A Few Quiet Moments Under a Mattress

On April 24, 1874, after waiting through a nine-year engagement and defying the wishes of her parents, Zee Mimms donned a white silk dress, walked into her sister’s parlor, and stood beside her waiting groom. It might have been a beautiful scene typical of the era—an intimate wedding in a family home, a pretty young woman marrying her handsome cousin.

Zerelda_(Zee)_Mimms_James
The real Zerelda “Zee” James. By Unknown – James Farm Museum, Kearney, Missouri, Public Domain

But before the couple could say “I do,” a warning arrived and the bride found herself whisked from the room and hidden under a feather mattress. The groom, notorious outlaw Jesse James, rushed out of the house and took off on horseback leading pursuing detectives on a wild chase through the woods.

He returned to the house a little more than an hour later and made Zee his wife. With little time to celebrate, the newlyweds dashed off into a future that would involve a lot of evading, some assuming of false identities, a fair amount of heartache, and deep and undeniable love.

I have to assume it’s not easy to love an outlaw. If detectives had crashed my wedding, I might have taken those few quiet moments under the mattress to reconsider the choices that had led to my current predicament. But not Zee.

That’s hard for me to imagine. And thankfully I don’t have to, because author Pat Wahler has done that for me. Her new book, I Am Mrs. Jesse James, is out this week and if you’re a fan of historical fiction like I am, I think you’ll enjoy it. The book tells the story of Zee James, no small task given the scant records the James family left behind, and the little scholarly research that has been focused specifically on her.

I Am Mrs. Jesse James
The fictional Zee James. Also you may recognize the author whose insightful quote graces the cover.

The story of Zee hiding under the mattress comes from the writings of Stella McGown James, daughter-in-law to Zee and Jesse. When I asked Pat to share with me her favorite true story from Zee’s life, this is the one she chose. And rightly so. Just picture it.

Weddings can be stressful events, and brides worry about a lot of things, but being forced into hiding under a mattress is probably not often one of them. Then again, I would guess these days just as few women marry famous outlaws as marry their first cousins. Neither of those options seems very wise. But Zee certainly made her choice with her eyes wide open and her heart full of longing. Her story makes for a delightful read.

Also, if you like historical fiction, and you are looking for a good read, in just SEVEN MORE DAYS my new historical novel, Gentleman of Misfortune (sneak peek here), hits the shelves (mostly metaphorically—you will probably have to order it). By then, you should be just about finished with I Am Mrs. Jesse James.

Coming Soon . . .

In 1913, Marcus Loews, founder of Loew’s Theatres and later the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film studio, hired a young press agent named Nils Granlund to market a vaudeville show called Hanky Panky. Granlund must have turned out to be pretty good at his job because he was soon promoted to publicity manager for all of Loew’s Theatres.

In this position, Granlund used live revues to encourage more interest in some of Loew’s underperforming theaters. Then he thought further outside the box and spliced together some rehearsal footage from the Broadway show The Pleasure Seekers and tacked it onto the end of a film. The viewing audience was intrigued. People whispered furiously to one another to express whether or not they might want to see the play and to ask for their turn with the ultra-large mega-tub of popcorn with extra butter.

buttery movie popcorn
And now I’m wondering how popcorn became so linked to movies. Also I’m a little bit hungry. via Pixabay

Okay, I don’t really know about that last part. The history of movie popcorn is another post. But the point is, the movie trailer was born. And it caught on with other promoters who, eventually moving it to the front end of the film so an audience would suffer through it, used them across the United States and throughout the world.

Of course we see trailers everywhere now. Thanks to the genius of Nils Granlund, trailers make up the first fifteen minutes of any movie-going experience. That’s just about enough time for you and your friends to get through the ultra-large mega-tub of extra buttery popcorn. Don’t worry. It comes with free refills.

Trailers are also some of the most emotionally stirring ads on television, the conversation pieces shared across social media platforms, and the third most watched type of video on the Internet, behind news and I guess maybe those hours-long YouTube productions featuring some guy playing a video game in his mother’s basement.

