Category Archives: Writing



Author Janis Owens, known for her bestselling cookbook Cracker Kitchen and a new novel American Ghost stood behind the podium at the Flagler Palm Coast Library to introduce Flagler Reads Together 2015 before a good-sized audience on March 7, 2015. The book the community will read is American Ghost. What an excellent choice! This book has humor, mystery, history and romance told in a rollicking page-turning style. It is a story immersed in the folklore of North Florida. I was on the edge of my seat and most of the audience looked equally interested in what Ms. Owens had to say.

As an experienced speaker with solid North Florida credentials in living (born in Mariana and raised in Ocala) and writing, she kicked off the event in fine style. She told us she had always been a lover of books and reading. She discussed the background story of her book and some of the challenges faced in researching and writing this story.

Janis Owens feels what she says.

Janis Owens feels what she says.

She reminded us of how writers often write what they don’t understand, searching the truth, trying to figure things out. She had known something of horrific past crimes in Florida, traumatizing her own community and others. Secrets swirled around these crimes. Some might describe life in parts of the South as continuing guerilla warfare from the end of the Civil War until 1965 as people fought over power.

Ms. Owens undertook research into the local history of different events and considered themes that would become part of her novel. She developed a deeper understand of how tightly a community often keeps its secrets. She listened to people’s stories, when they would talk, and poked into sources. It was not an easy journey. There is a history written in books and history erased from record books, or never entered, a ghost history, if you will. Family ties are tight. Memories purposely fade. The story of how this novel came to be with varied ethnicities, plot strands and characters was intensely interesting to those of us in her audience.

She talked too about her book Cracker Kitchen, full of recipes and stories about Florida. It honors her mother and the local culture. This was a more acceptable subject in her family and community than digging around in the history and trauma of past lynchings and other deeds of violence. After the publication of this book, some relatives and neighbors became a bit more open in talking to her about life in an isolated North Florida community. She describes the cracker culture as the idea “you can’t do enough for people.”

She was raised by parents very much a part of that culture. Her mother was a lover of books and reading. One thing she and I have in common is the fact our mothers did not censor our reading. Though her mother suffered from depression at times, she was happy in the library among the books. That’s a trait I share with her mother. Ms. Owens knows how to connect with her audience.

Thank you Friends of the Flagler Library.

Thank you Friends of the Flagler Library.

This successful event featured friendly greetings from Friends of the Library members and beautiful refreshments. The pleasant atmosphere of the library, adequate seating and friendly faces created a welcoming event for all who attended.

The gracious author with one of her fans.

The gracious author with one of her fans.

Ms Owens signed and sold books and talked graciously with her readers. I so enjoyed meeting her. I’m an unqualified fan. I could listen to her for hours and was impressed with how she answered readers’ questions about her books and about writing books.

Learn more about Ms. Owens and her writing at her website.
See a review of American Ghost on this blog posted on the home page on February 17 under the title Florida Adventures. I’m grateful that Ms. Owens and her books have been part of my 2015 Florida Adventures.



Photos by Jerry Lein

A few years ago, we explored some of the natural sights at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in West Central Florida. It is an area visited by the artist and naturalist William Bartram in 1774 when he traveled parts of Florida along the St. John’s River. We experienced some of the flora and fauna that Bartram wrote about in the diary he kept of his travels.


When you visit this place you will see it not much changed from hundreds of years ago. One’s imagination builds on past times, roams this savanna and hears stories told by the creatures living on the plain.



In praise of a grassy plain in Alachua County Florida
By Paulette Mitchell Lein

The Alachua drumbeat drives a winding dream
enfolding the euphoria of naturalist William Bartram,
who camped in 1764 where this great savanna spreads its wings,
where once, black wolves gathered under a thicket of bent trees,
where a bald eagle acted as overseer to the waiting vultures,
where Spanish moss––long, curling locks–– hung among the oaks;
and dead branches climbed the cedars, rising like monuments
to all who used this place in times gone by,
those who smelled the odors of venison stewing in bear oil.

Now, a lone egret watches the dark waters of the channel,
layered like shale between the sedge,
lazing toward the calm of the sinkhole,
where new green bursts bright alongside decay’s drab brown,
where seventeen black-headed coots huddle in the water,
where small birds poke beaks into the muck, digging dinner,
and the great blue heron preens and poses.
Abundant alligators and turtles laze across the water.
Some distance away, buffalo and wild pigs graze the leaking meadow,
and cattle egret feed at a watery trough.
Languid movement nearly stops time.
Sound is almost silent; only the ticking of insects
breaks against the space. Then, a gurgle rises on an updraft.
Is it the confluence of waters or the alligators scattering such babble?


Daydreams overtake me.
I slip beneath the water hyacinths, a wavering lid to the sinkhole,
and swim the secret subterranean waters,
tasting fragrant orange in my mouth.
Schools of fish disperse and chase a trail ahead.
The bones of ancient people rise to meet me.
On and on I go. What memories paint these walls?
Caves open their jaws and swallow history.
Snaking my way back, drawn to the surface of the sink,
I bathe in its delights. Behold,
the Alachua savanna awaits, spacious and shimmering.
Will it always be where I can find my way?


