Friday, July 29, 2011

Keeping Hope Alive

On this, the 30th anniversary of Charles' and Di's wedding, I'm going to write about St. Paul's cathedral. My family and I were in London last week, and while there, had a tour of St. Paul's.  I knew of St. Paul's because it was the site of Princess Diana's marriage to Prince Charles on July 29, 1981.  I will always remember the photo of her on the front steps, with the train of her dress cascading down the stairs.   I remember watching her fairy-tale wedding on TV.  Too bad the fairy-tale ended...
It was exciting for me to walk those same stairs, be in that same church.  Here's a picture of some of my family sitting on the steps just to the right of where Diana walked--where the London police are standing in the photo.

Yet even with St. Paul's being the place of Diana's wedding, the piece of history that touched me the most happened forty years earlier.

As we approached St. Paul's, our London guide stopped and had us admire the dome.  It turns out the dome was a beacon of hope for Londoners during World War II. 

London endured "the Blitz", a period of eight months when Hitler bombed the city with the intent of demoralizing its citizenry.  It all started on September 7, 1940, at 4:00 PM.  Unable to invade England, Hitler sent 348 German bombers escorted by 617 fighters to bomb London for two hours.  Then, guided by the fires, another wave flew over and added more destruction.

For 57 consecutive days London was bombed.  The parents of our guide (children at the time) were sent to the country, to safety.

Some of the bombs were explosive, but others were phosphorus bombs that caused fires.  Hundreds of volunteers manned the roof of St. Paul's with the sole job of throwing sand or dirt on those phosphorus bombs when they landed, snuffing them out.  Water would have allowed the phosphorus to spread and burn more.  Each morning, as the citizens of London came out of their hiding places, they looked for the dome of St. Paul's.  If it was standing, they were standing.  England was still standing.  Churchill made saving St. Paul a priority for the morale of England.

The worst day of bombing came on December 29, 1940.  Dozens of fires were put out and a bomb that lodged in the dome fell away, damaging the Stone Gallery, but leaving the dome intact.  Here's a famous photo taken by Herbert Mason, showing St. Paul's rising above the smoke.

I was inspired by the spirit of the Londoners who helped each other get through this awful time.  Over 20,000 died during the raids and 1.5 million homes were damaged or destroyed.  Because of their tenacity and the courage of the British armed services, Hitler's plan was curbed.  He stopped the bombing in May of 1941 and turned his attention to the Russian front.
American Memorial Chapel
and the Roll of Honour

I was also moved by the American Memorial Chapel in the apse of the cathedral. It honors American servicemen and women who died in World War II. It was paid for by donations from British people.  There's a Roll of Honour that contains the names of more than 28,000 Americans who gave their lives in the defense of the United Kingdom in WWII.  Inside its glass case are a pair of gloves.  Each day a page is carefully turned so that every name is seen by the public.  It takes over 14 months to go through the book--and then they start over from page one.  I found this very touching, especially since my father served in the South Pacific in the Air Force for 2.5 years during the war... He's 91 now, and the sacrifice of that generation humbles me.

The Duke of Wellington is buried in St. Paul's, as is Admiral Nelson, and the architect of the church (and many London churches), Sir Christopher Wren. So it's a place of internment, of weddings, of memorials, and honor.  As a newspaper said a few days after the horrible December 29 bombing:  St. Paul's "symbolises the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy: the firmness of Right against Wrong.”

Long may it stand.//Nancy

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Trip of a Lifetime

The Moser gang at Versailles
I've been absent from this blog for a few weeks, but I have a good excuse.  My husband and I took our three grown children and their spouses to Europe for the trip of a lifetime.  We were not disappointed.  Before we left, we made it clear to the kids (ages 26-33) this was not going to be a vacation, but an excursion.  On the road by 7:30 most mornings we shared the glories of Rome, Florence, Venice, Lucerne, Paris, and London.  But even more than that, we shared time.   

St. Peter's in Rome
Away from the duties of our lives back home, we concentrated on each other.  We oohed and ahhed at the majesty of the Sistine Chapel and Versailles, shared laughter as we had a picnic in the grass at the base of the Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day, and marveled at an impromptu Swiss oompa band practicing above a sidewalk cafe in Lucerne as we ate bratwurst.    
Eiffel Tower in Paris

Together we marveled at God's handiwork from our vantage point on top of the Alps at Mt. Pilatus, and at man's ingenuity as we took a fast train under the English channel from Paris to London.  

