Eden Waits: A Novel About a Utopian Community

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Maryka Biaggio is a professor of psychology turned novelist who specializes in fiction based on real people. In 2013 Doubleday published her debut novel, Parlor Games, the true story of a small-town Michigan girl turned world-class con woman. Eden Waits, the fictionalized account of a utopian community in 1890s Michigan, was published by Sunbury Press in 2019. Maryka has been on the blog before talking about what makes historical fiction tick.

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Eden Waits is based on the true story of Hiawatha Colony, a utopian community founded in 1894 in Michigan. The experiment raised many questions: Is it possible for a community to sequester itself from the larger society and its laws? What kind of a leader does it take to ably manage internal conflicts and relationships with those on the outside? Can a group of individuals develop an economic system that insulates its members from the hardships of the larger society? And is it possible for a self-contained community to survive on a long-term basis?

In the early 1880s Abraham and Elizabeth Byers sold their farm in Southwest Michigan to homestead acreage in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They invited their kin to join them, and eight families in all proved up a total of 1280 acres—enough to log, hunt, fish, and farm for decades to come. Brothers, sisters, and offspring worked to clear some of the timber-rich land, build cabins, and start gardens and orchards. Some members of the settlement took jobs at the nearby Chicago Lumbering Company to bring in wages for their families. The community was known as the Byers Settlement, and Abraham Byers reigned as its patriarch.

Then the Panic of 1893 hit, ushering in the worst depression the United States had ever experienced. During the four-year depression that ensued, unemployment soared to as high as 25%. Even before the panic struck, many people had grown restless with low wages, poor working conditions, and monetary policies that favored the wealthy. In 1892 discontented workers formed the Populist Party to represent common people—especially farmers—against the entrenched interests of railroad barons, bankers, corporations, and the politicians who catered to their wishes. The Party called for currency reform, public ownership of transportation systems, an eight-hour working day, and a pension system for workers.

Abraham Byers allied himself with the Populist Party and stumped for its candidate for President, James B. Weaver. But Weaver won only 8% of the vote, leaving “third-partiers” deflated and even more discontented with the government.

Abraham Byers refused to let the election results deter his political goals. Several of Byers’ kin worked for the Chicago Lumbering Company, and during the depression the company cut workers’ wages. Abraham railed against the company’s control over its mill workers, lumberjacks, and even independent jobbers. When the workers decided to strike, the company threatened to fire all the workers, squelching their effort. Then they blamed Abraham Byers for stirring up trouble.

That’s when Abraham discovered The Product-Sharing Village, a book by Walter Thomas Mills, a famous orator and fellow third partier. Mills put forth a blueprint for a cooperative village designed to take care of its own. The notion of an economically self-sufficient community intrigued Abraham. He found many of the conditions Mills laid out for such a village already in place at the Byers Settlement: plentiful and rich lands, hard-working people, and equipment for enterprise. Giving the settlement over to a product-sharing village, he thought, was a perfect way to redress the plight of his kin and other workers suffering at the hands of the Chicago Lumbering Company.

Abraham straightaway wrote to Mr. Mills, proclaiming his intention to form a product-sharing village. He invited Mr. Mills to join the endeavor. To his great surprise, Mills consented and moved from his well-appointed home in Chicago to the rustic settlement. Abraham and Mr. Mills persuaded all the settlement members to deed their land to the incorporated entity they named Hiawatha Colony. Their grand experiment was publicized in Populist Party periodicals. People from as far away as Texas flocked to the Colony by train and wagon, bringing all their worldly possessions, including livestock. At its peak, Hiawatha Village attracted nearly 200 members, milled its own lumber, grew some of its own crops, and sold goods manufactured on its grounds.

But Chicago Lumbering Company executives were set against Abraham and the Colony, and they took every opportunity to undermine it. The Colony found itself struggling against not only the Upper Peninsula’s harsh winters and external enemies, but internal strife as well. Abraham was eventually faced with the question: Should he dissolve the Colony and compromise his ideals or should he take over the reins himself and try to salvage the Colony?

Hiawatha Colony, like other utopian experiments, ultimately failed. But there will be more such experiments, and modern-day attempts continue to raise questions: Where is the line between community norms and societal laws? Does the government have a responsibility for people who are members of and perhaps pledge allegiance to the “laws” of separatist communities? What are the differences between cults and communities of choice?

One of the purposes of historical fiction is to remind us of the lessons learned in past eras. But sometimes what we learn is that history repeats itself.

Many thanks, Maryka. As your post suggests, we can draw parallels to today from Hiawatha Colony. Perhaps we can learn from Eden Waits.

Eden Waits by Maryka Biaggio ~~ based on the true story of Michigan’s utopian experiment. In 1893, financial panic imperils the settlement homesteaded by Abraham and Elizabeth Byers. Abraham, a preacher and self-proclaimed man of the people, rails against greed and corruption and launches Hiawatha Colony, a product-sharing community designed to support its members through self-sufficiency. But can this cooperative community withstand internal strife, the harsh wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the antagonism of the outside world? When discord rocks the community, Abraham must choose between dissolving the colony and compromising the ideals that elevated him to its patriarch.