Books About William Bartram

Travels of William Bartram by William Bartram, a 1955 edition of Bartram’s writings and available in paperback.

Bartram’s Living Legacy: The Travels and the Nature of the South by William Bartram and Dorinda G. Dallmeyer, 2010

William Bartram, The Search for Nature’s Design: Selected Art, Letters, and Unpublished Writings by William Bartram and Thomas Hallock, 2010

Hiking in North Florida with William Bartram: 25 Hikes by G. Kent and Todd Carstenn, 2014.

And there are more. Much is written about William Bartram. I’ll be searching for this last title, hoping to expand my knowledge and experience with his travels in Florida. I own the first one on the list, admittedly I have read only the parts that pertain to his travels in the general vicinity of Paynes Prairie. I love to read about Florida’s past and to try to better understand the plants and animals, quite different from my native Midwest.

We so enjoyed our trip to Paynes Prairie. Thanks to the couple who recommended the place to us. We urge others to visit there if you have the opportunity.


INTERVIEW WITH JOHN C. BUSH, Author of Patriots and Rebels.


Interview conducted July/August, 2014

John Bush is the author of the exciting new Civil War novel, Patriots and Rebels, reviewed here last month. The story takes readers inside the daily life of a North Alabama family and tells the adventures of the father, Tom Files, who became a Union Soldier. Sincere thanks to Dr. John Bush for taking time from his busy schedule to do this interview. Many readers share his interest in the ordinary and extraordinary lives of those who lived during the Civil War era. John’s brief bio appears at the end of the interview.

Tell us about your new book and how you came to write it.
The idea for this book was planted in my brain 30 years ago, which is when my wife Sara and I learned that her great-great-grandfather Tom Files was in the Union army. My first response to that news was, “There has to be a story in that somewhere.” I was busy with an active career and a growing family, so that thought was just filed away, but it kept presenting itself now and again as a gentle reminder.

How did this writing experience begin for you?
My exploration into the story of Tom Files began as genealogical interest. Several years later I had a researcher in Washington, D.C. get the war record for me from the National Archives. When he sent it to me (along with several other files) he commented: “Looks like there could be a book in this one.” That was the nudge I needed to start putting the story together. It turned into a five-year project, with Patriots and Rebels as the final product.

Much of your story is set in Northern Alabama. I know you were raised in the South. How did your background inform your writing.
My wife is from North Alabama. I grew up in Montgomery — 200 miles to the south. That is solidly “Old South” — “The First Capitol of the Confederacy” where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as President. They are different worlds in a lot of ways. I knew nothing of this story until I married into a family of Southern Patriots. What my background brought to the writing of Patriots and Rebels was a sense of the language. When you hear Mattie’s voice in the novel, you are hearing my Grandma Bush, whom I knew well. She died when I was in my teens, and as a child I stayed with her quite often.

What obstacles did you face in writing this book and how did you find solutions?
For starters, how does a 76-year-old man create a believable voice for a 14-year-old girl? How did I do it (assuming I did)? I did it with a lot of help and advice from friends and editors, and with writing and rewriting and rewriting. Further, there was the challenge of having these people speak in their own language styles, but also be understandable to readers who are living 15O years later.

What are you most proud of regarding Patriots and Rebels?
It is in print and being read — even enjoyed by some, so I hear!

Is historical fiction a favorite genre for you? Please tell us about some of your favorite books and authors in that category.
I do enjoy historical fiction, and have read quite a bit of it. I especially enjoyed The Secrets of Mary Bowser, by Lois LaNreen, and Lalita Tademy’s Cane River. All of Michener, of course. Barbara Tuchman’s The First Salute, One I wish every American would read, in light of our current involvements with the Muslim world, is James Reston, Jr.’s earthshaking Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade. That one, along with the Mary Bowser book, are my all time favorites.

How does what you read inform your writing?
For the most part I read for the pleasure of it, or to gain information or insight into a subject rather than as a tool to guide my own writing. That being said, I am always interested in seeing how other fiction writers handle plot and character development, pacing and dialogue. Especially dialogue, because it is the most difficult aspect of writing for me to grasp.
I’ve begun work on a “prequel” to Patriots, set in the American Revolution, and am experimenting with James Michener’s style in The Covenant, to see if it works for me. Michener moves between the narration of the novel and providing the “backstory” — interspersing more contemporary observations. We’ll see how that works out!

Do you buy books? What have you been buying lately?
Do I buy books? The house is full of them. I count nine bookcases full, and a couple of those are double shelved — books behind books. My most recent purchases include Winston Groom’s Shrouds of Glory, (yes, it’s about the Civil War); Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings: Britain. The Slaves and the American Revolution, Tracy Thompson’s The New Mind of the South, and Breena Clark’s River, Cross My Heart. Oh, and there are the two novels by a friend in my writers group: Like a Fox, and Like Sheep by Judy Mitchell Rich.

