Ethan and Callie?

This from a sleepy reader:

Midnight and I can’t get to sleep until I ask this question: what’s wrong with Callie? I understand that she’s been abandoned by everyone she’s ever loved, but I just can’t get at the core of her, and it’s keeping me up at night! She’s so shut down, emotionally. She’s a volcano ready to go off. Can you please speak plainly about her? Thanks. My second or third time reading though the series and it’s new to me every time. Love, love, love these books.

It goes against the grain to answer questions like this. Generally it’s up to you, as reader, to interpret the story as you see fit. You might decide that Ethan has been replaced by an alien and is working undercover to arrange the destruction of mankind. I doubt you could convince me, but I couldn’t tell you you’re wrong. If that’s where the story went for you, then that’s the end of that.  You may have a theory I find hard to fathom, but that is your right.

So let’s look at Ethan and Callie.

Things you know for sure:

  1. Ethan lived in Manhattan for two years because his uncle Todd’s will demanded it of him. He didn’t return to Paradise in  that time.
  2. He’s a friendly guy, and so he will have made friends. He sees Martha Kirby quite regularly, and tutors her. He’s very attached to the Spencer family, which is where Martha lives as the Spencers are her guardians.
  3. He leaves New York to return to Paradise quite suddenly.
  4. Once back in Paradise there’s no talk of friends in Manhattan, no overt sign of letter writing, no visitors.  He is, essentially, without immediate family though he always included in the Bonner family affairs as Elizabeth’s nephew.
  5. He dedicates himself, all his energy and resources, into putting the village back on its feet after years of decline. His small circle of friends includes Callie ad Daniel, Blue-Jay and Runs-from-Bears and Nathaniel.
  6. In all the time you’ve known him, he has never shown interest in the opposite sex.
  7. Martha is back in Paradise too, and eventually Jemima shows up ready to make trouble, as usual.
  8. Jemima lets it be known that she did some investigating in Manhattan and knows all about Martha’s sad little engagement. In fact, she visited Martha’s fiance’s mother and put an end to the whole ridiculous undertaking. Why she did this isn’t immediately apparent.
  9. About the same time Jemima lets it be known that she investigated Martha while in New York, she  says she did the same for  Ethan.  She voices this in a threatening way.
  10. Ethan lives on his own and is lonely. he sees Callie as someone he likes and admires, and someone who needs his help. Marriages have been founded on far worse foundations, and if he can get her to agree, they will both be better off.
  11. Because his experience is wider and he is lonely, he recognizes that same problem in her.
  12. Callie has never shown interest in the opposite sex, either.
  13. When Martha marries suddenly, Callie feels hugely betrayed and rejected.
  14. Ethan may recognize this reaction as founded in something other than sisterly affection.
  15. Ethan capitalizes on the opportunity: he couches his proposal in terms that Callie can live with, and offers her things that she needs and wants. Friendship not least among them.
  16. They marry and make a stable, peaceful, kind home where they raise Jennet and Luke’s children.  And they never sleep in the same bed.

So read through this list and then ask yourself the question: what was the basis of Ethan and Callie’s relationship?

But Jennet!?!! Why?

The most common question I get about The Endless Forest has to do with Jennet’s death and the aftermath. After Jennet died, Luke returned to Manhattan alone, leaving the children behind to be raised in Paradise. Many readers have trouble with this.

It was very common until not-so-long ago that families traded children around after the death of a parent or because of some other family disaster. Exactly why Luke chose to leave the children in Paradise is a question with dozens of possible answers, for example:

  • Jennet told him she wanted her children raised in Paradise, or
  • Luke’s business concerns were failing, and he didn’t know if he’d have the finances to provide the staff and resources the children would need, or
  • Luke fell into a depression so deep he was barely able to take care of himself, or
  • One or more of the children developed complications after the infection that killed Jennet, and needed the kind of medical care they could only get in Paradise,

I’m sure I could come up with a couple dozen reasonable scenarios, but my job is done. I have to sit back and let the readers decide what happened and why it happened. An author who tries to explain a character’s actions after the fact comes across as somebody unsure of the story. I am very sure of my story.

I loved/hated the epilogue at the end of The Endless Forest: Why oh why did you do that?

People seem to feel strongly about the epilogue at the end of The Endless Forest: they love it, or they really, really do not love it.

I wrote it because I personally needed to have some closure, and to say goodbye to my characters. The idea that they were wandering around out there in the world and having adventures without me just did not sit well.

There are people who like surprises, and people who don’t. I do not like surprises. I prefer to know. And thus the epilogue.

As to how I decided about each character: I often flipped a coin. Is person x going to die in his sleep in a happy old age, or die in his forties, unhappily?  Sometimes I just know — I know what happened to Simon, for example, but other times I need a push.  This is one of those odd things about writing that is hard to explain.

Isn’t Elizabeth too much ahead of her time?

This question always takes me by surprise. I am reminded of myself at about age eleven, when I figured out about the relationship between sex and pregnancy. I was watching Johnny Belinda — a movie about a deaf woman who is raped and has a baby, a story set maybe in the forties or so — and I realized with huge surprise, disquiet and even disbelief that those people knew that sex led to having babies! I couldn’t believe it. I was positive this discovery must be very recent.

