Tag Archives: women

A Polish American recalls war, exile, and Stalin’s gulag

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Donna Solecka Urbikas is the author of My Sister’s Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia, published by the University of Wisconsin Press. We talked with her about some of the personal details of her family, childhood, writing process, and experiences as a mother that relate to her memoir.

What inspired you to write this story?

I grew up with these stories because my mother, Janina, never stopped talking about what had happened to her and my sister, Mira, during World War II. They were taken by Soviet secret police from their farm in Poland and sent to Siberia to be forced laborers. Their eventual escape to freedom was a terrible ordeal as well. I had some friends in Chicago with similar backgrounds, but their parents did not dwell on their war experiences. My mother’s intense recollections frightened me as a young child, then annoyed me as a teenager. As a young adult, I became more engaged with my mother’s stories and realized that these war experiences were something people in America knew very little about. It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that my mother finally agreed to let me write about all that had happened to her. I think then she trusted that I would understand her journey.

When did you decide these stories should become a book?

Back in 1985, I started writing only about the war experience—Urbikas-MySister'sMother-cmy mother’s and sister’s deportation from eastern Poland in 1940 to a labor camp in Siberia, and my father Wawrzyniec’s capture and imprisonment in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp. He was a Polish Army officer who had barely escaped being among the 22,000 Poles murdered by the Soviets in the Katyń Forest massacres in 1940. I felt it was important to tell the Polish war story, because in the 1980s Poland was struggling to regain its independence from Soviet control. I had family members in Poland dealing with all that, so I was well acquainted with the struggle, and it seemed like a painful reminder of what my parents had gone through. But I couldn’t finish writing the story until about ten years later.

How much older is your sister?

Mira was five years old when she was deported with my mother in 1940. I was born several years after the war, so there is a fifteen-year difference between us.

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Janina and Mira in India

What does the title of your book mean?

My sister knew our mother before all the horrible things happened to them during the war, whereas I knew only a woman who was haunted after the war. My mother saved Mira many times from starvation and disease. It was really a miracle that my sister survived at all, as most children under the age of five died in those harsh circumstances. My mother used to say that she took her (my sister) in her teeth and saved her. Mira grew up in what was eastern Poland, then in the forced labor camps in Siberia and Russia, and then in resettlement camps in Iran and India. I grew up in the comfort of 1950s America, far from any direct experience with war. Thus, the title, My Sister’s Mother.

How did your family happen to come to America?

My parents had met amidst all the turmoil in Russia after Germany attacked Russia in 1941, and Russia became an ally with Britain and France. With the Polish government in exile in England, there was pressure on Russia to release labor camp deportees and army prisoners. Of course, the Soviets didn’t want to release those workers because they were needed for their hard labor on a very small salary, so my mother and sister escaped. They tried to find the Polish Army, which was re-forming from all the prisoners like my father. They initially met the man who would become my father in the first army camp in Tatishchevo near Saratov. Later they met again in Uzbekistan, where my mother and sister were trying to find their way out of the Soviet Union. My father helped them during a very critical time when they were completely destitute, since the Polish soldiers donated portions of their rations and money to the civilians who were following them. After that, my father went on to fight the Germans with General Władysław Anders in the Middle East and Italy, while my mother and sister ended up in Tehran at a temporary resettlement camp. The British had been helping the Polish Army and Polish refugees. Later, Janina and Mira went to India, where my mother worked as a Red Cross nurse, and my sister attended a convent school. After the war, neither my mother nor my father wanted to return to Communist Poland, so as it turned out they each went to England, and there they met again and married.  I was born in England, in Coventry. The conditions in England were abysmal, though, because the British were struggling to recover from the war. So, my parents, sister, and I immigrated to America in 1952.

That history is not well known in the United States. How did you feel about it when you were growing up?