Is Civil War History a particular interest of yours?
One cannot grow up in the South and not be “interested” in the Civil War. It is in the air you breathe and the water you drink. But I can’t say my interest in it has been anything out of the ordinary. I’ve not made a particular study of it, and have no interest at all in the minutia of particular battles and strategies of warfare. The stories of ordinary and extraordinary people of that era do interest me.

I’m interested in how you conducted your research. Tell us about that.
When I got serious about writing this book I spent a good deal of time researching the places. Much of this was done on-line, some at my local library. I had the advantage of having Tom’s military record in hand, so I knew about some of the specific incidents and locations. The basic outline of where he was between when he mustered out of First Alabama Cavalry at Camp Davies, Mississippi and the time he arrived home more than two years later was available to me in the documentation from the National Archives. Much of this is in his hand, or transcribed from his own words. My task was to fill in the blanks, and that was the challenge. How did he actually get from northern Mississippi to southern Illinois and then back down to LaVergne, Tennessee, and finally into a Federal prison in Nashville? I had to create much of that detail, but I tried to keep as close to the actual history of those times and places as I could. When I described actual events in the war, I drew on actual documentation. In some cases there is a difference in how these are described in Union documents, as compared with Confederate documents. (The massacre at Fort Pillow is the most dramatic example of such differences.) I had to stay focused on Tom’s point of view. I decided that the best way to sort this out for my readers was to include a set of “Author’s Notes” at the end.

How do you see the relationship between researching and writing?
It is important to keep in mind that this is a novel, but a historical one. I came at this project as a storyteller, not as a historian. Thus, the history informs the story, not the other way around, but without distorting the history unreasonably (I hope). The research informs that delicate process. I do not want to mislead the reader regarding the history; what I say about that is as accurate as I can make it. But it is also there to inform the story and move it forward.

Tell us about your writing day?
I’ve heard other writers say you should devote specific time every day to writing, or you should write at least 1000 words every day. I write when I have something to write, which means some days I don’t write a single word and other days I stay at it for 2 or 3, 8 or 10 or 12 hours. Which is not to say I’m neglecting the project. When I’m not writing, I am often into serious creation. My mind is almost always working on the plot, the timeline or character development. Some of my most creative time comes when I’m driving along the Interstate.

What would you most like readers to know about Patriots and Rebels?
It is very important for the reader to know that Tom Files and his family were real human beings. They lived, breathed and died just as we do, but in extraordinary times when extraordinary demands were made upon them.

How can readers obtain your book?
Any bookseller can get it for you. I am a strong believer in local bookstores and encourage people to buy the book locally if they can (even though that way I earn the very least on sales.) It is also available both in print and for Kindle from If people want a signed copy, they may contact me via message at the PATRIOTS AND REBELS Facebook page, and I will arrange for that.

What writing projects are you currently working on?
In addition to the prequel dealing with the Files family during the American Revolution, which I mentioned earlier in the interview, I’m also playing with the idea of a story similar to Patriots, but written for elementary young people — fourth grade or so.

Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’d like to comment on?
My previous book was published in 2002. The entire publishing universe has changed since then! Publishers no longer consider book proposals directly; they must go through an agent. The problem is that getting an agent is far harder today than finding a publisher was in the “old” days. The “new kid on the block,” is what is called independent publishing. I did it with CreateSpace, the publishing arm of Amazon. It has been a good experience so far. The book was for sale on Amazon (both print and Kindle) very quickly. However, sales other than through Amazon are entirely mine to do. That’s a pain, but that’s the way the industry is going these days, unless you are an established author.

About the author
John C. Bush is a retired Presbyterian minister now living in Decatur, Alabama, near where much if this story takes place. He was born in northwest Florida and grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. His ancestral roots are in Virginia Colony, 1670. He holds a BA degree from Samford University in Birmingham: M. Div. from Midwestern Theological Seminary in Kansas City; and a D. Min. degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary, San Anselmo CA. His ministerial career took him to Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Alabama, Michigan and back to Alabama. He and Sara have two children, six grandchildren and one great grandchild. He is the author or editor of five books in the field of religion. Patriots and Rebels is his first novel.

And to Dr. Bush, I say, “Yes, many are enjoying your book. Thanks for telling your story.”



This man’s writing leads a reader to discover the past in a way that makes it real, exciting and new, even though it’s an old story, one the reader supposedly knew. This week I read an interview with Philbrick by Jacqulene Brzozowski in the Spring, 2014 issue of the online journal Mount Hope Magazine. That led to another interview I accessed online by Ben Shattuck for Paris Review, July 24, 2013. Philbrick discusses his writing, both subject matter and process.


