Congratulations to Deb Allmand who won SCAR on last week's blog.
I first introduced my husband's uncle, Robert Toupal, to middle grade historical fiction by giving him Joyce Hostetter's book, BLUE. Since then he's often my first reader when I receive an ARC. A man of definite opinions, I wondered what he would think of EMPTY PLACES (Calkins Creek, 2016) by award winning author, Kathy Cannon Wiechman.
I've heard many of Bob's stories of growing up in East St. Louis in the 30's and 40's, as the son of a shoemaker. Familiar with hard times, the depression, and folks who worked hard, his comments about Kathy's second novel didn't surprise me. "People who haven't been there can hardly believe that's the way it was...Coal miners had a rough way to go."
Writers as Readers
Writers-in-training have certain writing principles drilled into their brains.
- Hook your reader from the start
- Show don't tell
- Choose specific details to show characters and settings
- Employ verbs as your muscle words
- Use imagery and beautiful language to convey your story
Whenever I teach writing, I advocate learning how to write by reading good literature. Let's examine some excerpts from EMPTY PLACES to see what we can learn.
Opening Paragraphs, Specific Details, and Figurative Language
If you'da rode into Harlan County, Kentucky, that June in a shiny new 1932 Packard, you'da seen hickories, oaks, and maples leafed out with the promise of shady places to rest and listen to birdsong.
If you'da got close enough to set in one of them shady spots, you'da heard the chug of engines pulling coal cars that squealed on aged tracks. You'da heard swear-words of miners and seen coal dust that clung to their faces, filled their pores, and caused their lungs to heave out deep, retching coughs.
But even if you'da been close as a tick on a dog, you wouldn'ta heard the secrets each body kept, secrets not even told in whispers--secrets about my mama.
Secrets and gossip spread through coal camps like Smoke Ridge the way a fever does, keeping folks talking. Until new gossip seeps into their lives. Old gossip, like stale bread, is all but forgotten when there's fresh bread to chew on. (p. 7)Are you hooked? I was! Did you get a taste for Harlan County, Kentucky during the 30's? You probably could practically hear the trains chugging through town, feel the cool shade, and sense the whispering gossip. Kathy gets an "A+" for sensory details that pull the reader into the time and place. How many powerhouse verbs do you count in these four paragraphs? As for figurative language, the comparison of gossip to how fever is spread and to stale bread are both masterful. As the story plays out, both fever and stale bread are components in this authentic Appalachian story.
The StoryPretty quickly the reader meets spunky, 13-year-old Adabel Cutler who is trying her darndest to keep her family from falling apart. Adabel's father is a coal miner who drinks too much and fights with her big brother, Pick. Her older sister, Raynelle, wants to marry the grocer's son to help keep food on their table. Her little sister Blissie has a "sweetness that makes folks smile and forgit she's a Cutler." (p. 10). But Adabel's biggest problem is that her mother disappeared seven years ago and Adabel is tormented by the fact that she can't remember her. "Mama was an empty place in my mind." (p. 17)
Like a detective, Adabel's relentless pursuit of the truth propels her through the story and into conversations with her family and neighbors. This dialogue transpires after Pick tells her about how their father sent the children away after their mama disappeared:
"Don't ya remember? When Mama first left, Daddy shunted us young'uns off. Me to Shovel's. Raynelle and Blissie to Granny Cutler's. And you...I cain't recall who he give you to. Was it Jane Louise's mama?"
"I don't recall none of that. I only remember living in the old house with y'all. Till we moved her last year. It's always been us. You, me, Raynelle, Blissie, and Daddy."
"Ya's lucky not to remember ever'thing. Some things is best forgot."
"Ya's wrong, Pick." A mind full of empty places was worse'n the awfulest memories a body could have. (p. 67)
Each conversation leads to the next. Adabel asks Jane Louise's mother:
"But ya recollect Mama leaving?"
"I just recollect how broke-hearted your daddy was. He loved your mama deep."
It was hard to think of Daddy loving anyone deep. (p. 77)With each new conversation, Adabel begins to put together a picture of her past that is different than what she had previously believed.
Not having memories of her mother haunts Adabel. When she finds out the reason for her poor memory she thinks, "Knowing didn't fix the empty places in my head, but having a reason for 'em being there made me feel a heap better about it." (p. 188)
Adabel's new found knowledge gives her courage and strength. I'm not going to spoil the ending for you--I hope you decide to read EMPTY PLACES yourself--but let's just say Adabel's detective work brings healing to her family and leaves the reader feeling hopeful for her future.
EMPTY PLACES will be a great classroom resource for middle school students studying the Depression, coal mining, and the Appalachian area.
In next week's blog, Kathy will answer some questions about the inspiration for this story. I'll pick a winner on April 21 and give away this ARC then. Leave me a comment on this post and I will enter your name. If you leave a comment next week or post this on social media (and let me know what you do!) I'll enter your name accordingly. PLEASE leave me your contact information if you are new to this blog.