And though it took nearly a century for it to catch up, the book industry is now making trailers, too. Most aren’t as fancy as the slick media masterpieces made by people who know what they’re doing. Many are created by the authors themselves on shoestring budgets and with no discernible talent for movie-making.

But they serve the same purpose as both that early collection of rehearsal footage slapped together by Nils Granlund and the first glimpses of the most highly anticipated thirty-seventh retelling of the story of Spiderman. They stir in us an emotional response, and spark in us a desire to share in the enthusiasm of an artist who has poured time and energy and heart into his or her art.

So, of course, I made one.

Exactly two weeks from today my novel will make its official entrance into the world. I know that it won’t be for all of you. Every book has its reader and every reader has his or her book. But I hope you’ll watch the trailer I made on a shoestring budget and with no discernible talent for movie-making. If you do find yourself emotionally stirred or mildly interested or even if you just want to show your friends the worst example of a book trailer you’ve ever seen, I hope you’ll share it.

Thanks!

 

A Study in Buttery Bovines

When she was a little girl Caroline Shawk dreamt of being an artist. She painted. She drew. She sculpted childish figures with clay from the creek. By age twelve she had won her first art award for her fine wax flowers. Then in 1862 when she was twenty-two, she married a railroad worker named Samuel Brooks, and that was that.

Except it wasn’t. Within a few years she and her husband had moved to a farm near Helena, Arkansas and, an artist to her core, Caroline found a new medium calling to her. Many of the farm wives around her, in order to better attract customers for their butter, used molds to makes their product into simple decorative shapes. Of course Caroline thought she could do better and she began carving intricate shapes by hand.

It wasn’t long before people started calling her the Butter Lady, and wondering what weird, wonderful artistic butter piece she’d come up with next. Then in 1873, she read King René’s Daughter by Henrik Hertz and was so moved by the character of Iolanthe, she created a sculpture of the blind princess.

Dreaming Iolanthe
Dreaming Iolanthe, A Study in Butter. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In butter.

Dreaming Iolanthe was a masterpiece. It was displayed, on ice, at a gallery in Cincinnati to a great deal of success. Even the New York Times took notice, with one critic writing that “no other American sculptress has made a face of such angelic gentleness as that of Iolanthe.”

Brooks created another version of her Iolanthe that exhibited at the 1876 world’s fair in Philadelphia, where she also participated in public demonstrations of her impressive, albeit kind of weird, skill. The artist went on to create great wonders, exhibiting her butter work in Washington DC and even in Paris. Eventually, she gained enough financial success from butter that she managed to transition to marble, but Caroline Brooks had inspired the imagination of countless (or at least a few) budding young artists, who took the fair circuit by buttery storm. So began the super weird tradition of butter sculptures at state fairs throughout the Midwest.

In the 1980s, another young girl who dreamt of creating her own form of art stood in the dairy building at the Illinois State Fair, her eyes wide as she took in the wondrous site of the traditional annual butter cow sculpture, and asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Can I ride the Ferris wheel now?”

ButterCowside
If you look closely you can see a state fair goer at the window in the background asking himself, “Can I go to the beer tent now?”

And folks, that young girl grew up to write about some of the weirdest things she came across on a weekly blog that was part history, part humor, and now occasionally, part butter.

Growing up in Central Illinois, I went to the state fair almost every year, and without fail, I felt myself drawn to the dairy building, to gaze upon each year’s buttery bovine masterpiece.

I don’t get to attend the fair this year, which is ongoing through this weekend, but I do have several dear friends, including my sister who knows me pretty well, who made sure I saw pictures of this year’s cow.

ButterCowfront
An Illinois State Fair tradition since 1922.

I’m grateful to them. This has been a busy month for me, getting kids ready to head off into a new school year while preparing to launch my own unique art into the world with the release of my debut historical novel September 6th. I don’t know that my book will garner as much attention as the masterful works of the Butter Lady, but maybe someday the New York Times will take notice. A gal can dream, right?