You are perhaps familiar with some of his best known books.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2001). National Book Award Winner
The Mayflower: The Story of Courage, Community, and War (2007) Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution. (2013)



These are the ones I’ve read and so are most familiar to me. There are others. I highly recommend any and all. His latest book is Why Read Moby-Dick. It is a departure from his usual fare, a slender volume giving many reasons to read or reread Moby Dick. I understand movies are in the works based on In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard) and Bunker Hill (Ben Affleck).

When Philbrick talks about writing history, he emphasizes the importance of character to move a story forward. He goes on to say that historical detail brings the past to life. He researches archives and goes to the places he writes about to see and discover. He researches to discover the character and the character’s world.


He writes narrative non-fiction. He recreates circumstances and places in vivid detail enabling the characters to live and breathe, rather than creating dialogue. When talking of his writing process he says “the note-taking is everything for me.” He describes his notebooks and his extensive note-taking, and tells how he moves from note-taking to creating a book. The amount of learning, what he gets into his head, seems amazing.

In the interview for the Paris Review he says, “For me, it’s the act of discovery gives the prose life.” Reading his interviews one feels he deeply enjoys the connection and evolutions of a society. So history is made.

So we discover it, thanks to Mr. Philbrick. I never expected to read a book about whaling. I did and it was and is unforgettable. Please share your comments about Mr. Philbrick, any of his books or tell us which one is on your reading list. And, we are always looking for movie news. Keep us posted!




To my surprise one of the most viewed summer 2013 posts was a short story I wrote titled “The Wardrobe” inspired by an antique wardrobe I saw on Facebook posted by an antique shop in Story City, Iowa. The story relates an imaginary incident from the Underground Railroad in Tama County, Iowa in the mid-nineteenth century.

Since last summer’s posting, the story has been revised and polished thanks to several readers. It appeared in the anthology Spindrift 8, published by the Florida Writing Group, Seaquills. I am most thankful for the support of that superb writers’ group.

If you didn’t have the opportunity to read the story last year, or you’d like to read the new, improved version, I hope you will enjoy it.