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The Polish Army forming in Tatishchevo in 1941, after release from prisoner-of-war camps in Russia and Siberia

As a child, I assumed that everyone had gone through these things, so it surprised me when I encountered American friends who were totally unaware of Poland’s history. It was not history taught during our American education. I only learned about it at home and at Saturday Polish school and Polish scout meetings. Polish history is very complicated, and even today many people do not know that Soviet Russia had attacked Poland only two weeks after Germany attacked on September 1, 1939, starting World War II. When I first began writing the book, people thought I was writing about the Holocaust and Germany’s attack. They were totally unaware that Russia had invaded Poland as well, or that hundreds of thousands civilians like my mother had been deported from what was then eastern Poland to Siberia, for essentially slave labor. My mother had to work in timber operations in the middle of harsh Siberian winters while my sister had to be left alone in the labor camp to fend for herself getting food. Mira’s father had been imprisoned and was not with them.

This story is a romance, too, amidst the terrors of war.

Yes, it is a romance—that two people thrown together in the midst of horrible circumstances would somehow find each other after the war and have another child. They hoped to regain at least some of what had been lost to them in Poland.

Poland did not exist as an independent country during its partitions by Germany, Austria, and Russia for 123 years before World War I. After World War I, Poland regained its freedom. My parents’ generation who grew up between the World Wars was uniquely, stubbornly patriotic and always longed for the Poland that was no more. After World War II, Poland had become the spoils of victory for Soviet Russia in the rush to end the war. It became a completely different country, one in which my parents would not be welcome. My mother’s farm was no longer part of Poland, but was now in Belarus. She had lost all her documents during the turmoil of her escape from the Soviet Union during the war. My father, as a former Polish Army officer, would have likely been deported back to Siberia, where some of his officer friends ended up.

It would be only in 1989 with the fall of Communism in Poland that things changed again, and Poland emerged as an independent country. Though my book is a memoir, readers will learn much Polish and World War II history.

In writing the book as a memoir, you had to face some of your own challenges as well. What were they?

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Mira and Janina in Tehran

I really didn’t want to write about myself at all, but the teachers at the University of Chicago classes convinced me that I could not write my mother’s memoir, that it would make a much more interesting story if I included myself. By then my parents had passed away and my children were almost grown, so I began to reflect on how these war events and my mother’s constant reminders of them had affected me. I began to see parallel stories from my own life. My teenage son’s battle with cancer reminded me of how my mother had tried to save Mira so many times throughout the war, and later when Mira suffered from mental illness. The conflicts I had with my mother as I was growing up began to make sense, as I began to understand her from the perspective of being a mother myself. I began to appreciate my parents’ longing for a simple farm life away from the intrusions of city life and their wish to find a connection with life in Poland before the war. I began to understand my internal conflicts with religion, and what it meant to be an immigrant in America, the tug of culture and identity that was being lost in my own life as well as in the lives of my children. I began to forgive my mother for all her craziness, to appreciate what she had gone through. In the end, it was a catharsis for me, as it was for her, to know her story would be told.

What would you like readers to take away from your story?

Certainly, I would like them to know and appreciate the struggles that Poland has had to endure over the course of time and how people like my parents emerged from the turmoil of World War II. It is a struggle that continues, a lesson still to be learned: the effects of war do not end, often affecting subsequent generations in ways that are not easily recognized until it is too late.


Donna (Danuta) Solecka Urbikas was born in Coventry, England, and immigrated with her parents and sister to Chicago in 1952. After careers as a high school science teacher and environmental engineer, she is now a writer, realtor, and community volunteer. She lives in Chicago with her husband. You can visit her website at http://danutaurbikas.com/

 

The Search for My Spirit Sister

A guest post by Sara Rath. Her new book Seven Years of Grace: The Inspired Mission of Achsa W. Sprague is published by the Vermont Historical Society. (It is distributed by the University of Wisconsin Press.)

Rath-7-years-of-Grace-cWhen you write someone’s biography, it’s like assembling a puzzle. But if that person lived in the mid-nineteenth century, you can’t simply dump all the pieces out on the table and begin connecting them. Instead, you sort out the few odd pieces that you have. Then you search for the rest.

But . . . what if someone has slightly altered the few available pieces, smoothed the corners to fit his own moral doctrine?  And what if there are empty spaces, missing parts you can’t find?  The story of Achsa Sprague posed these dilemmas from the start.


