Miracle at Soda Canyon part 1

Mary Jane Stevens joins Building a Better Story with Miracle at Soda Canyon, A Tale About One of the Worst Fires In California History. Mary Jane, a Napa resident for over 30 years, lives part time in Truckee. A retired business owner, she has begun to write about her life, her two adult children, one grandchild and husband Bob. She feels blessed in her marriage, which recently has survived more than the usual troubles of modern life. Please enjoy Mary Jane’s harrowing tale of fire and miracles.

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cnbc.com

Late Sunday evening, October 8, my husband Bob, called me at our home in Truckee to say that there were helicopters with bright lights hovering low outside our house in Napa; over loud speakers they were saying, “Fire! Evacuate! Evacuate Immediately!” 

Bob asked what he should take and I suggested a few necessities, cash, the insurance policy file, our laptop computers and my good jewelry, all which were in easy to reach places. I said, “Get out of there fast and call me when you get down the hill.”  He wanted to take all the paperwork out of the office but I told him to leave it, his life was the most important thing. I told him we’d made it through a fire in 2011 when the house was gutted, and we could do it again.

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videoblocks.com

About twenty minutes later I saw Bob’s name on my cell phone screen. I was relieved—a little prematurely it turned out. He was calling to say he couldn’t get down the hill—the road was blocked.  He and about twenty-five people, including neighbors and some vineyard workers who’d been picking in the dead of night, were trapped by the fire.  They were at the top of Soda Canyon Road near Atlas Peak Road seven miles from Silverado Trail, close to where the fire may have started.  No way out!

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wvah.com

And no one knew they were stranded.

The helicopters had moved on to warn others.  The group decided to move to a clear area at Stagecoach Vineyards which happened to be near vineyard manager Esteban’s home where they still had cell service.  

 

I sent my kids a text then called them to let  them know what was going on.  Casey and Kelly deserved to know their dad was in serious danger. They would never have forgiven me if something happened to him, and I hadn’t warned them.

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Kelly, as it turned out, had her phone turned off for the night, so she did not get my messages until the following morning. 

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Casey, who is a Los Angeles City Firefighter, immediately hung up and called Bob to get the GPS coordinates from his cell phone. With those coordinates he called someone he works with at the department’s command center. Casey told his contact about the people stranded near a fast moving fire in Napa, gave him the coordinates and asked him to contact the Cal Fire Commander in Napa with the information to rescue his dad and the others. 

 Whenever Casey was not out on calls we talked on the phone during the night.  Both of us feared the worst, but neither said what we were really thinking.  Friends from Napa had told us the fire was huge, and the winds the strongest anyone had seen in recent memory.  Bob told us, in our last conversation, the fire was raging right toward him. It was excruciating not having more information.

 

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Atlas Fire    Napa Valley Register

Earlier my friend, Carolyn, called me from the deck of her home in west Napa as soon as she saw the fire across the valley.  She was supposed to join me, along with several of our friends, at my home in Truckee the following day and knew Bob was home alone. A childhood friend, she’s has known Bob all his life. She was watching the fire scream across the mountain at an unbelievable pace and worried about him.  She stayed on the phone with me, off and on, most of the night giving me much needed emotional support.  Many of my Napa friends texted me throughout the night with words of encouragement and prayers for Bob’s safety.

When we talked, I told Casey how quickly Carolyn could see fire spreading and it wasn’t looking good for Bob’s evacuation. Unknown-4

To be continued…

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THE WHOLE WORLD IS A TELEPHONE BOOTH

 

This week, poet, Dominic “Nick” Triglia, shares his unique experience of the October firestorm.

Nick says this about himself:

I was born a “blue baby” in 1950 at the old hospital on Spring St. in Calistoga.  The owners of the hospital always told me I was the last baby born there.  When I found out they were wrong, I changed it to: I was the last good lookin baby born in the hospital.

I wore the blue uniform of the Postal Service for 34 years. I love blue skies, the deep blue sea, blue movies, listening to the blues, and drinking red wine.

