Karen Witemeyer is one of those authors that you can trust to always deliver a great story, the one whose books you can buy without hesitation. I have yet to meet a Witemeyer story that I didn't thoroughly enjoy. Under the Texas Mistletoe gives readers three great Christmas novellas, one of which, A Texas Christmas Carol, is brand new, never before published, while the other two, An Archer Family Christmas and Gift of the Heart, have been previously published in other novella collections. While two of these novellas have been published before, I've only read one, which was Gift of the Heart, so two of the three stories are new to me.
A Texas Christmas Carol is a fabulous reimagining of the Dicken's classic. I have to admit, I'm not usually a fan of retellings of classic stories as they usually come off too cheesy or poorly executed, but Witemeyer has outdone herself with A Texas Christmas Carol. The story flows naturally, with great nods to the classic while maintaining a fresh and unique feel to it. This is the novella I enjoyed most from this collection. I loved the way Witemeyer created her own Scrooge character, in the handsome but standoffish Evan Beezer, the name itself a fun nod to Dicken's main character. A Texas Christmas Carol is a beautiful story of redemption, as well as finding joy and hope, with a few twists along the way. This is one I plan to revisit during the Christmas season.
An Archer Family Christmas is a festive installment of the Archer Brothers series in which readers familiar with the series get a deeper look into Jim Archer and wife, Cassie's story, which we've seen bits and pieces featured as secondary stories in the other books. Readers learn of the heart break that the couple have endured and how strong of a couple Jim and Cassie are. In An Archer Family Christmas, readers get to celebrate the holiday with the Archers, as well as "watch" a beautiful blessing play out, with some action packed in there as well. I found the novella a delightful and beautiful installment in the series, you really can't get enough of the Archers.
Gift of the Heart was previously published in The Christmas Heirloom novella collection, and is a take on the Bible story of Ruth and Boaz. The story follows widow Ruth Albright and her daughter Naomi as they move to a new town for a fresh start in life. Due to low funds, Ruth ends up using the family brooch as collateral for a loan from the local banker, Bo Azlin. The more she gets to know the kind and generous man behind the stern business man, she hopes for a second chance at love. Another beautiful, well written story under Witemeyer's belt.
Overall, Under the Texas Mistletoe is an enjoyable, festive read, one I'll definitely revisit for the holidays.
This is actually a re-read for me. I read Sarah Smarsh's Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth when it was first released in 2018, and I was honestly on the fence as to whether I liked it or not. The first time around, I enjoyed reading the book and Smarsh's writing style, I also found her overall story interesting enough, but wasn't sure as to whether I agreed with her opinions and politics expressed in the book. Once finished, I placed it on one of my shelves and there it sat for three years, surviving several book overhauls. I couldn't bring myself to pass it along as I did enjoy reading the book and there was a part of me that didn't feel finished with it yet.
Three years later, and I was on a "re-reading spree" when I decided to give Heartland another try. I went into this second reading with a different intention. I wanted to put aside my own beliefs and not get hung up so much on what I disagreed with Smarsh on, and just read what she had to say. I went in with more respect and a desire to understand, and I ended up relating a great deal to her experiences and the emotions tied to them as I also grew up in a lower middle class, rural family.
This time around, I found Heartland fascinating and informative. Smarsh has a writing style that is precise in delivering its message. It flows and is written in such a way that it feels like Smarsh is speaking directly to one person, which may be due to the fact that the book is actually written to an unborn daughter/inner child whom Smarsh has given the name August. I found the approach fascinating, and it made the book more personal. Heartland is written through the lens of a woman who has not only overcome the barriers of poverty and circumstance, but as someone who has broken many dysfunctional family cycles as well. She makes quite a few valid points and provides credible, well-researched information to back them up.
One sentiment in particular that Smarsh shared that I truly related to was that we may have been poor, but we had pride and always tried to look nice and clean, and kept our houses tidy and clean. That's what my family always tried to do, we may not have had a whole lot, but we still had pride in what we did have. People these days have appropriated the country/rural lifestyle, wearing jeans with pre-made holes in them and hats that are merely accessories, and decorating their homes with rustic tools and other "country" items, that real country folk have out of necessity, leaving those who actually live that way of life scratching their heads.
Heartland is often billed as a book about a girl that grew up poor in rural Kansas who rose above it all and "got out", but that's not what this book is really about, and Sarah Smarsh is the first to say this. Her rural home wasn't something to "get out of" or escape. This book isn't about how she rose above it all to be successful, it's about the impact that poverty has had not only on her own life, but also generations of her family. It's about how poverty and the toxic, dysfunctional cycles running through her family lines have impacted her own decisions and actions. Heartland ends up being a fascinating sociological study and an interesting memoir all in one. It was a great read, one I'm glad I gave a second chance to. Sometimes it's not a problem with the book, but rather your own hang ups getting in the way. This book has earned its place on my shelf.