Lily Dale is a Spiritualist community in upstate New York, and that’s where I first saw Achsa mentioned in a book that had been loaned to me. A footnote revealed “The Achsa W. Sprague Papers held by the Vermont Historical Society are, as far as I can ascertain, the only extant personal papers of a nineteenth century Spiritualist medium.” I was intrigued.

I purchased my own copy of the book and tore out the page with Achsa’s portrait—it’s also on the cover of Seven Years of Grace—and pinned it above my desk. There was something about her eyes, that steady, almost defiant gaze that challenged me to dare to look away.

Her enigmatic stare was appealing, and I felt similarities between us. Achsa was from Vermont. I had earned my MFA in Writing at Vermont College in Montpelier, and taught in the Goddard College MFA program at Plainfield. Achsa wrote poetry and I’d already published four books of poems. She was a missionary; that had been my childhood dream. I was intrigued by Spiritualism (I’d been enrolled in the Lily Dale workshop “The Personal Development of Mediumship,”) and we were both feminists, day-dreamers, progressives. She’d kept a daily journal, and I’d kept one since 1962. I was also a biographer and sensed there was an untold story hiding behind Achsa’s gaze.

I wanted to plunge into research right away, but I was in the midst of writing other books. My enthusiasm for Achsa would have to be sustained for a year or two, I thought. In July of 2000, I returned to Vermont, ready for work. I had already studied a published version of Achsa’s diaries. The originals had been purchased in the late 1930s at a Rutland bookstore by Leonard Twinem who, in 1941, offered an edited version for publication in The Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society under his pseudonym, Leonard Twynham. Achsa’s entries began on June 1, 1849, “Once more I am unable to walk or do anything else; have not been a step without crutches since Sunday and see no prospect of being any better; see nothing before me but a life of miserable helplessness.” On her birthday, November 17, she wrote of her disillusionment:  “Twenty-two years ago today, a new life sprung into existence; the earth received a new inhabitant; a spirit clothed in the garments of mortality. . . . And this is my destiny, mine. My own sad history.”

Twinem’s cunning edits drove me crazy. After “my own sad history,” he followed with an ellipsis (indicating sentences deleted) and then, “Mr. Woods people want me to teach school there this winter, but don’t think I shall.”  Achsa’s rebirth was suddenly revealed in 1853 when “After a long, almost a three years silence again I unfold these pages, once more to trace upon their surface the thoughts of a long-tried heart.”  A miraculous transformation had occurred (had Twinem omitted that part?): Angel guardians had cured Achsa and obtained her promise to spread the word of Spiritualism and the fact that we do not die.

I found Achsa’s grave at the Plymouth Notch cemetery. The words “I Still Live” carved on her blue marble tombstone were nearly hidden by weather stains and spreading lichens. I realized that, by writing her biography, I could help Achsa still live.


 

I hired a fellow Vermont College MFA grad, Caroline Mercurio, to join me in viewing the extensive collection of Achsa Sprague materials in the Vermont Historical Society archives. There were so many letters sent to Achsa, all written with quill pens and difficult to decipher. Caroline photocopied each letter and sent packets to me throughout the next year. I received each thick envelope with the excitement of a child at Christmas, requiring months of quiet to painstakingly read and transcribe each. An important breakthrough occurred when Caroline noted that letters on blue stationery from a John Crawford stood out from the rest. When I placed all the Crawford letters in chronological order, an unforeseen dimension was evident: until that moment, no one had known of the intense romantic relationship that Achsa developed with this wealthy, erudite man whom she called her “Evil Genius.” Achsa’s correspondence with him was frequently quoted in his passionate replies, so the provocative exchange between the two was unmistakable: another clue in her untold story.

There were other challenges in the archival files: scraps of paper with no attributions, rough drafts of letters, even a note in mirror writing. From the abridged diaries, newspaper columns, letters, and disparate notes, I began to trace Achsa’s travels and emotions. A posthumous collection of her poetry, The Poet and Other Poems published in 1864, also contained a play with a character called “Miss Raymond.” Unmistakably Achsa, she was an improvisatrice with similar physical attributes and mystical powers.

