a-crazy-haggertyStony River opens with two girls spying on the dilapidated house of someone they call Crazy Haggerty, a man they’ve seen stumbling drunk down the sidewalk, wearing a magician’s suit and red shoes. There’s more to James Haggerty, the reader learns over the course of the novel: former professor, practitioner of Irish witchcraft and grieving widower. He does like his whiskey, though, and keeps a flask of it in his bathrobe pocket.

A book blogger suggested I create a drink for my novel in honor of its 2016 debut in the United States. Good sport that he is and knowing whiskey isn’t my thing, my husband taste-tested a few concoctions before we settled on this recipe for a “Crazy Haggerty.”

  • 1 ounce of Irish whiskey — we used Jameson
  • 1 ounce of well-chilled dry mead — we used Magick Mead from Hornby Island, but another good dry mead will do
  • 1/2 ounce of Irish Mist honey liqueur
  • Serve over a single ice cube

According to Wikipedia (the Internet’s Oracle of Delphi), Irish Mist is “made from aged Irish whiskey, heather and clover honey, aromatic herbs and other spirits, blended to an ancient recipe claimed to be 1,000 years old.” It’s produced in Dublin but available in 40 countries. We live in Canada and found it easily at a liquor store near us.

Apparently mead is trending with the upwardly mobile, Game of Thrones crowd. Personally, it makes me picture unwashed, bearded men brawling in a dank medieval hall. It’s perfect for a “Crazy Haggerty,” however, as it has a long history with the Celts who once thought it had magic properties.

If James Haggerty had concocted the potion we named after him, he might have drunk it from the pewter chalice that sat on his altar. We used a Waterford (as in Waterford, Ireland) crystal glass.

Lest you think Stony River is all about magic spells and Irish witchcraft, I hasten to tell you it isn’t. It’s a mystery that shines a light on the type of secrets that hid behind closed doors in small-town America in a time we often romanticize. A mystery inspired by a true-crime story that shows how perilous it was for some girls to come of age in the 1950s.

 

In the Fifties, what a girl wore branded her as Easy or Good.

Good Girls wore bobby socks and saddle shoes. Easy Girls wore ballerina slippers and ankle bracelets. They had pierced ears. A Good Girl clasped a charm bracelet on her wrist and a circle pin on the side of her collar that indicated she was a virgin. (I could never remember what side that was.) A Good Girl wore her boyfriend’s letter sweater, an Easy Girl her guy’s leather jacket with a tight skirt and sweater.

Good Girls could get away with form-fitting sweaters, but skirts had to be loose enough to slip easily over hips and butt. Calf-length circle skirts with crinolines underneath were great for jitterbugging because they swished and swooshed when you did. For all the talk of poodle skirts, I never had one. I did know someone who had a battery-rigged skirt with a felt appliqué Christmas tree. She’d squeeze a bulb and the tree lights would come on.

Good Girls aimed to convey a kind of sexy innocence. From their point of view, Easy Girls were too obvious. They didn’t leave themselves the option of virtuous outrage if a boy made an unwanted move on them. With the way they dressed and held themselves, they would have been “asking for it.” Girls were schooled early in this way of thinking. In Stony River, Tereza Dobra knows exactly what she’s doing when she struts around in short shorts and a tight sweater.

That understanding made me initially flinch at the cover design for Stony River. It’s gorgeous and evocative of the era, all right. But in that era, many would have considered the model’s pose a sexual invitation. Would readers think that’s what the book was about? I checked with others. Those who reacted with sentiments like “whoa” were either my vintage or had read the manuscript and were expecting something darker. Younger ones found the cover beautiful and compelling. “I’d pluck it off of a table of other books first,” one said, and wasn’t that the idea?

I reconsidered the cover from a more modern perspective: why couldn’t you lie with arms behind your head and legs drawn up without someone judging you as asking for it? When I realized that my character, Miranda, whom the model resembles, would have no understanding of what provocative meant and could easily picture herself lying “on soft grass, garbed in gossamer and sunlight,” it felt right. Now, I can’t imagine Stony River with anything but this cover.

Stony River goes on sale July 24. For suggestions on what to wear on book club night, see Dress the Part on the Flashback page.

In anticipation of Stony River’s release I’ve been posting behind-the-scenes glimpses at the book. This entry is about the A&P. Check out the old ads in Flashback. (Ads and photos used by permission of the A&P Historical Society.)