Nick is also a producer of poetry events in the Upper Napa Valley

 

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atlasobscura.com

The Whole World Is a Telephone Booth

15 items or less

express lane

in heavy traffic

woman shares

answers to questions

near the

National Enquirer rack

 

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“We packed the RV

then unpacked

got another advisory

my brother in the urn

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put back in the house”

Mom takes him back

to the RV

can’t decide

to take him or not

Dad said to leave him

“he’s only ashes anyway”

Mom said, “yeah

but that’s all I’ve got

of him, he’s goin.”

 

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khan.com

 

 

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Message Machine

She left his message

of not being home

“to leave a message”

on the phone

seven years

since his passing

his voice lets you know

that he and she

are not at home.

Evacuated

she calls their number

hears his voice

calls five times a day

said  “if he answers

I know our home

is safe from the fire”

Each time she listens

to his recorded voice

she kisses the receiver.

 

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greifhealingblog.com

 

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Smoke over the Napa Valley October 2017.       Marina Torres

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Charcoal

Nathaniel “Bob” Winters continues his impression of the October firestorm in the Napa Valley and Santa Rosa. ~A.M.

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Charcoal           By Nathaniel R. Winters  

10/25/17      My wife Colleen and I came back home from my Parkinson’s disease doctor appointment at the S.F. VA Hospital by going north to Santa Rosa, trying to avoid the worst of rush hour traffic. From Santa Rosa we drove over the ridge to the Napa Valley. Our GPS assured us the road was open after the fire. What we did not know there was a 6pm curfew to keep looters away and to save any local victims from dangers after dark. We arrived at 6:15 and begged the National Guardsmen to save us an extra two hour trip. They relented and we scooted over the pass, driving through neighborhoods of total destruction. What we saw was something out of a war zone, just charcoal and fireplaces. We had seen pictures in the paper and video on TV, but encountering these gates of hell in person was overwhelming. So many left homeless, and so much lost.

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We were the only car on the curvy mountain-pass road borerding the hit and miss decimation. One ridge was burned while the trees of another stood with leaves or needles of green; a house here, charcoal there.

 

As we swichbacked down to the little damaged upper Napa Valley, I gave another silent thank you to the firefighters.

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 SFGate: Carlos Avila Gonzalez (The Chronicle)

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Nathaniel Robert  Winters

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Battle Lines

Author Nathaniel “Bob” Winters observes details of the battle to put out October’s fires.

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newsteller.org

Battle Lines

by Nathaniel R. (Bob) Winters

10/16/17   Yesterday my wife and I drove up the Napa Valley headed back to St Helena after a five- day evacuation from smoke and fire. On arriving at Oakville, we discovered the fire was burning over the ridge-tops and raging down the mountains towards our home.

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fireaviation.com

Through our windshield, we could see two choppers  filling up water into huge buckets then dumping it onto the flames. Two large fixed wing aircraft were also attacking with retardant.

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fireaviation.com

The battle goes on. The winds have calmed down and the “powers that be” believe we are safe. I hope they are right.

This morning I masked up and took Rue for a walk, watching the two choppers continue the fight. I flashed back to other another battle line in Nam.

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thoughtco.com

But luckier than in Nam,  the weather men are forecasting rain Thursday, the first winter wet-down after our usual summer drought.

It  appears some prayers are about to be answered. “They” say there are no atheists in foxholes…. This “not quite kosher” guy is not so sure about prayer, but it couldn’t hurt!

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Thicker Than Smoke

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westernfarmpress.com

Thicker than Smoke

by Nathaniel Robert Winters

This morning as Rue and I walked the mile-long trail through vineyards from the library to the bone dry Napa River, I realized just how lucky we were. Smokey haze had been replaced with clean air for the first time since the Sunday night our fiery ordeal started. Overnight, light, moist ocean breezes blew the evil air out of the valley.  Puffy cumulus clouds dotted the blue, sunshiny sky. Up north over Mount St. Helena, darker stratus clouds promised rain. Our little town of St. Helena appears to have been spared.

