Four historical fiction authors explore and celebrate American womanhood.
Elizabeth Letts, author of Finding Dorothy
In writing Finding Dorothy, I had to imagine what would it have been like to meet Judy Garland in person, as my heroine, Maud Baum, did on the set of The Wizard of Oz in 1939. To write about someone so beloved, so well-known, at first seemed a bit daunting. Luckily, I had a secret source. As it happens, my mother met Judy Garland—not just once, but twice. As a little girl, she visited MGM, and watched up close as Judy Garland rehearsed scenes from The Harvey Girls. Years later, working as a waitress on Nantucket, she encountered Judy again. Every night for a week, Judy and her glamorous entourage came in for lobster dinners while my mom, totally star-struck, carried plates and refilled drinks. On the last night, Judy took note of the shy waitress and beckoned her over, offering her autograph, scribbled on a cocktail napkin.
My mother never forgot those two encounters. She described a Judy Garland who in person was lovely, gracious and fully larger than life. We now understand the high emotional price female movie stars often paid to succeed in a man’s world, and with Judy Garland it’s hard to untangle her incredible legacy from her often tragic life. But in writing Judy, I kept in mind the real flesh-and-blood person my mother encountered. This is the young woman I’ve portrayed in Finding Dorothy—courageous and tough, young and vulnerable, and of course, utterly dazzling.
Margaret Verble, author of Cherokee America
A woman named Cherokee America Rogers inspired my novel, Cherokee America. I’ve been able to locate only one picture of her. In it, her eyes look worried. Her lips are full, but not smiling. Her hair is pulled back into an untidy bun, and her jacket is buttoned up over a blouse and secured at the collar by a large cameo. She’s not looking at the camera, but her hands are folded in front of her. If she sat for this picture as a portrait to last through the ages, she should’ve had a better photographer.
Or maybe not. She was an Indian who dressed as a Victorian. That alone makes her interesting. She was also the widowed mother of several children and ran a large farm. I bet she was uneasy every day, and far too busy to be neat. While researching, I discovered her male relatives—a chief, a governor, generations of warriors and soldier—made it into several history books. But the only words about her were less than a page accompanying that picture. The writer, “Dub” West, describes her as “a small woman . . . who could take care of herself in any matter,” “shrewd,” “legendary” and “a dominant figure.” He also says that because she was “ever going about taking care of the sick” with “almost magic results,” she was universally affectionately called “Aunt Check.” Who would want a woman like that lost to history? Not me.
Stephanie Marie Thornton, author of American Princess
As a history teacher, it boggles my mind to think that Alice Roosevelt, the eldest daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, lived a whopping 96 years and witnessed the administrations of 18 presidents ranging from mustachioed Chester Arthur all the way to peanut-farmer Jimmy Carter. Coming of age at the turn of the 20th century, Alice hosted her debut ball at the White House during her father’s presidency, influenced events like the veto of the League of Nations and enjoyed an open invitation to the executive mansion even after JFK’s administration. She rubbed elbows with Eleanor Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and even Jackie Kennedy! A woman with this sort of Washington insider access is a novelist’s dream, but even more appealing to me was Alice’s rapier wit, which kept everyone in the Capitol on their toes.
Alice, a self-proclaimed hedonist, made me laugh out loud to discover that she kept a needlepoint pillow that read, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” I adored bringing her colorful character to life in scenes of American Princess, especially her early days when she shocked everyone—including her father—by bringing a snake to parties in her handbag. However, older Alice is exactly the tough sort of woman I hope to be 30 years from now—willing to speak her mind and take no prisoners!
Alan Brennert, author of Daughter of Moloka'i
Why do I write historical novels from a woman’s perspective? It’s often the history itself that dictates what voice to use to tell a particular story. Early in my research for Moloka'i (2003), I learned that those with leprosy weren’t just taken from their homes and exiled to Moloka'i—their newborn babies were taken away, too, to prevent them from becoming infected. Many parents never saw their children again. I knew that my protagonist had to be a girl, taken from her family, who would grow up, marry and have her baby taken away. There seemed no more compelling way to frame the whole tragic story, which continues in Daughter of Moloka'i.
Honolulu (2009) sprang from my desire to write about the so-called “glamour days” of Honolulu, the 1920s, but told against the backdrop of the hardscrabble lives of immigrants that made up Hawai'i’s workforce. Then I read about the “Hotel of Sorrows,” from which neighbors could hear the sobbing of women. These were Asian picture brides who were shown photographs of “rich young men in Hawai'i” seeking wives—but after crossing an ocean, discovered that their husbands-to-be were decades older and poor laborers on plantations. These women’s lives formed the sad but perfect prism through which to view Hawai'i’s glamour days.
In my books, I try to tell the truth of these often unexamined lives. But I can’t say I choose these women; more like they choose me.