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Thursday, 14 July 2011

Daughter of Texas by Celia Hayes

Very early on – by the time that I could actually read easily, I was particularly drawn to accounts of the American frontier in the 19th century. This, to judge by the inscriptions in books that I was given as gifts and recalled reading as soon as the ribbons and wrapping paper was off them, would have been about the age of eight or nine. It started with a deep and abiding love for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, about her family experiences as her parents moved between Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota and the Dakotas, and was refined by my mother’s perspicuity in having a subscription to American Heritage Magazine (in the days when it was a hard-bound quarterly and without advertisements) and leaving it around where I could read it. Which I did, repeatedly, and from cover to cover; I was particularly drawn to stories about the westward immigrant trails – of families who packed up everything they owned in a covered wagon and headed west, on barely-explored paths into two thousand miles of howling wilderness.

After twenty years in the military, and twelve years of that spent assigned in Europe, I came home. My last assignment was in San Antonio, Texas – where I stayed, for various reasons, one of which was that the place began to grow on me. Texas turned out to be . . . well, a much more complicated and nuanced place than anyone would think from having watched movies. It’s more than just the Alamo – which everyone knows about in a superficial way, but there is so much more than that. Texas is kind of a demi-glace, a boiled-down reduction of the frontier – and by extension of the American experience –where a good few different cultures clashed and mingled. I discovered this dramatic and eventful – and relatively unknown history just by living a short distance away. After my first novel – about a practically unknown wagon train party on the California Trail, I was casting around for the next project; had to be the frontier, had to be 19th century and relatively unknown. And then I thought – why not the German settlements, in the Hill Country north of San Antonio? It’s a terrific historical anomaly, which hardly anyone outside of Texas knows about. Slap-dab in the middle of Texas are several counties and several towns which were settled almost exclusively by German immigrants in the mid-19th century. I thought I would do a single novel about that: an entrepreneur scheme, thought up by a group of well-meaning and well-financed German noblemen, the Mainzer Adelsverein (or the Society of Noblemen of Mainz) to bring over settlers from Germany. This would reward them with lots of land and acclaim for having done a very good deed; helping farmers and craftsmen settle in a new land, with lots of opportunities. Unfortunately, the Mainzer Adelsverein went bust after two years – but not after dumping 7,000 immigrants onto the Texas frontier.

I made a family saga, so that readers could relate: I created the Steinmetz family; parents, three daughters, two sons and a son-in-law, who come and settle in Texas. I also needed to create another character, a Texan German-speaker. He was intended to serve as a bridge to the new life they must embrace and as a heroic and romantic interest for one of the Steinmetz daughters. That led me to create another family, the Beckers; German by heritage, but long established in Texas. Almost in passing, I gave the hero-character an older sister. I described her as being a woman who kept a boarding house in early Austin, married twice, and who knew practically everyone of consequence in Republic-era Texas. In the first chapter of the Trilogy, her brother says in passing to another character that his sister had been left to raise four sons when her husband died of tuberculosis. I should emphasize that she started as a fairly minor and secondary character – but when I came to thinking about what my next book was to be, I thought, why not write about Margaret Becker?

Do the whole story of her life and her experiences: coming to Texas as a young girl, marrying the schoolteacher, and seeing the beginnings of the war for Texas independence from her home in Gonzalez. And then the whole of that war, the ‘Runaway Scrape’ – where almost the entire Anglo civilian population evacuated back to east Texas under horrific conditions – and what she did to rebuild her life. That story could be a gripping account of a woman meeting the challenges of that time. Tell the story from her point of view, move her experiences from just something mentioned briefly to front and center, write of the people that she would have met and known over the years of her life, from the age of twelve in eventful times and a special place?

Like the Adelsverein Trilogy, Daughter of Texas started out as a single volume, intended as a prelude to the Trilogy. But when I had gotten up to about 350 pages of manuscript, the events of the war, the Runaway Scrape, the death of her first husband – and I hadn’t even gotten into the romance with her second, or very far into all sorts of interesting but relatively little-known happenings during the years of the Republic of Texas – I decided that I would save all the rest for a second book about her life. So that’s where that stands. Daughter of Texas is now available at Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, and in Kindle and Nook editions. The sequel, Deep in the Heart should be available in December, 2011. No, I don’t have a problem with writer’s block – why do you ask?

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Augustina Peach said...

I'm so glad to have found this site! It sounds like you have just the kind of book I'm looking for. No queens, dukes, countesses - just ordinary people living their lives in history. Thanks for posting it on Facebook, Celia, and I plan to check out your book. You are writing about my favorite time period.

celiahayes said...

Thanks, Augustina - I think you will enjoy it, although I had to do some interesting work-arounds, in order to include accounts of events that women would not have been a part of in the 19th century. Mostly, I fell back on Margaret Mitchell's strategy, of having a male character appear breathlessly from the wings and give a first-person account... enjoy!

Deborah Swift said...

Yes, it's always rather difficult to give women major roles when they might not have had them in history. But it calls for using our powers of imagination that little bit more to invent a more active part that they could play.