Family Histories: Kin Types by Luanne Castle

Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

This week Luanne Castle discusses how the exploration of family history has enriched her creative life:

By combining a passion for family history with my creative writing, I felt able to—for a brief moment—inhabit the lives of women and men from previous generations and imagine how their stories felt to them.

Family history as done by genealogy buffs only interested in filling in the dates and places of lineal ancestors miss the point. Everybody has ancestors. What becomes fascinating is that by recreating and listening to the stories of previous generations, we learn from the experiences of those who have lived on Earth before us.

Family history is a messy, complicated, and very loose collection of stories bound together with overlaps and gaps and sharing. Those are all the reasons I love it.

And all the reasons that I keep picking at the loose threads, following clues left in documents and photographs, and searching for information to fill in the empty stretches of time—or so it can appear from this angle—of the people who have come before me.

Researching family history is never ending. I’ve been at this for a long time. New information can refine, surprise, or alter what I think I already know. As a writer, this makes my path difficult. There is no moment where I can say to myself, “OK, my research is done. Now I can write.”

Therefore, research has to be done for the sake of the hunt, the rewards fate doles out to me, and an appreciation for the continuous process. In this way, Kin Types is the slim fruit of years of difficult “gardening,” but not the final fruit or the final say.

The following prose poem from Kin Types explores a moment in the life of my great-great-grandfather’s sister, Jennie DeKorn Culver, the custody battle during her divorce.

What Came Between A Woman and Her Duties

14 May 1897

On this Friday, in our fair city of Kalamazoo, Recreation Park refreshment proprietor, John Culver, has applied to the Circuit Court to gain custody of his two young daughters from his divorced wife. The girls currently reside in the Children’s Home. They were accompanied to court by Miss Bradley, the matron of the home.

Mrs. Culver, the divorcée, and the children were represented by J. W. Adams. The father was represented by F.E. Knappen.  Mrs. Culver, pale and stern-looking, wore a shirtwaist with tightly ruched collar and generous mutton sleeves. The strain of her situation shows clearly on her visage. In the past, Mrs. Culver has been aided and abetted by her female friends in the art of painting, as an article of 6 February 1895 in this very daily can attest.

A large number of friends of both parties were in the courtroom and heard emotional pleadings on both sides. Judge Buck ascertained that Mrs. Culver is engaged in the pursuit of an honest living at this time and so ordered that the children remain in the mother’s care. She was given six months to bring them home from the orphanage or they will go into the care of their father and his mother. Let us hope that Mrs. Culver can stay away from the easel.

I used articles from the Kalamazoo Gazette, as well as legal documents, to recreate Jennie’s fight for custody of her two daughters. The only documentation I can find that Jennie was an artist is a newspaper article commemorating the gift of an easel to Jennie during the term of her marriage by her female friends.

Finishing Line Press has published my chapbook, Kin Types, a collection of lyric poetry, prose poems, and flash nonfiction that interprets the lives of some forgotten women in history—my own ancestors.

 Kin Types can be ordered through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Finishing Line Press.

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BIO

luanne-headshotLuanne has been a Fellow at the Center for Ideas and Society at the University of California, Riverside. She studied English, history, and creative writing at UCR (PhD); Western Michigan University (MFA); and the Stanford University writing certificate program. She taught college English for fifteen years. Her scholarly work has been published in academic journals, and she contributed to Twice-Told Children’s Tales: The Influence of Childhood Reading on Writers for Adults, edited by Betty Greenway. Luanne is an amateur genealogist and publishes some of her family history research on the blog thefamilykalamazoo.com.

Winner of the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, Doll God, Luanne Castle’s first collection of poetry, was published by Aldrich Press. Luanne’s poetry and prose have appeared in Phoebe, Six Hens, Story Shack, The Antigonish Review, Crack the SpineGristTABRiver TeethLunch TicketThe Review Review, and many other journals. Luanne’s 2017 chapbook Kin Types, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, was a semi-finalist in the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Contest.

She divides her time between California and Arizona, where she shares land with a herd of javelina. Her heart belongs to her six cats and the homeless cats at the animal shelter where she volunteers.

Luanne’s sites: THE FAMILY KALAMAZOO

WRITERSITE

LUANNE CASTLE: WRITER AND POET

 

 

Please come by next Sunday!

forget me not promo

Are You a Critic?

“Reader, I think it proper, before we proceed any farther together, to acquaint thee that I intend to digress through this whole history as often as I see occasion; of which I am myself a better judge than any pitiful critic whatever. And here I must desire all those critics to mind their own business, and not to intermeddle with affairs or works which in no ways concern them; for till they produce the authority by which they are constituted judges, I shall not plead to their jurisdiction.” Henry Fielding

I’m (sort of) on vacation and reading Tom Jones and War and Peace (Prince Andrei just had an epiphany on the battlefield about striving for glory). The above passage by Mr. Fielding made me laugh.

ellen casinoLast week we visited the Oneida Mansion (the inspiration for Buck Crenshaw’s experience at a utopian society). My husband spotted the Oneida Casino (forget the name). It seems casinos are noted for their buffets(?). We stopped by after traveling back in time (at the casino it’s as if time stands still). I think we won $.50 but we only played about $5.00. The buffet was pretty good, but can anyone explain why there’s such a thing as an Ellen slot machine?