Karen Witemeyer charges out of the gate with the second installment in her Hanger's Horsemen series, The Heart's Charge, which features two heroes and two heroines. That's right, Witemeyer manages to balance four main characters with four different backstories with absolute ease and without making the book feel rushed or too busy. The Heart's Charge follows Horsemen Mark Wallace and Jonah Brooks as they are drawn into a mystery and take on a mission to save missing children. After a forced detour on their way back home from completing a job, Mark and Jonah meet the ladies of Harmony House, a foundling home, one of which is a blast from Mark's past.
Katherine Palmer has dedicated her life to caring for children after refusing Mark Wallace's proposal and breaking his heart in the past. Now, here he is standing in her present and giving her ideas about the future. Katherine's partner in Harmony House, Eliza Southerland, understands how it feels to not fit into society's mold, being illegitimate and mixed race. She's far too serious about her calling to consider a relationship with any man, and finding one that could rise to her expectations would be impossible anyway... Until she finds herself intrigued by taciturn Jonah.
This book is the crossroad where danger meets love. With well written and relatable characters, from the main four to the lovely ragtag bunch of children, and an intriguing plot that will keep you guessing until the end, as well as a little swooning, you won't want to put this one down. Will each couple find a way to work things out and give love a chance? Will the two Horsemen solve the mystery and find the children? As usual with Karen's books, I ended up reading it in one sitting. I'd highly recommend this one, it's such a great and enjoyable read, perfect for a lazy summer day.
I picked up Brandi Carlile's memoir, Broken Horses, out of curiosity more than anything. I have to admit that though I am a fan of Carlile's group, The Highwomen, and her song "The Joke," I am not very familiar with her as an artist. She seemed like an interesting and nice person, and has a killer voice, so I gave her memoir a whirl.
Once I started reading the book, I couldn't put it down. I have to say, Carlile has led quite an interesting life and isn't shy about sharing it. Brandi was born into a musically gifted, poor family on the outskirts of Seattle. Though strange and dysfunctional, her childhood seems to have been just as loving and nurturing. Broken Horses proves Carlile to be smart, interesting, honest, and relatable. She writes in a way that flows and makes the reader feel as though she's telling her life story directly to them over dinner. I learned a great deal about Carlile, her craft, and how her mind works, and left the book with a greater respect for her as a person and an artist. Broken Horses was the first book in a long while that really interested me and engaged me, I found reading it highly enjoyable.
Another year has arrived. 2021 is finally here and 2020 truly is hindsight, but alas the turmoil and troubles of 2020 haven't magically disappeared with the dawning of 2021. With that said, I still feel a renewed sense of hope and anticipation with each New Year, January 1, 2021 is no exception. While last year seemed to be historically bad, bringing a pandemic, civil unrest, and a world that seemed in even more turmoil than usual, for me personally, while it wasn't my best year, 2020 wasn't my worst year either, but rather a fittingly dour end to a rough decade of my life. My greatest hope for 2021 is that it will be the start of a new decade, a new chapter if you will, of my life, one that will bring at least a little peace and balance to the world, and to my own life.
For anyone who may follow this blog or me on my socials, you may have noticed that for the last couple of years, I've been quieter and a bit more scattered in my "public" presence and communication. I haven't posted near as much on this blog or updated the site in general starting in 2019 and even less in 2020. I've struggled the last two or three years with my "presence" on here and keeping the blog's "content" up while struggling with a chronic illness. I am hoping to change that this year. I've learned quite a bit about myself, my capabilities, and what I want out of this blog, and I hope that I can now move forward with this endeavor with new energy and with a better strategy that will allow me to keep this blog updated regularly while also continuing to work on my writing projects, as well as pursuing other interests, all the while maintaining my health and avoiding burnout.
Over the course of the last three years, I've tried different things with this site. I started out maintaining two blogs, a book blog called Modern Jo March and this one (Writing Just In Case), which is my personal blog. This worked for a time, and I truly enjoyed both blogs, especially getting to cover books and interview authors for Modern Jo March. I learned a great deal from that experience, but ultimately found that I just didn't have the time nor the energy to keep up with both. I found myself burned out by 2019, but still struggled along for a bit, posting here and there on Modern Jo March. After a long step back and some reflection on what I truly want out of this website and my "professional" life, I decided that while I did enjoy my work on Modern Jo March, ultimately it wasn't what I wanted to do professionally nor was it serving me enough creatively to warrant the energy that went into it. In January 2020, I finally decided to retire Modern Jo March and place my focus on Writing Just In Case and my other writing projects (to read more about what led me to this decision, click here).
