Little Women

November 12, 2012

(Disc 2) 32 – Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life copy

The lives of the young women featured in Tides of Grace are not “normal.”  Each of them– Grace, Dotty, and Cornelia–lives in circumstances either dysfunctional or highly unconventional. As a result, the ‘normal’ bonds of restraint on the lives of young women in 1907 St. Louis fit these women very loosely and give them room to explore and grow in ways blocked to other young women of their class.

I have thought of them as ‘cast adrift.’ The death of Grace’s father left her family teetering on the brink of poverty. Moreover, Grace’s mother, Melba, is mentally ill. Only on occasion can she control her two children. Dotty’s family is highly unconventional in that her mother and father have what is known now as an ‘open’ marriage. Dotty’s mother is a feminist who preaches and practices ‘free love.’ She is also a prohibitionist but here she distinctly doesn’t practice what she preaches. Cornelia’s home is a battleground between her wealthy but frugal father and his social-climbing young wife, and Cornelia experiences collateral damage as a result.

Each of the young women assumes familial responsibilities abandoned by their parents. Grace sees that her family is fed and she tries to be a surrogate parent to your younger brother. Dotty takes care of a mentally retarded brother who needs constant supervision when he is not locked in his room. Cornelia acts as a buffer between her parents and she gives her father the emotional support his wife withholds.

The anomalous positions these young women occupy in their families brings each to the brink of personal liberty and this is what makes them interesting to me and fit subjects for fictional treatment.

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Shubert Theatre, St. Louis, Missouri, 1913

November 1, 2012

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Grace Ellen Lampley, heroine of Redeeming Grace: Book 2 of THE GRACE SEXTET, meets Raymond Blanchfield Dobbins while Ray is in St. Louis to oversee the construction of the Shubert Theatre and then to become its manager.

William Albert Swasey, principal architect for the Shubert Theatrical Corporation, designed the Shubert Theatre. He had also designed the Masonic Temple and Odeon Theatre, as well as the Shubert Garrick Theatre in St. Louis. The Union Electric Building Company, a part of Union Electric Light and Power, owned the premises, a lot on the SW corner of 12th and Locust. Corner Realty Company, in which the Shubert brothers held an interest, had a 99-year lease on the gound.  The Westlake Construction Company, a St. Louis company, built the 1758-seat theatre in 1910. Here  I have taken some liberty with the historical facts. In Redeeming Grace, the theatre is built and opened in 1912.

Ray Dobbins, a fictional character, managed the theatre until August 1913, when he moved to New York City to manage the Shubert’s new flagship theatre, then under construction on 44th Street, west of Broadway. Grace follows him to New York a few weeks later.

Photograph courtesy of the Shubert Archive

 

Five-Star Review of Tides of Grace, Book 1 of THE GRACE SEXTET

October 30, 2012

Set in 1907, Weldon B. Durham’s novel Tides of Grace is a captivating beginning to his planned series featuring protagonist Grace Lampley.

For seventeen-year-old Grace, accommodating the needs of her manic-depressive mother and caring for her younger brother each day adds to the pressure of her senior year of high school and worries about her unsettled future. But Grace is dependable and caring, and chooses to focus on the comfort and happiness of those around her even as she buries the emotional trauma of a devastating family tragedy that continues to haunt her.

Durham writes Grace’s character with great depth and compassion, and she emerges as a complex and conflicted heroine. Emotionally wounded at a young age, she is aware of a darker  side to her personality which surfaces during difficult times: “That part of herself was separated from her, but it went wherever she went, saw what she saw, heard what she heard … when longing or agonizing memories or fears settled over her, she sensed the eye’s alertness.” As Grace is faced with one challenging situation after another, this “dark angel” influences her decisions and leads her to make choices that ultimately threaten her own potential happiness. Durham’s writing style is appealing and the story unfolds at a steady, comfortable pace. Dialogue is consistently natural and character development is flawless; all of the characters are explored thoroughly, from Grace and her family to her friends and acquaintances. For instance, Grace’s mother clearly suffers from a mood disorder, and readers will get to know her well enough to empathize with her frustration and inability to cope. Those moments in which she finds the strength she needs to be there for her children, however brief, are deeply moving. Durham has a remarkable talent for bringing each of his characters to life, and readers will be enthralled with all of their stories.

The author capably captures the atmosphere of St. Louis in the early twentieth century, setting scenes with allusions to the escalating suffragette movement, the ongoing racial discord, and even the fashions and attitudes of the time. The realistic setting and authentic narrative adds to the credibility of the story, providing Grace’s tale the solid background it deserves. With the exception of the inconsistent spelling of one character’s name, the text is well edited and competently structured. Events flow naturally and tension builds at a satisfying pace. Grace’s story is absorbing and poignant, and the novel’s conclusion will leave readers anxious to discover where her journey will take her next.