When I was a child, my grandmother would dispatch me to a small, dim shop that smelled of pickles, a few blocks from her house. There, I’d hand the white apron-clad shopkeeper a list and he’d pull the items from shelves behind him. If they were too many or heavy for me to carry, he’d deliver them personally in his ancient black car. Not for Grandma the self-serve style of grocery shopping A&P had pioneered.

When Stony River’s Buddy Jukes started working for the A&P in 1950s New Jersey, the country’s first grocery chain already was an American icon, the largest food retailer in the US with over four thousand stores across the country and in Canada. It had begun in 1859 with just a few retail tea and coffee stores in New York City.

I have vague recollections as a child of the old-style A&P in my hometown, a small, crowded store with a dark awning emblazoned with The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. That store was replaced farther out of town with a larger store and a big parking lot, reflecting, it seems to me now, the post-war growth in family cars. The newer store resembled the one in the picture on this page. (Note the issues of Woman’s Day for sale in the picture. A&P launched this still popular woman’s magazine in the 1930s as a way to sell groceries and sold it exclusively at its stores until 1958 when a publishing company took it over.)

This picture is also how I envision Buddy’s workplace and the A&P he and Tereza visit in New York City.

…the same gray and canned salmon colored vinyl tiles on the floor, the same harsh fluorescent lights… Bert led them around the store, pointing out an expanded meats/poultry and cold cuts section. Buddy perked right up at the sight of marshmallows at the end of an aisle. “Exactly where we put ours,” he said.

Bert said, “Part of the master plan. Say a man working in Proctor and Gamble gets transferred from Chicago to Manhattan. His wife should be able to come in here, first time, and know exactly where to find her favorite products.”

“Genius,” Buddy said.—From Stony River (Penguin 2012)

The reason I could so easily “imagine” my fictional A&P stores was that I had enormous help from Walt Waholek, president of the A&P Historical Society. Walt has given generously of his time to enable me to write with confidence about what Buddy wore on the job, what shifts he worked, what his tasks were and many other details about A&P culture at the time—the type of details writers need to lend credibility to even a fictional work. He’s been waiting patiently for several years to see Stony River in print and enthusiastically cheering me on.

A side benefit of researching this novel was gaining Walt’s friendship and an appreciation for how a proud company has both reflected and contributed to our times. I’m pleased to say I’m on the A&P Historical Society newsletter mailing list and enjoying blasts from A&P’s past. (See this link for some of these blasts.)

One of the newsletters included the video below of old commercials. Check out the talking bean for A&P’s Eight O’Clock Coffee, which got its name way back in the 1800s because a survey showed that most people then drank coffee twice a day, once at 8 AM and once at 8 PM. (What would they name it today: 24/7?)









A behind-the-scenes look at what the people in Stony River chow down on.

Book clubbers: For themed refreshment ideas, see “Stony River Book Club Menus.”

You won’t find any culinary gourmets in Stony River. My characters eat what we call comfort food nowadays: tuna casserole and rice pudding, macaroni and cheese (baked, not from a box, and with real cheese), fried chicken and mashed potatoes, homemade pie and coffee. They drink milk delivered to their door in glass bottles with cardboard caps. When fruits and vegetables aren’t in season, they rely on the canned variety, as the world hasn’t become small enough yet for the fresh stuff to appear year-round. If they have lettuce, it’s iceberg. In the summer, families with cars head out to farm stands (they don’t call New Jersey the Garden State for nothing) for beefsteak tomatoes and corn on the cob that taste all the better for being available for such a brief time.

They haven’t yet been told red meat is bad for them. They grind thrifty cuts of beef into hamburger, using a hand-cranked meat grinder clamped to the side of a counter, or turn them into pot roast. My own mother’s pot roast went into an electric cooker with water, potatoes and carrots before we left for church each Sunday. It was often completely dry and the carrots caramelized when we returned, due to my father needing to chat with nearly everyone in the congregation after the service. We needed more than a dollop of gravy to salvage the meal.

Pizza was as popular then as now and Jersey thin crust pizza is the best I’ve ever had. Years ago, I asked a pizzeria owner why that was and he said the “secrets” were olive oil (not canola, etc.) and a particular type of mozzarella that arrived directly in New York Harbor on ships from Italy.