Little did I know that retiring my book blog in January 2020 in order to narrow down the items on my plate and take a breather while I figured out my next step in life would end up being a year long hiatus, with the exception of a few posts. With the pandemic hitting in March of 2020 and the state (and country) going into quarantine lockdown for months, I had the perfect excuse to lay low and go silent, but the truth of the matter is that I just couldn't get my brain to function enough to write or really do anything but the basics of life. I touched on my struggles with Hypersensitivity & Sensory Overload in an early blog post in 2020 ending the post with a rather dreary outlook, totally unsure if I'd ever be able to function normally, let alone write again.
Fast-forward to a year later, and here I am writing again, for better or for worse. When I wrote the post a year ago, I truly couldn't see past the struggles I was dealing with and couldn't see a way that I could make all of this work with my brain being in the state it was in. I could not see a light at the end of a very dark, painful, sometimes numb and fuzzy tunnel. There were long periods of time when my brain felt like it was maxing out just trying to get through the basics of daily life, and honestly, it had me freaked out, so much so that I started exploring other professional avenues. I truly thought that any hope of continuing with my writing was lost. At times I had trouble putting enough words together to make a sentence, let alone write a full piece and have it sound intelligible.
While it may sound dramatic, I felt like my brain was revolting against me and that my world was crumbling around me. Ultimately, it felt like the straw that would break the camel's back. I'd dealt with chronic illness for eight years, all the ups and downs and the unknowns, and through it all I always told myself, "I can deal with whatever this illness throws at me, all the pain and sickness, as long as I still have my mind and creativity." Then the hypersensitivity/sensory overload started and my last stronghold was broken. My brain just couldn't seem to cope anymore. Suddenly, every day little things that I've never noticed became a problem, from lights being too bright to sounds being far too loud. Whole rooms of my house became far too bright to stay in for any length of time, the kitchen with all of its clanking and scraping was a nightmare, people's voices became too intrusive, and the normal day to day "busyness" of a household became too much to bear. More and more I found myself retreating...
Fast-forward to a little over a year after the symptoms first started and here I am, slowly learning to function in a new way. I still struggle, I still overload at times, but I'm getting better at finding my limits and triggers, and not overtaxing myself. More importantly, I'm writing again, probably not as well as I once did, but I'm doing it and enjoying it. That's what truly counts, right? Every time I think I'm through with writing, that I have to give it up, I always end up going back to it. So here I am, moving forward, with a few promising prospects on the horizon and another fresh start. Here's to a new year and a new chapter, may it be more fruitful than the last!
I think it's safe to say that 2020 was a hard and weird year for everyone, and while I in no way want to minimized the difficulty of last year, I also have to acknowledge the lessons it taught me with the help of a Mourning dove couple. 2020 began with my continued struggle with hypersensitivity & sensory overload, which I've addressed in an earlier post and will talk about more in depth in a following post. When this pandemic hit around the second week of March (for my area), I was already having trouble with my writing, and the stress of the pandemic only served to make it worse.
I found that I really had trouble focusing in general. I was all tapped out mentally. As a result, I found myself turning to the manual, rather than the creative. I'd go out and work with my hands, rather than my mind. I seemed incapable of processing thoughts and information properly. So I'd go out and haul brush, do yard work, take walks, and in return, avoid the words and put creativity on hold. Or so I thought...
Monday of the same week my state started shutting down, I noticed a Mourning dove couple in the pine tree right outside my house. I quickly realized that they were in the process of building a nest. As I watched them from day to day, I became enthralled with the little couple. Years ago I took a photography course and got certified, planning to be a photographer. It was my second passion, after writing, and the one I thought would give me the better chance of supporting myself.
Fast-forward to now, I've spent the last ten years pursuing the writing path instead, only just recently realizing that I could pursue both. With all that said, my fascination with the Mourning dove couple is what prompted me to pick up my camera again. At first it was just a way to both distract myself from everything that was going on in the world and to reopen a creative outlet, but it soon turned into a fascination and a way to document the breeding cycle of the couple. I watched the little couple take turns incubating the egg(s). As the days and weeks went by, my excitement and investment grew, and I found myself learning more about peace, patience, and joy along the way.
This may sound cheesy, but watching this couple and seeing them every day brought me so much joy. In a world that seemed so chaotic and uncertain, for a while I had something to look forward to, something that I knew would be there day in and day out. Every morning I'd walk out my front door and look to the right, up into the old spruce tree and there a Mourning dove would be, sitting peacefully on the nest, many times with the other mate not too far away. Throughout the day, as I passed through the yard, and in the evenings as I scanned the horizon for the sunset, I'd look up at the sturdy branch holding that tiny nest, and there it would be with a beautiful dove incubating the eggs.
