army hospital when Mrs. Bickerdyke and Minnie arrived, was a real person also – who later studied medicine herself and became a one of the very first female gynecologists to practice in the United States, and a professor of gynecology at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Elizabeth Van Lew of Richmond, Virginia, was indeed a spy for the Union all throughout the war, and upon defeat of the Confederacy, was the first in Richmond to hang the US flag from her house. It has been claimed that one member of her spy ring, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a former slave freed by her family, was placed in the household of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Her spying and philanthropic activities eventually drained her family fortune, and in later life she was supported by the families of former POWs held in Libby Prison during the war.

The character of Colonel Levi Chaffin is based on the experience of General George Henry Thomas, known as “The Rock of Chickamauga” – born in Virginia to a plantation-owning, slave-holding family, but married to a woman from upstate New York. Like Grant and Sherman, he was a graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Mexican War … and he broke with his family in remaining with the Union. His family never forgave him for that disloyalty to his native state. They burned all of his letters, never mentioned his name again, and did not attend his funeral when he died prematurely of a stroke, barely five years after the end of the war. A modest and competent man, he may have been the only Civil War general on either side who never wrote a post-war memoir and burned his private papers.

Finally – this account of the experiences of a 19th century American woman who was not all that unusual as an activist and campaigner for all kinds of causes – fills in or provides a background to certain stories and characters in my other historical novels. Minnie’s deceased younger brother Horace, husband to her dear friend Annabelle, is the bigamous husband of Margaret Becker, of Daughter of Texas and Deep In the Heart. Unknown to Minnie, the unconscious Confederate soldier in her field hospital in the final chapter is Horace Vining’s youngest son, Peter Vining. In the opening chapter of Adelsverein: The Harvesting, Peter Vining returns alone and on foot to his family home in Texas, after the defeat of the Confederacy, and tries to figure out a new life for himself. An octogenarian Minnie herself appears in the first chapters of Sunset and Steel Rails, belatedly providing her grandniece, Sophie Brewer, with the means of escaping Boston and the machinations of her lamentably sociopathic brother. And finally, Minnie’s experiences after the battle at Shiloh are briefly referred to in My Dear Cousin, with Sophie Brewer’s granddaughter Vennie Stoneman as an Army nurse in WWII.

All righty, then – release of That Fateful Lightning is set for 1 December, for Kindle, and shortly thereafter for print! All done, and dusted … and now I can catch my breath with the holidays before picking up work on the next book …

Which most likely will be the next Luna City installation … and maybe begin research for the next historical, which will go into how the Vinings of Boston got involved with the American Revolution, and how Heinrich Becker came to desert the Hessian regiment that brought him to the Americas…

Decisions, decisions….

My daughter and I are off on a binge of watching Christmas movies, as it seems that episodes of Cadfael, starring Derek Jacobi and a cast clad in lamentably Ren-fair costumes, inspire nightmares in Wee Jamie. So to my regret, we ditched Cadfael … honestly, why is it that the top English actors are generally so ordinary, and individual in appearance? Too many American actors look like underwear models, one indistinguishable from the next, peeled out of the same mold…

Anyway, we started with Home Alone, and Home Alone 2 … although I do note that McCauley Culkin was one of those kid actors who did not ‘adult’ well as he grew. But it was sad to look back at the Home Alone franchise from a nostalgic point of view. No interminable wait to go through security at the airport, for example. And once upon a time, my children, it was possible to go straight to the gate to meet someone arriving. And Home Alone 2 was even more of a punch to the nostalgia gut – the top of the World Trade Center tower, shining and silver. The Plaza Hotel, with Donald Trump in a brief bit part, when he was just a flamboyant TV and tabloid celeb with a penchant for dating models … New York City streets without crazies punching out total strangers. No one wearing masks because they feared the Commie Crud. The first Gulf War was over and won, the Russian Iron Curtain had fallen … and oh, things weren’t perfect, by any means … but most of us didn’t fear our local cops and we trusted the professionalism of the FBI. We could be sure that our politicians and national media didn’t hate the guts of half the American population with a white-hot passion, and we were also pretty certain that kids in most public schools were learning the basics, and not being perved on by teachers and bullied by the urban thug element … well, mostly.

Life was pretty good – and we didn’t even know it.

Tag-dah! The cover for That Fateful Lightning has been generated by a writer friend who dabbles in this kind of thing – Thanks to Covers Girl, for this creation, which uses a generated image of a woman, and one of my own photographs as a background! Look for this to be released in ebook and printby the end of November, 2023!