Not unlike others, modest in her guise,

A soul of goodness beaming from her eyes.

Yet nothing marked to tell the power within,

That, when aroused, so many hearts must win.

She’d mingle in the crowd, and scarce be seen,

With thoughtful face, and modest, graceful mien;

But when her harp is once within her hands,

And rapt, inspired, before the world she stands,

A glow spreads over all her face and brow

Before which others cannot fail to bow. . .

After I returned from Vermont that summer, I was occupied with radio interviews all across the country for another of my books. In my journal, I wrote “The days pass too swiftly and I can’t work fast enough.”  I was still seeking the original Sprague diaries, writing letters and making calls to investigate their location. I spent a week at our rustic lakeside cabin with my husband, and in the silence I thought more about Achsa. “Now I can proceed with Achsa at my own pace with my own creative perspective—trusting, when it feels right, that it is right—and who is alive to contradict me, or question my possible communication with her spirit?”

Achsa and other Spiritualists were fond of quoting poet Alexander Pope, who popularized an optimistic philosophy:

. . . All nature is but art unknown to thee,
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.

This became my mantra for the many iterations of Achsa’s manuscript that I produced thereafter: if it felt right, if my intuition captured the essence of her story based my research, then the perspective could be perceived as accurate. (If not, perhaps she’d have me struck by lightning!)


 

In February, 2001, I began a rough draft of the book.  We drove east again that summer.  At Lily Dale, I searched the cluttered library of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches and found a collection of obscure Spiritualist newspapers for which Achsa had written her “By the Wayside” column, opinionated articles, children’s stories and poems. In The Banner of Light I found a first-person account of a friend’s presence at Achsa’s deathbed. On the last day of our visit, I climbed up into the creepy attic to search among bat and mouse droppings for the missing diaries, with no success.

I placed a marble at Achsa’s grave because it reflected my face and the sky. Eliza Ward, who’d been in the original Sprague home prior to its razing, drew for me a floorplan indicating the location of rooms and even the privy. She also gave me a tiny tintype of Achsa as a girl. I visited folks at the Woodstock Historical Society to explore a fascinating record of  Spiritualist activity during Achsa’s time, and we went up to the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh, where Achsa had lectured in 1856.

Without access to Achas’s lost complete diaries, my plan was to interweave the abridged diary with excerpts from letters and articles and my own narrative to tell her story. I had decisions to make about voice, tone, and organization.

A huge breakthrough occurred with my discovery of Spirit History, a website intended to “compile and preserve Nineteenth-Century American Spiritualism’s Fading Records.” This remarkable resource was created by John Buescher, who was then involved with the Voice of America. Although we’ve never met, John became a mentor whose contributions to Achsa’s story were vital, furnishing a depth and breadth that would have been impossible without his scholarship.


 

I had, by then, also become obsessed with Leonard Twinem, a/k/a L. Leonard Twynham.  I was convinced there must be some way to track a museum or a relative who might hold Achsa’s actual diaries, plus additional materials Twinem had crowed about. He’d claimed in the 1941 Proceedings that he was “contemplating the publication of a volume which will include her prose and verse and a long biographical sketch,” as he also possessed “a vast quantity of manuscript material, verses and essays, which await publication. Among her unpublished manuscripts is an autobiographical poem of 162 pages, which she composed in six days, when in such a nervous state that the spinning wheel, latches, and roosters were all muffled for her peace of mind; and also a poetic play of 75 pages dealing with the Biblical story from Eden to Calvary.”

Eccentric and parsimonious to a fault, Twinem told the Vermont Historical Society, “for the work to date I charged only the secretarial costs for transcription; and gave lots of my own time and energy aside from the large amount I originally invested in the box of Sprague items I have in  hand. So I feel my generosity is exhausted. Hence I give nothing away.”

Twinem’s brother Francis donated the box of Sprague correspondence to VHS in 1976, a decade after Leonard’s death, but there had been no other “literary remains” of Achsa Sprague in his possession, and he had no knowledge of them. Paul Carnahan, director of the VHS Library, said that the disappearance of the Sprague diaries and associated papers was one of the great mysteries of Vermont history. They, too, had searched everywhere, and no one in the state had a clue as to their whereabouts.