Watching the little couple taught me that there is so much joy in the small, every day things in life. In fact I believe that the old saying is true, the greatest joys that can be found are indeed in the simple things and the smallest details in life. More importantly, the Mourning dove couple taught me to actively look for joy. Every time I stepped outside, I would find myself looking up at the nest, and then looking around for the other dove mate. I soon found myself looking for other birds and delights around me, and seeing them as if for the first time. I grew up with birds all around the property and woods, but 2020 was the first time I really SAW them because I was actively looking for them, and now, I have a new hobby that I greatly enjoy... Birding.
Mourning doves are said to be a sign of peace and while I can't speak to any supernatural ability to bring peace to the world, I can attest to the fact that one pair of doves certainly brought me peace during an uncertain time in life. Not only did they bring me peace just seeing the gentle little feathered creatures go about their daily lives, they also taught me about finding and keeping my own peace. They seem to know a thing or two about holding onto their peace, even when the world around them is chaotic.
I recall a severe thunder storm that moved through the area while the couple were still incubating the eggs. It was night, around 9pm, and the wind was really whipping. I was a nervous wreck, worrying about mother (who takes the afternoon through night shift of incubating) and nest making it through the storm in one piece. The nest was so small and flimsy, at least to my eyes, and the bird delicate. Surely the bird wouldn't be able to hold her position against the wind and what would happen to nest and eggs when she was blown away?
I kept running outside during the night, throughout the storm, checking on bird and nest, to make sure they were still there. After several trips outside, checking on their status, I was watching the mother bird from the steps of my porch when a realization dawned on me. I watched her sit there serenely, as if it was a perfectly peaceful, still night. She didn't seem at all concerned about the winds and storm. She showed no signs of distress at all. Even in the chaos of the storm, she was at peace.
I was reminded that God's creatures never worry about what will happen to them, they go about their lives quite peacefully for the most part, no matter what havoc the world is wreaking. Maybe her trust is in the One that created her? Her composure during the storm reminded me that my peace doesn't come from an outside source, but from within. For me, my peace comes from my faith and trust in my Creator. I just needed help remembering that...
They say patience is a virtue, one that I thought I already had well in hand, but I soon learned that I hadn't quite mastered it yet. Watching the Mourning dove couple incubate their eggs and raise their young reminded me that most good things in life require patience and waiting. As the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes, "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the sun." We spend a great deal of our lives waiting, whether it is actively waiting while we work towards a goal or passively waiting, when we're not sure what to do or when there's nothing to do but wait it out. One thing I learned as I watched and waited to see the doves' young ultimately take flight and leave the nest, is that there's beauty in waiting.
Instead of wanting to rush through the process like I'm usually inclined to do, I savored the waiting. I became so fascinated watching the doves incubate, hatch, and raise their young, and enjoyed photographing them every day that I forgot to rush the waiting. I learned that there's so much joy and beauty in having the patience to see a process or season of life through. From building the nest through to the young doves leaving the nest took about 6-8 weeks total, well over a month. It certainly didn't happen overnight, but then, most things in life don't, do they? That's where patience comes in, and in this case as with many others, I'm glad I stuck it out and had the patience to see it through. It serves as a reminder to me whenever I want to pull the plug on something simply because things aren't happening as quickly as I want them to.
Mourning doves are my favorite birds, from their graceful and peaceful appearance to their beautiful call, I can't get enough of them. I am so thankful that several of them have chosen my yard for their home territory, but one couple and their March 2020 babies will always hold a particularly special place in my heart. I saw the couple build their nest, incubate their two eggs, and then caught sight of their two babies. They've given me some really cool and beautiful moments. Have you ever seen two babies birds hatch out of their eggs? Have you ever watched their parents feed them? Have you ever seen a bird take its first flight?
I had the privilege and felt so incredibly fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to catch the young birds take their very first little flight, testing their wings around the nest and neighboring branches, and the incredible experience of watching them take their first big flight across the yard to another spruce tree. With that incredibly beautiful experience, came the realization that a special season of life was coming to an end. It wasn't too long after that flight across the yard that I no longer saw the young birds. Sure I saw Mourning doves, there are still plenty around, but I would have no way of knowing whether "my doves" were in the mix.
The first few days of no longer seeing the young doves found me feeling what I can only describe as grief, even if it sounds ridiculous. I missed seeing them all the time and more importantly, I worried about how they were doing. I could no longer track their progress the way I did those 6 to 8 weeks. I mourned the loss of that special experience and of seeing those babies and their parents every day. One day, as I was walking around the yard feeling rather blue about about the loss of my feathered friends, I realized that while I mourned their loss, my mourning was because they had made it to adulthood. They were able to grow into beautiful adults. It was like a coin, on one side was my mourning the loss of their presence and on the other side was their joy of maturing and living their own little lives.
So remember this: There is joy all around us in life, we just need to learn how to look for it. Our peace shouldn't rely on any outside source, instead it should come from within, no matter how stormy life gets, and good things come to those who have the patience to wait for them, be it actively or passively. But above all, remember that there truly is beauty in the mourning, both the dove and the emotion.
