Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Unsolved Mysteries: The Frank Rivers Saga

Unsolved mysteries bug the living crap out of me.  I can't help it.  The human race has put a man on the moon, built skyscrapers, cloned animals, and done all sorts of stuff that seems scientifically impossible...until someone does it.  (Internet, anyone?)  So why is it so hard to figure out what happened to some people?  How can simple things like bones and flesh and minerals just disappear, or become seemingly impossible to find?

Before they found the skeletons of the Romanovs, I lost some serious sleep wondering where on earth they were.  I still occasionally lose sleep over the Amelia Earhart thing.  I've spent serious time pondering where the Ark of the Covenant could be.  These are all solvable problems...or they should be, in my mind.

But in the past year, I've lost the most sleep over one of my own relatives:  my elusive great-great-grandfather.  I've become addicted to genealogy research.  It's my crack.  The computer has to be pried out of my sleepy fingers before I'll shut it off and let go of the elusive loose end that is Frank Rivers.  He's the guy on the left in this photo, with his hand on the dog.  The man you can barely see.  The man I can't find.

Frank Rivers.  Don't suppose any of you know who this guy is?  I sure don't.

According to family information I was given, he lived in Smith's Valley, Nevada in the late 1800s.  This picture was taken there in about 1902.  Based on federal census information, I think he showed up in Cache Creek by 1870.  He sold the Nevada farm and moved south, but I'm not sure exactly when--he died in Los Angeles in 1912.  I don't know how or when he headed west, but he wasn't born here.

He filled out his census information with several different birth dates ranging from 1841 to 1845.  Most of his census answers indicate that he was born in New York about 1844.  One says "L.I.," which I take to mean Long Island.  However, Frank's daughter Hazel (my great-grandmother, the little girl sitting on the porch in the photo) answered her 1930 census with a strange response for "Father's Birthplace:"  Michigan.

Michigan?  WTF?  Why the heck would she say Michigan when in 1900, 1910, and 1920, she said Frank was born in New York?  What did she know that I don't?

Another family member, a second cousin who'd begun a family tree in the 1970s, also lists Frank's birthplace as Holland, Michigan in July of 1842.  That's not New York and it's not 1844.  Why do my second cousin and great-grandmother think Frank was born in Michigan, when he himself told every census taker who asked him he'd been born in New York?  Was he lying?  Did he have something to hide?  Or, if he was telling the truth, why would my great-grandmother have lied?  Or did Frank lie to his kids, but tell the truth to the census taker?  What's the point of that?

It makes my head hurt.

I have spent HOURS on and looking for leads.  This has gone on for over a year now.  For the past two nights, I've been up past midnight tracking down everyone by the name of Francis or Frank Rivers who lived in New York or Michigan in the 1840s.

So far, I've got two "Francis Rivard"s in Michigan, one born in 1843 and one born in 1835.

I've got two "Francis Rivers"s in New York.  One, born in 1844, was in the poorhouse by 1854 and indentured to a guy named William Buchan in Hopewell.  He shows up on the census in 1855 and 1860, but he's vanished in 1865.  Is this my Frank?  Did he head west when he grew up?

The second New York candidate was born in 1844 and lived in St. Lawrence, NY.  I need to go back and see where he falls off the map....if he falls off the map.  Maybe one of these guys is my ancestor.  Maybe none of them are.  It kills me to know that I may never know who Frank Rivers was.

It doesn't seem right that I can't find out who he was.  He was just a man.  An ordinary man.  No king, no oil baron, no one.  Still, he existed.  There are a few pictures of him and a record of a few land deeds and court cases in Nevada.  A man named Frank Rivers lived.  So why is it so hard to find out who he was and where he came from?

I'll probably never know the truth.  And I am having such a hard time with that.  Whoever he was, he's a part of me.  Did he murder someone and flee west, taking a new name?  Is he a humble farmer whose birth was just never documented?  How am I supposed to know where I came from when I can't figure out who this guy really is?

