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.

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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.

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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.

Lots of Running, Impressive Hair, and a Not-Boring Book for Christmas

In 1820, James Fenimore Cooper read aloud to his wife Susan from a boring English novel. At least legend suggests that he thought it was boring and he expressed as much to his wife. She allegedly responded that if he thought he was so clever, he should just write a better book himself.

Cooper accepted the challenge. The result was his first novel, Precaution, a book written in a style similar to the works of Jane Austen, which though widely beloved, probably are found boring by most husbands reading aloud to their wives.

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James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote a book because he was bored before writing some more books because he was kind of good at it. By John Wesley Jarvis, Public Domain

But the book sold okay in England. It was accredited to an anonymous Englishwoman, rather than to the New York man who would go on from that mild success to create the first big fictional American action hero, one that would one day become Daniel Day-Lewis running across the big screen in a distinctly American and probably slightly less boring fashion. To an epic soundtrack I might add.

The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757—published in 1826—became one of the most widely read novels of its day and firmly established James Fenimore Cooper as one of the greats. It’s the second book in the Leatherstockings five-book series that features Natty Bumppo, an American frontiersman raised by Delaware Indians to become a fearless warrior who runs a lot and has super impressive hair.

The series is also often referred to as the first real example of the western genre of literature, the same genre that before too long introduced the world to the heroic card-playing, gun-fighting, whiskey-drinking cowboy who finds himself in the middle of the conflict between Native Americans and settlers, outlaws and hard-working ranchers, or war and a life of farming in peace. Often while wearing an impressively large hat.

It’s a genre that has waxed and waned in popularity through the years and I admit it’s not one I usually gravitate toward. But I did recently read a western novel I liked quite a lot. The book is Guerilla Bride by author J.J. Zerr, who is not an anonymous Englishwoman. And this is a not-boring book.

Guerilla Bride
A not-boring book I enjoyed.

It follows the story of Emerson Sharp, an unlucky young man trying to find his moral compass and a good horse in the border states at the height of the American Civil War. In the process he becomes a talented gambler, fumbles into the war, accidentally becomes an accessory to murder, and falls in love a time or two. And yes he runs a lot, though usually on a horse and with much less impressive hair than Daniel Day-Lewis’s Natty Bumppo.

I don’t know if you like western fiction, or know someone who does, but I enjoyed this one. And you know, Christmas is coming up and books make great gifts. I often hesitate to recommend reads because I’m afraid that if the person I gave a title to ends up not loving the book, I will be judged harshly. Still, I am definitely willing to venture that this is probably not the most boring book you or the western fiction reader on your Christmas list has ever read. And if it is, well then you should write a better one.

By the way, if you happen to have a special someone on your shopping list who enjoys humorous books about history, family life, sheep and experimental rocketry, I may have another not-boring suggestion for you.

No Historical Figures were Harmed in the Writing of this Book: A Review of The Magician’s Lie

On the night of January 19, 1897, illusionist and recent widow Adelaide Herrmann stood before a firing squad at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. In front of a large crowd of people that I imagine were sitting on the edges of their seats, the squad opened fire. When the guns were silent, Herrmann still stood, revealing to the audience that she had successfully caught six bullets and was completely unharmed.

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Famous performers of the simultaneous bullet catch, in which neither has yet died. But they’re not revealing how they do it. photo credit: Penn & Teller via photopin (license)

Not every magician who has performed a version of the bullet catch illusion has been so fortunate. The earliest performance that I could find reference to occurred around 1580, and was accomplished by a French magician who lived long enough afterward to be killed by a disgruntled assistant more than thirty years later. But there have been a fair number (both verifiable and not) of magicians injured and possibly more than a dozen killed in the course of performing the catch.

How exactly the illusion is accomplished I couldn’t tell you (though plenty of people have offered explanations on the Internet) and even Penn and Teller aren’t revealing this one. What is clear to me is that it’s both dangerous and enduring (and quite possibly stupid), as iconic to the illusion performance industry as sawing a woman in half.

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Adelaide Herrmann, the Queen of Magic, levitating, which is not nearly as dangerous as catching a bullet. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What makes Adelaide Herrmann’s performance notable is that this marked her debut as a headlining magician, taking the place of her deceased husband, illusionist Alexander Herrmann who’d been scheduled to perform it. Adelaide never included the illusion in her act again (an indication that she was not stupid), but she went on to become a highly successful illusionist in her own right, performing in Vaudeville circuits until finally retiring in 1928 at the age of seventy-four.

Her long and successful career as the Queen of Magic, highly respected by fellow illusionists, including Harry Houdini (a man who once announced that he would perform the bullet catch and later cancelled the performance citing concerns over the danger), in a field that was (and still is) male dominated, makes her a truly fascinating person in my book. But until recently I’d never heard of her.

And that is why I love to read historical fiction, because sometime I encounter truly interesting people with great stories. I was introduced to the Queen of Magic by the novel The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister. The story follows a fictional young female dancer turned illusionist named Arden at the turn of the century, who possesses a bit of true magical ability as well as a fascination with illusion and a love for the stage.

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Seems like a good week to take a break from the news and read a good book.

 

In the novel, Arden is mentored by Herrmann and eventually takes over her circuit, adding her own flare to the show, including an act in which she (a woman) has the audacity to saw a man in half. When one performance ends in the discovery of a murdered man stuffed inside her equipment, Arden attempts to convince a small town police officer (with plenty of issues of his own) to hear out her story before deciding her fate.

The novel does play with history a little (like by shortening the career span of Adelaide Herrmann) but I don’t think any historical figures were particularly harmed by those choices. All in all, this was a beautiful story, ultimately about the illusions we can create for ourselves, the lies we must believe in order to misunderstand our own predicament, and the very real danger of playing with magic and sometimes catching a bullet.