I wanted to bring a bit more of what I used to feature on the now retired Modern Jo March, the book blog that I maintained for a few years, to Writing Just In Case, so I've decided to do a weekly throwback feature called "Throwback to MJM Blog". Each week I will publish a feature/piece from Modern Jo March that I am particularly proud of in an effort to consolidate my writing into Writing Just In Case. If you are curious and want a fuller view of what Modern Jo March was all about, feel free to check it out in the Archives section!
Up first is an interview I conducted with bestselling author, James Donovan, which I consider one of my proudest moments as a writer to date. I originally published this on MJM in April of 2018.
I had the privilege of talking with bestselling author James Donovan about his excellent book, The Blood of Heroes. After reading The Blood of Heroes last month, I really wanted to sit down and discuss it with the author himself, and Mr. Donovan was gracious enough to agree. We discussed his research process, the writing process for the book, and the importance of separating fact and legend.
MJM: I’m wondering what originally drew you to the Alamo? Did you have an interest in it before writing The Blood of Heroes or were you prompted to write about its history in some other way?
Donovan: My previous book was A Terrible Glory, about the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Little, Brown, 2008). That sold well, so my editor wanted to know if I had any ideas about a follow-up along the same lines. I live in Dallas, and I said, “Well, there’s this well-known battle that happened here in Texas a few decades before that one . . .” He loved the idea, and thought it a perfect follow-up.
MJM: I can tell by reading through your Notes and Bibliography sections that a great deal of time, work, and effort went into the research behind the book. How long did the research process take? What did your research process look like? (How did you determine where to start? How did you go about gathering and organizing the information needed?)
Donovan: A Terrible Glory had required a lot of travel to do it right—to many collections at various universities and archives around the country, as well as a few trips to the National Archives. Since the Alamo story did not involve federal archives—Texas wasn’t a part of the U.S. at the time—I thought the research would be more easily handled. In a way it was, since it didn’t involve much air travel. But for about 18 months, I was on the road to San Antonio, Austin, Houston, and other Texas places about every other weekend. A lot of driving and of course that involved delving into lots of collections and archives, and reading old manuscripts, letters, newspapers, etc. That part of it is actually the most enjoyable for me—it’s the closest thing to time travel. But before I do that, I read several broad, comprehensive histories, to get a good feel of the subject and the era, and then I start living in the bibliographies of those books and making lists of their sources. The point is to go back further and further until you’re reading every primary source (written by participants or observers) available. That’s how you get the closest to the truth of what happened. It’s also the only way you’ll find anything new. Most writers don’t dig too deep, but there’s almost always unused material if you dig deep enough. All of that, the background reading and the archival research, took about three years.
MJM: That’s a fascinating process. Wow, three years! I think you have to be dedicated to and passionate about the project to undertake such a task. I also love the researching part of a project. It’s the most enjoyable part for me.
Donovan: I’ve got a full-time job and I also had a young daughter to raise while writing that book, so I did most of my work—outside of the travel—at night and on the weekends.
MJM: I think that’s the picture of dedication right there.
The book’s layout is perfect. The chapters flow and weave into one another beautifully. Each of the key players in the siege of the Alamo receive at least a chapter to themselves. I wondered how you decided on the layout of the book. The Blood of Heroes covers a great deal of ground, both the history surrounding the Alamo and the lives of the people involved in the fight for Texas’ Independence. With such a big undertaking as this one, how did you decide on where to start?
Donovan: Thanks for the compliments. I never jump into the actual event immediately—I think it makes more sense, and the reader will have a much better understanding, if you show how it got to that point, and put it all in context. So with the Alamo, you’ve got to go back to the earliest days of Texas, and discuss its relationship with Mexico, and even Spain. Of course, doing that without sounding like a history textbook is the hard part, because no one reads history textbooks for enjoyment. Whenever possible, I try to focus on the human side of whatever aspect I’m tackling at the time, because if I’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s that people like to read about people. I take it a chapter at a time, and I spend a lot of time deciding how to open a chapter, because I see that as the key to letting a reader into the story in that section. If at all possible, I like to start a chapter talking about a person. That draws the reader in. Then, when you’ve got them interested, you can segue to something else. But of course you can’t make up a single thing, or pretend to know what’s going on inside a character’s head unless that’s known through an account or interview. It’s not easy—probably the hardest part of the process.
MJM: That approach makes sense and as a reader, I thought it worked very well. It’s true that you understand more if you’ve spent a good part of the book reading about all of the events leading up to the siege. Basing it around people rather than the events themselves helps the reader get more invested in the book. You get a feel for these people and develop a better understanding of their mindset.
Donovan: You hope so, anyway.
