A Somewhat Subdued Book Launch

This has been a difficult week in the household of practical history. My sweet mother-in-law passed away after a long health struggle. It’s been an emotional time of grieving and planning and hosting, and it has not been a week for posting or commenting. I am sorry about that, and I am working to catch up.

In general, I would suggest that one might wish to avoid big, emotionally difficult life events when launching a book.  Of course, since big, emotionally difficult life events are rarely planned, here we are. Because the other thing that happened this week is that my third historical novel launched into the world.

I had originally planned to post that announcement accompanied by some interesting history, a little whimsy, and much fanfare. Instead, I’m just going to post the prologue of the book. If you get to the end of the prologue and you would like to keep reading, you can get the book here: mybook.to/PurchaseOnAmazon or here: https://books2read.com/u/31KjGw I would also really appreciate that if you are on Goodreads and feel so compelled, you go ahead and mark it as “Want to Read”: https://bit.ly/3osuNGV. And, of course, reviews are an author’s best friend. Thanks!

Prologue

August 13, 1837

Even the buzz of the insects hushed as the final preacher of the Sabbath day stepped onto the stage to claim the pulpit. It was this man they’d come to see—the farmers and the merchants, the ladies in their finest silks, the young lawyer who, at the request of his friends, had left piles of work in his office six miles away in Springfield only to hear the renowned speaker.

Peter Akers didn’t disappoint. He was a giant of a man. More than six feet tall and broad with long limbs and large hands that animated his speech, he loomed above the crowd. They leaned into his words in the slick heat of the Illinois summer.

He began his sermon with a text from Zechariah 9:9: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold thy King cometh unto thee. Akers favored the Old Testament prophets, often preaching from these strange and ancient texts sometimes for hours, diving without hesitation into high-minded allegory and apocalyptic language, inviting his congregation to ascend with him to new intellectual heights.

Also, this happened.
#1 New Release in one fairly obscure category on Amazon. But that’s something. I think.

His were not the emotionally exhilarating sermons of his col­leagues. He neither condemned nor flattered. His words did not in­spire the quaking and contorting otherwise common at camp meeting revivals, yet he held his audience rapt and eager.

Like Jacob of old, Akers wrestled with God, and all who listened came away changed. His sermon danced among the words of God’s prophets, from Zechariah to Isaiah, from Ezekiel’s proclamations of the unrighteous overturned, to the book of Revelation and Baby­lon’s inevitable fall.

And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise anymore: the merchandise of silver and gold and precious stone, of wine and oil and fine flour, of sheep and horses and chariots and slaves and the souls of men.

Akers paused here, his eyes raised to heaven and at the same time locked into the hearts of each silent person awaiting the forth­coming conclusion, breaths held in anticipation.

“If we interpret the prophecies of this Book correctly. . .” Though the preacher’s commanding voice lowered to nearly a whisper, not a word could be missed. “There will soon come a time when the head and front of this offending shall be broken; a time when slave-ships, like beasts of prey, will no longer steal along the coast of de­fenseless Africa. When we shall cease to trade in the flesh and souls of men but will instead expel forever from this land the manacle and the whip.

“I am not a prophet,” Akers explained to a congregation that did not believe him. “But a student of the Prophets. American slavery will come to an end in some near decade.”

At these words, shifting and murmuring rose in the crowd, some perhaps angry but most filled with hope and awe at the sheer audacity of the assertion. Undaunted by the excitement, Akers car­ried on, saying, “Who can tell but that the man who shall lead us through this strife might be standing in this presence.”

This was a pronouncement rather than a question. The preacher paused, giving space for the seed of prophetic vision to find fertile soil.

At the edge of the crowd, the young lawyer drew a long breath, rubbed his weary eyes, and reflected on the preacher’s powerful words.

One of his friends clapped him on the back. “What do you think, Mr. Lincoln? Are you glad you came with us?”

“As odd as it seems,” he answered with only slight hesitation, “When the preacher described those changes and revolutions, I was deeply impressed that I should somehow strangely mix up with them.”

He did not wait for a response from his dumbfounded friend, but stood tall and stretched the stiffness from his shoulders and limbs as he thought of the many tasks awaiting him on his desk, and of the much greater work he’d yet to begin.

The Great American Book Cover

In 1925, the world was introduced to a young graphic artist who, up until that time, had remained somewhat obscure. Initially primarily a portrait painter, Francis Cugat was discovered in Chicago by conductor Cleofonte Camanini who connected the artist to numerous opera stars for whom he designed personalized posters.

From there, exactly how he came to the attention of publisher Maxwell Perkins isn’t really known, but in Cugat’s long career which eventually gravitated to film work, he designed only one book cover, and it is among the most recognizable in history.

In all its original glory.

Perkins asked him to sketch some ideas for a forthcoming novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, tentatively titled Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires. Taking what little bit of information Perkins could give him about the incomplete book, Cugat came back with sketches that included bleak landscapes and various iterations of eyes in a wide expanse of sky.

The publisher then shared the sketches with Fitzgerald who apparently liked them a lot. In fact, after missing a deadline, the writer sent a letter to his publisher in which he wrote, “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me, I’ve written it into the book.”