I’d like to say a special thank you to my friend Dee Dee, who graciously agreed to let me share her photography talents on this post so that you, too, don’t have to miss this year’s Illinois State Fair butter cow.

Knight of the Medieval Umbrella

It was at the tail end of August in 1839, after a year of planning and rehearsing, that thirteen valiant knights took to a muddy field near Eglinton Castle in Ayrshire, Scotland, and pretended to joust. Identified by silly names, such as “Knight of the Burning Tower,” “Knight of the Dolphin,” and “Knight of the Saturday Fever” (only one of which I made up), the men were all that remained of the original one hundred and fifty volunteers.

runwayknights
Thus began a long tradition of the very serious portrayal of Medieval knights throughout British culture.

Decked out in their Medieval-est finery, the knights wore period-appropriate armor while battling a torrential downpour and knocking fruit from one another’s helmets with mops and broomsticks. One participant even carried a not-so-medieval umbrella.

The Eglinton Tournament was the project of Archibald Montgomerie, the 13th Earl of Eglinton, who wished to raise interest in the Romanticism of Britain’s past at a time when the Whigs sought to stamp out any idealization of the monarchy.

Thanks to the uncooperative weather, the event was not the success it could have been. Lord Eglinton himself admitted to “the manifold deficiencies in its exhibition,” but the tournament undoubtedly left a lasting impression on the imaginations of the British people. It attracted more than 100,000 period-clad spectators from all walks of life and sparked a surge of Romantic art, Gothic writings, and reenactments of a more chivalrous age, which presumably went a little more smoothly than the Eglinton Tournament. But probably yielded just as much giggling.

Cass River Colonial Reenactment poncho
We attended our reenactment in period-appropriate plastic ponchos.

In fact, this somewhat failed instance of a historical reenactment may have even been an important catalyst in the rise of a kind of quirky, vaguely ridiculous hobby for the most fascinating of amateur historians here in the United States as well.

I attended my first reenactment a few weeks ago as my family and I road tripped our way through Michigan. My youngest son is a connoisseur of all things military history and so when we realized we would be passing through the town of Frankenmuth during the weekend of the Cass River Colonial Encampment, we couldn’t pass it up.

Reenactment Celebration
Huzzah!

And I’m glad we didn’t. Though I can honestly say I have never had a particular desire to see one, I found the whole thing fascinating. It was as wonderfully absurd as I thought it might be, with otherwise regular people camping out using replica 18th century tents and tools, eating Subway sandwiches around the campfire, and loading the muzzles of their muskets with gunpowder poured from plastic packages.

But despite the anachronisms and general goofiness, I found a lot to love. My son wandered the grounds and met the camp physician who offered to balance his humors, talked with General George Washington who attempted to recruit him, and marched to the rhythm of the drum and fife as a friendly British officer invited him to fall in. The re-enactors were kind and knowledgeable and very much aware that they looked a little silly in their wool uniforms on a drizzly, 85-degree afternoon in 2018.

fallen reenactor
Most of the fallen soldiers managed to stumble into the shelter of the covered bridge before breathing their last, but others were especially devoted to their craft. And wearing authentic orange, plastic ear protection.

We watched several demonstrations of military drills, musket firing, and a couple of full battles from two different conflicts in American history. We cheered as the American rebels surged and wrested control of the covered bridge from their British enemies, and we applauded the re-enactors dedicated enough to their craft to play dead in a puddle in the middle of the road. Sure there were manifold deficiencies in the exhibition, but we left better informed and more curious. And maybe giggling just a little.

It’s just 28 days until the publication of Gentleman of Misfortune, my debut historical novel! You can get a peek at a book trailer here: https://www.facebook.com/sangletonwrites/

Fun with Elvis in the Toilet Paper Capital of the World

Between the hours of 1 and 7 am on August 8, 1977, about one week before his death, superstar Elvis Presley rode his favorite roller coaster back to back to back to back. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel a little sick.