He's the major thorn in my genealogical side.  And it kills me that he's an unsolved mystery.  I feel like there's always going to be a part of me I don't know unless I solve this mystery.  It's silly, because I am who I am regardless of what Frank did.  But I began my genealogical quest in the hopes of finding answers as to why I'm so different from most of my family members.  When I spot others who are different, like Frank, it makes me think I might be like them.  But if Frank was a bad guy, what does being like him mean?  I want to know.  I need to know.  And I can't.  And it makes me want to tear my hair out.

Do you guys have any unsolved genealogical mysteries?  Which unsolved mysteries keep you up late at night?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Social Justice Stories: Good Idea? Bad Idea?

I don't like social justice stories.  You know the kind--stories that are all about publicizing an issue or gaining sympathy for a particular group, like single mothers or veterans or refugees from the Sudan.  I'm all for helping whoever needs it, but I just don't think short stories are the vehicle for helping with these kinds of issues.  I've always thought these kinds of stories come off as preachy and message-driven (as opposed to character- or even plot-driven).

In fact, I'm reading the 2009 Best American Short Stories compilation, and the social justice themes are starting to get a bit on my nerves.  I'm less than a quarter of the way through the book, and I've already encountered a wounded veteran trapped during Hurricane Katrina, a little boy who died of AIDS because of a botched transfusion, a Chinese man jailed because he followed his own career path, a Jewish widow who will do anything to see her husband's works edited and published. The first two stories in the collection were great--filled with normal, identifiable people making choices that define their lives.  And then wham, bam, nearly every story after these played the social justice card.  It makes me want to pull out my hair.  It's like the literary version of Oscar bait.  Want a crapload of Oscars?  Cast Daniel Day-Lewis as a paraplegic transvestite who was abused as a child.  Want to get published in a prestigious anthology?  Write a social justice story.    

So...given all this...why in the hell did I start writing a social justice story yesterday?

It started with Vanity Fair.  If you subscribe to the magazine, flip back to your August issue (the one with Emma Stone on the cover).  If you don't subscribe, just click here.  Alex Shoumatoff's "Agony and Ivory" is the easily the best piece of journalism I've ever read.  I've never been moved to tears by a magazine article before.

The article details the recent rise in African elephant poaching, fueled largely by a resurgent demand for ivory in Asia.  The ignorance and stupidity and greed on all sides breaks my heart.  Apparently, a large percentage of wealthy elderly Chinese believe an elephant's ivory tusks fall out, like baby teeth.  They don't know that the animals need to be killed to retrieve the ivory they pay thousands of dollars for.  The Muslim youth brigade Al-Shabbab (yeah, that's them on the news refusing to allow aid workers into Somalia to help with the famine) is also involved in the ivory trade.

The poachers are going after mating bulls and matriarchs--the exact elephants needed to keep herds alive and full of genetic diversity.  If the words "extinction vortex" mean anything to you, that's what's going to be happening pretty darn soon in terms of Africa's elephant population.  The article describes Kuku ranch group rangers finding a dead elephant.  Its face was hacked off to get at the ivory.  The body was still kneeling on the ground, decaying in an upright position, exactly where it had fallen.

Sometimes poachers shoot the elephants.  Sometimes they stab them dozens of times.  Sometimes they poison them.  Sometimes they do some or all of these things.  It is absolutely cruel the way these poachers go after these creatures.  Occasionally, the elephants don't die--they bleed and limp across borders or national park lines, searching for sanctuary.

The kicker is that I've been to one of the Kenyan parks mentioned in the article.  I spent one amazing weekend on safari at Intrepids Samburu (northern Kenya) in...good grief, could it be as long ago as 2003?  While I was there, I saw an elephant skull resting on the ground.  I took a picture of it because it was so creepy looking (at right). I have no way of knowing whether the elephant died a natural death--even though all I saw was the skull, it could easily have come apart from the rest of the skeleton.  Note, however, that there's absolutely no ivory present.

