When The Feedsack Dress came out in 2007, I started a blog on Typepad that focused on life during the late 1940s and early 1950s. I stopped posting there in 2012, but you can still link to The Feedsack Kids. I’m posting some new blogs and my favorite old ones here.
When I began writing The Feedsack Dress almost 50 years ago, I asked my mother and two sisters to talk about their memories of 1949. I’d chosen that year for the novel because my recollections and my research identified it as a time of transition for the country, our rural Missouri community, and our family.
Our discussion evoked many forgotten details and produced a major plot point.
We gathered around the kitchen table at my parents’ farm on a hot summer day. To my surprise, each of us remembered not only different movies and music but also different versions of events, including family reunions and what happened when I broke my arm. (I tested the knot in a rope I’d tied around a tree limb by sliding down it. The knot failed the test.) The discrepancies convinced me of the unreliability of eyewitness accounts, a factor I consider in writing both nonfiction and fiction.
Judy, four years younger than I, remembered the least, but even she recalled the drudgery of pumping water for the milk cows and the excitement when REA extended the electric lines past our place. Overnight my parents could milk triple the number of cows, my mother didn’t have to bear the heat of a wood cooking stove, and we could listen to Kirksville’s new radio station without fear of running down the battery and read under strong lights rather than dim kerosene lamps. Electricity improved our daily lives and increased our income.
Donna and I spent many hours on 4-H sewing projects. Our mother taught us to sew on a treadle machine, using patterned feedsacks that had contained chicken feed to make tea towels, potholders, pillow slips, and, as our skills grew, clothing—skirts, blouses, shorts, and dresses. An electric sewing machine made the work easier. New synthetic fabrics didn’t, at least for a couple years.
Unlike me, Donna loved to sew, partly because it gave her a chance to expand her limited wardrobe in an age of hand-me-downs. Five years older than I, she’d been born in the Depression, walked alone a mile and a half to the one-room school (New Hope) that my father and his mother had attended and at which my mother had taught, and become a teenager as my parents put aside every possible penny to pay off the farm they bought at the end of World War II. My big sister became a skilled seamstress. For decades she took pleasure in making clothes to wear to college and then to work as a bookkeeper. She also made clothes for others, including her kids and me.
I took special note of Donna’s difficulties in moving from a class of three in a grade school with about 15 pupils to classes of 30 in a junior high with about 500 students. She was tiny and timid, preferring to be unseen and silent. Our grade school’s limited resources and mediocre teaching hadn’t prepared her well for the tough competition. (Judy and I had an excellent teacher and went to town better prepared.) Determined to hold her own, Donna studied hard and earned membership in the National Honor Society. One test day when snow blocked the roads, she persuaded my father to take her the five miles to high school on the tractor.
A key plot point for The Feedsack Dress came to me when Donna vividly recalled ninth graders passing around slam books, often the little autograph books then popular, with mean comments about fellow students. My protagonist has to deal with those slams as she forms friendships and makes enemies.
I recalled the four of us talking about 1949 recently because my big sister, Donna Lee Mulford Helton, died February 5, 2021. Now no one shares those memories.
2020 has been a horrible year. I hope it doesn’t end like another bad year, 1811.
That year, rains brought mud and flood to Upper Louisiana. The nightly appearance of the devil-tailed Great Comet prompted rumors of destruction. The brilliant Tecumseh campaigned for tribes on both sides of the Mississippi to unite to beat back the encroaching Americans. The adolescent United States crept closer to the War of 1812.
Then a natural disaster struck the middle of the newly expanded United States.
In early morning on December 16, a series of earthquakes, aftershocks, and tremors began, interrupting New Madrid’s French settlers’ Sunday night dance and rousting others in the river port from their beds. Brick houses and chimneys collapsed, and fires destroyed cabins.
That night the Mississippi ran backwards, driving boats up the river or capsizing them. Riverbanks gave way, casting camping travelers into the roiling water. Lakes drained, lakes formed. Wave-like furrows formed in fields. Trees fell or split up the middle as birds flocked to safer surfaces.
Many in the lightly populated region where Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee now come together feared the world was ending. The odor of sulfur encouraged that belief, and hundreds of the thousand or so townspeople in New Madrid fled through a giant swamp toward a huge hill. Residents of a village south of there waded through the overflowing river for hours to reach dry ground.
Church bells rang as far away as the East Coast. In Washington, D.C., dishes fell from cupboards, and President Madison was all shook up.
The last of three, or perhaps five, major earthquakes (estimated around 8 on the Richter Scale) occurred February 7, 1812. By then a scientist in Louisville, Kentucky, had measured a dozen or so major aftershocks and hundreds of tremors.