My tendency is to criticize noisy things. Like casinos. Despite my best intentions I ended up criticizing Ellen and the fact that slot machines no longer have levers which were the only things that made casinos even remotely bearable to me (I’ve been dragged to casinos three times in my life). My husband has no great love for casinos but he tends  to take flashing lights in stride–especially if there’s a good buffet to follow. 🙂

What about you? Are you a harsh critic? An annoying kill-joy critic or a more evolved person who realizes life is just too short to spend time criticizing? I’m somewhere in the middle (I think).

 

 

 

How to Have Sex to Make Better Children

“Sorry to say, but it’s mostly her gene pool,” the pediatrician said, as she glanced over the information about our foster kid. “No amount of ADHD medication is going to make her a rocket scientist.”

Theories abound about the essential things one must do to produce productive children. One theory that’s probably true is having parents who don’t tie you to a chair before going out for the night, but in the case of our foster kid even that behavior is hereditary.

Victorians loved the ideas of science and progress. They were so darn optimistic about the future and mankind’s place in that future. There were the doubters and the haters, but many people bought into utopian notions even if they didn’t up and join a communistic free-love society like my hapless Buck Crenshaw does in THE DEW THAT GOES EARLY AWAY. I give Buck a pass because he only goes to please a gorgeous girl (and gets himself in a heap of trouble).

I suppose most Victorians had sex that we’d consider pretty normal. Some had affairs and others–a small minority–practiced continence.

In his book The Science of a New Life, John Cowan (a 19th century “scientist”) urged sex to be saved for bi-yearly sex marathons:

“The core of Cowan’s program was his ‘law of continence,’ which, with certain variations, was echoed by many reformers: ‘The noble army of the continent of mankind’ is made up of those who don’t drink, smoke, wear corsets, dress ostentatiously, overeat, or live sedentary lives. They practice ‘voluntary and entire abstinence except when used for procreation,’ and they do not misuse the marriage bed for ‘the perverted amativeness’ of physical pleasure or sexual relief. Since Amativeness, the phrenological organ of the sex drive, is located at the rear of the lower skull along with other animal faculties, it may become an organ of animal lust.  But coitus that occurs when Amativeness has been subordinated to Spirituality, the organ of reverence located at the top of the head, permits the highest sexual magnetic impulses to be telegraphed from the brain of the parents to the brain of their child. The ‘law of continence’ mandates one heroic procreative session every two years during a sunny August or September morn, so that the child may be born in springtime. Following a four-week period in which the prospective parents, in a spiritual mood, have been focusing their will powers on those qualities with which they want to endow their child, their copulation generates and electrical transference of these very qualities to the child.” Excerpted from Pseudo-science & Society in 19th century America, edited by Arthur Wrobel

We smile a little at this but I wonder if a little more reverence, a little more thought taken for the future of offspring wouldn’t be a good thing.

 

 

How to Handle Criticism

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”
Benjamin Franklin

The other day my husband and I were discussing who we were going to hire to put in an asphalt driveway after two different companies sent their men with estimates.

One of the men who came by wasn’t a very good speller but had been laying asphalt for 20 years. The other came with his wife and laptop, fancy postcards and a brand new truck. My husband was undecided since the estimates came in almost the same. He took to his own laptop and started reading local reviews. The bad speller’s company had a perfect 5 star rating. The fancier guy’s company had one bad review.

The wife of fancy guy responded to the bad review. Not good. She passive aggressively pushed the blame for the customer complaints onto the customer. She then described the death of a family member and various other personal issues that may have prevented her in 2014 from returning the disappointed customer’s phone calls. She pointed out that her company was a family run business and one bad review could really hurt its reputation.

At church the other day an artsy acquaintance and I were talking about swapping my book for her music CD. “What if we hate each other’s work?” she asked, jokingly.

Critics have been around since Satan grumbled about his place in heaven, yet pondering the asphalt situation (my husband chose the bad speller) left me thinking that maybe being a critic wasn’t the best way to pursue a happy life. There is a savage thrill in expressing a heavy-handed opinion with a superior toss of the head during a movie about super heroes. But is it really fun for those people around you?

On the rare occasion when I actually leave the house to go to a movie I ask my husband what the reviews are for the film. He usually responds, “Who cares? I want to make up my own mind.”