The Roman Colosseum

We were humbled by history as we saw the tomb of St. Peter, the Roman Colosseum, the actual armor of Henry VIII, and the stunning St. Paul's Cathedral in London where I remember watching Princess Diana get married back when I was a young mother . . . 

On the top of the Alps
in Switzerland
I've been to Europe over a dozen times, but during each trip the history dazzles me and makes me marvel at the course of humankind. And so, over the next few weeks I'm going to share some of those amazing tidbits of history with you.  Not necessarily the big moments in time regarding kingdoms and dynasties, but the personal stories of actual people who lived and struggled, who won and lost.  People who, but for a century or two (and a few thousand miles), shared many of the same feelings and life challenges that we face today.  Theirs are the stories that remained with us as we moved from country to country. 

Marie Antoinette and her children
One such story was brought to our attention through a portrait hanging in the French palace of Versailles. It was a painting of Marie Antoinette and her three children--the last portrait painted of her. Marie was originally named Maria Antonia. She was the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and was married off to Louis XVI of France at the age of fourteen... The shy Maria and the her young husband (only fifteen himself) took years to consummate their marriage. Their lack of a child was the gossip of the continent. People--from royal to the lowest man on the street--knew their personal business and offered opinions. Maria was a naive girl who had not been groomed to be a queen. It took eight years for her to conceive.

Adding to my interest of her, was the revelation that this Marie Antoinette was the same girl I'd written about in my bio-novel Mozart's Sister. As a child Maria Antonia had heard the young Mozart and his sister Nannerl give a recital in her family's palace in Vienna. When five-year-old Wolfgang tripped during the concert, Maria helped him to his feet. The impulsive little Wolfgang kissed her, said he was going to marry her, and then had the gall to climb into the lap of Maria's mother, the empress. That girl was this woman...

At Versailles, as I stood with my own family beside me and looked upon this grown up Maria Antonia--Marie Antoinette--I learned of another family's trip, taken in an attempt to flee France during the chaos and danger of the French Revolution. As the masses of the suffering poor rose up against the decadence of the ruling class, Marie's world of luxury crumbled around her. So she and her husband the king fled with their three children, hoping to escape to monarchy-friendly Montmédy in northeast France. But before they could find freedom they were caught and returned to Paris. All were imprisoned, and Marie and Louis were eventually beheaded by the mobs who demanded satisfaction.

But what of the children in the painting? There is an empty cradle in the background that sorrowfully represents Marie's youngest daughter Sophie who had died during the painting of the portrait, just before her first birthday. The oldest daughter, Marie Therese, standing at her mother's right, was exiled to Austria. She married but was childless. The little boy, Louie Joseph--the heir--died of TB during the tumulutuous political times, and the baby on her mother's lap (Louie Charles) died in prison. And so the Bourbon line of France was destroyed.

Seeing this painting, hearing this story, walking beside my own husband and children, I felt compassion for this queen. This woman. This mother.

It would not be the last time I would count my blessings on this trip . . .

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Most Unsuitable Match

With great joy, I’d like to announce my new release, A Most Unsuitable Match.

The story idea was inspired by visiting a historical site in Nebraska as part of my master’s degree program. The steamboat Bertrand sank in 1865 with more than 250 tons of cargo aboard. Rediscovered (in a field--the Missouri River changed course a lot back then!) in 1968, the cargo was salvaged and is now on display.

When I learned that sisters ages 19 and 17 were on board and saw one of their coats on display (see it on the right), I knew I wanted to tell a story about a young woman's adventure traveling north on the Missouri.

A Most Unsuitable Match follows Fannie Rousseau upriver in 1869 in search of her last living relative. Fannie is from a privileged family and has never encountered ‘rustic’ living. On her journey she meets Samuel Beck, who is headed upriver in search of his run-away sister. Fannie and Samuel are very different people … except in how they can’t seem to stop thinking about each other.

