Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Mozart's Big Sister

Did you know Mozart had an older sister who was just as talented as he was?  But because she was a woman she didn't have a chance to fully utilize her talent.

How sad.

I heard these two facts a few years ago when I was touring Mozart's house in Salzburg, Austria.  Even though I was on tourist overload, I remembered them, and, long story short, ended up writing a biographical novel, Mozart's Sister.

What's a biographical novel--or bio-novel, for short?  In my case, I define them as novels that are factual (as much as I can make them so) but read like a novel.  It's a chance for my ladies-of-history to speak, to tell their life-stories. 

Nannerl Mozart was five years older than her little brother, Wolfgang.  Their father, Leopold, worked for the archbishop in Salzburg, Austria, with the music program at the cathedral. His talent went beyond music, to being able to see talent in others--in his son and daughter.

And so at the age of 5 and 10, Leopold and his wife took their children on a grand musical tour, to Vienna, Paris, London, Holland, Germany... They performed before royalty, in castles and palaces.  Beyond the normal music, they did tricks like playing with a cloth over the keys. The aristocracy of Europe loved them.  Their father readily accepted gifts and payment, though what they'd receive as compensation--and when they'd receive it--was a surprise.

But then . . . they grew.  What was magical as children became less so as adolescents.  Leopold began to lie about their age.  Imagine being a young girl, blossoming into a woman and not being able to take joy in it because because the simple act of growing up annoyed her father and cut into the family income.

While Leopold struggled with money, status, and his own delicate ego, Nannerl was literally left behind.  With money tight, and the children's star waning, their father focused on the son alone.  Even though Nannerl could compose and was an expert at accompanying--without music--there were no women composers, so she was not encouraged.  Women were supposed to take care of the home, get married, and have babies.  He used her talent as long as it made him money, then pushed her aside.

The Mozarts, notice Mrs. Mozart shown in a portrait,
after she died
As for the other woman in the Mozart family? Nannerl and Wolfgang's mother, Maria Anna, was virtually a footnote to history.  She lived, she bore these talented children, but then she died in Paris while being a reluctant chaperone to her teenage son who considered her a bother.

I often think about women in history, and the roles they were forced to play. Not that being a wife and mother isn't admirable (I enjoy both roles!) but to not have any choices . . . that's what I find sad.  Consider your own talents and ambitions.  What if they had no outlet? What if you were discouraged from developing them to their fullest potential?  I wouldn't take that well. Yet if a choice wasn't even an option . . . perhaps it was easier for these women of the past. Their roles were clear.  Today, our roles are the ones that can grow fuzzy and complicated. Perhaps they didn't mind? 
Salzburg, Austria

I think it was hard for Nannerl because she was shown the world and was initially encouraged in her music.  To have all that taken from her would be more painful than never having it at all.

And yet, I do believe she found happiness and fulfillment--though not as she expected. Isn't that often the way?  When one door closes we are usually given the chance to find another path toward our purpose.  Rocky roads are not impassable, they just take an extra dose of determination. 

Read Nannerl's life-story in Mozart's Sister available in eBook and print on Amazon. A new Bonus Edition is available, that includes 50 additional pages of Fact or Fiction, explaining more of the history of Nannerl and her family.  Her father insisted that they keep all their correspondence, so I was often able to use their own words in the telling of the story.  How better to hear a family's history? Also included in the Bonus Edition are extensive Discussion Questions for book clubs. Want to read an excerpt? Click HERE.

If you'd like to read about other women-of history, check out my other bio-novels:  Just Jane (Jane Austen), Washington's Lady (Martha Washington), and How Do I Love Thee?  (Elizabeth Barrett Browning.) //Nancy

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Ultimate Sacrifice

Ice on the wings.

That’s all it took to fell a plane. Thirty-four years ago Florida Flight 90 crashed. Those of you who are over 40 might remember the coverage of the catastrophe on TV. The flight took off in icy conditions, and because of ice of the wings, it couldn’t gain altitude. It crashed into the 14th Street bridge in Washington D.C., breaking apart and sinking into the Potomac.

We watched as only six survivors clung to wreckage amid ice floes in the frigid water. Heroes were born that day. And one died… I’ll get to him later.

Survivors were saved by heroics from the shore, and one bystander, Lenny Skutnik, flung himself the icy water to pull a woman to safety.

And some were saved by a helicopter rescue. Don Usher, the pilot, hovered precariously over the handful of survivors, while his partner, paramedic Gene Windsor, dropped a life line to the victims in the water.  Their bodies nearly frozen, their fingers stiff, they had trouble holding on.

On one occasion, Usher flew so low that one victim was pulled onto the skid of the helicopter. So low that Windsor—standing the on skid to reach her—had his shoes covered with water. Here’s a video.
All this happened while we watched on TV. Horrified. Praying. Spellbound.

And one thing we saw—that has still haunted me these thirty years—was seeing one man repeatedly hand the lifeline to others. Over and over he gave the line away rather than save himself.

And when the others were safe, and the pilot went back for him? He was gone.

His name was Arland D Williams Jr..  He died while offering his fellow passengers--strangers--the greatest sacrifice.

Of the 74 people who died in the plane (and four died on the bridge), all but one died of blunt force trauma.

Only one died of drowning. Arland Williams. Because of that fact, they were able to identify the brave man who gave his life so others might live.

In 1983--the year after the crash--they named the 14th Street bridge the Arland D. Williams Memorial Bridge in his honor.

Here is a story on Mr. Williams.  He also has a Facebook page in his honor.  There is an Arland D. Williams Elementary school in Mattoon, Illinois, and the town has a college scholarship fund in his honor. The Citidel, a military school in South Carolina, has an Arland D. Williams Society, "to recognize Citadel graduates who have distinguished themselves through community service, heroism and bravery."  He also received many posthumous honors. 

That makes me glad.  And humbled. One ordinary man who stepped up, who gave up everything . . . I'm an ordinary woman.  What would I have done in his situation? What would you do? 

I have always been so moved by this event, and in Mr. Williams sacrifice, that I wrote a book inspired by the crash and the rescue: The Seat Beside Me. Although my characters are fictional (in deference to the survivors who are still living) I explored the humanity of the crash.  For it all comes down to this: You’re sitting in a plane, chatting with your seatmate—who is quite an amazing person. But then the plane crashes. They die and you live. Why them? Why you? How can you live with the burden of being a survivor?

Let me tell you, writing the scenes with my characters in the water, writing the scenes from the hero’s point-of-view . . . it was one of the most excruciating and emotional things I’ve ever done.  And because of that, it's the book of my heart.  My heart broke a hundred times while writing it.

I wrote it for the heroes of Flight 90, but also for the heros of  9/11, the heroes before and since, the sung and the unsung.  I wrote it for the men and women who unexpectedly rise to their greatest while helping others.

But above all, I wrote it for Arland. //Nancy