My husband takes a bad movie in stride. He’ll admit to a movie being less than he hoped but does not get worked up about it. He also never sits down to write bad reviews. I never do either. I may rant about something for a few days, or complain to my husband about a dumb book that’s really popular, but I have no desire to put pen to paper if in my mind the book or film or asphalt company deserves less than 4 stars.

Some people seem to think they’re doing the world a great service warning a buyer against a book, movie or driveway but sometimes silence is just as appropriate as words. A book with no reviews leaves just enough doubt in a reader’s mind without having the author’s reputation tarnished forever (or until an EMP STRIKE takes down all electronics). Only once did I check out a reviewer’s other reviews when she left a bizarrely personal and vicious attack/review. It was very eye-opening. Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to live in her world of miserable negativity. I’m not sure I believe in karma exactly but wonder if in this age of YELP and Amazon we are not turning into the crows I see on my property who peck baby birds to death for fun.

the-noon-recess-winslow-homerWhen I used to teach 5th graders, the rule was that the kids had to think of three nice things to say about a fledgling writer’s efforts before the pecking began. My eleven-year-old students very easily learned this skill and the young writers flourished. Adults sometimes seem to think it would take too much time for such civility.

Critical thinking and perceptive critiques certainly have their place and it is almost never worth it to respond to criticism with whining or defensiveness, but I wonder if my mother’s advice, “if you have nothing good to say . . .” isn’t something we all should consider now and again. Maybe we should even consider what our true motives are at times. I can usually tell when I’m just in the mood to be a bitch (so can everyone else).

Once someone close to me said, “Well, it’s not like you’re the best writer who ever lived.”

REALLY? Who knew?  The person is someone I know loves me and her words came out wrong (or did they?) but they still annoy me . . . a little.

In the old myths the gods pecked at and destroyed each other in battles of ego, jealousy or stupidity. What kid didn’t love reading about such battles? But none of us are gods. We play them in critique groups or in dark movie theaters and basically just annoy and rob joy from others (again, I do realize that sometimes criticism is good and appropriate).

There may be some people who produce junk on purpose, but most artists and asphalt layers are just trying to do their best in life. Silence is golden in many (most cases).

My singer acquaintance at church and I decided that if we didn’t like each other’s work we’d say nothing. That way we could each pretend that maybe the other person hadn’t yet found time to read or listen to the works that bared our souls.

What about you? What’s your favorite example of toxic criticism? What has been someone’s most helpful criticism in your life?

PS~How great are the looks on the critics’ faces in the above painting?

HOW TO SPOT TOXIC FEEDBACK

I REWROTE MY NOVEL THROUGH A CRITIQUE GROUP AND LOST MY WAY

HOW TO HANDLE CRITICISM: THE TOP  TIPS FROM THE LAST 2500 YEARS

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“The death of the attention span may have been declared too early.”

WOULD YOU READ A ONE MILLION WORD BOOK?

“The death of the ‘attention span’ might have been declared prematurely,” she adds. “But at the same time, novels are competing with other entertainment forms that provide a lot of instant thrills. To start a long novel these days, I think the reader needs to feel certain that the tale will be worth the journey.”

25 BIG NOVELS THAT ARE WORTH YOUR TIME

 

WHY BIG BOOKS ARE BACK

What’s your favorite long novel?

Who Else Hates Genre Labels?

The White Cockade by Edward Martin
The White Cockade by Edward Martin

LITERARY FICTION FOR PEOPLE WHO HATE LITERARY FICTION

“There is a stereotype of literary fiction shared by both science fiction readers and non-science fiction readers: that academically-sanctioned, “serious” contemporary fiction is all about dull middle-class people having affairs, and that the writers of this fiction do such things as use a couple hundred pages to describe events that could quite easily be described in a paragraph.”

WHY THE HATE FOR ROMANCE?

An interesting thread on romance in fantasy writing:

“But for people who want verisimilitude and detailed characterizations, romance is going to be there. Real people deal with romance in their actual lives. It’s a huge part of being human.

Romance doesn’t mean the book is plot-less or spends all its time dealing with vampire-werewolf three-ways. Badly written romance means the book is plot-less or spends all its time dealing with vampire-werewolf three-ways.” unconundrum

THE EMPTINESS OF LITERARY FICTION

“The stereotype is not just about elevating certain works of fiction, but overdetermining their value.”

13 STRUGGLES OF BEING A ROMANTIC WHO HATES ROMANCE (this one doesn’t have much to do with books. Just a fun read.

“(And yes, you cried deeply at The Notebook, and hated yourself for every minute of it.)”

 

WHAT FICTION DO YOU HATE? or LOVE?