Anyway, in the VF article, Shoumatoff speaks with Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder and director of a Kenyan NGO, Save the Elephants.  STE monitors the elephant population in Samburu from their headquarters in Nairobi.  I sat next to Mrs. Douglas-Hamilton on the plane back to Nairobi from Samburu.  We talked the whole way about their foundation and what it does and the very small connection my employer at the time had to them.

For me, this made the article hit a little too close to home.  I might have seen some of the elephants they mentioned as being murdered recently.  I just can't imagine any ivory trinket being worth the life of one of these amazing creatures.  It boggles the mind, as they say.  Who would want this little guy to die?  (My boss snapped him in the Masai Mara.)

So, yesterday, I sat down to write and came up with an idea for a six- or seven-part story that gives the reader a glimpse into the entire disastrous cycle, from the buyers to the poachers.  I'm hoping I can avoid the trap that most social justice stories fall into--that they're boring and predictable.  I'm treating each small mini-chapter as a complete story in and of itself.  Hopefully, I can keep the characters and the conflicts interesting enough to hold a reader's interest.  I'm not planning on demonizing anyone, either.  Every story has two sides, and to keep the story interesting, it's my job to find out what those two sides are, even if I obviously don't agree with them.

I'll keep you all updated on how the story turns out.  In the meantime, if you read the article and happen to be moved, please consider donating anything you can spare to Save the Elephants here.    

Monday, August 8, 2011

Anatomy of a Fake-Cation

How many of you guys are headed out for a summer vacation?  How many of you guys can't afford it, but still need a little fresh air?  Allow me to introduce the concept of a "fake-cation."  If you're broke, like me, but still need to get out of your own space to keep your mind fresh for writing, like me, a fake-cation might be just the thing.

Here's how it works.  You go somewhere within driving distance, no more than two or three hours away, and stay one night.  It might be ten blocks from where you live.  It might be two hours from where you live.  But you treat it as if you were in Paris, staying at the Hotel George V.  The hubby and I have done this several times when we just couldn't afford a real vacation.  It works almost as well.

The first time we did this, in 2006, it was to use up a free gift card I'd gotten through work.  We went to a cute lakeside hotel less than 30 miles away.  Still in our own backyard, essentially, but far enough removed from the slightly grimy area we lived in so that we got a mental break.  We went out to dinner and treated ourselves to an in-room movie (I never do this, so it felt like a real treat.  Plus, Miami Vice actually turned out to be a decent flick).  Overall, we came back rested and happy, and feeling like we did something indulgent.

We tried it again yesterday.  On the spur of the moment, we decided to get away to Reno.  Strange destination, I know, but due to a strange combination of factors, there were two errands we needed to run in the neighborhood anyway.  We drove up to Sparks, ran an errand, then dropped back down to Boomtown to blow out a game card in their kids' arcade area that still had about $7 on it.  We played air hockey, skee-ball, and random video games with Fast and Furious themes.

In all seriousness, never underestimate the good that can be done with $10 in a kids' arcade.  It can wake up any slumbering competitive skills, which is always a good thing for writing.  You know that get-up-at-4-am-to-train kind of drive that Olympic athletes have?  We writers need that same kind of commitment.  I know I don't always have it, least of all during lazy summer days.  If you're not a naturally competitive or aggressive person, it can be hard to rouse the slumbering beast.  Getting absolutely trounced in air hockey is a good way to get some of that determination back.  I lost at least three games and ended one in a tie.  Obviously, I suck at arcade games, but that's not the point.  I got a taste of what it feels like to look up at a scoreboard and be down 5 to 2.  Sometimes, we need to look at writing that way, too.  And we need to fight back.  Get that page count up.  Write even though you don't feel like it.  Finish that story even though you don't know where it's going or why it matters.  The only thing worse than giving up is never even playing the game.

Another nifty part of hanging out at Boomtown is the bar and its accompanying lounge acts.  For less than ten bucks, the hubby had a beer, I had a Jack and coke, and we listened to an R&B cover band do strange things like mash up Stevie Wonder with Color Me Badd ("I Wanna Sex You Up," if you were wondering).  Things that might seem cheesy in ordinary life are perfectly acceptable during fake-cation.