Margaret stood quietly for a moment before the wardrobe, her brother Matthew’s most skilled piece of cabinetry work. No one who saw it would deny the giant wardrobe was a beautiful piece of furniture, handmade in 1861. Carefully worked molding complimented the graceful elegant lines of the tall cupboard.
It had a small drawer above, but below, the apparent drawer was a door. It pulled down for easier access to the floor of the wardrobe. Hand cut dovetails, mortise and tenon joinery showed careful workmanship. It stood sixty-eight inches tall on feet perfectly proportioned and boasted a depth of twenty-two inches.
With its dark varnished finish, it was an impressive piece of furniture. The wardrobe held a power, a palpable presence. The family appreciated and loved Matthew’s handiwork. He had finished it only weeks before his death from summer quick pneumonia.
Oh yes, she remembered, she had come to fetch a shawl for her mother. She opened the large doors of the wardrobe and nearly cried out in surprise, clamping her hand against her mouth for she heard the quick breath of children. She pulled back her abundant hair with fingers roughened red by the week’s work. She blinked her blue eyes to check the images before her. She saw the round whites of their eyes surrounding dark pupils. It made her think of seeing cats at night when only the eyes are visible, glinting a yellow white against the night darkness. Two little boys with brown skin sat close together. They played at passing a belt buckle back and forth between them.
Margaret stared at the wee boys. They stared back at her, their round eyes growing larger. Were they contraband as runaway slaves were called?
She could hear her two-year-old son Mattie playing in the kitchen, tumbling pieces of wood on the kitchen floor, building something. She knew her mother was near him slicing cheese and bread to add to their supper. She hoped he would stay in the kitchen. It was the only way she could hope to keep things quiet.
Before Margaret looked into the wardrobe and saw those wee boys, she never thought much about enslaved people. She paid little attention to some of the conversations after Sunday services, or other times neighborhood people gathered. Around the family dinner table it was not a topic much talked about.
A question flashed across her thoughts: What happened to those who assisted runaways? She did wonder if these young children in the wardrobe were alone? Where had they come from?
Margaret thought she had not had time to think about slavery because she was so busy with a new baby and the family. Her mother had injured a leg while still in Scotland. It was difficult for Mother to get around. And she tried to keep up her cheese-making business. They were a household of eight, her oldest brother, who had found the land in Tama County, and three other siblings in addition to herself , wee Mattie, and her father. They crowded first in a tiny cabin, but now, blessedly a frame house had been built, a house with proper space for Matthew’s wardrobe.
Margaret looked deeper into the shadows of the wardrobe. She saw a wisp of a woman sitting against the back corner nursing a baby. The woman looked at her and spoke in a soft voice. “I be Dorcas,” she said. “This here is Alec and his brother Archie. Celia is getting her supper. I sorry we hide in your home. Someone will come for us when night falls.” Margaret thought most likely they had come in while the whole family was at Tranquillity Church Services.
Margaret knelt in front of the wardrobe, her hands on the closed lower door. In a few words difficult for Margaret to understand, Dorcas let her know that they had been hiding in a wagon headed toward the village. A man the driver knew to be a Copperhead halted the wagon. The two men talked briefly. As soon as the Copperhead was out of sight, their driver left the Ridge Road and hid the family in a thicket of bushy shrubs and trees near the creek. But the children became strangely afraid and restless there in the out-of-doors with no building, no wagon, no fire to anchor them. So they had wandered into the McKie’s house while the family was away and found a hiding place in the wardrobe. “We safe here, out of sight,” Dorcas whispered.
It was now late afternoon.
Margaret told them all to stay in the wardrobe, and she would go to the kitchen to get food. They could eat in the bedroom. She spread an old quilt on the floor. She did not want Mattie to see this family. He would get excited and disrupt everything. Who would come for them? How would anyone know to come here? She asked Dorcas, but Dorcas only shook her head and said, “Someone always come. I know it.” Could she have left some sign in the woods? What sign could that be? Margaret feared no one would come. Who would come? Where would these people go next?
Margaret went into the kitchen. She talked with her mother about the food she gathered. Mother had prepared a Sunday night supper of Scotch Broth, heated on the stove, along with the bread and cheese sliced on a serving board. Father, brothers and sisters were outdoors doing evening farm chores.
Margaret took Mattie outside to be with his grandfather who was feeding the horses. He lifted Mattie up to stroke the muscled neck of Henry, their dappled gray horse. Mattie giggled. He clung to his grandfather with his arms around his neck.
She spoke to her father about what she had found in the wardrobe. She said she planned to give the family supper in the bedroom. Could he do his best to keep little Mattie at his side?
Margaret thought this mother traveling with three young children certainly needed their help, and she said as much to her father. He nodded his agreement. Margaret knew he usually appreciated her sense of kindness and justice toward others. Then Margaret remembered she had heard him talk about the Copperheads. “They round up escaping enslaved people from Missouri,” he had said. “They stick their noses in other people’s doings. They are angry. I dunna understand why?”
On her way back to the house she thought about Dorcas who seemed calm, almost relaxed. How could she be so brave? How could she face the risk and uncertainty ahead of her so easily? As Margaret marveled at Dorcas’ courage, it birthed in her an understanding. Dorcas was less fearful of the unknown than she was of the place she had escaped. Then too, Dorcas’ features held a pose; her face didn’t reveal anything.
What did the Copperheads want anyway? Did they think two sweet quiet little boys should be sent back to slavery––owned, mistreated? When this family was on their way to Canada they would not bother anyone in Tama County.
As the little family ate, Margaret learned they had come through Illinois and eastern Iowa hidden on a train to Tama City. They expected to go north to Minnesota and Canada. Margaret held the baby while Dorcas took each boy to the outhouse. Margaret played a number game with pegs with the boy who took his turn inside. In between trips, Dorcas ate a few mouthfuls of soup.
One little boy had an endearing smile that peeked out when he finished his soup. The other, Archie Margaret thought, gazed about, frightened. The boys were four or five, small for their ages but certainly older than Mattie. Their ankles were skinned, probably from the sharp, tangled undergrowth near the creek, and bitten by insects so numerous in that area. When Dorcas returned from her second trip outside, Margaret went to her room and traded the baby’s wet smelly diaper cloths for dry ones to be used on the trip. The boys finished eating. They climbed into the wardrobe. It was a safe place. It opened its arms to them.
Margaret joined her family for supper. She was aware that over the last minutes, each family member paid no mind to anything but supper. It was the way of the parents, and it was the way they had trained their children not to notice what was not pertinent and necessary to them. They were not to intrude into what was the business of others. Margaret had directed Dorcas through the parlor and out the front door to the necessary, avoiding the kitchen where Mattie and the family were busy with supper. The little boys had been quiet. The baby slept.
. After supper, while her sisters took care of the dishes, Margaret brewed chamomile tea for Dorcas. Dorcas took the tea with a grateful look, wrapping her fingers around the mug. Margaret noticed the pink color of the insides of her fingers and hands. The calluses on her finger pads and palms showed a strange white. Margaret observed wee Celia was a quiet baby, a fortunate thing.
She could not help but worry about what would happen if the sheriff or some stranger from Tama City should approach the house while they were eating; or what could happen if the wrong person arrived this evening before someone came for this family. Her stomach tightened at the thought. She looked at those children and at the baby. She could think only about spiriting them to some kind of safety. With a firm resolve she put the sheriff and the Copperheads out of her mind.