MJM: You handled the scene of the final battle for the Alamo beautifully. I would imagine that writing that particular scene was a rather daunting task. There’s not a whole lot of information available on the details of that battle. Not to mention the conflicting information and theories surrounding that final battle, Crockett and Bowie’s deaths in particular come to mind. What was your mindset going into writing that particular scene? What were some of your concerns, if any, in handling that scene?
Donovan: You’re a sharp reader. Yes, it was difficult, because we don’t know so many details of what exactly happened to specific people. Any book or story is more satisfying when the main characters are involved in the climax. When that information isn’t known, the writer has to work harder to involve, and to emotionally invest, the reader. But one thing I don’t do—and this is a mistake that too many writers of history make—is stop in the middle of a scene and discuss various theories or conflicting accounts. I call it the Battle of the Footnotes, and if you’re trying to tell the story dramatically, it brings the proceedings to a screeching halt. I’m not saying there aren’t good books that do that, but for a popular history, it’s dangerous. You risk losing your reader. I prefer to write the story based on my conclusions as to the most likely scenario after much deliberation, and discuss that in the endnotes (few publishers use actual footnotes anymore). So in the climactic battle scene involving the predawn assault, I tried to write it as dramatically as possible and as accurately as possible. It was frustrating not to be able to write more about the three main characters, and other prominent ones, because I know the reader also wants to know what happened to them.
MJM: I agree. You handled it beautifully. When reading your depiction of the final battle, I couldn’t help but feel emotionally invested in these people. I knew what the outcome was going to be already, obviously, but I still found myself rooting for them and feeling a sense of pride at their show of bravery and courage. When you recounted De la Peña’s account (on page 286) about admiring “one robust blonde norteamericano as he fired, ran back a few steps while loading, turned, and fired again, until he finally fell,” I could almost feel my heart swell with pride for who we assume was David Crockett in his final moments.
I appreciated the fact that you went with the account/belief that David Crockett died in battle as opposed to surrendering and being executed afterward. You explain your reasoning behind using this account on page 446 in the Notes section of the book, ultimately stating that there is very little evidence to support the “execution scenario”, due to all accounts pointing to that theory having major credibility issues. Your explanation of Crockett’s death, which spans 4 pages front and back, demonstrates the fact that you thoroughly researched the subject and gave it an enormous amount of thought, before going with the “died in battle” account. Have you received backlash for your stance?
Donovan: Yes, that’s the longest endnote in my book. As you point out, I think it’s unlikely that Crockett was one of the prisoners taken alive and executed. There’s certainly not enough evidence to write it as history. There’s been some backlash, but not much. The most interesting was probably the review in an academic periodical, the Southwest Historical Quarterly, by James Crisp, author of Sleuthing the Alamo, whose Alamo celebrity is largely based on espousing the Crockett execution theory. He spent most of the review criticizing my rejection of that theory and the “eyewitness” accounts supporting it, and distorted or misread one of my points. But that comes with the territory, I suppose.
MJM: I was put off by Crisp’ Sleuthing the Alamo. It seemed to me that he was more concerned with pushing and proving his own agenda and bias toward racial equality than digging deep and getting down to the bare bones of the historical record. I also read his review of The Blood of Heroes and to put it simply, it seems to contain an undertone of sour grapes. On the surface, readers may see a man complimenting you on certain aspects of the book, but if you dig deeper, it really seems like he’s whining over the fact that you didn’t side with him (and Kilgore for that matter) on the circumstances of Crockett’s death. Personally, in my humble opinion, I think The Blood of Heroes is far superior in its research, content, and writing style than Sleuthing the Alamo.
Donovan: There’s also the bias that academic historians have against those without doctorates, which is unwarranted. Historians have performed tremendous research in every area of history, and written countless excellent books, but an academic often view them as trespassers in their area of expertise. Crisp, by the way, wrote much of an expanded edition of Dan Kilgore’s book How Did Davy Die?, which of course supports the Crockett execution theory.
MJM: Why do you think people are so fascinated with David Crockett and his death, as opposed to the other key players in the Alamo. I mean, if you take a look at the facts and information on hand, Crockett was actually a small player in the events leading up to the siege of the Alamo and the siege itself, as compared to say Travis or Bowie or Seguín. So why then are we so enamored with Crockett and his death?
Donovan: Crockett was a fascinating character, and he was also one of our first folk heroes. Larger-than-life legends like him who are involved in last stands have to be the last man standing—think about cultural representations of Roland, and Custer, and many others. When there’s a mystery about such a death, myth rushes in to fill the void.
MJM: A quote by legendary director John Ford comes to mind, it was usually his motto when tackling a project where history and legend intersected: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Donovan: Right. I think it’s an innate human tendency, something to do with refusing to accept an ordinary death for a well-known personage.
MJM: What does the process of separating fact and legend look like and mean for you in regards to writing The Blood of Heroes?