The tremors never really stopped. The biggest one this year has been a 3.6 in Marked Tree, Arkansas. Dyersburg, Tennessee, near quake-born Reelfoot Lake, has experienced two at 2.8 recently. To check on the latest, go to https://earthquaketrack.com/us-mo-new-madrid/recent. The site’s map shows where the tremors occur.
Few people lived near the epicenter (northeast Arkansas) at the time of the New Madrid (Missouri) earthquakes. Yet some researchers estimate as many as 1,500 died, many of them disappearing into the Mississippi.
Scientists have theorized that the earthquakes occur on a cycle, possibly every 500 years, possibly 200. Some expected the big one about 30 years ago. Some schools in southeast Missouri dismissed on the predicted doom’s day.
Today a comparable series of earthquakes would result in billions in damages and affect millions of people, including those who live in such cities as St. Louis and Memphis and rely on bridges to cross the Mississippi River.
I don’t usually think about the ongoing threat except when I pay my earthquake insurance, but 2020 does seem to be a year when bad things happen.
The publisher of Thunder Beneath My Feet is closing shop December 31, 2017. Both the e-book and print editions will disappear from online bookstores. In 2018, my garage will hold most of the remaining copies of my novel about the devastating New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812.
Many writers face this problem. Small publishers often go out of business after a few years of struggle. Big ones discontinue imprints that don’t meet sales targets. One friend’s mystery won an Agatha a couple of days after she heard her big-name publisher was abandoning the imprint. Another friend has seen three of her publishers go under. My Show Me series publisher, a small part of a huge conglomerate, announced to authors in early 2016 that only mysteries already under contract would be published. I sold the fifth book in my series, Show Me the Sinister Snowman, to another publisher and moved on to a new series.
The Thunder publisher, a small independent, notified her authors of the pending closing in November 2016 and suggested they look for another publisher or self-publish. She preferred to write and farm. Who can argue with those priorities?
My first thought was to self-publish the book. I loved writing Thunder, and readers have given it great feedback. I brainstormed for a distinctive publishing name, one short enough to fit on the spine and visual enough to suggest a logo. The company name would also need to work if I wanted to self-publish mysteries. Darned tough to come up with a winner.
Over the last ten years I’ve learned that successful publishing involves not only having a quality product but also a good marketing plan and an economically feasible way to distribute books to bookstores and libraries. Few self-publishers live by Amazon alone.
Having earned my living as a freelance writer and editor for some 35 years, I know how much time and effort the business side can take. Did I want to put writing aside to spend time (and money) on marketing and distribution?
The marketing and distribution challenges
I worried about penetrating the most obvious market, Missouri schools, something the publisher hadn’t tried to do and I hadn’t accomplished.
Many writers promote sales, and earn money, by giving programs at schools. That works well if you have several successful middle grade books. I don’t, and I’m not trying to build a career writing MG/YA books. Besides, I had no contacts.
I submitted Thunder to for possible inclusion in the Missouri State Teachers Association’s Reading Circle Program. The reviewer told me she was recommending it, but the list of approved books still hasn’t come out.
In my first efforts to sell to schools, I became a vendor at state conferences of history teachers and school librarians. The librarians particularly liked to my pitch, but they pointed out that they preferred to buy hardbacks. Paperbacks don’t last long in school libraries.
If I were going to publish a new edition, hardbacks seemed the way to go. I did some pricing. The per unit cost goes down as the number of copies go up. Small print runs would mean raising the price of the book to more than most libraries would pay.
One key problem in marketing to schools was the failure to send review copies to such essential professional publications as School Library Journal. (It has precise requirements on submission times of review copies and on national distribution.) Without favorable reviews in professional publications, librarians hesitate to buy. I doubt anyone would consider reviewing a self-published second edition.
National (and regional) distribution to bookstores and libraries constitutes a major problem for both small publishers and self-publishers. Many bookstores dislike (even refuse) to deal with Amazon or Ingram, preferring to buy through such distributors as Baker & Taylor.
Online sales, particularly of e-books, allow some self-published books to flourish, but I didn’t see that as the case for my MG/YA historical novel. Most of my sales have been print copies.
For now at least, I’ll let Thunder Beneath My Feet go out of print. If a demand develops, I can always self-publish. If a publisher with marketing savvy and distribution capabilities wants to pay me to publish a new edition, great.
Meanwhile, I have a couple of dozen copies in the garage. If you want to buy one or more, contact me.
