Thursday, November 18, 2010

THEN & NOW: Cholera & Other Lessons

The novels of my Possessed Mystery series all have 2 plots: one modern mystery and one mystery set in some era of history. The stories are somehow related and come together at the end of each book. I've been asked why I do this rather than write straight historical mysteries or straight modern-day mysteries. I've actually be penalized for doing so--I'm told that my books don't qualify for awards given to historical novels. And publishers' marketing departments hate them, because they're not like what everyone else is writing, making them difficult to categorize.

I also put ghosts in my novels, and some readers assume the second historical plot is there to accommodate the paranormal aspect of the book--to explain the ghost's background. Matter of fact, the reverse if true. The ghost is there to connect the two stories, and to help teach a little history in a way that's more fun than a recitation of dry facts.

So why go to the trouble of two stories?

Last night, PBS News reported on the Haitian cholera epidemic and how many Haitians are blaming U.N. Napalese peacekeepers, saying these foreigners brought cholera to their country. Some of their protests have turned violent.

My first thought was: Duffy's Cut.

In late June 1832, Irish immigrants, some no older than teenagers, were hired at the docks and brought to Chester County, PA, to work on the construction of the railroad. Their foreman, Phillip Duffy, was in charge of filing in a ravine between two hills so that track could be laid. 57 of them were assigned to live in a single large shanty. Within 6 weeks, all 57 were reported dead of cholera.

Three years before, a cholera pandemic had begun, probably in India. It spread west through Europe to America, reaching New York by 1832 and the Pacific by 1834. Philadelphia was hit hard the summer of 1832. Many fled the city for the surrounding countryside. At the time, no one knew cholera was caused by bacteria in contaminated water. As shown on the 1830s notice above, the disease was thought to be caused from excesses of alcohol and from eating raw vegetables and unripe fruit. In addition, to the Protestants of the Philadelphia countryside, Irish Catholics were believed, not only by nature of their assumed drinking habits, but by their very religion, to be agents of infection.

Back to the young men of Duffy's Cut. Considering their deplorable living conditions, and with a pandemic of cholera already hitting the Philadelphia area, it's no wonder that by mid-August, a few of the workers came down with the disease. The rest of the workmen left the shanty, seeking food and shelter at houses up on the hills. Reports said they were all turned away and they returned to the ravine, where it was said that they all contracted and died from the disease. Most were buried in a mass grave. The niggling loophole in this story is that cholera never kills 100% of its victims. Like any pandemic, some people have better immunity than others.

Just recently, an archeological dig in the area has unearthed the remains of several of the young Irishmen and the forensic evidence tells a different story. Many died from violence. At least one skeleton showed signs of being attacked with something like an ax. Another has what might be a bullet hole in it. The current theory now is that the inhabitants of those hills did more than turn away the Irishmen. Given their fear of the disease coupled with prejudice against Irish Catholics, its likely that the residents violently forced the men back down into the valley, and possibly murdered the survivors.

So last night, when I listened to reports of Haitians blaming foreginers for their epidemic, and getting violent about it, I see the same mix of fear and prejudice. I see a repeat of history--a lesson unlearned.

A historical story can be fascinating. A modern story touching on the same human failings gives the historical story relevance. Juxtapose the two and hopefully we learn something. That's why I do it.

By the way, I first heard of the story of Duffy's Cut through an old local legend that said the ghosts of the workmen had been seen dancing a jig on their grave. Interestingly enough, the Immaculata University prof who spearheaded the excavation did so after seeing odd lights that looked like human beings jumping around one night downhill from one of the college buildings. He didn't realize it at the time, but Duffy's Cut was located at that spot.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Variety: the Herb of Life

We had our first frosts in the last couple weeks, so I harvested my herbs in a hurry and now they're drying on the dining room table or spread out on trays in the freezer. Good crop this year: basil, oregano, peppermint, spearmint, chives, sage, and coriander seeds.

The main character in my novels, Pat Montella, loves to cook. Her 90+ year-old sidekick, Miss Maggie, loves to eat. She also needs a low salt diet (as do I). Pat and I think alike--who needs salt when so many herbs are available and offer so much variety in taste?

Pat and I both like to watch cooking shows. This time of year, as I'm bottling dry herbs and I'm doubly aware of all the wonderful aromas, I'm particularly appalled by the amount of salt TV cooks dump into their concoctions. They all make special reference to it (much more so than they do pepper), and they all have a slew of rationalizations for using it. I'm beginning to suspect that they all take kick-backs from the salt industry. I watch these chefs taste their results and roll their eyes in ecstacy, but all I can taste in my imagination is salt.

Quite a few of those so-called cooking experts only use herbs as a garnish. Me? I'd rather make a great salt-free chicken soup with all the Scarborough Fair herbs (parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme), and only garnish it with parmesan cheese. Or tomato sauce with fennel, oregano and basil. Or cheese biscuits with chives and dill. Or pizzelles (waffle cookies) with anise.

In mystery writing, you'll also find lots of so-called experts touting lists of must-haves you need to put into your story. A body on page one (or at least in the first chapter). A shoot-out. A chase of some sort. Sex. More sex. The hero getting beat to a pulp, yet still fending off 6 hulky bad guys. More sex.

Good stories must have energy and action and a bit of drama, yes, but they don't all have to taste the same. An interesting poison is a nice break from shootings and bludgeonings. A battle of wits can be more suspenseful than a car chase. Anything done too much is dull and detracts from the plot--even sex.

The more alike stories are, the more boring they are. Like a diet where all the food tastes of salt.



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