The faith of Dorcas was rewarded. At full darkness Margaret heard a wagon rumbling quietly into the yard and the sounds of the horse’s trappings. Harness always made music. Margaret and her father went out into the lane to see about the visitor. Margaret was grateful that Mattie had gone to sleep directly after dinner and warm milk. She recognized the Wilson’s wagon. But her hand flew to her mouth to cover her exclamation of surprise at seeing the driver was her friend Flora Wilson.
Flora was somewhat disguised, but still Margaret recognized her. Tall Flora had been the first to befriend the McKie family on their arrival in Buckingham. They lived for a time in the village in a cabin across the street from the Wilson house. Flora was unmarried, maybe thirty years old, and she kept house for her brothers and her elderly parents. Flora was Margaret’s closest friend outside the family. Margaret realized that clearly, she didn’t know all there was to know about Flora. Flora had her secrets.
Margaret walked to the wagon and leaned against the side of the wagon seat.
“I’m here for your guests,” Flora said. She looked down at Margaret, serious business written on her face.
Margaret turned and nodded to her father. Without a word he went into the house to fetch the runaways. In a few moments he came to the wagon carrying the smallest boy who had a grin on his face. Maybe he liked wagon rides. The other held his mother’s hand and walked behind. The baby lay in a sling fashioned from a scarf hanging across her mother’s chest.
Flora handed Dorcas a shawl for warmth. Dorcas thanked her. “Mam,” she said. “I need this. I from the south of Illinois. I be some ill with fever and chills.”
She and the boys climbed quickly into the wagon and settled among its contents. Flora had loaded the wagon with sacks of grain and turnips as well as some produce ready to sell. Food was packed into a clothesbasket: cooked meat and boiled potatoes and turnips. Flora had jugs of tea and milk. She had brought a small basket for the baby.
Dorcas lowered the baby into the basket and covered her with a dishtowel. She bedded down the boys and pulled up a much-darned quilt that Flora had put in the wagon to cover them and the baby. Then she tied her scarf tightly around her head and redid the knot. The scarf frayed in places and her bushy hair poked through.
Father pulled the sacks of grain and turnips to the back of the wagon. If the gate was opened, the contents appeared a load for market. Dorcas secreted herself quickly. Margaret had no idea where she might be hidden, or how she might have curled herself among the contents of the wagon.
Flora said little during the few minutes it took for Dorcas and the children to settle. Flora wore a grey roundabout coat with deep pockets. Her hair was tied up in back and under a black felt hat. Margaret marveled at the intense secrecy of this situation. How could she have known Flora so well for several years and been completely unaware of this kind of activity? Maybe this was a first time. Still, Flora was a capable woman. It did not completely surprise her. She thought earnestly of a future time when she could talk more with Flora about this. What would Flora say? When would they have such opportunity? Questions clattered in her brain. In that instant she prayed for Flora’s safe return.
Father stood at the front of the team and steadied the horses. A crock of butter beans occupied the seat next to Flora. They infused the night air with a delicious smell that trailed down the lane to the road as Flora drove away.
Flora maneuvered the horses out onto the road. She allowed herself a small smile at Margaret’s shocked look. It was fun to surprise her friend. She was feeling confident and in-charge, blessed with a good wagon and a sure-footed team. She expected no trouble.
If Copperheads stopped her, she was ready with her story of delivering supplies to the Flemings who lived north and west some seven or eight miles, up near another village. They were a well-known family who had fallen on hard times. Both parents were ill, hence the butter beans to help feed the family. Flora was aware that with the harboring of runaways, she violated the Fugitive Slave Law and was liable to fine and imprisonment. She accepted this risk. She wanted to help in the war effort. She wanted to be as brave as her brother who was serving in the Union Army in unpleasant country in Arkansas and Texas. At any rate, she imagined it hot, barren and uncomfortable.
She drove along the road north. She knew it well. Moonlight was in short supply with only a quarter moon. She could barely make out the movement of the clouds across the sky. They were faster than the horses, but if she tried to keep up, haste might make waste. The likelihood of meeting anyone seemed slight. All the same, she hoped to stay alert and vigilant. She drove across open prairie and then through Fleming Woods.
It angered Flora that this subterfuge was necessary since Iowa was a free territory. But she knew the Copperheads were up-in-arms. They believed the recently enacted Emancipation Proclamation would cause freed slaves to swarm into Iowa. Their speeches and items in the local newspapers warned against this. She also knew of trouble as close as Grinnell over allowing free black men to attend school. This issue had led to violence there. It divided church congregations and the entire community.
Flora listened carefully to the night’s song: the frogs, crickets, an occasional owl, insects she couldn’t name. The beauty and calm of the night seemed a sign she was doing right. As she drove she whispered the words of Psalm 23. She believed she would arrive at her destination, but exactly when? Later she heard prairie wolves howling in the distance and thought they probably frightened the woman and her children. But she knew the wolves were some distance away and probably no danger to travelers this time of year.
She did not wonder at this frail but strong black woman, whose name she did not know, a woman who wanted a new life. She shuddered to think what the woman’s life had been like, enslaved to others, owned. Flora was not familiar with slave life. She only thought the woman must have had to work very hard with no freedom to come and go. To Flora, the most awful part for Dorcas must have been the lack of freedom to be her own person. Though she had heard tales of the evils of slavery, of horrific conditions, she did not know what part of such might be true.
Yesterday Elias Burnwell, a pharmacist in Tama City had stopped at around noon to tell her about this duty he was assigning to her. He had stayed overnight with a farmer friend. That farmer had a boy Silas. After Elias left the woman and her children in the brush by the creek, he returned to the farm. Silas was sent to watch the woman and her children, unobserved, and so he brought word that they had gone into the McKie house. Thus had Elias learned the situation and decided to ask Flora to provide the ride north to Hudson Grove.
Flora urged the horses on toward Hudson Grove where she expected her passengers would be sheltered in a small neat white house at the edge of town. Flora recited prayers of thanksgiving for the fact she heard no horses behind her. Therefore no armed gang of ruffians with rifles could be following in pursuit.
After a few more miles, Flora praised the Lord. Her trip had been uneventful. The woman and her wee ones were safely delivered. Stars still filled the sky as she helped them into the house and the waiting arms of another woman whose name she did not know or ask. She did know the next stop for her passengers would be a cornstarch mill in Cedar Falls located some miles further northeast on the banks of the Cedar River. How or when they would go there was not for her to know.