The first earthquake threw the 150 or so residents of Little Prairie out of their beds. The ground roared, moaned, and rumbled. Strange lights flashed from the earth. A dense vapor blacked out the stars.
Thus, at 2:30 a.m. December 16, 1811, began the New Madrid earthquakes, some of the most powerful and far reaching quakes ever experienced in North America. Three major earthquakes, several aftershocks almost as powerful, and at least 1,800 notable tremors terrified the region and disturbed sleep as far away as Quebec over the next three months.
The little Mississippi River frontier village lay near the epicenter (the northeast corner of present-day Arkansas) and suffered some of the most severe damage, forcing the entire town to flee for their lives.
The refugees reported that the shock at 8 a.m. was even worse. The ground quivered and writhed. Cracks appeared in the earth, and steamy vapor, blood-temperature water, and mud blew from them. The earth opened and shut. Water spouted higher than the trees.
Later that morning, a chasm 20 feet wide opened in the town. Quicksand and water gurgled up, and a warm mist carried the smell of brimstone.
The tough citizens of Little Prairie began to pack a few light possessions.
At 11 a.m. a huge upheaval beneath the town lifted and heaved it. A dark liquid oozed from the ground, and water spouted 10 feet high. The town began to sink. Trees, houses, and even the mill went down.
Everyone ran in the warm waist-deep water, children on adults’ shoulders. They waded through the water for eight miles before they reached high ground. Swimming beside them were wolves, possums, snakes, and other animals.
Days later, their hope and food supplies exhausted, they walked north to New Madrid.
If I ever write a sequel to Thunder Beneath My Feet, I’ll find out where they went from there.
More than 52 million people—students, hospital workers, business employees, etc.—will take part in International Shakeout Day Thursday, October 19, 2017.
In the United States, the Great Shakeout earthquake drills start at 10:19 a.m. Well over 2 million of the 18 million Americans learning how to react to quakes live in the large New Madrid Seismic Zone. There three of the nation’s most powerful earthquakes, plus some 2,000 aftershocks, took place in 1811-1812.
But you know that if you’ve read Thunder Beneath My Feet.
Keep in mind three basic steps when an earthquake begins.
- Drop onto your hands and knees so you won’t fall down and can crawl to any nearby shelter.
- Cover your head and neck with one arm and hand to protect you as you crawl under a table, desk, or anything else that will protect you from falling objects. If you have no shelter nearby, crawl to an interior wall.
- Hold on to your shelter but be ready to move if it gives way.
You can download drill manuals for schools and businesses and find information on what to do in various situations on shakeout.org. For example, if you’re in bed, stay there and lie face down to protect your vital organs, cover your head and neck with a pillow, and hold on to your head and neck with both hands until the shaking stops.
I’d always heard to stand in a doorway, but the site says you’re safer under a table.
Even if you don’t do a drill, check out the information and keep it in mind just in case.
Researching Thunder Beneath My Feet, I discovered that Tecumseh, the renowned Shawnee war chief, had predicted the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812. Some laughed at him, but others listened because he and his brother Tenskwatawa, known as the Prophet, had predicted the eclipse of June 16, 1806.
Here’s a short, simple version of a long, complicated true story.
Fighting American Expansion
The original 13 colonies quickly expanded westward into Native American lands, destroying villages and crops as they went. President Thomas Jefferson appointed William Henry Harrison governor of the Indiana Territory, home of the Shawnees and other Native American groups. Harrison had established his reputation as a fighter during the Northwest Territory Indian Wars and had political ambitions.
Tecumseh, a brilliant linguist and military strategist, had friends among the early intruders and learned from them. He recognized the danger the land-hungry Americans posed and set about organizing the tribes to fight back. His younger brother, a reformed drunkard, called the “Long Knives” the children of the Evil Spirit. He earned the title the Prophet by forecasting the troubles ahead and urging Native Americans to ban drinking whiskey, wearing white men’s clothing, eating their food, and even using their rifles.
Harrison wanted to discredit the Prophet’s claims to having special powers. He wrote an open letter to Shawnees gathered at Tippecanoe: “If he is really a prophet, ask him to cause the Sun to stand still or the Moon to alter its course, the rivers to cease to flow or the dead to rise from their graves.”
The letter reached the brothers at the home of a friend. According to reports, they deliberated in private for an hour. Then the Prophet spoke to the village, telling them he’d consulted with the Great Spirit. She would give a sign to demonstrate how close she was to the Prophet.
