January 2006/2007
W. W. Norton & Company
New York, London
ISBN 978-0393061109 / 978-0393329759


peter at thefugitivewife dot com

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Finding the Story

When my Minnesota schoolmates played the game "what are you?," meaning Norwegian or Swedish, I liked to say, "Half Eskimo." I wasn't, but the fantasy had come to me from my grandfather's scrapbooks of the Nome, Alaska gold rush. Sepia images showed Eskimos in front of skin boats and smoky fires, company men in wall tents wearing fur-ruffed parkas, rifles hung on the wall, polar bear skins for bedding.

When I decided to write a novel, I opened my grandfather's diaries expecting to find my story. Let it be said, the man was terse. His first entry as he departed for Alaska read: "Friday, May 18, 1900. Left Worcester for New York by boat from Providence. Ran over woman leaving Worcester. Fog all night." My imagination was going to have to roll up its sleeves.

From New York my grandfather headed for Seattle. There was no express in 1900, and when the train pulled into Moorhead, Minnesota, I put a woman aboard. Her name was Essie. She was a farmwife in a faded blue shirtwaist, unused to trains, and I had to nudge her up the aisle and practically shove her into an empty seat among my grandfather and his associates, hoping to get something going.

Essie was leaving a bitter marriage, and had no time for the social niceties. The men of Worcester knew the value of a strong woman, and by the time they set sail from Seattle, she'd been hired-on to care for their horses and was fast on her way to taking over the novel.

I flew to Nome to get my characters off the ship, but Essie insisted on equal time for the pan-flat wheat country of Minnesota's Red River Valley, so I went there, too. An emptier landscape would be hard to find. Yet, through her eyes, it filled with the drama of life: blizzards, floods, fires.

Chickens were a source of pride and diversion for Essie, and I logged in to a poultry newsgroup for help (posting under the name of my cat, hoping to deflect spam). "Dear Gracie," came a prompt reply. It was from a daughter of Saskatchewan who turned out to know her chickens and then some. I fired off thanks and confessed my name and gender; my correspondent, also a cat lover, was "entirely delighted to encounter someone for whom disingenuous counts."

Our email conversations soon roamed as far and wide as the prairie itself. When I wrote that Essie had decided to keep a runt rooster, my new friend answered: "There are good reasons to cull rigorously. By six months they should be at work or in soup!" Yet my friend herself admitted to taking up the tweezers to help a defeated chick emerge from the shell: he came out with his neck crooked like a finger and stumbled in circles to find his water dish, the circumference of his world slowly widening as his neck grew straighter.

Something about that image has stayed with me: its aptness as a metaphor for Essie's journey, and for how I found my story.

-Peter C. Brown