You can bet they eat a lot of Jell-O in Stony River, plain as dessert or dressed up with canned pineapple and shredded carrots for salad. It wasn’t unheard of for us to have waffles with creamed corn for dinner. My mother knew about stretching a dime. Tereza’s mother in the book knows about that, too; she serves “hot dog pieces, like chopped up worms, swimming in baked beans.” Once a week, Stony River kids might get a nickel to spend on penny candy in places like Rolf’s corner store: Hershey kisses, wax lips, licorice babies, banana chews and Tootsie Pops.

The closest we get to gastronomy in Stony River is to Betty Wise’s Baked Alaska. She makes hers with a slab of pound cake first topped with Neapolitan ice cream then covered with meringue and popped in the oven only until the meringue is brown. I like to think that if Betty had a blowtorch, she’d go for this updated version instead:









A behind-the-scenes look at what might have appeared on young Linda Wise’s turntable in Stony River. No point looking at Tereza Dobra’s records; she spent her money on the movies. And poor Miranda Haggerty had only a collection of old 78-RPMs to listen to: records with names like “I’m An Old Cowhand” and “Yes We Have No Bananas.”

The cost of a 45-RPM in the Fifties was anywhere from 89¢ to a dollar, about the same as an iTunes download today (although in the Fifties you got a song on each side of a record). Linda would have bought her records at a store in downtown Stony River, New Jersey. She’d have previewed them in a sound-proof booth before committing what might been as much as her weekly allowance to a purchase, despite having already heard the songs on the radio, a jukebox or, after 1957, TV’s American Bandstand.

In 1955 when the book opens, Linda is two months shy of age 12 when she was probably partial to songs like “Sixteen Tons” and “The Ballad of Davy Crocket,” songs she’d later consider “square.” In her 14th year, we find her in her bedroom where she’s set up her phonograph to endlessly repeat “My Prayer” by The Platters. She isn’t conscious of the impact the entry of black R&B music into white culture will have on her generation’s support for civil rights; only that it speaks to her soul and unmentionable body parts.

The Platters and groups like the Satins and the Penguins with their harmonies and high notes gave Linda goose bumps and caused her to lose her grip on the earth for a few minutes. Make-out music. She’d yet to make out with anyone…but whenever she heard a shoo do be shoo be wah she thought she knew what it would be like to have your heart all aglow. Honestly, sometimes it embarrassed her how badly she longed for it. — From Stony River (Penguin Canada, 2012)

She pines over a boy when she vacations with her parents in “boring” Kansas. I can imagine “Thousand Miles Away” playing in her mind on this trip and, later, when the boy moves, “Since I Don’t Have You.” Recalling how he claimed her figure was as “zaftig” as Peggy Lee’s, she might have added “Fever” to her 45s. (Not all white singers were uninspiring.)

After school Linda would have watched American Bandstand where ordinary kids like her slow danced to “It’s All In The Game” and “You Send Me” and did the jitterbug to “Rockin’ Robin” and “Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On.”

Fifties music was full of double entendres that would have been lost on Linda. She might have bought “Chantilly Lace” only to learn her mother wouldn’t allow her to play it in the house. Betty Wise would not have approved of the Big Bopper’s, “Ooh baby, that’s-a what I like.” (She wouldn’t have liked “Fever,” either.)

But Betty isn’t here, so bop on over to “Flashback” right now and have a listen to the tunes on Linda’s Turntable.

Crikey.

I haven’t penned thoughts for this blog in over two years. Instead, I’ve been turning myself inside out writing and rewriting a novel. Emerging only recently, exhausted and disoriented, from a self-imposed quarantine due to that writer’s disease for which there’s only periods of blessed remission.

Not surprisingly I’d lost touch with others, My husband had cobbled a life around my unavailability for anything lasting more than fifteen minutes. And I’d submerged my own feelings in those of my characters, suspended my life in favor of theirs. (I envy those who can restrict their obsession scribbling to mornings or the quiet hours between midnight and dawn.)

I’m taking a break before the next book, enjoying bike rides and lunches out on the final summer days of British Columbia. Wondering what I should write about on Silent Girl Speaks and why. Who gives a rip what an aging WASP woman who has the luxury of indulging in novel writing has to say about anything in a world pocked with war, poverty and oppression?

Guilty As Charged

This guilt over privilege may be more of the reason for my silence over the past two years than the intensity of novel writing. I’m mute in the face of women who are raped, stoned, held as prisoners in their homes, forced to journey miles for water. How dare I indulge in literary fantasies while my sisters suffer?