Elizabeth Middleton is no damsel in distress.
Elizabeth Middleton is no damsel in distress.

Women in the late 18th century were very much aware of their lot in life. Not all of them protested publicly (most of them did not have the means to do so); certainly not all of them had any objection to the status quo. But many did.

While the struggle was a hard one, women of the period wrote fiction and poetry and social commentary. Women were extremely active in the abolitionist movement (which began in Europe, not in the U.S.); they founded hospitals and schools. Mary Wollstonecroft was not alone in calling for a more reasonable and fair approach to educating girls. So no, Elizabeth is not at all ahead of her time. She is unusual, yes, but that’s why she’s interesting.

How much creative license did you take in writing about the Mohawk culture and overall day-day life back then?

The truth is, sometimes details are not available no matter how hard you search, and you have to make logical jumps. I could find out a great deal about Mohawk village life, but not everything. When I couldn’t avoid the murky areas, I tried to extrapolate as cleanly as I could. For example, I never did find out with any certainty what materials were used for swaddling baby bottoms. I assume it was some kind of moss, as that is used for similar purposes, but it’s only an educated guess. As far as daily life for others — European types — there was more information available. I have hundreds of books on topics as diverse as lighting fixtures and household servants to the way in which a birchbark canoe is constructed, from the bottom up. I also had consultants — generous people with expertise in various areas. A surgeon who happens to be an expert on historical methods in hunting and trapping. A specialist in infectious medicine. An expert on the history of Scotland; people who do historical recreations of the French and Indian wars, and know first hand every detail down to how itchy the wool underwear can be. So I did my best — but I know, as any author who is honest with herself knows — that anachronisms will have slipped by me, and that it is almost impossible for me to really know what it is like to live in a world that is lit only by fire.

Who exactly is Hawkeye in your novels?

James Fenimore Cooper wrote a series of books called the Leatherstocking Tales. His main character was Natty [Nathaniel] Bumppo (also called Hawkeye, and several other names), and seemed to be based on the legends that grew up around the real life character Daniel Boone. One of his novels was The Last of the Mohicans; another, set in Hawkeye’s later life, was The Pioneers. The Last of the Mohicans has been filmed a number of times, the last and most memorable by the director and producer Michael Mann. That is the movie staring Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe. In Mann’s version of the story, Hawkeye’s real name was Nathaniel Po. I wasn’t so much interested in retelling the story of The Last of the Mohicans — that has been done often enough — but I was interested in Hawkeye’s later life. So I set out to do a few things: first, write a very loose retelling of The Pioneers (keeping some of the plot, some of the characters, and some of the themes, especially the environmental ones); second, to tell the story from the female perspective (Cooper was a fine storyteller, but he didn’t write women very well — they come across as idealized and two-dimensional); third, to put my own spin on the legend of the frontiersmen who populated the New-York frontier; fourth, to try my best not to contribute to the stereotypes rampant in literature about the Mohawk. I hoped to portray them as a people who survived in spite of great hardship. Because I wanted to put my own version on paper, I changed Hawkeye’s name yet again. Not Bumppo or Po or Boone, but Bonner. So I have a Dan’l Bonner and his son, Nathaniel Bonner.

Where did you get the idea for the Wilderness novels?

Into the Wilderness came into being because I wanted to read stories of the women on the New York frontier in the post-revolutionary period. Since no one else seemed inclined to write those stories, I began to consider writing one after re-reading James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers. While I was pondering how such a story might be approached, I saw Michael Mann’s 1992 film adaptation of Last of the Mohicans, and that provided the spark: what if (as Mann implies at the end of his film) Hawkeye and Cora actually married and made a home for themselves in the wilderness? This was contrary to Cooper’s storyline for the Leatherstocking Tales, in which Hawkeye ends his days sad and disillusioned. So I gave Hawkeye and Cora a son, Nathaniel, and I opened the story almost forty years after the fall of Fort William Henry. But I needed a female character to challenge Nathaniel and the wilderness both, a woman who would come to see the endless forest with new eyes. I was re-reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion (I try to reread all of Jane Austen every year) when I began to wonder about her characters. What would Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice have done, how would she have acted, if Darcy had decided to pursue his future in the wilderness of the newly formed United States? What if Captain Wentworth, upon marrying Anne Elliot and taking her away from her obnoxious Kellynch family, had said “let’s see what adventures await, let’s get out of this genteel country neighborhood setting?” What about Jane herself, if she hadn’t come down with the disease that killed her at such a terribly young age, what if she had been given the opportunity to travel away? Of course, Jane Austen probably would not have given up her quiet home and family. But her characters, there was another issue. Thinking about them, eventually my Elizabeth Middleton took shape: a woman aware of the world and her role in it, and never quite resigned to either. She has some of Elizabeth Bennett’s insight, Anne Elliot’s curiosity about the world, Elinor Dashwood’s extreme rationality, her sister Marianne’s passion. But there is also a dash of Mary Bennett in Elizabeth: the book-obsessed young woman understood by none of her family. Mary Bennett has always seemed to me the one female character in Pride and Prejudice who gives away some of Jane Austen’s own weaknesses. Austen is unable to show any kindness towards Mary, and I have always wondered why. So this was my opportunity to take these women out of England, and to see them make their way in a different kind of world. Thus Elizabeth Middleton slowly took shape.