Adoption

“The old time blacks,” wrote James Thomas, “never used to take much stock in the ‘Yaller’ Nigger. They called him ‘No Nation,’ ‘a Mule,’ ‘yaller hammer.’” *

Mulattoes under slavery were in a tight spot. Often times a master’s half-white children were brought in as house slaves. Some were educated and some were eventually given their freedom.  ANDREW WARD suggests in his book DARK MIDNIGHT WHEN I RISE that some women slaves submitted to their masters for the very reason that their children might be seen differently and treated better—but by whom? Their skin betrayed to all that tribal lines had been crossed.

Darker slaves saw themselves as superior blacks with pure blood.

They even admired their masters for keeping the races pure. We can only imagine what white mistresses thought about their husbands’ liaisons (or what fathers thought when their daughters eloped with black slaves).  Yet even light blacks expressed certain stereotypes. “Some folks say that when a ‘Nigger’ is so black he just naturally mean.”*

Ward tells of a Jubilee Singer’s lineage, one so full of halves and fulls, of slaves and whites, we are met with again the notion that race, color and stereotypes are never simple things.

We do judge books by their covers. We all do. I do.

This summer my (soon to be adopted) “low-functioning” daughter and I sat waiting at the station with my two “normal” teenagers who were taking a bus south (to New Jersey). A young man about twenty interrupted our good-natured bickering about money for snacks for the bus.

You know that feeling of slight annoyance when someone asks for change and they seem to be pouring on the gratitude a bit thick?

In truth we were looking for change for the vending machine and the young man in wrinkled clothes was looking for a dollar bill. We did an even exchange and after profusely thanking us he walked off.

The bus was late.

Saratoga Springs Station is a quiet place. I like eavesdropping and people watching. I’d made up my mind that the rough-around-the-edges young man now grubbing a cigarette from the obviously university educated man about the same age was the type to find trouble. I cringed at the way the university guy gave over a cigarette with faint disgust.

Yet something about the young smoker cursing up a storm now and pacing as he spoke on an old phone to a family member in Pittsburgh mesmerized me.

From what I could catch the young man was dead broke. He had a 24 hour layover somewhere west, and he looked rake thin. Maybe because I felt a tad guilty for judging him, after we saw my teenagers off, I slipped the smoker some money (I say this not to brag of my generosity for I’d just spent a good thirty minutes eavesdropping and judging). Now when this sort of thing happens my tendency is to never make eye contact. I’m shy and don’t like intimate encounters, but for some reason our eyes met and the young man cried.

I mumbled something about God loving him or something (I NEVER do this) but felt even though I was in a hurry to move on that he needed some basic inspiration and this is what popped into my head.

My girl and I walked to the car. We sat in the car mulling things over. The good thing about “low functioning” people is sometimes they just cut to the chase. My girl said, “You feel it too, don’t you? We should go back.”

I turned the key in the ignition. “No. What would we say? No, we did what we could.” We drove around the parking lot three times. I kept hoping the kid would be gone but there he sat, now with his head in his hands, shoulders shaking.

“God wants us to go back!” my kid kept saying with urgency.

I will admit that by now after having met the young man’s eyes my entire perception of him changed. As we lingered at the exit before a stop sign I was compelled to turn around, park and with pounding heart and red face walk up to the man who I now noted had a bruised face.

My girl looked up to me for words. I stumbled around a bit but finally said, “Okay, so you may think we’re freaks but something . . .” I looked at my girl. “Well, you see, we think God wants us to sit with you for a while.”

I waited for him to tell us to back off. He didn’t. He told us his life story. He told us his mother abandoned him to foster care where he spent days locked up in a room without food. My kid told him she’d experienced the very same thing.

Imagine a little girl and a full grown man crying over past hurts.

It was obvious from the man’s story that he’d made some mistakes in life with so little guidance and so little love. He’d moved from his grandfather’s house a while back for a good job in construction. After a falling out with his boss and a night spend drinking his unemployment news away, someone mugged him. Only moments ago he’d called his sister begging for her to meet him  somewhere only to be told his grandfather had just died but they’d had no way of contacting  him. The phone he had called her from had been borrowed.

Okay so some of you reading this may be thinking the guy was just a storyteller. But to me it was this incredible God moment. We prayed together (again, I’m pretty private about my prayer life but there was this compulsion—something beyond myself, beyond my girl, too). The man mentioned he read the Bible hardly ever (I mean, who really does?).

My girl, only a year from the mental ward where we were told she had no hope and that she’d spend her life a zombie, ran back to the car.

I had told her to bring a book to read in the car because sometimes she just talks and talks and talks. I get peevish when this happens. She ran up to us breathlessly and handed the man named William her raggedly little Children’s Bible someone had given her long before I knew her.

This man William  (I hope he’s doing well) was tanned from outdoor work. My girl was pale white from the hospital and group home and I was freckled. But for a brief moment we were all the same.

Quotes from DARK MIDNIGHT WHEN I RISE

Related: WHAT IT REALLY COSTS TO FOLLOW JESUS

  ADOPTING FROM FOSTER CARE