I actually love roller coasters, and have since I was a kid, but I have my limits. Given the chance, my younger self could have ridden (and probably did) just about any coaster an easy ten times in a row, though I imagine six hours of mostly continuous riding would have been a bit much even then. At forty (the same age Elvis was in 1977), I’m confident my threshold would now be much lower. I can even admit that within the past few years this coolest of aunts has ridden a few coasters with enthusiastic nieces only to discover that I spent most of the ride contemplating the very real possibility of my own immediate death.

zippinpippin
The kind of coaster that makes you want to gyrate your hips a lot. Apparently.

But there are definitely some coasters I like better than others. I have a strong preference for the hilly, wooden variety, the ones that feel a little rickety, zip down big hills, squeal around the corners, and don’t require a rider to wear a five-point harness. So if I were ever going to ride a coaster for several continuous hours, I would gravitate toward one like Elvis rode.

Summer is winding down around these parts with only a couple weeks now until school starts. This past weekend we got back from our annual summer family road trip and a couple days ago we bought school supplies. It’s time, then, to reflect on the adventures of the season. One of those adventures involved a trip that my youngest son and I took to Green Bay, Wisconsin.

I needed to do a little research and we have family in the area, so the two of us took off to Titletown (also, I recently discovered, known as the Toilet Paper Capitol of the World) to eat some squeaky cheese curds and ride Elvis’s Zippin’ Pippin roller coaster at the Bay Beach Amusement Park.

Elvis Presley
Something tells me this man never kept his hands on the lap bar. Image via Pixabay

In 1977, the Zippin’ Pippin was the coolest ride at Libertyland in Memphis and Presley was a frequent visitor, usually renting out the park to enjoy the ride unmolested by adoring fans. And that’s why he was there between 1 and 7 am, with just a handful of friends and family and plenty of time to give himself what I imagine was probably a terrible bellyache.

One of the oldest wooden coasters operating in the United States, the Pippin, which didn’t start zippin’ until the 70s, was built between 1912 and 1917. It’s 2,865 feet long and travels between 20 and 40 miles per hour, the ride lasting just 90 seconds. Its largest drop is seventy feet, and like most good ol’ wooden coasters, is best enjoyed with your hands in the air and a scream on your lips.

The coaster was dismantled after Libertyland closed in 2005. In 2010, the Toilet Paper Capital of the World purchased and refurbished the ride for $3.8 million. I rode it for a dollar. And it was money well spent. Though I don’t think it’s a six hours in a row kind of good, the Zippin’ Pippin is a pretty good ride. I’d go again. And maybe again. But after that I’d probably have a bellyache.

Also, only 35 days until publication day!

From Amish Ladies to Sexy Vampires: One Mustn’t Judge

In 1860 the world was introduced to George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss, the story of siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver. The book includes some complicated themes of frustrated love and the struggle for acceptance. And not to spoil the story for you a mere 158 years after its publication, but it also ends with tragic deaths. Or something like that. I don’t really know. I’ve never read it. But I’m sure it’s good because it has a bang-up cover.

eliot
Actually I kind of enjoyed Chapter 3. I may go ahead and read the rest.

The reason I mention it is because this Eliot book is the oldest solid reference I’ve been able to find, to the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” In Chapter 3 (the only part of the book I have read, because you, dear reader, are worth the effort) young Maggie’s father defends the choice of reading material to which his daughter has been exposed. He explains that he picked up Daniel Defoe’s History of the Devil because it had such a good binding. The man then goes on to lament, “But it seems one mustn’t judge by th’ outside.”

Versions of the expression pop up once in a while after that, and there’s probably a valid argument that the sentiment is quite a bit older. We pretty much all accept that it’s true, right? Of course the adage doesn’t always apply literally to books, but there’s little doubt that some great books are housed in awful covers and that some truly terrible books are also quite beautiful on the outside.

But as any author attempting to sell a book today can attest, we definitely judge books by their covers. In some ways that can be good. Often with only a glance we know roughly the genre to expect. It would be difficult to mix up the ubiquitous beautiful bonneted woman who invariably advertises a work of Amish fiction with the young seductress in black and red and plenty of gothic flare of a good (?) vampire love story.