Although numerous utopian communities were formed in the United States in the nineteenth century, there are few accounts of the day-to-day life and challenges faced by them. Abraham and Elizabeth were in their advanced years when they homesteaded acreage in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. What drove them to risk so much to build a community of kin and like-minded idealists? This carefully researched historical novel explores the struggle between ideals and practicality and the collision of political and religious realms. The events bear surprising parallels to today’s climate of polarization, questions about leadership, and concerns over corporate power.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION –  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Shaping story and character with Jean K. Carney

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Jean K. Carney is the author of “Blackbird Blues”. She spent eight years as an award-winning reporter and editorial writer at the Milwaukee Journal, covering Children’s Court, City Hall, and Roe v. Wade. She’s also been in full-time private practice as a psychotherapist for thirty years, which certainly provides a rich foundation for understanding character. 

The first character who sprang to life in what was to become my novel “Blackbird Blues” was Benny, a young man who is the son of Maureen Rieger (before she becomes Sister Michaeline) and Lucius Claremont. I was watching a drummer at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago whose furious hand and arm movements threw me back 33 years earlier to the Children’s Home in Milwaukee to a boy who was “making music,” shuffling grit on the floor with his feet and sweeping his hair and hands across the table. A reporter at The Milwaukee JournalI was the only person besides his public defender who attended his court hearing and the only person who ever visited him at the Children’s Home, where he was held for years. After many conversations, I believed him when he said he had no idea why he had killed his teacher.

My character Benny does not kill his teacher and — other than his physical attributes — he is not modeled on the boy I covered as a reporter so long ago. But my work as a reporter had tremendous influence on the creation of the plot and characters of the novel. When I started at The Milwaukee Journal, the first thing my city editor told me was, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” The habit of checking and rechecking stuck with me as a novelist. In every exchange of dialogue, in every turn of the plot, I heard my city editor’s “check it out,” meaning, not only “Is this plausible?” but also “Is this exactly what this character would truly say at this particular moment?” I remember feeling the characters were truly becoming real when one night, while we were washing dishes, I asked my husband what he thought Lucius would think of Donald Trump’s latest tweet.

Looking back on my time since 1970, I feel privileged that literally many hundreds of people have confided their deepest secrets to me, first as a reporter and then as a psychotherapist. As a reporter, I put those secrets in the newspaper long ago. As a psychotherapist, I was bound and am still bound by Illinois law never to disclose them. I have not and will not use these secrets as materials in “Blackbird Blues” or any future novel. However, as a therapist, I had to listen very closely to the people who confided in me, let myself feel whatever I was feeling, and imagine my way into each person’s sensibility and experience. That was an invaluable experience. It greatly expanded my capacity for feeling and imagining. I owe my former patients a great debt of gratitude for that. I don’t think I would have been able to feel my way into the characters in “Blackbird Blues,” or imagine their lives as I was able to do, had I not been tutored, so to speak by my patients.

“Blackbird Blues” is chock full of historical data, including the 1960s Civil Rights movement, some of which I knew from reading newspapers as a child since the late 1950s. It was with great joy that I researched the life of Lucius, the 60-year-old jazz man, Benny’s father, and Sister Michaeline’s former lover. Lucius befriends the other main character, Mary Kaye, an 18-year-old Irish-American who must deal with an unwanted pregnancy just as Sister Michaeline, her mentor and jazz coach, dies.

Lucius was one of the African-American men who served under French military command during World War I because the American military did not mix races. Having killed a man in a boxing match, Lucius shoots over the heads of the Germans. As it happens, his commanding officer sympathizes with him, assigns him to learn cooking, and becomes his mentor in French culture. Lucius returns to Chicago from the war just in time for the 1919 race riot, memorialized in Carl Sandburg’s classic “Chicago Race Riots.”

On the subject of illegal abortion, I relied to some extent on my coverage of Roe v. Wade from my time at The Milwaukee Journal. I also found most helpful the following books: “The Story of Jane: The Legendary Feminist Abortion Service” (which took place in Chicago) by Laura Kaplan; “Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America” by Marvin Olask; and “Back Rooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era” by Ellen Messer and Kathryn E. May.

Two books that were incredibly useful guides to the lives of nuns in Chicago were “He Sent Two: The Story of the Beginning of the School Sisters of Saint Francis” by Sister M. Francis Borgia, O.S.F., and “Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago’s Past” by Suellen Hoy.

It was important to me that the characters in the novel would be historically plausible in terms of time and space. And I tried incredibly hard to make sure references to historical events were as accurate as possible. As my city editor’s voice urged, I was constantly checking my memory and my hunch. I wanted “Blackbird Blues”to be a literary novel, but also truly a historical novel.