He said, “Fifty days from this day there will be no cloud in the sky. Yet, when the Sun has reached its highest point, at that moment will the Great Spirit take it into her hand and hide it from us. The darkness of night will thereupon cover us and the stars will shine round about us. The birds will roost and the night creatures will awaken and stir.”
The eclipse of June 16, 1806, fulfilled his prophecy.
How did the brothers predict the eclipse? They stuck to the Great Spirit story. Nobody really knows. Some historians believe that Tecumseh had read about the coming eclipse in an almanac and remembered the date.
Tecumseh’s Quake Prediction
As for Tecumseh’s prediction of the earthquakes five years later, no scientist had predicted the quakes in an almanac or anywhere else. A group of Shawnee lived some fifty or sixty miles north of New Madrid, and Tecumseh’s sister (or perhaps cousin) lived in New Madrid. She and others may have told him of odd rumblings.
A few months before the quakes began, he traveled near New Madrid to recruit armed opposition to the Americans and may have felt some disturbance himself. He told an unreceptive group of Osage, “The Great Spirit is angry with our enemies. He speaks in thunder, and the earth swallows up their villages, and drinks up the Mississippi. The great waters will cover their lowlands, and their corn cannot grow.”
However he did it, Tecumseh went two for two.
Last night the Missouri Writers’ Guild recognized Thunder Beneath My Feet with third place for the Walter Williams Major Work Award. The honor rarely goes to a middle grade/young adult novel.
Named for the founder of the world’s first School of Journalism and of the Guild, the Major Work Award goes to publications or productions judged “to be worthy of special recognition because of the research or high literary quality involved in its creation.” It is the top award given each year at the annual meeting.
Show Me the Murder won first place in 2014.
Christmas in my childhood revolved around food as much as presents, and one of my strongest memories is my two sisters and I helping my mother make doughnuts in our farmhouse kitchen. We’d spend most of an afternoon on the task.
My mother’s doughnuts weren’t the airy, super-sweet ones with frosting or glazes that most bakeries offer today. She made a dense, delicious cake doughnut, and Using the recipe in a 1930s Rumford Complete Cook Book, she mixed three cups of flour, a dash of salt, three teaspoons of baking powder, 2/3 of a cup of sugar, two eggs gathered the previous afternoon, and a cup of milk from the morning milking. The mixture formed a soft dough that she rolled out with the wood rolling pin.
My sisters and I took turns cutting out the doughnuts with a round tin cutter and putting them on one plate and the holes on another. My mother would smoosh together the fragments left and roll out the dough again. We’d repeat the operation until nothing bigger than the holes remained.
By then my mother would have heated lard from the latest hog butchering in a deep pot. When the fat boiled, she dropped in the doughnuts one at a time. The pot would hold only about half a dozen, and we waited impatiently until she lifted out one batch and dropped in another.
When the doughnuts had drained and cooled enough for us to handle them with our fingers, we put them, one at a time, in a bowl of sugar, turning the doughnut until the grains lightly covered both sides. We did the holes last, rolling them around in the sugar. Many went into our mouths rather than onto the platter.
Years later I learned my mother dreaded making doughnuts because of the time a big batch took and the care necessary to avoid one of us getting burned by the boiling fat.
I haven’t had a homemade doughnut in decades, but I still remember how good they were and how much my sisters and I enjoyed making them.
The first quake rousted from bed most people within 50 miles of New Madrid and ended the French community’s Sunday dance. While residents of the diverse Mississippi river port fled from their shaking or collapsing houses, people as far away as Quebec, Washington, D.C., and Savannah felt the earthquake’s reach.
December 16, 1811, marked the beginning of a series of three powerful quakes, more than a dozen major aftershocks, and, by the Ides of March 1812, almost 1,900 tremors. With the epicenter near southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas, the quakes terrified residents in these and bordering states.
In New Madrid, brick homes and chimneys crumbled. Log homes fared better, but many caught fire. Giant trees split up the middle. Sand boils erupted. Ravines appeared. Lakes formed and drained. Furrows resembling giant waves disturbed the fields. A stench rose from the eruption of rotted vegetation and gases.
The river became deadly. It ran backwards, carrying flatboats upstream or capsizing them. Oceanic waves swamped canoes. Falls formed. Giant trees from the banks and dead ones dislodged from the river floor clogged the water. The water rose like a tide at night, forcing boaters to cut their moorings to avoid being dragged under.
The striking facts of this frontier tragedy led me to write a novel, Thunder Beneath My Feet, about how six young people worked together to survive.
Few Americans will note the quakes’ anniversary—or realize they will come again.