Donovan: It’s a large and important part of the process. The farther back you go in history, the less accurate things are, obviously, and the more time you spend weighing all the evidence in primary sources to decide what exactly happened. You’ve always got to keep in mind the three basic tenets of good popular history writing, as laid down by the great historian Samuel Eliot Morison: objectivity, vigor, and accuracy. I’d add a fourth: exhaustive research. You’ve got to constantly remind yourself to be objective, because even the best historians can slip into subjectivity without realizing it—a classic example is the biographer who falls in love with her subject. Another example is the historian who enters into research on a subject with preconceived notions or conclusions, and uses sources selectively—citing those that support his theory and ignoring those that don’t.
MJM: When writing the book, were you at all concerned about the reception it would receive?
Donovan: I never gave it a thought. You can’t, otherwise you’re allowing that to influence what you write. Besides, it’ll just drive you crazy, because you can’t please everyone.
MJM: Are you currently working on another project/book?
Donovan: I recently finished a book about the Space Race and Apollo 11 entitled Shoot for the Moon. It’ll be published sometime next year. I haven’t even thought of another project—I’m just catching up on reading for enjoyment, which I can’t do much of while I’m working on a book.
MJM: Just one more question before I let you off the hook. I’ve spoken to quite a few authors and their stories about how they first got into writing are all quite different. Some of them have loved to write from an early age, others developed the passion later on. According to your bio on your website, you have been a literary agent since 1993. So you were within the “industry” already. I’m wondering, how did you come to be an author? Have you always enjoyed writing?
Donovan: I’m sure my answer is similar to those of most other writers. I’ve loved the written word since my mother read her favorite poems—many of them story poems like “Casabianca” and “The Highwayman” and “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight” and others—to me and my siblings. I read voraciously after my mother bought me a copy of Tarzan of the Apes when I was nine. I wrote various things as I grew older, and in high school I wrote for and edited the school newspaper. But after that I didn’t think about writing until I became a book editor, and then a literary agent. I wrote a couple of small books—one about Dallas, where I live, and one about the Dallas Cowboys—and I was looking for something bigger. One of my authors—he had written several good history books—wanted to do a coffee table book on Custer and the Little Bighorn, but he was busy finishing something else, so he asked me if I wanted to do it with him. I said yes, and got started researching, and then writing. He never found the time to work on the book, so I finished it and sold it. That led to my first book with Little, Brown, A Terrible Glory. So there you are: from Tarzan to Custer and Crockett and now to Neil Armstrong. Makes perfect sense, right?
MJM: That’s interesting. Each author has their own unique story of how they came to be in their profession. I’ve spoken to several authors who said that they were never interested in writing or reading when they were younger. It wasn’t until they got older that they developed the passion. One even said that the only reason they became a writer was to help pay bills, nothing more.
It does make perfect sense in a poetic sort of way. All four “characters” share the same quality. It’s the one that pushes them to press forward into the “wild”, unseen, untamed world. I can see the connection.
Donovan: A few years ago when I told a New York book editor about the new book I was working on--Shoot for the Moon—he said, “Another book on the same theme.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Men on the frontier.” He was right.
For July, I decided to dig into three new-to-me books, two of them being fairly new releases, with all three being quite different from each other. I took my time, savoring and processing each book, something that I've focused on this year as I used to just devour books quickly. My new motto for my reading life is quality over quantity, and these three books are definitely quality reads.
My first read for July was World War II veteran, John Henry Meller's The Boy With Only One Shoe, his memoir about serving with the Royal Air Force Bomber Command. While the memoir places the main focus on Meller's service during WWII, this book is written like an autobiography in which, with the help of his daughter Caroline Brownbill, Meller also details his early family and school life, as well as his courtship and marriage to his wartime sweetheart. I was impressed with not only Meller's willingness to share his wartime memories, but also his honesty when discussing the emotions and thoughts that he experienced during that time.
It was interesting reading the point of view of not only someone who served during the war, but that from a soldier serving in a war that was taking place in his own country. I've read quite a few WWII books, but all from soldiers whose home country was not the battleground, so for me, this memoir had an added depth to it because of the fact that he was British and discussed how he felt seeing his country ravaged by war. Meller is engaging and respectful in the telling of his life story, being vigilant in giving credit where credit was due and pointing to the people who had shaped and helped him along the way. I was deeply impressed with the fact that Meller made a point of acknowledging both the USA's and women's role in the war effort and its outcome.
This memoir is an interesting read for anyone interested in a military member's first hand memories of the war, as well as pleasantly delightful for reading it feels as though you're sitting down in a comfy chair one on one with Meller as he looks back on his life. While I thoroughly enjoyed the whole book, especially the details of Meller's service in the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, I think I most enjoyed the little antidotes and photographs sprinkled throughout the memoir, like the schoolboy prayer that Meller would recite to himself when flying on missions to comfort and calm himself, shared at the end of chapter 17. I found them touching and relatable. The Boy With Only One Shoe is one of the best books that I have read in a long while, a definite must read.