But here I am, with a room of my own, a space on the blogosphere in which I can talk to myself and spammers. A chance to say what I feel, not just what I think. I’m gonna give it another go. If anybody cares to join the conversation, so much the better.  If not, that’s okay, too.

matsi-istock_000000168781small.jpgYour intrepid reporter here, bringing you the latest from Google Alerts.

Google sends me an e-mail when something appears online about the cheery topics I touch on in Silent Girl, such as domestic violence, sex trafficking, bride kidnapping, racism, global warming, and incest. I get so many notifications every day I shove them into a file to get them off my read page until I can find time to review them.

Yesterday, I took a look at a few about sex trafficking, a topic that falls within the broader issue of slavery which, according to some sources, is the third largest criminal enterprise in the world after drugs and guns. One source estimates that 27 million people are slaves of one sort or another. Officially abolished worldwide at the 1927 Slavery Convention, slavery continues to thrive with billions of dollars in annual profits. Approximately 80% of the “commodities” traded are women and children and 80% of the services they’re enslaved to provide are sexual.

As a writer, I try to imagine the individual stories behind the statistics. I wrote one of them (the title story in the collection) about a seven-year-old girl who, after losing her mother in the 2004 tsunami, is kidnapped and sold to a brothel. Researching the story was painful. I was appalled at what I learned and felt helpless to do anything except write about it. Luckily, others have felt empowered to do more.

Google Alerts called my attention to several organizations working in various ways to abolish modern-day slavery and provide aid for victims. Organizations like the American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG), Polaris Project, Free the Slaves and Change.org.

AASG promotes awareness, engages in advocacy and activism, and provides direct aid for victims.

Polaris Project was named after the North Star that guided US slaves towards freedom along the Underground Railroad. It operates in the US and Japan, seeking out victims and providing them with social services and transitional housing. It also operates a human trafficking hotline.

Free the Slaves, headquartered in Washington, DC, goes right to the “frontlines,” they say, to liberate people. According to their site, they also “enlist businesses to clean slavery out of their product chains and empower consumers to stop buying into slavery, work with governments to produce effective anti-slavery laws then hold them to their commitments, and research what works and what doesn’t.”

Change.org takes on human trafficking as one of a number of its causes. It profiles cases and provides a forum for activists.

An intriguing headline, compliments of Google, claimed that cannibalism and sex tourism were criminalized under a bill passed by Uganda’s Parliament last week. Actually, the bill is broader than the headline implies and offers a laundry list of what might constitute slavery today.

It provides that “any person who recruits, hires or maintains, confines, transports, transfers, harbours or receives a person, through force for purposes of engaging that person in prostitution, pornography, sexual exploitation, forced labour, forced or arranged marriage is liable to 15 years imprisonment.” Also,  “Any person who commits an offence in trafficking in children, uses a child in any armed conflict, removes any part, organ or tissues from the body of a child taken alive, uses a child in a commission of crime or uses a child or part of a child in witchcraft or related practices, commits the offence of aggravated trafficking in children and is liable to life imprisonment.”

And, finally, yesterday the United Nations today launched a manual called Combating Trafficking in Persons: A Handbook for Parliamentarians —a compilation of international laws and good practices developed to combat human trafficking.

All good news, I guess, but…”organ or tissues from the body of a child taken alive”…? I would not be able to write that story.

chained-hands-istock_000002557077small.jpg“Nobody; I Myself,” the fifth story in Silent Girl, is narrated by a white woman married to a black man in the US in 1966. Young and idealistic, she struggles with the conflict between her empathy for blacks because of the injustice they suffer and her nascent belief that they share at least a part of the blame for their situation.

Growing up in the States at that time, I was deeply moved by that injustice and both hopeful and despairing about the country’s ability to effect lasting change.  Later, as a woman trying to make it in the business world, I empathized even more with blacks: females were held back for reasons of gender as blacks were for reasons of race. It wasn’t fair (!!!) and I was all about fairness those days, despite my father having told me, “If I led you to believe life was fair, I’m sorry.”

Since then, much has improved for blacks (and women) but, as a society, we still grapple with how to provide equity for all, including blacks and other visible minorities, aboriginals, women, the disabled, gays, lesbians, and the transgendered —who have I forgotten? Some say we’ve gone too far to accommodate anyone who feels different and/or mistreated, that we’re encouraging too many folks to feel entitled to preferential treatment. Some are tired of what they see as attempts to make them feel guilty for not being among the disenfranchised. As a bonafide Libra, I tend to see everyone’s point and find it difficult to take a firm stand. (Is there a support group for Librans?)