 

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visitcalifornia.com

In the midst of all the devastation, I want to share two happy stories. Last Tuesday my wife Colleen, our friend Mary, Rue and I evacuated to San Francisco. We stopped for lunch on Clement Street, still weighing our options as to which family or friends to impose ourselves upon. After eating, while Colleen and Mary still conversed, I took Rue outside and came upon a couple smooching.

images-7I asked, “Excuse me, do you two know each other?”

The lady laughingly said, “Yeah… I think so.”

That started a conversation where I explained that we had come down from the fire. They left wishing me luck. A few minutes later the woman came back and gave me her number and invited us to stay at their unoccupied apartment in Berkeley. While I told her we had other options, I was taken aback by their generosity. “Thank you so much,” was all I could say.

Last night we went out for dinner at Market in downtown St. Helena. In the back a large group of tables was filled with a group of firefighters from San Diego the restaurant had been feeding all week. This was their last night after ten days of twelve-hour shifts. As they stood to leave, after taking pictures, the patrons and staff gave the first responders a standing ovation. They and the other firefighters had saved our town.

On our way out, I noticed a sign on the window that said,  “The love is thicker than the smoke.”

Indeed.

 

10/22/17     Nathaniel Robert Winters

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wolfcontracting.com

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EARTH, WIND AND FIRE

EARTH, WIND AND FIRE, 2017

by Dina Corcoran

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napavalleyregister.com

The anxious Earth, dry and wrinkled, yearns for November rain to slake its terrible October thirst. Toasted brown grasses lay flat in surrender to months of hot summer sun.  I cannot see a single creature scurrying among them.  How can they live here?

At least the fire did not ravage our Calistoga land as it did in the Hanly fire of 1964.  It spared us this time, but how were we to know?

 

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astrobob.areavoices.com

The night before it started, we slept poorly as the wind threw a nightlong tantrum, throwing furniture around on the deck and carrying off a barbeque cover with the umbrella.  The shadowy arms of trees threatened the house as the angry wind bossed them around.  At four A.M. a phone call from my daughter Kimberly in Santa Rosa, roused us.

Her dog, Tucker, had forced her awake, and as she checked her cell phone she learned of the Tubb’s Fire.  Cell towers near her home had burned, so she couldn’t call out.  Desperate to reach us, she drove across town to the parking lot at Costco’s where she was able to complete the call.

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“Get out of there now, Mom.  There’s a fire near Tubb’s Lane, just below your place!”

She knew our house sat in the middle of fire fuel: twenty-two acres of dried grass-covered hills—with only one way out.

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abcnews.com

We had no idea we were in danger; we couldn’t see or smell anything.   Reluctantly we tossed a few possessions and our little dog into the car and drove into the night, leaving home behind.  As we neared the main road, we saw fires devouring the land—in many different directions.

We had made the right decision.

The plan to join Kimberly in Santa Rosa had to be scrapped when we learned from the police station that both roads to Santa Rosa were impassable because they were burning.  We simply headed south.  Perhaps we’d take shelter in a motel near Vallejo.

As we traveled down valley, the eastern sky glowed ominously from another fire, the Atlas fire.  And to the west a third fire painted the night sky.  It seemed like fire wanted the whole Earth.

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wired.com

Reaching Vallejo, we were put off by the traffic and congestion and decided to move on.  After crossing the Richmond Bridge we cut over to Novato and stopped at a Starbucks for coffee and a muffin. We joined the overflow of quiet customers sitting at the outside tables.  A blanket of smoke hung over the area.  Eavesdropping conversations at tables nearby, we soon realized we were among fellow evacuees, and many of us began to trade stories about how we’d come to be there, sitting in the smoke at dawn.   Many of us had no real destination, and the mood was one of hushed disbelief at our situation.