The second book I read in July was Lauren Graham's delightful memoir, Talking As Fast As I Can. I've been a fan of Gilmore Girls since it first aired and love Lauren, so I was so incredibly pleased to find that she's just as likable, relatable, and funny in real life as she was on the show. This book is a fast, easy read due to its very conversational structure. Graham details her life with wit and down-to-earth charm, gives behind the scenes commentary on the Gilmore Girls show broken down by each season, and shares notes from her diary from her time filming the Gilmore Girls reboot. If you're looking for a pleasant, witty memoir, Talking As Fast As I Can is the perfect book.
To round out the month, I picked up Regina Jennings' The Major's Daughter, an enjoyable historical fiction novel that rounds out Jennings' Fort Reno series. I enjoyed the first three books in the series, so I was excited to finally read this one, which was released the later part of last year. The Major's Daughter is a pleasant, quick read, though in my opinion, it's not as strong as the other three in the series. I didn't really care for the heroine in this book (Caroline), she seemed a bit too self-absorbed for my liking and I found myself growing more frustrated with her as the book went on. With that said, I still found the book to be overall enjoyable, and a nice change of pace after two nonfiction reads, and I'd certainly recommend Jennings' Fort Reno series as a whole.
And with that, it's on to a new month with plenty of books waiting to be read.... ;)
Wandering and floating
here and there,
my presence in life
is like smoke in the air.
I'm not a memorable face,
leaving the briefest trace,
I drift in and out as I please
carried faintly on a breeze,
blink and I won't be there,
like smoke in the air.
Though I may seem approachable and transparent,
it'll soon become quite apparent
that what you see, you can not snare,
much like smoke in the air.
Is it just me or do the months seem to be flying by? I managed to read four books for June, though I'm still coming to terms with the fact that I can't seem to process nearly as many books as I used to. As you can see by the picture above, I read two physical books, but I also read one on my kindle and listened to another on Audible! The audio book was my first time using Audible and I have to say, I liked it. Definitely opens up another, more accessible way to consume books.
As June marked the anniversary of D-Day, I decided to pick up a book that had been sitting on my shelf, unread for quite some time. George Wilson's If You Survive is a World War Two memoir that takes the reader through Wilson's service during the war, detailing events, as well as his thoughts and emotions surrounding them. I found Wilson's approach to his memoir candid, honest, and raw. He doesn't sugar coat or glorify what he and the men he served with went through. Overall, I found it an interesting and eye-opening account of some of the events and battles of World War Two, and what the men who fought in it experienced, from a man who was actually there and lived to tell.
As I mentioned before, I also had my first Audible experience this month. I signed up for a free trial and listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, as I have decided to make a deliberate effort to read more books by People of Color. The author himself narrates the book, which I believe adds to the listening experience. I found the book interesting and enlightening. It opened my mind and exposed me to a different perspective and different beliefs. While I may not have agreed with some of what was said in the book, I realize that it wasn't important whether I agreed with the message or not. What was important was that I heard it. I believe it is important to expose yourself to differing cultures, views, and beliefs, even if it makes you uncomfortable, to gain a better understanding of what makes people who they are.
The third book I wanted to discuss here is Chess Britt's Seek To Be Wise. I received an advanced copy from GreenLeaf Book Group for the purpose of reviewing it ahead of its release on July 7th. Overall, the book was a quick, easy read with some good commonsense advice and inspiring quotes. As Britt states in the book, "Wise people understand that it is the simple things in life that are extraordinary," and that "the potential for finding wisdom is unlimited."
My only criticism is the issue of not citing others' words and works that Britt used within the book. In the forward, Britt is upfront about it, explaining, "I will give no credit for quotes or ideas," reasoning that "nobody's ego needs to be stroked." To be honest, I found that to be lazy writing, as well as unprofessional. We are taught throughout school (and life) to do the work of researching and citing work/words that are not our own, otherwise it is plagiarism at best, theft at worst.
The majority of the errors and missing citations are easy google searches, so I'm not sure what the real issue was. Honestly, this glaring issue got in the way of my giving the book more than a 3 star review. As a writer (I use that term in the loosest sense of the word) myself, I can't imagine including other people's words and works in my own work without giving proper credit/citation. I can only imagine how I would feel if someone were to claim my work as their own, which is essentially what you're doing any time you use another person's work without citing it. Other than the citing issue, Seek To Be Wise is an enjoyable, worthwhile read.
Born and raised in Upstate NY, Liz is a freelance writer. She has written for websites, blogs, and magazines for the last 10 years. She also acts as a proofreader and beta reader for several authors, all the while working on her first book.