This tale of tall, fearless Flora and the dark-skinned Dorcas and her children was handed down through the generations of our family for many years. Margaret and our own ancestors were seen as resourceful and courageous. The story was always told with humble pride, as is thought appropriate by our Scottish people.
Margaret, the McKies and Flora as well as those of us who told the story through the years never knew what happened to Dorcas, Alec, Archie and Celia. We never knew from what exact place Dorcas had fled or why? Had she been mistreated or was she simply responding to an urge to be free? There was, of course, nothing simple about it. But we always thought the best when we imagined the rest of their journey in following the North Star, since once north of Cedar Falls, it was likely that the underground railroad to Canada ran smoothly.
As for the wardrobe, due to its beauty, its exciting history and amazing presence, it was well-cared for and passed down from generation to generation. Today it is as lovely as ever and painted white. It decorates the front hall of my home in Des Moines.

Paulette Mitchell Lein



An Interview with Festival Director Shelly LeMahieu Dunn

Am I correct in stating this is the 14th year of the conference?
The Festival started in 1990, albeit under a different name. It also didn’t happen in 1992 (I believe), but has happened every two years since then.

What brought you the most joy working on this year’s conference?
It’s often the small moments that bring us the most joy—a kind word spoken at the registration desk, a student volunteer eagerly assisting a technology-challenged attendee, a presenter expressing such joy at being able to talk about being both a writer and a Christian, an attendee receiving encouragement to continue writing, and on and on.

What surprised you the most about the conference this year?
Our greatest surprise, always, is simply that we’re able to pull it off. To make even just one Festival session happen requires not only a room and a speaker and a microphone, but an audience and a tech crew and a building services crew and a student host and a session introducer. Multiply that by over one hundred sessions, and it’s clear just how much the Festival depends on a large number of people doing their jobs exceptionally well. And we’re grateful for each one of them.

What was the most serendipitous experience?
I’m not sure we’ll know the answer to this question for a while. We know that the Festival facilitates the kinds of connections that lead to new projects and ideas and partnerships. The ripples will extend for some time, probably in directions that we can’t even fathom yet. So yes, I imagine that there were lots of serendipitous experiences happening all around us, and I hope we get to see the fruit of those experiences down the road.

What are you most proud of pertaining to this year’s conference.
I am always most proud of our group of student volunteers (or, as Anne Lamott calls them, “caseworkers”). They are forty-six of the most gracious, capable, hard-working, hospitable people on this campus, and we could not run the Festival without them.

Note from Paulette:
I sincerely thank Shelly LeMahieu Dunn for giving us an inside perspective of this engaging conference, and for her time and thoughtfulness. I know many of us look forward to the next Festival of Faith and Writing even as this one is wrapping up.



Each of us is compelled to read and write for a variety of reasons. This was a general theme at this year’s Festival of Faith and Writing conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s a unique experience to be on a campus full of readers and writers, to be in a place where reading and writing are at the heart of the experience. So readers and writers out there in blogland––that’s each of you in your own way–– here are some highlights. More information on each of these writers will be posted on upcoming pages of this blog.


I sat in the front row at an interview with Marilyn Nelson. Her poetry has sustained me as an educator, a person and a writer for a lot of years. She brings so much history and emotion to any reader, young, old, and in between. She talked of her experiences writing three of her books, she talked about the sonnet form and more.

See more about Marilyn Nelson on the Reading Page. Use the menu at the top of the page.


What could be more exciting than listening to the writer and co-producer of The Good Wife, one of the most popular shows on television? Luke Schelhaas is an Iowa native and a small college graduate. He talked of life in Hollywood and what he actually does all day as a writer on a top TV show. The process of writing for a TV show has its own cachet and its own nitty-gritty.

More about Luke Schelhaas on the Writing Page. Click on Writing in the menu at the top of the page.


The conference always holds at least one surprise. This time it was the outstanding talk by Pam Munoz Ryan. She writes for children and young adult readers. If only she could talk to readers and writers in every school in America. She has so much to say, and she says it in a gentle and entertaining way. Her books are well known to many of you, but somehow, I had not had the pleasure. Listening to her, I learned something about becoming and belonging. I expect to learn more as I read her work.