Many thanks, Jean, for sharing the background to writing Blackbird Blues. I now know who to consult when digging deep to understand character.

Blackbird Blues by Jean K. Carney ~~ With the help of sixty-year-old black jazz man Lucius, Mary Kaye O’Donnell, an eighteen-year-old Irish-American woman and aspiring jazz singer in Chicago, finds her way toward dealing with an unwanted pregnancy and the death of Sister Michaeline, her voice coach, jazz mentor, and only guide through the bedlam of her childhood.

Mary Kaye’s neighbor, Judge Engelmann, introduced her to the work of James Baldwin and the nuns exposed her to the burgeoning civil rights movement, but Lucius is the first black person Mary Kaye comes to really know. They bond over Sister Michaeline’s untimely death. Over time, Lucius helps Mary Kaye launch her career as a singer in his jazz band. He also gives her Sister Michaeline’s diary from her early cloistered years, saying it was the nun’s wish. In reading the diary and in conversations with Lucius and Judge Engelmann, Mary Kaye discovers disillusioning aspects and secrets of her beloved mentor.

This is Mary Kaye’s coming-of-age story as she weighs her options based on the diary, her faith, and her music, set against the background of illegal abortion and child abandonment in the 1963 Chicago world of civil rights and interracial jazz. It is entirely a work of fiction, but in today’s political climate one could imagine something similar becoming real.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

 

 

 

A passion for reading with bookstagrammer @basicbsguide

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Katie – aka @basicbsguide – is passionate about reading. She began using Instagram to share that passion some time ago. I’ve known Katie since she was a baby – and she’s one inspiring woman! Today, she’s sharing her story.

Why did you start blogging about or featuring books?

To be honest it was quite accidental.  I was recovering from a battle with breast cancer and was looking for an outlet to share my story and also talk about my favorite hobby – reading!  I soon found out that there was a warm and welcoming community of book lovers and I haven’t looked back since.

What type of books appeal to you and why?

I try my best to read diversely and over the past year have let mood dictate my reading life, but the stories that stay with me the longest are the ones that make me feel deeply and understand humanity and situations that are often unfamiliar to me.  I want to be a better person and I think through stories we can make strides towards that.

Do you concentrate on a specific genre? If so, can you tell us a bit about your passion for that genre.

For quite a while I was a thriller junkie and that got old very quickly.  I can only handle so many unreliable narrators.  Now, I tend to spread the love around and dabble in historical fiction, contemporary romance, literary fiction and lately nonfiction.

Who are your readers and followers? How do you engage with them?

My largest and most interactive following is on Instagram.  I post daily where I share reviews, feature upcoming releases and often follow along in book challenge prompts from other “Bookstagrammers”.  I also share quite a bit of my breast cancer journey and life in my Instagram stories and have a monthly story selfie challenge, where I encourage others to show their face.  Social media can be a place that people tend to hide behind the account so I’m trying to encourage people to make deeper connections.

If you have a blog, what features does it offer? For example, ‘best of’ lists, author interviews, a book rating system.

I don’t have a blog as of yet but I often wonder if I’m better suited for the blogging world.  I love sharing my story, inspiring others and having meaningful conversations.  Right now, Instagram is the place to be for the conversations and interactions.

What ways do you use to attract new readers and followers?

I host the occasionally giveaway for a new and upcoming release, consistently engage in others posts and reviews and again host my weekly selfie challenge.

How do you interact with authors and publicists?

This has changed greatly over the past couple of years.  I have now built great relationships with publicists so many of the books that I’m interested are showing up for consideration as opposed to me searching them out.  I love interacting with authors and would love to help promote and read every book but we know that’s not possible. I’m careful in my acceptance of review copies as not every book is meant for me.  I do have a little free library and many authors have sent me copies to put in there, which I’m happy to do.  When I read a book, I’m passionate about, I usually reach out to the author and publisher to try to figure out a way I can let a wider audience know about the book.  I’m a champion for authors and books I fall in love with.

What trends or changes have you noticed in the book world?

Over the past year, Instagram has become a bit saturated with book reviewers.  Everyone is wanting the “free books” and has forgotten why they even starting blogging and reviewing in the first place.  I’m hopeful that the true book lovers will stick around for the long run. I also think bloggers and authors are taking a step back from blogging and joining the Bookstagram community.

If you could wave your magic wand, what would you change about the book industry?

I think one of my biggest complaints is when the marketing of a book is way off base.  I saw this most recently with Lisa Taddeo’s novel, Three Women.  I was fortunately able to see past the marketing and found great value in the women’s stories but I think for most it was difficult to get past what they expected going in.

Thanks so much, Katie. Truly appreciate you sharing your thoughts and insights. Katie’s interview is part of a series on book bloggers and bookstagrammers. Stay tuned for more about those who share their passion for reading with others. 

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION – and other ideas about reading –  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.