Unfortunately, Boomtown wanted $90 a night in order to stay.  Using the lobby's free WiFi, we checked out some other places and booked a room at Silver Legacy for less than half the price.  There's nothing like one of the gargantuan casinos to make you feel like Alice gone down the rabbit hole.  If it's a break from your physical and mental surroundings, I highly recommend some place like this.  There are a ton of people--great for people-watching and forming new plots and characters.  There are a ton of lights and sounds, which can sharpen your skills of observation.  (There's also a lot of cigarette smoke, which turned my eyes so red I looked like I was already drunk or high, but that's a small price to pay for feeling so far away.)

(Brief aside:  Silver Legacy, would it kill you to let people eat for less than $25 per person?  I am BROKE.  I LEFT your casino and went to eat at the Cal-Neva casino because, sensibly, they have a restaurant that offered me food for less than $10 a plate.  Harrah's, Circus Circus, and the Eldorado could not do this.  I have realized this is why you can afford to let me have a room for less than $50 a night--you assume I'm going to drop another $50 on dinner for two.  You assumed wrong.)

Anyway, on our way home this morning, we stopped in South Lake Tahoe and checked out some of the vintage cars at Hot August Nights.  I'm so not a car person, but even I can appreciate the awesomeness of these vehicles.  There was a Ford GT-40, which the hubby says costs at least as much as a McMansion (the photo is from 2008, but it's the same car).  Nice.  There was some purple car (yes, that's the actual make and model) with a mostly naked woman painted onto the front and back of it.  There were 1930s gangster cars with running boards, perfect for ye-olde-drive-by-shootings.   Plus, my personal favorite, a sparkly beige 1962 Chevy Corvette owned by a very lucky woman named Carol.  I also dug the thrashed matte black early 60s Austin-Healey with the skull shifter.  Rock on, dude, rock on.

I do have a point to all this rambling, besides trying to make my life look more interesting than it is.  The point is that as a writer, you have to get out of your own space to get new ideas.  You have to see things you don't see everyday to keep your ideas and descriptions fresh.  Smell things you don't ordinarily smell.  Watch people you've never seen before.  Just look at what America is up to--and then take the bits that interest you and turn them into a story.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Book Review: Rob Roy

So, lately, I've been feeling in need of a little swashbuckling to lift my spirits.  I've had this copy of Rob Roy for years now, but hadn't got around to reading it.  I figured a little Scottish warlord action would be just the thing to take my mind off money worries, rejection worries, am-I-really-cut-out-for-this worries.  After all, these guys had real problems to deal with.  You know, war, cattle thievery, duels, and whatnot.  I can honestly say that I've never had to deal with the prospect of having to pay protection money to a rogue Highlander to make sure my nice, fat herd of cattle stay put.

Warning to those who intend to read this book someday:  there will be spoilers ahead.  Proceed with caution.

Overall rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
I was pleasantly surprised! The writing is fluid, events move quickly, and once the mysterious events are put in motion, I really did want to find out what the hell Rashleigh (the villain) has on Diana (the love interest).

The main character, Frank Osbaldistone, is the straight man here.  Don't look to him for wit or excitement.  He's there as a foil for all the super-interesting people around him. Basically, he decides he doesn't want to take over his father's massive accounting firm; oh no, this guy would rather write shitty poetry all day.  His father sends him to the family estate in the northern wilds of England.  There, he'll basically sit and rot among his lame-ass relatives until his father decides to call him back and give him another shot at the family business.

On the road to his family estate, he travels with another guy headed north named Morris.  Morris is a huge chickenshit who constantly fears being attacked by bandits.  Eventually, Morris and Frank separate and go their own ways.  (This is important later, because some crazy stuff happens to Morris after Frank leaves.)

When Frank gets to Osbaldistone Hall, he meets his lame-ass relatives who obey a simple mantra in life: eat, drink, hunt, repeat.  He also meets Diana Vernon, a cousin.  She's whip-smart, beautiful, and seems to do whatever the hell she wants around the place.  Frank soon notices, however, that there's something creepy and mysterious going on between Diana and one of his Osbaldistone cousins, Rashleigh.  Although Diana obviously has the hots for Frank (as he does for her), Rashleigh is always in the way--this guy pretends not to have a vested interest, but you just know he's working behind the scenes to eff up Frank's chances with Diana.  Not cool, dude.  Not cool at all.