Durham’s informative blog for the series states that he has the next two books drafted. This first installment offers memorable characters and a thoroughly engrossing story line, and readers will undoubtedly become engaged with the characters and invested in learning their fates. Tides of Grace is an exceptional achievement, and those who make the wise decision to open the book will surely be eager to read the rest of the series by the time they close it. Very highly recommended.

Jeannine Hanscom, ForWord Reviews

Grace’s doppelganger

May 30, 2012

Grace and her Doppelganger

Frankly, I don’t remember when the idea of a double, a ‘dark angel,’ for Grace came into the story. I was looking for a correlative of her damaged personality, of the disabling effect of trauma she experienced as a budding adolescent, the image of a figure floating above and around her came to me.  The figure, as I hope the Prologue to Tides of Grace makes clear, is that part of herself that has broken away from the main. As I became more familiar with it I began to think of it as large fragment of her id, the primitive, amoral dark energy that inhabits the deep recesses of the mind, the place from which mayhem and error arise. Since it is broken off from her psyche, she has little or no control over it; in fact it controls her, slipping at odd times past the defenses of ethics, social order and decorum and religious control to wreak havoc in her life.  Grace’s doppelganger has masculine tendencies; it’s quick to anger and it can be vicious in retaliation against anything challenging its authority.  It makes a thief of Grace and her thievery has disastrous results.

Tides of Grace …

April 12, 2012

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Tides of Grace is now available from FriesenPress.com/bookstore or from Amazon or Barnes and Noble or for order at over 25,000 booksellers worldwide.

Turn-of-the-Century St. Louis, Missouri

March 15, 2012

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Probably the most historically significant building in St. Louis in 1907, the time of Tides of Grace, was the Old Courthouse.  The first part of Tides of Grace ends with Grace Lampley, age 17, sitting on a bench and looking down at the muddy Mississippi River rolling by on a muggy Labor Day Monday.

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I found a floor plan and a drawing for the Lampley home in St. Louis in Shoppell’s Modern Houses published in the late 19th Century. The catalog price of this residence was $2985.  Readers of Tides of Grace will recognize the front stairs and the back stairs, the veranda, and the balconies, as well as the cellar.

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This image is from a post card from 1909. Much of “Juliet,” the second section of Tides of Grace, takes place in and around Central High School. Coincidentally, in 1927 a tornado demolished the building and killing 4 women students. It was never rebuilt.

Maude Adams as Shakespeare’s Juliet, c. 1899

February 7, 2012

A model for the physical appearance of Grace Lampley, heroine of Tides of Grace

Grace Lampley, heroine of Tides of Grace, is cast as Juliet in a high-school production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at Central High School, St. Louis, Missouri, March 1908. Audiences loved Maude Adams in the role but critics did not.  The adaptation of Shakespeare’s play used in 1899 might well have been the script used for a high school production in 1908.

Who was Grace before she was Grace?

February 7, 2012

I’m often asked how I came to write a book about a woman.  I think that’s an interesting question, and I hope my answer is interesting, too.  The Grace Sextet wasn’t about Grace, at first, and it certainly wasn’t a sextet. In 2001-02 I was on research leave from professorship at the University of Missouri-Columbia.  The subject of my research was the Shubert Theatrical Company.  I had access to the archives of the company and I wanted to learn as much as I could about how the Shubert brothers, Lee and Jacob, built their bricks-and-mortar empire. I wanted to know how they acquired so many theatres around the U. S. and in Canada that by 1916 they controlled the business of theatre in North America.  They determined what was produced and where it was produced.  Hardly anything was presented on the professional stages of the country that didn’t make money for their company.

My research uncovered a wealth of material about theatre acquisition but I also learned about the Shubert “legends,” about what ogres, or angels (depending on who was commenting) were the boys from Syracuse.  One of the legends suggested very vaguely that the boys weren’t completely honest with their partners or with one another. They were rumored to have skimmed money from their business and salted it away in secret accounts.  One of the other legends had to do with sex: Lee Shubert was alleged to have had sex every day at 1 pm and a shave every day at 6 pm.  I understood about the shave, but the daily ritual of having sex with showgirl after showgirl seemed superhuman.  Then I realized the Shubert legends contained the seeds of a work of fiction, a novel about stolen money and an endless line of chorus girls at the office door.

So I started mapping out a novel about the Shuberts. A little way into that project I decided I wanted the legends filtered through the impressions of two fictional characters who worked in the Shubert office in New York. One was a man, an accountant, and the other was a woman, a secretary who organized Lee Shubert’s busy day, including the 1 pm liaison.

It was hard for me to imagine a woman in her right mind who would be that procuress, a key part of a process that essentially demeaned so many women.  So I needed a woman who wasn’t in her right mind, a female character with just the right mixture of neuroses so she would be credible in the role, but still sympathetic to a reader.  This was a tall order.  I started writing about the woman’s mother and father, about her grandparents and her friends, and about the place and the time in which she grew up.  It wasn’t long before the character I was creating took a stand and demanded that the novel be about her.  I yielded eagerly because I had become a lot more interested in her than in the Shubert brothers.