Because of my fence-sitting proclivities, I was attracted to this article by Wendi Thomas about the 10th annual White Privilege Conference going on right now in Memphis, Tennessee. Under discussion at the conference is the question of how much difference it makes to your success in life to be part of the dominant group (in this case, Whites). As Thomas writes, “The conference is not about blaming white people, but raising awareness about privilege wherever it lies,” and that privilege is not just about race. You can be privileged because of gender, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness (is that a word?), beauty, wealth, etc. I like this extension of the definition because it encourages us to look at ourselves in a fuller way, not as simply “us” or “them.” I may be “disadvantaged” due to being female, old, and hard of hearing, but I’m privileged in other ways because I’m white, heterosexual, able-bodied (except for the old and hard of hearing parts), literate…and so many other things. If I were black, I’d still have literacy going for me. (And, according to a friend, I’m more privileged than she because I “have someone.” As that someone is Colin, I have to agree.)

By no means does this broader view take away from the reality that blacks, for example, are “twice as like to be unemployed, three times more likely to live in poverty and more than six times as likely to be imprisoned compared with whites,” according to this Chicago Tribune article. We can find similar statistics highlighting the “cost” of being a woman, disabled, homosexual, or a member of another non-dominant group.

What it does say to me is that each of us can appreciate the abilities we have, admire those of others, and use whatever privilege we enjoy to create a society where the development of those abilities is not limited by dominant views of who is entitled to accomplish what. It doesn’t say that all will end up the same or that no one will suffer. Dad was right.

1928-great-depression.jpgThis article reports that Dennis Blair, the US Director of National Intelligence, believes “the plunging global economy is an even bigger threat to the United States’ national security than the al Qaeda terrorist network or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”  We’ve seen violent regime changes in so-called Third World countries and could live to see them in North America. As distasteful as it is for fiscal conservatives in the United States to see their government commit to enormous debt-producing spending, many of them must realize large numbers of people without homes and jobs can easily turn into violent mobs.

Economic troubles also set the stage for social ills. A Victoria hotel has changed its practice of paying for a minimum of four hours for an employee called in for a shift. It’s now only two hours. Many hotel employees cannot afford to live in downtown Victoria. It’s costly in time and money to commute for two hours of work, but that may be all they can get. We have to be vigilant against devolving into a society of virtual migrant workers: denied a living wage and afraid to complain for fear of being “deported” to the ranks of the unemployed.  Women (and, increasingly, men) are more vulnerable in poor economic times to sexual harassment and recruitment into unsafe sex work.

According to this New York Times article, women may be surpassing men in the workforce, because more jobs held by men are “getting axed.” This could be good news for gender dynamics, provided men take on more housework and childcare responsibilities.

Unfortunately women’s jobs, on average, tend to be for shorter hours, less pay, and fewer benefits. The average income for women in Canada is $27,000 a year, compared to $45,000 for men. And those working fewer than 35 hours a week are not eligible for unemployment benefits, so if a part-time worker supporting her family loses her job, the family is shit out of luck. (An article by crusading journalist Jody Paterson looks at how the Harper government’s stimulus package misses the mark when it comes to women.)

There’s an indication that economic hard times are leading to an increase in domestic abuse as frustration expresses itself as rage. And I’ve read of two cases of murder/suicide in the U.S. where notes left indicated the dead had lost their jobs, were overwhelmed with debt, and decided to take their families with them.

Intolerance may be on the rise, as well. I’ve been reading the comments following news stories about the economy. Many Americans are angry and lashing out at Wall Street, for sure, but some also don’t want any jobs going to immigrants—legal or otherwise—and they want Buy American protectionism, despite the reality that few products are manufactured in the US anymore. Some who are fortunate to have jobs don’t want stimulus funds going to the jobless, whom they characterize as freeloaders. As the situation worsens, people will feel freer to make negative judgments about others and deny them a helping hand.

I don’t know what we can do about the dismal global picture but in our communities we can help neighbors in need, protest injustice masquerading as economic necessity, promote inclusiveness, and adopt the frugal practices of parents and grandparents who made it through the Great Depression. (What will we call this one?) If we’ve made any gains over past decades in areas of social justice, it would be a shame to lose them to greed and fear.

*”It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase used in Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign to suggest he was a better choice than Bush the First because Bush had not adequately addressed the economy, which had gone into recession.