“Let’s head to the coast and look for a place in Bodega Bay,” I suggested to Alan.  A brilliant idea, I thought.  We’d be closer to home and the ocean air would be nice to breathe.  So we headed toward the coast and then backtracked, to the north again.  The innkeepers at the coast laughed at us.

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“All the places here are reserved; people have called ahead.  We have nothing for you.”

A feeling of homelessness came over us –- until we realized we could reach Santa Rosa from the coast.  We could get to Kimberly’s.

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By a stroke of good fortune, my daughter’s Santa Rosa home had had a mold infestation, and two days before the fire, her rental agency had put her up in an Air B&B while they made repairs.  She and her sixteen-year-old twin sons had moved into a place larger than their home.  There was an extra bedroom for us and a backyard for all the dogs, including our hero, Tucker, who had awakened Kimberly at 4:00 A.M.

We reached this sanctuary after six hours of roaming.  Not only was it a place to lay our heads and make a cup of tea, but an opportunity to huddle with family during the days-long fire attack.

The house, a charming, hundred-year-old thing, sat downtown far from the burned out neighborhoods. It had power, and the air was not as smoky as it was in the rest of Santa Rosa.  We would be there for twelve days.

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nbcnews.com

But the city had shut down.  The only places open for business were a coffee/bagel shop and Target.  We breakfasted with Kim and the boys at the bagel shop and traded stories with other displaced people.  Kimberly shared a tale of her friend’s husband who turned out to be a hero as they fled their rural home; he’d thought to carry a chainsaw in the car.  And sure enough, a fallen tree blocked the narrow road leading out of their little neighborhood; he was able to remove the tree so they could all get out.

After our community breakfast, we found Target to be a treasure house of useful things. We bought groceries, dog food, and a toilet brush for the B and B.

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Orville, our next-door neighbor, made several enormous pots of Italian wedding soup to give to displaced people.  He brought some over for us, and it was the best soup I’d ever tasted.   My grandsons helped to serve food at a local church to those who had no way to get a meal.  Small acts of kindness were happening all across the city.  “Love in the Air is Thicker Than the Smoke” became the slogan proclaimed by handwritten signs around town.

Our computer kept us informed of the changing fire scene. Kim’s old neighborhood of Rincon Valley was under mandatory evacuation.  Lucky we weren’t there.  A friend called from Calistoga to report that she could only see smoke when she looked towards our house.  We felt sure it was burning.  And, when the whole town of Calistoga was evacuated, we sensed doom.  There were moments we believed we had no home to return to and others where we hoped we’d be spared.

Tired of the fear and uncertainty, we began to accept the prospect of starting over fresh.  It might be nice, we thought, to find a place in town and furnish it with all new things.  Once we accepted the possibility of this outcome, Alan and I relaxed and were ready to face whatever might happen.

The five of us settled into a familial routine: Kim and I cooking and doing dishes together while the boys took turns vacuuming.  Each of us worked on the jigsaw puzzle of a dog park scene set up on the end of the dining table where we ate dinner together every night. We took walks to town and read books to get away from the constant stream of grim news on the T.V.

After twelve days of refugee status, we learned that our house was saved.  One road to Calistoga opened to traffic, and we returned home.  In the back seat of the car sat two teenage boys, each with a cat carrier on his lap, while our dog perched between them.  We would hang out together while their mother flew to Santa Monica to attend a long-planned high school reunion.

images-18.jpegOne side of the road had no fire damage, and the other was either burned or a fluorescent green from fire-retardant.  Fire fighters had kept the fire from crossing the road.  All four of us fell silent, hypnotized, as we traveled along this eerie route.

We knew for sure that our home had survived as we drove through the gate with the big red outline of a heart still decorating it.  Love was in the air.

The whims of the wind provided a happy ending for us, if not for Santa Rosa.  It blew fiercely from the northeast and stayed steady. Called a Diablo wind, it carried the fire that brought devilish destruction to so many people’s homes.  If the wind had ever gone back to its normal habit of blowing from the west, where the fire started, we would have burned.

