Monday, March 23, 2015
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Many years ago I was part of a Western Writers of America project to compile an anthology of profiles of women of the American West. My subject was Dr. Georgia Arbuckle Fix who practiced medicine on the western frontier of Nebraska in the late nineteenth century. I had a medical background of sorts and wondered why a woman would choose life in a dugout alone and drive her carriage miles and miles across the prairie to see patients. The story fascinated me and set a pattern for my writing for many years to come.
|Dr. Georgia Arbuckle Fix|
When I first turned my hand to fiction, I wrote a novel based on Dr. Fix’s life, only to learn later that the great Mari Sandoz had already done that and done a better job than I did. Still, my version, Mattie, won a Spur Award from Western Writers of America, an award that angered some male members who thought it should go to a men’s adventure tale.
I went on to write about more women of the American West—a young girl in East Texas (not really the West but….), a young orphan living on the streets of Fort Worth and crossing paths with Long Haired Jim Courtright and Luke Short. These short novels were sold through the Doubleday Double D Western Book Club, mostly to prison libraries.
I grew ambitious and wanted to do a long novel that would sell in bookstores. I proposed a fictional biography of Elizabeth Bacon Custer, wife and widow of General George Armstrong Custer who died at Little Bighorn. Bantam/Doubleday put major publicity behind it, and it probably sold better than any book I’ve ever written. I followed it with fictional biographies of Jessie Benton Frémont, Wild West Show cowgirl Lucille Mulhall, and Etta Place, the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend. And then there was a young-adult book called Extraordinary Women of the American West, a collection of short biographies of sixty-eight women, from pioneers to contemporary.
I admired these women and loved investigating their lives, finding out why, in many cases, they’d left family and comfort behind to strike out for adventure. Many came with husbands, but some did not. All came with a sense of breaking bonds and leaving constrictions behind. They had a curiously optimistic outlook—a favorite saying was, “Come spring…” Come spring, the crops would make, the cattle would produce, life would be better. Always looking toward spring, they minimalized the hardships of life in a dugout or on the cattle trail or an isolated ranch.
“Come spring” is a great motto for all of us.
Friday, March 13, 2015
She became my Girl With a Pearl Earring. I knew that she lived but nothing else about her. I called her Lupe Pérez and wove her into a story of late nineteenth century San Antonio. To this day, I wonder what she might think if she could read Chili Queen: Mi historia.
Writing Lupe’s story gave me an opportunity to gently introduce some ideas for readers to mull. Lupe’s romance with Peter unravels perhaps more because of his family’s objection to a working class Mexican American girl than to their interest in making a match for him. Matters of race and socio-economic status were as real in late nineteenth century San Antonio as they are today, although not talked about openly. The Pérez family accepts their lower status in American society. They do not contest it. Mamá offers that as a reason for Peter’s decision. No one raises objection. Younger brother José is the only one who speaks up about his rights.
In late nineteenth-century San Antonio, women did not enjoy many opportunities for personal advancement. They were second-class citizens, and Mexican American working class women had perhaps even fewer rights. Lupe is unique in her striving for entrepreneurial success. Despite a lack of formal education, Lupe is intelligent, and she tries many different ways to improve business at her family’s chili stand. She takes risks with money she does not have and ultimately makes a bold move when she decides to open a fonda instead of moving the chili stand to another plaza.
During Women’s History Month it is helpful for every reader to reflect on the constraints within which working class women had to function, how far women have come since Lupe’s day, and how much remains to be done to achieve equality of opportunity for all women, especially women of color with limited resources, inadequate education, but a strong desire to surmount difficulties. Lupe Pérez, a smart and mature seventeen year old, is willing to lose to gain.
My Girl With a Pearl Earring looks back at us from the photograph taken by Frank Hardesty on Military Plaza in 1886. What was she thinking then? What would she think if by some magic, her rebozo could transport her to twenty-first century San Antonio, where she might understand the importance of her legacy for enterprising business women in our city? What would she say about the story I have spun around her? I hope she would be pleased.
~Marian Martinello, author of Chili Queen: Mi historia, The Search for a Chili Queen, The Search for Pedro's Story, and The Search for Emma's Story