That character became Grace Ellen Lampley, born 1890 in St. Louis, Missouri, eldest child of Robert and Melba Delaney Lampley.  And then about 6 months ago I realized Grace’s life story had six distinct parts, and so emerged The Grace Sextet. As of this writing, the first of those novels, Tides of Grace, is in press and the next two are fully drafted. The fourth is about half drafted and the fifth and the sixth are just a few sentences each.

Aren’t you glad you asked?

Somehow she couldn't get what she wanted.

Tides of Grace page proofs

February 7, 2012

They’re done and the book moves ever closer to publication, about March 15, I think

Tides of Grace: Prologue

December 19, 2011

Tides of Grace, a novel by Weldon B. Durham

 

 

Book 1 of The Grace Sextet

Prologue. “That Part of Herself”

 

“Now hurry along. You’ll be just fine. Your mother will tell you all about it.”

She didn’t think she’d be just fine. At this very moment, she hated Mrs. Berry, her sixth grade teacher, and she glowed with embarrassment. She gripped her long, pale blue skirt and pulled the fabric around to hide the stain, but she felt more damp stickiness between her legs. Her efforts to cleanse herself in the girls’ toilet had helped but only for a few minutes.

She walked the seven long blocks between Grant School and her home on East Seventeenth Street, mortification dogging her every step. Mother Nature had chosen a beautiful spring day to show the girl the treachery of her maturing body. The sun warmed St. Louis, and a gentle, dry breeze licked at her face.

Her mother had left early to spend the day with her Aunt Louise, in St. Charles. Father had walked her to her school on his way to work, his eyes fixed on the walk ten feet ahead, his pace so quick she had to jog to keep up, his face pinched into a tight scowl. He had left her on the school steps without a goodbye.

Her home huddled under the budding apple trees and peach trees surrounding it on three sides. She hurried past Grandpa Delaney’s big garden, fallow now for the second year following his death. The sight of the loamy plot without the familiar crouched figure stabbed at a spot in her heart, which was still tender from his passing.

At the front door, she immediately unbuttoned the waistband of her ruined skirt and stepped out of it. She raced up the front steps toward her bedroom and the WC between her room and her brother’s. She wore but one petticoat and she loosed the string tie holding it up when she got to the top of the stairs. As the petticoat fell she could see that the bloodstain on it was bigger than the one on her skirt. She went in the WC and started water running in the zinc-lined tub, and then she dropped her underpants to the floor. She took off her shoes and stockings, stepped into the tub, and splashed herself clean. When she was done, she dabbed herself dry and quickly went to the box on the floor of the armoire in her bedroom where her mother had stored the gear she was told she would need. She put on a belt and pad and felt immediately better, but still she shuddered from her ongoing trauma.

She put on clean underpants, a fresh petticoat, and the rough cotton skirt she wore for chores. As she collected her cast-off clothing, she noticed her father’s hat hanging on the coat tree by the front door. He wore it to work this morning. Why was it here now?

She piled all her soiled clothes in the kitchen sink, and then decided she should soak them in a laundry tub stored in the cellar. She went outside to the cellar door, which to her surprise, stood wide open.

Her mother stored her laundry tubs at the foot of the stairs that led down to the cellar. As she reached for the handle of the tub, she noticed an outhouse stench in the basement. She peered into the gloom of the cellar and saw a large object against the back wall, under a window that pierced the foundation. The glaring light from the window blinded her as she stepped toward the object. She edged nearer, feeling a slimy wetness beneath her bare feet. As she leaned forward to get a closer look, her right foot slipped and she caught herself on one knee. From the kneeling position she could see the object better.

The object was a man sitting in a chair against the cellar wall. She studied the man and slowly realized that he looked like her father, but his head was oddly shaped and his eyes bugged so that they seemed about to pop out of their sockets. The man’s mouth was wide open and rimmed with soot.

Then deep within she felt a snap like a breaking tendon and instantly she became aware that she was now looking down on the scene of the kneeling girl and the seated man. She was looking down from an impossible position, somewhere in the house, over the cellar, looking down through the floor.

Then the girl felt another snap, and she knew she was looking at the ruined head of her father. That part of herself up there—an eye, a dark angel—directed her gaze to the shotgun lying on the floor. The girl wanted to scream, but she couldn’t. The sound stopped in her throat. She pitched back, sprawling on the cellar floor. Sometime later, the girl tried to push herself to a sitting position, but her hands slipped in the goo on the floor. Finally, she managed to stand and walk to the cellar door. Before she climbed the steps, she picked up a folded slip of paper on the lowest step. She rose into the light and looked down at herself, to see—once again—that she was covered with blood. Her hands were smeared with it as were her bare feet. She looked at the back of her chore skirt and saw it was soaked with blood, and she knew the wetness she felt on her back and in her hair was also blood.

She walked across the yard and across Seventeenth Street to a house and knocked on the door. Mrs. Abrams answered and gasped. “Grace, whatever has happened? You’re covered with blood!”

“My father,” Grace said, and no more.