Friday, November 29, 2019

Books: "One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow" by Olivia Hawker

One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow
By Olivia Hawker
Lake Union Publishing; hardcover, $24.95; paperback, $14.95; Ebook, $4.99

Olivia Hawker was destined to become a historical novelist, having been tasked with chronicling her family's history when she was raised Mormon while growing up on a rural Idaho. It is an important component of Latter-Day Saint culture, and while she eventually left Mormonism behind to find her own spiritual path, her enthusiasm for genealogy remained, particularly stories about ordinary people, including her own family's history.

"The past is rich with human drama, but we may miss out on some of the best and most compelling tales unless we tear ourselves away from 'big history' now and then, and delve into smaller spaces," says Hawker.

In researching and documenting her own family tree, she's discovered many gripping stories of survival, heroism, adventure, and love. Her first novel, The Ragged Edge of Night, was inspired by her husband's grandfather, a humble music teacher in small-town Germany who became a resister against the Hitler regime.

In her new novel, One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow, Hawker unfurls a moving story of survival and sacrifice inspired by the hardships her great-grandparents and their families faced as sheep ranchers on the Wyoming frontier in the late 1800s.

For as long as they have lived on the frontier, the Bemis and Webber families have relied on each other. With no other settlers for miles, it is a matter of survival. However, when Ernest Bemis finds his wife, Cora, in a compromising situation with a neighbor, he doesn't think of survival. In one impulsive moment, a man is dead.

Ernest is off to prison, and the women left behind are divided by rage and remorse. Bound by the uncommon threads in their lives and the challenges that lie ahead, Cora Bemis and Nettie Mae Webber begin to forge an unexpected sisterhood. 

When a love blossoms between their children, bonds are once again tested, and these two resilient women must finally decide whether they can learn to trust each other - or else risk losing everything they hold dear.


Authors of historical fiction most often find their inspiration in "big history" - major events that have played out on the world stage, and the important players who have directed and shaped those events. And there's no doubt that readers love novels about royal courts, wartime spies, and great conquerors. But some of the most compelling stories of the past can be found in unexpected places: among the journals and artifacts of our ancestors, and in the oral histories our loved ones share.

While researching and documenting my family's history, I've come across many gripping stories of survival, heroism, adventure, and love. I've turned two of my family's histories into novels: The Ragged Edge of Night - a Washington Post bestseller about my husband's grandfather, a humble music teacher in small-town Germany who became a resister against Hitler's regime - and One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow (Lake Union Publishing). Blackbird tells of the hardships my great-grandparents and their families faced as sheep ranchers on the Wyoming frontier...and shows what can happen when love and hate are forced to live together under one roof.

My great-grandma Beulah was quite a character - a real chatterbox who never even paused for breath. My mom had a very close relationship with her grandparents and often drove my sister and me all the way from Seattle to Eugene, Oregon to visit them. Their house was full of marvelous, strange knick-knacks, and on the bottom of every single item in her house - literally everything - Beulah had affixed little adhesive labels bearing the name of a family member, and sometimes a short note about the provenance of that object. The labels indicated who was to receive that item after Beulah and Clyde (my great-grandpa) both passed away. Those labels were Beulah's version of a will - an admirably simple system.

Now that I'm all grown up with a home of my own, I treasure the antique dishes Beulah "willed" to me. The faded labels on their undersides tell a family history in their own right. Most prominent is a label that reads: Georgia. Love, Mom in Beulah's unmistakable handwriting. But next to that label are two others: one bearing Beulah's name, written by her mother, Cora Bemis, along with the words, Is over 100 yrs old. Another label, also written by Cora, says, Belonged to Gram. Bemis, is old. What a touching treasure - a family heirloom dating back to at least 1866, possibly older, and bearing physical evidence of its being handed down from one woman to another over five generations.

But the labels on the milk-glass bureau dishes aren't the only ones that tell an interesting story. My mother Cheryl inherited an extra-special object when Beulah died: a hand-carved wooden box decorated with a checkerboard pattern and Beulah's maiden initials: B.B. On the bottom of the box, on a scrap of yellowed masking tape, Beulah wrote this message: Daddy carved it while in jail.

Naturally, I had to know how Beulah's father ended up in jail, where the only pastime he had, it seemed, was woodcarving. I asked my grandma Georgia to tell me what she knew about the checkerboard box, and the simple family story she recounted became the basis for my One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow.

My two great-grandparents (Beulah and Clyde) grew up on neighboring farms on the Wyoming range, where their families scratched out a living raising sheep and training horses. With few other people in the vicinity, the Webber and Bemis families became close - too close, it seems. An extramarital affair developed between Cora Bemis and Frank Webber (named Substance Webber in my novel - Substance being an older family name which I couldn't resist using.) As you might expect, discovery of the affair led to hard feelings on both homesteads; animosity persisted even after Mr. Webber died of illness. Shortly after Frank Webber's death, Ernest Bemis - Beulah's father - landed in jail for the crime of cheating an apple farmer out of some of his money. He cooled his heels behind bars for two years, which left Cora Bemis and Nettie Mae Webber to run their two neighboring farms with only their children for help. Survival without their husbands was so difficult that Cora and Nettie Mae thought it best to move in together and operate one farm until Ernest was released from jail...a trying prospect at the best of times, but especially difficult considering how much the two women despised each other in the wake of the affair. Their vexation must have only grown when a romance developed between their teenage children, Beulah Bemis and Clyde Webber, who eventually married and became my great-grandparents.

I knew as soon as I heard the story that this could be the premise of a fascinating novel. I set to work at once on Blackbird, though I changed quite a few details to add dramatic tension. I pushed the setting farther back in time, starting the novel in 1876 to isolate my characters more on the Wyoming frontier...and I added a murder to really provide a sense of stakes and afflict my characters with guilt and loss. But the core of Blackbird is a true family story - just as compelling, I believe, as the doings of European royalty or the feats of great military commanders - revealed thanks to a few family heirlooms and some faded stick-on labels.

The past is rich with human drama, but we may miss out on some of the best and most compelling tales unless we take ourselves away from "big history" now and then, and delve into smaller spaces - searching for the stories hidden in our artifacts, heirlooms, and family trees.

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