Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Old West's Crumbling Forts

New Mexico, my home state, has many forts left over from the Old West.  Among them are Fort Craig, outside of which a Civil War battle happened, and Fort Selden, a fort used during the Indian Wars.  Time and disuse had ravaged both places, reducing them to fragments of shattered walls and long, low mounds that had once been ramparts. The adobe walls had melted back into the desert soils from which they had been formed. It is hard to believe that both sites once bustled with life.

But they did. I know this because I recently finished reading Hampton Sides' Blood and Thunder, a biography of Kit Carson. One chapter told about Carson's time at Fort Craig, when he was serving as a Colonel in the First New Mexico Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. Carson led his men against Confederate troops in the Battle of Valverde, which was fought just north of the fort. Sides includes in his narrative the tramp of drilling men, the neighing of horses, the cacaphony of parade bands, the thunder of artillery and the crackle of small arms. Mr. Sides breathed life into the scene. He made the Old West come alive again in my imagination.

As I stood among the dry and silent ruins, I remembered Sides' vivid descriptions. I considered how the parade grounds would have looked when the marching boots of seventeen companies of men kept the weeds at bay, how the air would have smelled when filled with the tang of horse dung and kitchen smoke and gunpowder.

Good history and good historical ficiton can breath life into events long past. It can resurrect people long dead and places that have mouIdered into dust. It can make that which has faded away become vivid again.

I don't know how much will be left of the old western forts in another decade or two. Perhaps there will be nothing for my grandchildren to see when they are old enough to care about what happened in New Mexico in the nineteenth century. But my hope is that those who follow will be able to resurrect the forts and the people who occupied them through the power of the written word.

Jennifer Bohnhoff teaches New Mexico History to 7th grades in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has finished writing Rebels Along the Rio Grande, an historical fiction about the Battle of Valverde intended for middle grade readers, which she hope to publish next spring.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Traveling through #History – Time Travel Novels for Middle Grade Readers #KidLit

Time travel books have long been popular in children’s literature. Often, the time-travel itself is the only fantasy element, while both the present world and the past are strictly realistic. In Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows, a young actor winds up in Shakespeare’s time. In Kimberly Little’s The Last Snake Runner, a Native American boy travels back to the Acoma Pueblo of 1598. These books take place mainly in the past, as seen through the eyes of a contemporary character.

A few books weave contemporary and past stories together with multiple trips through time. In On Etruscan Time, by Tracy Barrett, a boy on an archaeology dig visits an Etruscan village 2000 years ago. He and his friend from the past move between each other’s world several times.

Louise Spiegler’s The Jewel and the Key involves a character traveling back and forth between the early days of the American invasion of Iraq, and World War I. Spiegler says, “My subject demanded time travel. I felt a strong resonance between the two time periods, between the two wars – the questionable reasons for our involvement, the strong voices raised against it, the antagonism towards dissent, the curtailment of civil liberties.

“In this case, the advantage over straight historical fiction is the introduction of a perspective that characters who are embedded in their own time period can’t have. My World War I characters can’t know – as my 21st century characters do, for example – that World War I won’t be the war to end all wars.”

In The Golden Hour series, Maiya Williams’s characters travel to periods ranging from the French Revolution to Cleopatra’s Egypt to the California Gold Rush. She says, “I’d rather write about contemporary people experiencing the past than write about people who were actually from that time. There are more opportunities for humor that way, and the narrative is more engaging to the young reader, with relatable characters to guide them through the history.”

Time Travel History

On Etruscan Time, Tracy Barrett. Etruscan village, 2000 years ago.

The Golden Hour series: The Golden Hour (French Revolution); Hour of the Cobra (Cleopatra’s Egypt); Hour of the Outlaw (California Gold Rush), by Maiya Williams.

King of Shadows, Susan Cooper. Shakespeare’s time.

The Last Snake Runner, Kimberly Little. Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico 1598.

This is a small sample. How many other time travel novels for young people can you name?

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Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Learn more at or her Amazon page.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Timing is everything - and so is naming.

Island of Storms

Reading the earlier blogs, it seems to me migrants to the U.S.A. and Canada all have exciting historical stories to tell, whereas that of someone like myself with a family history rooted in one area for millennia – okay, that’s an exaggeration, but only slight – appears dull by comparison.

There again, maybe not.

Island of Storms is the tentative title of my middle grade historical fiction book in the making. Actually, it would be more accurate to describe it as in the makeover. The story deals with an American teenager on a school summer trip to Britain. Her Irish grandmother, who had emigrated to the U.S. A. with her grandfather and started the family there, has arranged for her to remain in the U.K. after the other kids return to the States. In the beginning, our heroine is full of romantic notions, and also of misconceptions. She finds the romance, the fun, and also finds herself caught up in a terrorist plot. In the end, her perception has changed considerably and she leaves with a clearer understanding of that small island’s complexities.

Some years ago I wrote this middle grade historical fiction novel about the resurgence of the Irish Republican Army in the late fifties. I had the book honed, proof-read, all ready to go to an editor I’d researched, and hopeful of finding a home. Then something happened that caused me to put it on the back burner.

A few days earlier my eldest sister had come on a visit from Scotland, her first to Canada. One day Sister got talking to my husband of the times she and my aunt – who was about the same age – would vacation in Ireland in the years before the Second World War. The maternal side of my family, and my husband’s family on both sides, have Irish roots, so her memories were very interesting for him. I wasn’t present at this discussion so was totally unprepared for what was to come.

He came home from a trip to town triumphantly brandishing a book.

“See what I found!” he cried, and handed it over for my sister’s inspection.

‘LOUISA, LADY IN WAITING’ is Elizabeth Longford’s compilation of Louisa, Countess of Antrim’s diaries. Louisa was a lady in waiting to both Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra.

A good deal of this book is centred on Lady Louisa’s home in Ireland

“Oh!” cried Sister in pleased surprise, “we stayed at this estate many times when we visited Uncle Robbie’s farm in Carnlough.”

I hurried over for a look. What a shock! The name of the village in my novel had one letter different from that of the estate. Not only that, so many of the names I had chosen for my fictional characters appeared in ‘Louisa’.

Old sins cast long shadows, it’s said. And old villagers have long memories; tales of their childhood have been passed along to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren with the inevitable omissions, additions, and embroideries along the way. There was no way I could send that book out without extensive alterations. Crushed, I shelved it.

It is time to resuscitate what is now a work-in-progress. It was timely when I wrote it, and is just as timely now, though I will keep it set in the late 50s – early 60s. And this time, assurances the work is entirely one of fiction aside, I will do my level best to ensure none of the names are local.