The diary search began to consume time that I should have spent writing. For example, when visiting a nurse practitioner for an annual appointment, I even mentioned my exasperation to her!  “Nothing happens by accident,” she assured me, and that night she told her friend of my diary quest. She passed along the resulting clairvoyant insights, which I dutifully passed along to Paul:

“I see a red brick building. The building is two stories. It has four steps up to the front door.  The building has 241 associated with it.  That might be a building number or a zip code or something. There may be more numbers but that’s all I get. You go through the door and it’s in the back corner of the room.  It’s a storeroom or something and it isn’t used anymore.  They’re gonna have to dig.  It’s more than just one and they are little books.”

Paul and Caroline then searched the cobwebbed basement of a nearly abandoned building, a warehouse where a bookshelf tipped over, spilling old copies of the 1941 Proceedings booklets. So Achsa’s diaries were there, just not the originals we wanted. Paul had been especially intrigued since 241 was the telephone exchange in the town where the red brick warehouse was located.

Vexed and frustrated, I contacted every archived collection of women’s diaries at colleges and universities in the United States. I wrote to auction houses, antiquarian booksellers in New England, historical societies. Nothing showed up.

Twinem was also a Presbyterian minister, deposed from the ministry in 1938 and restored in 1945 (what happened there?  The Episcopal diocese of New York had no idea but suggested that perhaps he “dumped the Sprague papers before being restored to the Ministry,” and perhaps “his interest in Spiritualism was why he was deposed in the first place.”)

In my exhaustive search, I acquired copies of Twinem correspondence. In a 1937 letter to the American Antiquarian society he commented about a prospective Sprague biography, “the task of assembling the material—sorting and selecting—from a jumble of letters and manuscripts, in preparation of a volume, is enormous.”

I Googled-searched Twinem, then Twynem, and obtained only a bit of useless data from the resulting letters I wrote. I requested a copy of Leonard’s will from the Probate Court of Sharon, Connecticut. A copy of his wife’s will. Nothing. I looked up Twinem’s wife Mary on Ancestry.com and wrote to a woman who’d said Mary lived with their family prior to her death. In fact, her mother had held Mary Twinem in her arms when she died, but only a few scrapbooks of Leonard’s had been in her possession. The Twinems had no descendants and nothing in the scrapbooks related to Achsa.

I finally had to admit I’d struck out.


Working with what I had, I compiled significant timelines: one for Achsa, another for John H. Crawford, and a third for Achsa’s sister, Celia Sprague, who had moved to Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, in 1853 and eventually married John Steen, a farmer from Oakfield. I hired a genealogist to help with Celia. We found the Avoca cemetery near Oakfield, and Celia’s grave next to that of her husband. Her tombstone had only her first name and this quote from Les Miserables:

“Kiss me on the forehead when I am dead  and I shall feel it.”

Prior to this, Celia’s date of death and location of her passing were unknown.

In 2003 I was awarded the Weston A. Cate Fellowship by the Vermont Historical Society, which helped with costs associated with my research.

On a rainy day in August, 2004, I spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in the Plymouth Notch schoolhouse, where Achsa had taught. With tears in my eyes, I read her poem, Lines Written in a Schoolroom:

“The school-room is deserted now,  

The happy children gone,  

and silence rests upon the spot 

So strangely, sadly lone…” 

The rain let up when we held a short ceremony at her grave, then it started raining again.


It has been twenty years since I first learned about Achsa Sprague. Since then, I’ve published four other books. Between each project, I returned to Achsa. First, I revised a scholarly, footnoted, third-person manuscript from 2004 that now rests in the Vermont Historical Society Archives and contains everything remotely relevant, down to the last painful detail. Next, I tried for a more engaging third-person version. Then I let Achsa tell her story.  First-person was fiction, but it was liberating to let her have her say! Finally I settled on allowing Celia to speak, since many letters from her had been kept in Achsa’s files. Celia’s point-of-view was historical fiction, but I lived in Wisconsin, knew its history and I could “imagine” details of Celia’s life.  In turn, she would be able to depict Achsa with personal details as no one but a sister could. Celia could also help me create missing pieces of the puzzle. She had once told Achsa, “I can now say with the poet “whatever is, is right” so henceforth you may expect me to submit to whatever comes & then do as I best can.”