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cbs.com

Wide swaths of bulldozed earth the size of country roads now mark up the land around my home. Cal-Fire had made firebreaks that are now a reminder of all the drama.   The rains in November will cover them with new green grass, and the Earth will sigh with relief.

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Blessings in Ashes

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“Fire Season” takes on new meaning in Sonoma and Napa Counties, California. Now a month after the night fires raged through our mountains and valleys, cities and vinyards, homesteads and housing complexes, people are telling their stories. 

Memoirist Lynn Hakes’ Napa neighborhood wasn’t evacuated or burned. They were some of the lucky ones, but the disaster didn’t leave anyone untouched. Here is her story. 

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Photograph Cathy Carsell October 9, 2017 Napa Valley

Blessings in Ashes

Lynne Hakes

Waking up to a red glow in the bedroom, I wondered what was happening. Was it the end of the world? Then I smelled it – smoke. Out of bed in a flash, I peeked outside and saw nothing. The radio! Maybe there’s something on the radio. The dreaded words shot through me like a bullet: “…fire in the Napa Valley.”

“Quick, grab your bathrobe.” I muttered to myself out loud. Flying down the stairs, tripping on the last step, turning on the TV, there it was. Crackling fire; embers flying everywhere. Announcer in a blue jacket standing in front of blazing pine trees. This was a big deal.

My husband followed, and we settled down to watch, he in his recliner and I on the couch. We were rapt, struggling to understand what we were seeing and hearing. No thoughts of coffee; no thoughts of breakfast, we sat there wide-eyed for the rest of the morning. Will it come to Napa? Should we be prepared to run?

Well, we should probably get ready. Grab the birth certificates and the passports. A few family pictures off the wall; the albums are too heavy. Address book, purse, phones, medications. Clothes? What do you wear to an evacuation? Is there gas in the vehicles?

Phone calls came from family and friends out of state. “We’re OK. We’ll call you if that changes.”

I don’t remember getting dressed or eating that morning. Longing to help in some way, we tore ourselves away from the TV and made the rounds of the shelters, offering to volunteer or bring food or water. We were too late; there were already enough people with offers of help. They turned us away.

Back at home we sat glued to the TV the rest of the day and into the evening. Again, the next day. And the next. We were safe. A few miles east, a few miles west, people lost everything. Why were we spared?

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As the days went by, gratitude replaced fear and anxiety. Gratitude for our safety; gratitude for the firefighters, the medics, the brave souls who worked together to warn, to help evacuate, to organize the shelters, to feed people. And compassion for those who lost homes, businesses and loved ones. Struggling to imagine their losses and their feelings, I knew I couldn’t come close.

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Hearing more and more stories of loss, my feelings of guilt crept in. Survivors’ guilt, they call it. What do I do with that? Are there lessons to be learned?  Be a little more tuned into people, their stories, their fears, their feelings from now on? Could more caring and compassion replace guilt?

Is it possible to find blessings in the ashes?

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From Hell

Prolific Napa Valley novelist, poet and memoirist, Nathaniel R. Bob Winters,  shares his impressions from the night of fire. Bob’s second book of poetry, Another Revolution, is now available.

 

From Hell

Nathaniel R. Bob Winters

Flames surround us

here in Saint Helena

north in Calistoga and over

the redwood pass in Santa Rosa

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Flames surrounds us

south in the vineyard hills above Napa

southwest in the Valley of the Moon

smoke is suffocating thick as syrup

 

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Flames surround us

the land I love my Eden is on fire

Should we stay or should we go?

Electric power, phones, internet is out

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Flames from hell surrounds us

We pack one car—leave the other

What to take–what to leave?