The New Madrid Seismic Zone remains one of the most active in the United States, averaging approximately 200 quakes measured at 1.5 or more each year. Scientists say the chance of an earthquake measuring 7 or more in the next 50 years is 7-10%. The chance of an earthquake measuring 6 or greater in that time is three to four times higher.
If you’re nervous about that next big one, or just curious, you can monitor what’s happening in the NMSZ each day at http://www.new-madrid.mo.us/index.aspx?NID=105. This New Madrid site gives you monthly summaries of the time, measurement, location, and hypocentral depth of the quakes.
Five micro quakes (ranging from .9 to 1.3) occurred during the first four days of September, three of them 6.8 miles SSW of New Madrid. The other two were near Lilbourn, MO, and Ridgely, TN.
Several quakes in August were more powerful. They included a 2.5 event 4.35 miles NW of Tiptonville, TN (near Reelfoot Lake), a 2.4 event 8 miles WSW of Albion, IL, and a 2.4 event 4.8 miles ESE of Manila, AR.
No one seems to know when the big one(s) will come, but apparently the little ones never stop.
The powerful New Madrid earthquakes produced much ugliness 200 years ago. River bluffs collapsed. Wave-shaped furrows covered acres of prairie. Sand boils shot rotted vegetation into the air.
But the quakes also created beauty. They turned a large swampy area in the northwest corner of Tennessee into what today is the eye-pleasing and spirit-soothing15,000-acre Reelfoot Lake. It formed when the ground sank, creating a bowl that retained flood water when the Mississippi ran backward.
This week I detoured on my drive home from Killer Nashville to visit the Reelfoot Lake State Park near Tiptonville. The shallow lake, a major stop on birds’ migratory routes, lies roughly 20 miles southwest of New Madrid as the crow flies, and a great deal farther as a car goes.
It’s well worth a short detour if you do nothing but stop at the visitors center just outside of Tiptonville and walk on the boardwalk at the edge of and alongside the lake. I was so captivated that I took about 50 pictures in this one small area.
First I lingered over wetlands with dense vegetation, including flowers. Seeming almost tropical, this surely resembles the swamp (drained long ago) New Madrid residents fled through when the earthquakes hit in late 1811 and early 1812.
On the lake’s shore, bald cypress trees grow out of the water. Sun filters through them to light cypress knees and small turtles lazing. Such sights refresh the soul.
Guided boat tours of the lake leave from the boardwalk, and rangers answer questions in the visitors center. There a small but satisfying museum features local history (the quakes, settlement, night riders), Native American artifacts (pottery and arrowheads), live animals (fish, snakes, birds), and such local specialties as a stump jumper (a canoe suited to passing through and over submerged trees and cypress knees).
One display appears at first glance to be a modern abstract painting. It actually shows, in coded colors, the curvy routes that the Mississippi followed through the area over the centuries before the lake’s formation. You can buy a copy in the gift shop.
I drove the 20 miles or so around the lake, taking a side road into the National Wildlife Refuge. There the swamp looks formidable. At the end of the narrow road, waterlilies bloom in the lake.
Even disasters sometimes create beauty.
To find out more about the park, visit http://www.tnstateparks.com.
Who are the readers for Thunder Beneath My Feet? Reviewers have recommended it for tweens through adults. Just what I wanted to hear.
When I planned a story set during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812, I chose to tell it through the eyes of a teenage girl who must grow up overnight and make judgment calls few adults face. I pictured readers as young as fourth graders and expected most to be sixth to eighth graders. I hoped anyone who likes history would enjoy watching the major characters, who range in age from ten to mid twenties, deal with danger and individual and cultural differences.
Below are excerpts from three recent reviews.
The Historical Novels Review, Issue 77, August 2016 (https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/thunder-beneath-my-feet/): “Thunder Beneath My Feet is a charming novel with a strong historical setting. The landscape, characters, and manners of speech all set the tone perfectly. … the story is made intriguing by its diverse characters and well-visualized time period.
“I would recommend this book to my daughter, particularly when she learns about pioneer life in school. I must admit that I had no idea about these events! The story is meticulously researched and will entertain (and educate!) readers from tweens to adults.”
Boundless Book Reviews, June 30, 2016 (bit.ly/29dEjKF): “This suspenseful drama hooked me from the first page and I read it within two days, I just could not put it down. I highly recommend Thunder Beneath My Feet; this is one of those rare books everyone can enjoy. I absolutely loved it and give it 5 Boundless Stars.”
Missouri Life, August-September 2016: “If you’re a fan of the Titanic movie, then you will love Carolyn Mulford’s fictional story of a tragedy that struck Missouri 205 years ago.”