One of the big surprises in the book, for me, is the fact that almost two hundred pages of it go by here at Osbaldistone Hall.  Not in Scotland.  Not a Roy Roy in sight.  (Okay, so technically, he did appear in disguise, but I'm not counting that and neither should you.)  I didn't have a problem with this because the goings-on at Osbaldistone Hall are interesting, and Diana Vernon is a freaking awesome character.  I got the sense that if she lived now, she'd be a Charlie's Angel or the woman Angelina Jolie's character only wishes she could be in The Tourist.

Anyway, after the 200-page mark, the real conflict begins to unfold.  Without delving too deeply into the plot, it goes a little something like this:  Frank-o flees to Scotland and participates in some intrigues relative to his father's business and a coming Jacobite uprising against the Hanoverian crown.  While in Scotland, you meet Rob Roy Campbell MacGregor and his wife Helen MacGregor.  Dude, Helen MacGregor is the reason they invented Valium.  This woman is seriously pissed off, like, all the time.  So pissed off, in fact, that she orders the murder of Morris.

The murder scene was riveting.  I wasn't sure Scott would pull the trigger on this one.  I kept thinking Morris would get out of it, but then the moment happened, and away he went.  I won't tell you how they got rid of him, but let's just say it's not the way you want to go.  Much like Vronsky's horse-racing scene in Anna Karenina, this is a scene that grabs your attention and refuses to let it go.  It doesn't matter when it was written or where or why--it's exciting, it's nerve-wracking, and you can't help but feel for these characters.

My reaction to Rob Roy was harder to define.  He is one of those characters that I didn't appreciate until he was off-stage.  While he was there, he was moderately interesting--balanced, fair, violent when he had to be, determined, and strangely honorable.  But you don't fully appreciate these qualities until you're stuck in a scene with Frank-o, Andrew Fairservice (annoying as hell!), and Nicol Jarvie (pleasant in a non-remarkable, only mildly annoying kind of way).  Then you realize what Rob Roy's character really brings to the table:  the experience and gravity of someone who has really lived.  He's killed, he's been imprisoned, he's escaped from prison, he's stolen some cattle, he's had his own cattle stolen.  Save Helen, none of these other characters can match the depth of Rob Roy's experience and it shows.

At the end of the book, Scott ties up all his loose ends.  You find out what was really going on between Rashleigh and Diana.  You find out what happens with the brewing Jacobite rebellion.  You find out how the major characters end their days.  Because the book was written in the 19th century, modern readers might get the sense that everything is tied up a little too neatly.  This was a convention of the time, though, so don't hold it against Scott.  It doesn't detract from the book's high points at all.

Overall, there are plenty of reasons to read this book:
*Diana Vernon
*Rob Roy
*Morris's murder scene
*Beautiful descriptions of Scottish clan life and Scottish landscape

There are also a few things you're going to have to take with a grain of salt:
*Freakin' long-ass passages in Scotch dialect.  If you're not into the whole "Scots wha hae" thing, you're in for some rough going once the characters make it to Scotland.
*Straight-man main character
*Andrew Fairservice

If you do read this one, I'd love to know what you think!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Some Good Long Last

Finally, I have an uplifting piece of news to share with you all!

My short story, "Croatoa," was accepted into an anthology titled "A Rustle of Dark Leaves," to be published by Misanthrope Press.

I really crossed my fingers for this one!  I have a soft spot for this story. It's a dark, twisted, supernatural version of how the lost English colony of Roanoke might have been wiped out.  If you guys have never read about this colony, it's worth checking out.  Here's a National Geographic article that just might whet your appetite for the subject.

I'll keep everyone updated when I hear more about a publication date for this anthology. In the meantime, keep writing! You never know when good news is just around the corner.