Whatever—we flee to San Francisco

 

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Flames over Napa Valley October 9, 2017   Photo by Cathy Carsell katiyakarma@yahoo.com

Thanks to all the photographers who documented the devastation and the outpouring of love  and helping hands.    ~AM

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Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper

 

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Fanny Newcomb, the plucky heroine of Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper, is a woman ahead of her age and from the first sentence, I knew Fanny was my kind of girl.

shoppingThe story opens on a Friday in April, 1889. Fanny is battling with a Hammond typewriting machine and “all hell would break loose” if she hadn’t mastered it by the time her typing students arrived the following Wednesday. Fanny had managed her Father’s law office for a decade but she’d never seen a typewriter before, something she’d failed to mention to her employer, Sylvia Giddings, Principal and Founder of Wisdom Hall Settlement House, at the interview. When her father died, Fanny lost her livelihood, failed as a lady’s companion and run out of resources. The school, located in the impoverished Irish district of New Orleans, offered business classes to the local women and appealed to Fanny’s sense of justice. And besides, teaching was better than marrying and being relegated to home, hearth and afternoon tea with New Orleans society ladies. A life without meaningful work is anathema to Fanny.

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Hull House

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Fanny is distracted by the incessant ringing of the infirmary bell and rushes to find twelve-year-old Liam who delivers the news: Dr. Olive Giddings, Sylvia’s sister, is needed at Connor’s Court because someone has been murdered. The women race to the scene and find Nora, Fanny’s star business student, strangled and meet Charity Hospital’s ambulance driver, a doctor whose manner horrifies Olive. As the crowd gathers, rumors start and soon the cry goes out, “Jesus! Joseph and Mary! It’s Jack the Ripper! Here in New Orleans!” The morning edition of the Daily Picayune echoes the crowd at the scene, reporting the woman has had her throat cut. The police don’t think it’s Jack the Ripper and come to Wisdom Hall Settlement House to arrest Sylvia’s carpenter, Karl, for the murder. Fanny knows Karl was working at the school at the time of the murder, added incentive to investigate the crime. She enlists Sylvia and Olive, Liam, beau Lawrence Decatur, tabloid journalist Clarence Holloway and even N.O. Police detective Daniel Crenshaw to help her identify the killer, free Karl and bring Nora the justice she deserves.

 

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Unknown-6Fanny’s investigation reveals more than a murderer. It takes readers through the colorful underbelly of New Orleans’s slums, saloons, prostitution and houses of prostitution. Revealed are the gulfs between the “haves” and “have nots”, the deep prejudices the Irish and German immigrants held for each other and the ingrained racism of white against black, regardless of social standing. Revealed is the rigid class system, hatred of immigrants, lack of concern for the poor and the blatant systems keeping them from rising in station.

 

The story is a fascinating look into the Gilded Age’s society, its hierarchies and mores. Women were at the bottom and unmarried women the lowest. Fanny questions her own motives and place in the world. Should she marry? Should she strive for independence? Fanny, Sylvia and Olive are spinsters and meddling in men’s work: schools, medicine, investigations. Society thwarts them at every turn. They are shunned, ridiculed, patronized and harangued by a priest as “bad women” on par with prostitutes for being unmarried and working, and like prostitutes, deserving of horrific deaths. In this intolerant and compassionless climate, it’s no wonder a wave of terror overtakes the city. Fanny, Sylvia and Olive want to exonerate Karl, but more, they fight the battle against ignorance and oppression for poor women and for their society as a whole. They are early social justice crusaders patterned after British Beatrice Webb, Americans Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Star, and Progressive Era pioneers Eleanor McMain, Eliza Nicholson and Sara Mayo.

At the end, Daniel Crenshaw is lauded as the hero to solve the case although it couldn’t have been done without Fanny and the Giddings sisters. Fanny understood that “Certainly, no one would have believed that Fanny, Sylvia, and Olive could have interjected themselves into a grisly murder, studied pornography, or visited a whorehouse and a prison. No lady could have attempted any of those social offences.”