Gentleman of Misfortune
A book that is obviously not a vampire romance. Don’t worry, there’s more information coming soon. For now, you can judge it by its cover.

The reading public has certain expectations. Like Mr. Tulliver, they are impressed by good bindings, and sometimes will pick up a book that turns out to be an imperfect fit. As an author facing the rapidly approaching publication date of my first historical novel, I find this to be a little intimidating. Fortunately I’ve been blessed to work with a brilliant artist, who designed a cover that completely thrills me. I hope you’ll like it, too. Or if you don’t care for it, I hope you’ll still give the book a chance, because it seems one mustn’t judge by th’ outside.

Just 49 days until publication! (September 6th)

Attack of the Hons

In 1924 a teacher named Jaime Garí i Poch discovered a curious drawing on a wall in the Cuevas de Araña, or Spider Caves, near Valencia, Spain. The drawing, which is as much as 15,000 years old, depicts a person on a rickety ladder, reaching up to gather honey from a beehive. It’s the oldest indication yet discovered that our ancestors were willing to risk life and limb and anger a swarm of stinging insects just to satisfy their sweet tooths.

Spider Caves honey harvesting
Sketch of Cueva Arana cave painting. By Achillea [GPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
As the second sweetest naturally occurring substance in the world (dates hold the top spot), humans have loved honey maybe as much as Pooh bears do, for millennia. Ancient Egyptians used it in medicines and rituals and, presumably, to feed those late night sugary cravings. The Promised Land in Exodus flows with milk and honey, and in the sexiest book in the Bible, Song of Solomon, the lover’s “lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb” and she has “milk and honey under [her] tongue.”

It’s not a great leap, then, to the use of the word “honey” as a term of endearment, which according to the OED happened around the middle of the 14th century. Honey has long held an important place in the human experience. It’s worth striving for. Kind of like love.

So, enter honey, honey pie, honey bunches, honey bunny, or any other nauseating honey-themed nickname you can dream up. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous hon or hun, depending on whether you are comparing your loved one to a gooey sweet treat or a war-mongering barbarian.

honey bucket
I just don’t recommend calling your loved one a “Honey Bucket.” photo credit: magnetbox Honey Bucket via photopin (license)

And actually, I don’t mind the use of the word as a term of endearment. I have on occasion been known to use it when speaking to my husband or my children (when it can be either hon or hun, depending on the situation). My parents sometimes use it when speaking to me. It’s lovely that they do because it makes me feel treasured by some of the people who matter most in my life.

But when the checker at the grocery store, who is easily half my age, and who I have never met, calls me hon, I don’t like it. This recently happened to me and I posted about it on Facebook, polling the audience as to whether or not the incident should have bothered me.

The post generated a lot of comments, primarily divided along geographical lines. My friends who grew up in the Southern US or who live there now either defended the practice or said it didn’t bother them, while my more Northern friends took the opportunity to join the chorus of complaints. Others suggested that it was acceptable under only some circumstances, like if the person using the term were older, and not a man. It was an interesting string of comments, but I’m not sure I really got an answer to my question.

honey pot
It must be love. Photo via Pixabay.

Should it bother me? I don’t know. I’m generally okay with and appreciate cultural diversity, and as our world shrinks through electronic and economic connectedness, I suppose clashes over minor differences in mannerisms are becoming more common. In the grand scheme of things, this one isn’t so bad. I mean I’m not going to correct the young lady. But I also recognize that I’m allowed to feel what I feel and openly complain about it on social media. Because that’s what we do, right?

Of course it could be worse. Not every language has grabbed on to honey, honey pie, honey bunches, honey bunny, or hon as go to terms of endearment. My husband, who is conversationally fluent in French, refers to me once in a while as his petit chou, a term that apparently sets French hearts to fluttering and literally translates as “little cabbage.” I’m pretty sure if the young lady at the grocery store checkout called me that, I’d go a little war-mongering barbarian on her.

So what do you think, my wider Internet community? Should I have been bothered?