 

Then the long-sought original Achsa Sprague diaries appeared on eBay in May, 2013.  Where had they been?

The seller said the diaries had been purchased at an auction in New York. “They seemed to be very interesting diaries but once we found out who the author was, then we did think they were special.”

Special? Paul Carnahan declared the diaries invaluable! The two of us offered separate bids each day to acquire them if we possibly could. Alas, the final offers grew far beyond our combined reach. Someone out-bid us for a total of $4,997.00 on May 16, 2013. Attempts to contact the purchaser since then have been for naught.

Seven Years of Grace is based as closely as possible on truths I have been able to acquire, and where there were missing pieces of the puzzle, I endeavored to capture the essence of what most likely transpired.  (“Whatever is, is right.”)

This was scribbled while I sat near Achsa’s grave one afternoon:

“You ask for a poem this is what I give you for its stead you are my voice and being, lightness itself shall guide you out of shadows and give you direction. . . we are sisters we share stories this is my secret and yours, our sorrows are similar and our loves as well. . .”


 

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Sara Rath

Sara Rath’s books published by the University of Wisconsin Press include three novels— Star Lake Saloon & Housekeeping Cottages, Night Sisters, The Waters of Star Lake—and a biography: H. H. Bennett, Photographer: His American Landscape.

Her novel Night Sisters includes scenes at the historic Wocanaga Spiritualist Camp in Wisconsin. See a video interview with Sara about Night Sisters and Wocanaga.

 

New Books in March 2016

We are excited to announce six books forthcoming this month!Whitaker-The-Blue-Hour-c

THE BLUE HOUR
Jennifer Whitaker

Winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry
Selected by Denise Duhamel

Fairy tales both familiar and obscure create a threshold, and the The Blue Hour pulls us over it. With precise language and rich detail, these poems unflinchingly create an eerie world marked by abuse, asking readers not just to bear witness but to try to understand how we make meaning in the face of the meaningless violence.

 

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THE BOOK OF HULGA
Rita Mae Reese

Winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry
Selected by Denise Duhamel

The Book of Hulga speculates—with humor, tenderness, and a brutal precision—on a character that Flannery O’Connor envisioned but did not live long enough to write: “the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth.” These striking poems look to the same sources that O’Connor sought out, from Gerard Manley Hopkins to Edgar Allan Poe to Simone Weil. Original illustrations by Julie Franki further illuminate Reese’s imaginative verse biography of a modern-day hillbilly saint.

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REASON AFTER ITS ECLIPSE
On Late Critical Theory
Martin Jay

Martin Jay tackles a question as old as Plato and still pressing today: what is reason, and what roles does and should it have in human endeavor? Applying the tools of intellectual history, Reason after Its Eclipse examines the overlapping, but not fully compatible, meanings that have accrued to the term “reason” over two millennia, homing in on moments of crisis, critique, and defense of reason.

 

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FEEDING MANILA IN PEACE AND WAR, 1850–1945
Daniel F. Doeppers

Policymakers and scholars have come to realize that getting food, water, and services to the millions who live in the world’s few dozen megacities is one of the twenty-first century’s most formidable challenges. As these populations continue to grow, apocalyptic scenarios—sprawling slums plagued by hunger, disease, and social disarray—become increasingly plausible. In Feeding Manila in Peace and War, 1850–1945, Daniel F. Doeppers traces nearly a century in the life of Manila, one of the world’s largest cities, to show how it grew and what sustained it.