Although author Ana Brazil’s historical detail is well researched and rich, at no time does her writing become didactic or does history drown-out the suspense and intrigue. Fanny is a risk taker and has a gift for theft. She manages to steal important documents that help her win the respect of her allies and solve the case. Between the three women of Wisdom Hall Settlement House, they bring most of the resources they need—Fanny’s clever, intelligent mind and legal training, Olive’s deep knowledge of the human body and medicine, and Sylvia’s connections and social standing—to solve the case. Each has something to offer, but it’s Fanny who has the mental acuity to see the patterns and put them together, leading her into extreme dangers. My pulse pounded during the story’s harrowing climax (no spoilers!)

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At the end, Brazil leaves readers with hope that there will be another Fanny Newcomb book. “But Fanny Newcomb also knew that she was not finished with investigating or questioning or detecting. And that she would look for any opportunity to seek out justice again. . . .” And what was that frisson I noticed between Fanny and Daniel Crenshaw? I can’t wait for the next adventure to see if Fanny will cave to societal expectations or forge ahead doing what she loves.

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anapat_1505963276_75I want to wish Ana Brazil hearty congratulations on the publication of her first historical novel. It’s a fun, fast, informative, can’t-put-it-down read for anyone who loves New Orleans, the Gilded Age, strong women protagonists, mysteries and the Southern writing tradition. I love them all!

For a photographic exploration of Fanny’s time visit Ana’s Pinterest Board: Fanny Newcomb and the Irish Channel Ripper

 

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Fling!

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Last October I attended an event of the San Francisco Chapter WNBA, Women’s National Book Association.  Member authors presented their lately published books, and I was captured by Lily Iona MacKenzie and her 2015 release, Fling! I ran right to the signing table after the presentations and bought a copy, although later I received an audio version, which I listened to on trains crossing Spain (no plain, no rain.) IMG_4204.JPGDelighted, I wiled away the hours lost in the scenery and MacKenzie’s imaginative and wacky story of mothers and daughters, fulfilling one’s dreams and the magic that comes when you live life to the edge and possibly over. I felt like I was on my own quest, living my Spanish vacation to its maximum, experiencing the magic of discovery and expansion that comes with travel to new places. Everything thrummed with excitement, including my book—Fling!  Life couldn’t have been better.

Several days later, the book finished, and watching the lights coming on from our balcony overlooking La Sagrada Familia, I ruminated on Fling!. IMG_4013Set between three generations of women and four countries, much of the story takes place in Mexico. I know Mexico well and thought about what I’d learned by visiting the “parent” country, Spain. The mysterious twisting cobbled streets of the medieval cities, the ubiquitous artistic expression, the grand churches, the tile work, the crowds promenading through tapas bars in the evenings, the sense of happy self-actualization of the Spaniards—the foundation of the Mexican culture. I even found the magical realism: on the strains of symphonic music wafting through Granada’s cathedral, the phantasms flitting in the gardens of Generalife, the rain-bowed light streaming through the glass of La Sagrada Familia, the voices of antiquity whispering from somber portraits in the Prado Museum, the sensual buildings of the Modernista, a cathedral in the middle of the Mesquita! IMG_4901Then it was November 9th and only the unreal remained. We’ve had almost a year lacking magic. I say it’s time to look away from the devastation of the environment and our rude and hateful world of racism, deportations, killing sprees, and the crumbling of our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s time to find life’s fountain of youth and wonder again. Fling! is full of it.

Unknown-3Like any compelling saga, the story is told in multiple points of view across a span of three lifetimes. It opens with Malcolm MacGregor’s story of how his granddaughter Bubbles, née Heather, “had danced right off one of his paintings, landing in the family potato patch. . . .” in  1906 on the Isle of Skye, where “unpredictable things happen.” Her hippie daughter, Feather, has also inherited the Scottish sensibility of unpredictability, which shows up as  “Manannán  Mac Lirs’s underworld” in her paintings.