Our shared passion for encounters with language continues. We read and write to learn, and to find out what we need and want to learn. We take time to think about words and the power to use them to create something new. Hold onto your hats, the joyride is a whirl of questions, creations, laughter, and meditation. It ends in the fascination of finding a terrific new story, or rediscovering one you want to visit again.

Oh, and among others, I bought a beautiful paperback Penguin Classics edition of Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, something I’ve been promising to do for a long time. It’s a book that won the Nobel Prize and has never been out of print since its birth in the 1920’s. How I first found this book, and how much I love it is a story for another time.




And the Mountains Echoed
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Genre: Novel
Publisher: Riverhead Books 2013
402 pages
Source: Library copy

Every story holds another story, and so it is with this novel. Khaled Hosseini fits together his stories into a beautiful, wise tale of families. He shows us how family members have the power to love and to wound.

He creates an intricate plot with his stories, one story out of many. It is a story to help us understand the breadth and depth of feelings and experiences among people whose lives are disrupted in their home country so they escape that home to live in another place. That new place becomes a home. They strive and endure, building the best life possible in the new place out of past memories and the materials at hand.

One of the interesting things for readers and writers about this book is how Hosseini fits his stories together. He was interviewed in the July/August issue of Writers’ Digest and he spoke about his many stories and how they came to be. As a boy he spent his first 15 years in Afghanistan. Later, he wanted to write fiction, and he was determined to tell stories of people from that country.

When he heard stories of people in his home country selling one child to make a better life for other children, he said, “It struck me as unbelievably sad.” That story set others in motion when he writes of the separation of a young brother and sister who depended greatly on each other. As his stories move and change he gives each character a moment to shine. He referred to his characters like “listening to a choir.” As I read, I felt I could hear the different voices, and yet each helped me to understand another. “I’d follow that character and see where it went and see how their story overlapped or coincided with some of the other characters’ stories, and find connection.” So he described his process.

His novel takes us from an Afghan village to the city of Kabul, then to Greece, France and the United States. He gives us so many places and people to learn about. The book is fascinating. The interview is fascinating. Visit for more about him and his writing process.

For this reader, it was a story with many layers of meaning and as powerful as it was at its beginning, so was the ending. I highly recommend it. He digs deep for meaning, and yet his respect for all his characters is always evident.



“Bird cries seem to claw at the bright summer sky.”

This gem of a sentence is the first line in an article titled “Norway’s Otherworldly Coast” by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the November issue of National Geographic. On the lead page another necklace of words sparkles, “Journey to the heart of Norway Follow the water.” In this article the reader travels the most northern Norwegian coastline. It feels like another world. Islands, ice, water as deep as 4000 feet, and snow-covered heights encroach on the space of one another. But there are also harbors, boats of every kind, and business to be conducted by the people who ply these Norwegian waters.

Any chance to read the writing of Verlyn Klinkenborg is a chance not to be missed.

I have recently learned of his latest book Several Short Sentences About Writing. I ordered it immediately and cannot wait to spend time with it. Someone called it “best book on writing – ever.” I have been reading his work for some time. He is a non-fiction author and newspaper editor. His work appears on the editorial page of the New York Times as well as in other publications. He writes of rural settings and the natural world. He has written often of his farm in upstate New York. His words, his sentences, and the way he strings them together transport the reader into his world.

I also recently learned that he will appear as one of the featured authors at the Spring 2014 Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, MI. I have attended this conference often and expect to be there next spring. I look forward to hearing him speak, and perhaps, I’ll have a chance to meet him.

I hope you will meet him, too. The newest issue of National Geographic is a great place to start. I’m sure you will enjoy his writing and the photographs of the Norwegian Coast.

For more information try these links: and follow Festival of Faith and Writing on Facebook (for information about his many books)


Wide River 1

Thank you so much to every reader of this blog. I send you good wishes as wide as this view of the Mississippi. Your interest and encouragement are vital to our conversations and my posts. This blog doesn’t exist without you.

A blog is a website in which an individual records opinions. Often a blog or journal entry links to other sites. New material is added on a regular basis.

The focus of is to promote reading and writing. It is a bookish blog with food on the side. Recently food themes have elbowed their way to a larger place at the table. My readers don’t like to go too long without a food fix, and neither do I. A recent road trip also meant food got more space.

My focus will remain the joys of reading and writing. We eat to live so food places, recipes and themes will continue to have a spot on my bookish blog. I will continue to weave various threads into the reading and writing themes. Check out the home page and the reading page if you are interested in books and other kinds of reading or reading issues. Some of my own writing, and occasionally, my ideas about writing, appear on the writing page.

I keep in mind how I can improve this blog. You need to tell me how I am doing. For example, I want to make posts more interesting and less preachy. Sometimes I pile on the info and get really boring. Please help me not to do this. I also want to be more creative with my titles, so that you are pulled into the content when you read the title.

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