When Ancestors Come Back to Lend a Helping Hand
Ancestors, forefathers, predecessors, antecedents. These days they seem to be omnipresent on Ancestry.com, Mormon websites, in Ellis Island public records. Yet as individuals, how much time do we take to investigate our own lineage, much less wonder if these cognates from our past have contributed to who we are today? And if indeed we have found out anything about them, can we honestly say their behaviors have helped us now? Not being privy to any of their journals or letters, the answer is probably no. But what if we did have access to their stories?
In my historical fiction/contemporary novel, UNEXPECTED GIFTS, I explore this very idea. My main protagonist, Sonia, a confused, neurotic, forever-choosing-the-wrong-man young psych student, is guided to her family’s trunk up in an attic, where memorabilia, diaries, and journals abound. As the book journeys back and forth from her modern life and that of her parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great great-grandparents, she not only discovers former American eras through their writings, she learns of her relatives’ human frailties and by doing so, develops better coping mechanisms for herself.
As with all historical fiction authors, my joy of scoping out these different time frames far outweighed the tremendous amount of time taken to write this work. Interestingly enough, in doing research for this book, one universal truism continuously stood out: Politics and people have basically not changed over the ages.
A few tidbits:
My 1969 chapters (taken from Sonia’s father’s and mother’s letters):
Documentary film footage about the Vietnam War showed the then Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, couching his words carefully and as we found out later, deceptively. General Westmoreland blustered on about the importance of the war as the American public watched napalm being dropped, villagers scattering, and body bag after body bag of U.S. soldiers hoisted onto transport planes to return home. Viewing these documentaries just after the U.S. had entered Iraq, with Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld reiterating the same sentiments as McNamara, struck me as particularly ironic.
Research on Timothy Leary was fascinating—his ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ philosophy influenced thousands of youths, including his own children. Woodstock’s lineup of top musicians of the time was dazzling while reading Woodstock anecdotes turned up a sad side story that I couldn’t resist using. The same applied to the East Village of New York, where drug use ravaged youngsters, poverty crippled helpless immigrants, and anti-war protests were plotted and advertised in underground newspapers.
My 1950/early 1960’s chapters (taken from Sonia’s grandparents and other side characters)
Tupperware parties. Believe it or not, this was huge back then for Suburban America. Film footage of Ms. Brownie Wise, Mr. Tupperware’s crack salesperson, showed how “better living through chemistry” was tantamount to the Tao way of life. Actual court records from the House of Un-American hearings displayed a cold dismissal of innocent people from all walks of life, not just the entertainment industry. Adding to this mix, accounts of racial discrimination were ever-present not only in the Deep South, but also in nice, clean northern Suburbia where, when push came to shove, niceties fell by the wayside. Harlem lingo waxed poetic, Malcolm X followers soap-boxing on apple crates as a reaction to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in its infancy, and the 1964 Harlem race riots were both self-destructive and frightening. My characters mostly seeing the Beatles not hearing them at Carnegie hall was based on my own frustrating, if not eye-opening, experience.
My 1930’s chapters (taken from Sonia’s great-grandparents and great-aunt)
Research on the Great Depression displayed floods, tornadoes, and gigantic dust clouds of biblical proportions whereas politics seemed to be business as usual. President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor attempted to help the nation, yet big corporations reared their ugly heads and in the south, lynching laws were stronger than ever. The president’s “Fireside Chats” miraculously reached millions of people through radio, and further documentation steered me towards the High Steelers, those daring construction workers who stepped over the Empire State Building’s cross beams as if it were a light stroll through the park. Hobos hopped onto trains ignorant of their many hazards, while dance marathon contestants exhibited a demonic resiliency, proving how human beings could endure almost anything if they were desperate enough.
My 1912-1919 chapters (taken from Sonia’s great great-grandparents)
Henry Ford was a strange dichotomy. Situated in Detroit, the mecca for automobiles, he paid his workers higher than most auto makers of the time, offered English classes to the immigrant men while simultaneously sending a team of social workers to ‘visit’ the employees’ private, tenement apartments to check up on their cleanliness, deportment, and religious proclivities (he was fiercely anti-Semitic).
Across the city and indeed, around the nation, Suffrage groups were steadfastly upholding their struggle towards obtaining an official 19th Amendment: Women’s Right to Vote. Yet by 1916, two diverse, rifting factions had taken hold of this movement. On the one side was the philosophy of the more patient stalwarts Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Carrie Chapman Catt. On the other were the more recent, virulent Alice Stokes Paul and her ilk, determined to protest in front of the White House and suffer through jail and hunger strikes, in an all out war to force the government’s hand.
Something to think about: What if you came across several of your cognates’ diaries? How could they help you in your life?
Publication Date: April 16, 2013 | Mockingbird Lane Press | Formats: eBook, Paperback
Genre: Historical Fiction
Can we learn from our ancestral past? Do our relatives’ behaviors help mold our own? In "Unexpected Gifts," that is precisely what happens to Sonia, a confused college student, heading for addictions and forever choosing the wrong man. Searching for answers, she begins to read her family’s diaries and journals from America’s past: the Vietnam War, Woodstock, and Timothy Leary era; Tupperware parties, McCarthyism, and Black Power; the Great Depression, dance marathons, and Eleanor Roosevelt; the immigrant experience and the Suffragists. Back and forth the book journeys, linking yesteryear with modern life until finally, by understanding her ancestors' hardships and faults, she gains enough clarity to make some right choices.
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Praise for Unexpected Gifts“S.R. Mallery has caught the defining moments in the lives of one working class, upward striving family, as each one of them benefits from and contributes to the growth and setbacks of America itself…A rich and involving book, the author has written a gem. –Dorothy Salisbury Davis, A Gentle Murderer, Lullaby of Murder, The Pale Betrayer, etc.
“S.R. Mallery, with her strong sense of history and deft narrative skills, shows us one American family’s fascinating journey through flashpoints of American history, as a modern day young woman discovers the spirited narratives of her forbears, and is inspired to take charge of her own life…. an impressive, wonderfully thought out and well-told first novel.” –Carla Davidson, former Senior Editor at American Heritage Magazine
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About the AuthorS.R. Mallery has worn various hats in her life.
First, a classical/pop singer/composer, she moved on to the professional world of production art and calligraphy. Next came a long career as an award winning quilt artist/teacher and an ESL/Reading instructor. Her short stories have been published in descant 2008, Snowy Egret, Transcendent Visions, The Storyteller, and Down In the Dirt.
"Unexpected Gifts", her debut novel, is currently available on Amazon. "Sewing Can Be Dangerous and Other Small Threads", her collection of short stories, Jan. 2014, both books by Mockingbird Lane Press.
For more information please visit S.R. Mallery's website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.
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