Bubbles has convinced Feather to come home to Calgary, Canada from San Francisco to celebrate her 90th birthday, but she has another motive. Bubbles has received a notice from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left seventy years earlier, in the late 1920s. Heather had left her family to go to Mexico with a married man. Bubble wants Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial.

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The story of their odyssey is woven together with the stories of their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The two women travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then in Mexico over six months. In magical Mexico, Feather learns much about her mother. She hasn’t fully believed her mother’s story, but when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, she begins to understand the depth of her and her mother’s magic. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, helped by Indian villagers mistaking Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess and praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again, realizes she’s overlooked her own mother.

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San Miguel de Allende internationalliving.com

Bubbles’ quest and a new man in her life has increased her zest for life. A life-long entrepreneur, she’s convinced she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral spring outside San Miguel de Allende and she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it. A natural risk taker and believing she’s immortal, Bubbles lives life to the fullest in every way. Feather learns from Bubbles’ youthful spirit that it’s never too late to realize your dreams. Both have found the fountain of youth and they know that they will see everyone again, “if not in the flesh, then their souls hovering as a hummingbird, or fluttering as a butterfly, or floating above the earth as clouds.”

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Mackenzie has created two strong characters who are hilarious and endearing. Bubbles is a zany gypsy who takes after her mother, the ashes left at the dead letter office. She’s tough and tender and wants to reconcile with both the mother who left her and the daughter she left. At 90, she’s finally come of age and found the love of a good man. Feather, née Heather, at 57 is a San Francisco artist who desperately wants to break free of the male dominated world. She loves her mother but can’t quite connect to her as Bubbles lives inside a bubble that Feather feels has never burst. Feather grew up in her mother’s shadow, “. . .a moon, orbiting a planet.” and has worked hard to become her own person. Pragmatic, fearful and a worrier, she’s not much of a risk taker except in her art. She longs to be in charge of her own life. For all Bubbles exuberance, Feather is equally reserved, although she’s got a sharp eye and makes funny observations.  She’s Bubbles’ touchstone and Bubbles is Feather’s catalyst to relax and enjoy life.

 

The story is told in both past and present tenses. Mackenzie’s skill in sliding in and out of tenses and in and out of voices is superb. Chapter headings clue readers into time periods and goddess images separate scenes. In the audio version I listened to in Spain, Anna Crow, the reader, modulated her voice sufficiently to follow the changes and determine the speaker. I had no problem keeping up with her reading.

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Mackenzie’s language is straightforward and sensory. Her descriptions are vivid and progress to surprising comparisons and existential observations throughout the book. For example, On the plane to Mexico City they encounter a storm: “Lighting rips open the night sky, ragged edges illuminating patches of earth below. She [Bubbles] tries to ignore the severe turbulence. It reminds her of riding horses on the farm. . . . She could be going along, enjoying the ride, when suddenly all hell would break loose. . . . But then, life is like that. Everything seems fine. Then suddenly, it isn’t.” It’s these observations that are the real charm of the book. It’s like living inside the characters’ minds. And of course, these characters think the wildest things!

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In part, the collision of their Celtic roots and lore with the rich blend of Spanish colonial and indigenous Mexican characteristics and culture they encounter in Mexico is what makes this all work. Of course, magic happens! The dead come to visit, old ladies are mistaken for long awaited goddesses, and people change while finding their dreams. Ultimately, it’s the joy of life, la alegría de la vida that is the Fling! fountain of youth and it can be found or re-found at any age. Rereading passages of Fling! as I write this review has lifted me above my profound sadness for the most recent gun violence in our country. I’m feeling kinder toward our leadership. I feel like dancing, in fact. Maybe a Mexican Hat Dance? Fling! is a perfect book for now. As renowned author Lewis Buzbee puts it, Fling! is both hilarious and touching. Every page is a surprise, and the characters! I especially loved Bubbles, one of the most endearing mothers in recent fiction. A scintillating read.” ~Lewis Buzbee, award-winning author of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshopg review and faculty at University of San Francisco MFA program.

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