 

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SEVEN YEARS OF GRACE
The Inspired Mission of Achsa W. Sprague
Sara Rath

Distributed for the Vermont Historical Society

Seven Years of Grace is a dramatized account of the life of Achsa Sprague (1827–1862), who in the decade preceding the American Civil War lectured to audiences of thousands on Spiritualism, the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and prison reform. She presented herself as a medium, lecturing and singing hymns in a state of trance. Alone on stage, she drew acclaim and admiration but also jeers, ridicule, and condemnation. A skeptic in Oswego, New York, asked, “Why is it that all the world should run nightly mad to hear her in a pretended trance?” A Milwaukee newspaper proclaimed her words “profound twaddle from beginning to end.” Yet Achsa’s crowds continued to grow in size and enthusiasm. Grounded in the extensive collection of Achsa Sprague’s papers at the Vermont Historical Society, Seven Years of Grace is both a fascinating tale and a revealing window into the past.

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DEATH STALKS DOOR COUNTY
Patricia Skalka

The first book in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series, now in paperback

Six deaths. A grief-stricken investigator. Betrayal. Why?

“Can a big-city cop solve a series of murders whose only witnesses may be the hemlocks? An atmospheric debut.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Murder seems unseemly in Door County, a peninsula covered in forests, lined by beaches, and filled with summer cabins and tourist resorts. That’s the hook for murder-thriller Death Stalks Door County, the first in a series involving ranger Dave Cubiak, a former Chicago homicide detective.”—Milwaukee Shepherd Express

Read more here.

Christina Stoddard talks about poetry, Mormonism, feminism, gang violence, and revenge

Christina Stoddard is the author of the poetry collection HIVE, for which she is the winner of the 2014 Brittingham Prize in Poetry. Hive has just been published by the University of Wisconsin Press. We spoke with Stoddard about this fierce debut collection of poems about brutality, exaltation, rebellion, and allegiance.


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I needed to write a poem that was absolutely boiling over with rage.


Where did the title of the book come from? Why Hive?   Beehives are actually an important symbol in Mormon culture, and have been dating back to pioneer times. The exact reason why is not known for sure, but there are a few theories. One is that honeybees embody many qualities that the Church teaches its members to prize: harmony, industriousness, order, communal labor. Everyone performing their assigned role and everyone working together for the common good. Bees are cohesive and single-minded, not individual. Bees don’t deviate from the path they’re given—and thematically that is perfect for my book, which is about a teenage girl who is doing exactly that: deviating from the path she’s supposed to follow. Utah’s nickname is the Beehive State—even though they don’t really raise bees there and Utah doesn’t produce a lot of honey.

I gather from the book that you did not grow up in Utah, however.   No, I didn’t. I was born in the Pacific Northwest and grew up in Tacoma, WA, which is where the book is set. But my father is from Utah, and we visited relatives there often, so I’m familiar with a few cities in Utah.

How long did it take you to write the book?  That’s a little difficult to answer, because I spent many years

Christina Stoddard

Christina Stoddard

trying to write it and mostly failing. Originally what I produced weren’t poems, they were more like polemics. I was a very angry person in my teens and twenties, and I had to work through that anger first. A few of the poems have existed in some form for more than a decade. But most of the book was written over a period of three years, 2010 to 2013, after I had taken some creative writing workshops from poets Claudia Emerson and Ellen Bryant Voigt. Those women gave me the keys that unlocked everything else.

What sorts of keys?  I took a summer workshop at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, from Claudia Emerson, and when she read the group of poems I had turned in for class, Claudia basically told me that it seemed like I was phoning it in. She said I wasn’t pushing myself in either form or subject matter, and she challenged me to do better.

Really?  Yes. That hurt at first, certainly, but I decided there were two options: I could either give up and go sulk in the corner, or I could fling myself off a cliff of experimentation and see what happened. I chose the cliff. I started trying to write lyric poems, whereas previously my style had been very chatty, straightforward and plain, very rooted in story, what are often called narrative poems. A narrative poem has a beginning, middle, and end, and there’s usually a lot of context about what’s going on.

I took that new lyrical work and applied the next summer to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I had no idea if the poems were any good—they were way outside of my comfort zone. But I got accepted, and I took a workshop with Ellen Bryant Voigt. Ellen once  . . .  Full interview continued here Continue reading