The 1925 book, which ended up with the title The Great Gatsby, though not initially very commercially successful, has become one of the most critically acclaimed works of the twentieth century and, some would say, is in the running for the label of the Great American Novel. You probably read it in high school. I did. And my son who is a junior just did.

I can honestly say I don’t remember the book particularly well, but I do recall the voice of my junior year English teacher, Mr. K., as he discussed the imagery of the enormous eyes peering, bespectacled, from a faded billboard advertising the practice of T. J. Eckleburg, keeping God-like watch over the unfolding tragedy of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, and mimicking the way Daisy’s disembodied face haunted the men who loved her.

I also remember that Mr. K.’s voice was particularly deep and soothing and that even though I adored his class, it was sometimes difficult to stay awake in that period, which immediately followed lunch. So, I have to assume that one of the reasons the imagery stuck with me as the rest of the novel and almost everything else I read that year faded in my memory like a long neglected and weathered billboard, is because of the eyes on the front cover. Not to judge the book by them or anything, but it turns out covers really do matter.

A future classic? Or at least a pretty book.

That’s why I am so excited to introduce to you the cover art for my newest book, coming out in just a couple of weeks. It wasn’t designed before the book was finished, but I think it does capture it really well and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.

Fitzgerald must have felt much the same way. The final cover didn’t have universal appeal. Ernest Hemingway, for one, thought it was garish. The Great Gatsby has been published with a few different covers over the years, including one featuring Leonardo Dicaprio, but the original always seems to make a comeback, and it is certainly the most recognized.

Whether the cover of my newest novel will ever become an iconic image remains to be seen. It probably depends on whether the book, in years to come, will be studied in English classes and will be in contention for becoming the Great American Novel. I don’t know that my aspirations are quite that high. But it does, I think, have a pretty nice cover.

Celebrating Family History Month Under a False Bottom Drawer

On June 11, 1837, the ship Charlotte Harper set sail from the United States for the West Coast of Africa where a colony had been established by the American Colonization Society for the purpose of resettling former American slaves. The ship carried supplies for the settlements of Bassa Cove and Monrovia in the colony of Liberia, a handful of ACS agents, a couple of teachers, and one eager twenty-four-year-old Methodist Episcopal missionary physician named Sylvanus Goheen.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of Sylvanus, but this is his good buddy John Seys, superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal mission in Liberia. Smith sc., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Looking back on history, we might have some strong opinions about colonization, most of them probably negative. At that time, opinions were mixed. But this farm kid from Pennsylvania, youngest of a large brood, and fresh from medical school, such as it was in the 1830s, didn’t question the nobility of his intention to help carry the light of Christ to the new colony. He did, however, fear he might not make it there at all.

Watching the waving handkerchief of the one brother who, with tears in his eyes, had come to send him off, the image slowly fading from view along with the coastline of the United States, Sylvanus began to envision looming tragedy that would send him to the bottom of the Atlantic. The newspaper headlines his mother would read began to drift through his mind: Storm Sunk Vessel and All Aboard Lost or She Went Down in the Night, Cause Unknown or She Happened in with a Pirate who Murdered All Aboard. I think it’s safe to say he was freaking out a little.

And this is where, after hours and hours of puzzling my way through the handwriting of my ancestors, I lament the fact that a lot of school children are no longer learning cursive. Public Domain, via Pixabay

I don’t blame him. I’d have probably been freaking out, too. Sylvanus Goheen was imaginative, charming, and pretty funny. He was also sort of arrogant and sometimes kind of petulant, but we all have our faults and, if I’m being honest, he reminds me a little bit of myself.

That makes sense to me, because he was the younger brother of my grandfather’s great grandfather. I first encountered Sylvanus on the pages of a diary he presented to his sister Ann around the time of his departure for Liberia. This diary, though shorter on details than I’d have liked, turned up beneath the false bottom drawer of a lawyer cabinet among my grandmother’s possessions. That’s where my aunt found it shortly after my grandmother’s death.

Since I’m the writer in the family, she presented it to me and I placed it on the backburner where it simmered for quite a few years while, though I dabbled with it a little, I spent most of my time with mummies, lost manuscripts, and scoundrels. But now finally it’s quite a few years later. It’s also October, which means that if you are in the United States, this is officially Family History Month as declared by Congress in 2001 because, evidently, they had nothing better to do.

It’s the month for interviewing your oldest relatives, for checking out the genealogical tools available at your local library, for sending off for that kit that tells you how closely you’re related to Genghis Kahn, and for searching the false bottom drawers in your heirloom furniture. Because I bet you’ll find interesting people, who did interesting things, and if you can manage to learn about them, you might even discover hints of yourself.

Genghis Kahn, allegedly among the most genetically successful men of all time. Clara-Agathe NARGEOT (1829 – ?), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And maybe, if you do a little more research, and a little more than that, and a little more than that until you’ve done quite a lot of research about them, you might someday take them off the backburner and write a book. That’s what I finally did.

My newest novel White Man’s Graveyard will be released in just a few weeks. In its pages, you’ll get to meet Sylvanus, his sister Annie, a dog named Hector, an orangutan named Jenny, and a whole lot of other characters, many of whom come from my own family’s past, and a few of whom come from my head. You’ll also get to explore a controversial piece of not always well remembered American and Liberian history.

And you’ll discover whether or not Sylvanus was murdered by a pirate.