Today I thought I’d invite you to come and play with my imaginary friend, Fannie Rousseau, of St. Charles, Missouri, as I interview her aboard the steamboat Delores on the second day of the two-thousand-plus mile journey north to Fort Benton, Montana.

Miss Rousseau, tell me the most interesting thing about you.

Interesting? I’m not all that different from any other young lady raised to be … just that. A lady. I suppose some would think it interesting that I’ve embarked on this journey. To tell you the truth, I thought it was interesting and brave--until the Delores pulled

away from the levee yesterday. Now I’m thinking it may be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. But I’m here now. At least I have Hannah with me. She thinks travelling by steamer is like flying, it’s so fast. Seeing her excited about the trip helps some. I just hope I don’t live to regret running off like this.

What do you do for fun?

I haven’t had fun in a while. I’ve been in mourning since Mother died a few weeks ago.

What are you afraid of most in life?

Being alone. That’s why I’m here, you know. I’m going to find my Aunt Edith. Two days ago I didn’t even know I had an Aunt Edith. Can you imagine that? A girl my age growing up without knowing her own mother had a twin sister?

What do you want out of life?

I just want to understand why. Why didn’t Mother tell me about Aunt Edith? Why did Mr. Vandekamp—he’s in charge of Papa’s affairs—why did he get so angry when I asked him about her? He forbad me to come on this trip. I let him know that I am of age and he cannot forbid me to do anything. I want answers, and I’m going to find them.Thankfully, Hannah agreed to come with me. I don’t know what I’d do without her.

Do you read? If so, what is your favorite type of book to read?

Oh, I just love Mr. Dickens! Don’t you? I can read his books over and over again and they never grow old.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I’d be more … sure. Of who I am. Of what I should become. I’d be able to look back and accept things without feeling so … lost.

Do you have a pet? If so, what is it and why that pet?

Mother didn’t allow pets. She said they were an unnecessary nuisance. I used to pretend that Minette’s dog, Jake, was mine. They just live next door. Minette’s my best friend. She was happy to share Jake.

If you could travel back in time, where would you go and why?

I’d visit the place Mother grew up in France. Maybe if I saw her as a girl, I’d finally understand … well. That's silly, isn't it. the past isn't going to reveal itself. Unless I force the issue. That's what I'm hoping this trip will do for me. Reveal the past, and help me find a future.


Read the beginning of A Most Unsuitable Match here:

--Stephanie Grace Whitson

Monday, July 11, 2011

Remember the Ladies

As I celebrated the Fourth of July this past weekend (at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival on the banks of the Mississippi River in Davenport, IA), the usual swell of patriotism and thankfulness had me thanking God for the great blessing of being an American. But then, as I thought about blogging today (thanks, Tracie, for inviting me), Abigail Adams’s words came
back to me. In a letter to her husband, John, in March of 1776, Abigail wrote, "I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.

“Remembering the ladies” is a large part of what many women writers do when we create our characters. We remember—and celebrate—the uniqueness that is woman.

I’ve been working on my master’s degree in history, and I think that, by now, the word is out that professors c

an expect Stephanie to always have something to say about the women. But, honestly…too many history texts don’t remember the ladies! Just last week an intensive class on the Bill of Rights made the point that the Constitutional Convention ended up taking months, and that meant that the men involved were away from home for months. The emphasis was on their sacrifice … my thoughts were of the women back home running the farms and family businesses while their husbands were away.

When Abigail wrote John, he and his cohorts were fleshing out a certain document that, when they signed it the following July, would change history for us all. I love the obvious affection that resonates in John’s reply to Abigail’s request. “ … your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented.” (He had no idea!) He goes on to write, “Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems,” and adds further that “in practice, you know we are the subjects.” He further teases Abigail about the “despotism of the petticoat.”

Here’s to the historians and novelists who answer Abigail Adams's call to "remember the ladies."

Recent reads of mine introduced me to Martha Washington via Nancy Moser’s Lady Washington; southern girls during the Great Depression in Elizabeth Musser’sThe Sweetest Thing and Judith Miller’s Amana women in A Place to Belong. My new release A Most Unsuitable Match takes a well-to-do young woman to the end of a steamboat journey and, consequently, to the end of herself in Fort Benton, Montana.

Remember the ladies!!!!

---posted by Stephanie