Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The Dolomite Difference

by Alethea Williams

My grandmother immigrated to ‘Merica from the mountainous Tyrol region of Austria, which had just been ceded to Italy as the spoils of World War I. Saddened at leaving her family and the agricultural way of life she knew, she never could bring herself to repeat the harrowing two-week long boat ride that brought her here. The memories of paralyzing fear heightened by extreme nausea stayed fresh in her mind. She never again visited her beloved Val di Non.

Where other children might see their grandparents at holidays and vacations, my grandmother, my nona, lived next door. So it would be logical to assume that I knew her story and that it would be easy for me to write a novel of a Tyrolean woman escaping the poverty of war-ravaged Europe by accompanying her new husband to the coal mines of southwest Wyoming.

That assumption would be wrong. 
The author's mother and her Nona

Because of societal pressure to fit in and be American, when asked, Nona reluctantly agreed that our heritage was Italian. In the 1950s everybody knew about pizza and spaghetti; no one in the small town where I grew up had ever heard of canederli or polenta. I took it for granted that everyone of Italian descent ate their canned peas cold with vinegar and oil, and their rice was eaten topped with brown butter and bacon bits.

I did hear the story of Nona, at the age of twelve, being passed to a rich family to work off a debt her father owed. She survived by eating potato peels and the crusts of brown bread. I was aghast at the thought of a mere child being bonded out for labor. By the age she was in the story, I already towered over my tiny grandma, probably the result of my nutritious American diet and multivitamins.

I’m happy to say I wasn’t completely oblivious. Some questions did occur to me along the way. They owned farm animals in Val di Non? Yes; the lower level of the houses were stables and the people lived on the second story. Well, if her parents owned land, why were they so poor? Nona would get a faraway look, and then say she couldn’t explain. We spent a lot of time together in her kitchen. Words were easy, concepts were difficult. If I asked for the words for cup, fork, arm, leg, she would say, “Do you want to know how I say it, or the nice way?” The “nice” way being Italian, and not the mountain dialect—which is in danger of dying out now even in the Tyrol.

But I never asked the right questions. The deeper questions. The questions that would have allowed me to write a story based on her life, even twenty years after she was gone.

Many people tell me now they’re disappointed that Willow Vale isn’t a true story because it seems so real. Even though my main character, Francesca, comes to America in 1924 with her new husband to a coal mining town in Wyoming just like my grandmother, the similarities between Francesca and Nona end there. The rest I had to research, and although I’m happy to say no one has reported major inaccuracies in the book, I’m sorry that I didn’t know as a kid some of the things I later included in the novel. I think Nona would have been happy to know I finally realize there are mountains of difference between Italians and Tyroleans, the Dolomite range of mountains as a matter of fact.

Nona said she was pretty when she was young and her picture on the cover of Willow Vale bears her out. I’m flattered when people say I look like her. I’ve been asked what she would have thought to have her picture on my novel, and I like to think she would be pleased—although I’m willing to bet she would be nonplussed by the fact that the distance to the Tyrol is so short in this modern world of virtual travel that her pretty face can be accessed on screens anywhere in the world.
In memory of Nona
Orsola Angeli
1899 – 1979

Alethea Williams is the author of Willow Vale, the story of a Tyrolean immigrant’s journey to America after WWI. Willow Vale won a 2012 Wyoming State Historical Society Publications Award. In her second novel, Walls for the Wind, a group of New York City immigrant orphans arrive in Hell on Wheels, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Walls for the Wind is a WILLA Literary Award finalist, a gold Will Rogers Medallion winner, and placed first at the Laramie Awards in the Prairie Fiction category.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Bodie Is My Springboard

By Brigid Amos

A writer may use many springboards to dive into her novel. An historical event, personal memory, or location may be the source from which flow story and character. My jumping off point is a place where I can walk dusty streets, take cover in dilapidated buildings, and climb sage covered hills. In the case of my forthcoming debut novel A Fence Around Her, that place is Bodie, California.

Bodie’s gold mines boomed in the early 1880s and soon declined. People moved on. Neglect and fires wiped out most of the buildings. What was left is now a California State Historic Park that draws visitors from all around the world. On one of my trips, I swear I heard more German than English spoken on the streets of Bodie.

A view of Bodie, California. Photo by Brigid Amos.

You may wonder how a Nebraska writer became obsessed with a ghost town in the Eastern Sierra. Before moving to Nebraska, I lived in Northern California for ten years. I used to watch a TV show on a Sacramento station hosted by a stocky fellow who traveled around the state reporting on the lesser known points of interest. I couldn’t tell you now the name of the show or the host, but I tuned in to get ideas for places to visit. In one episode, the host went to Bodie, and this is hard to explain, but the story and images of that lonely ghost town in the desolate, achingly beautiful treeless hills triggered a feeling deep in my heart. The feeling wasn’t “I want to go to that place,” but rather, “I have to go to that place.” Even further, though it puzzled me at the time, I felt I had to write a novel set in that place.

In early June of 1997, I packed up my dog and camping equipment and drove to Bridgeport, a charming little town in a verdant valley in Mono County. I set up camp next to Lower Twin Lake, and the next morning, I went to Bodie. I toured the Standard Stamp Mill, where enormous iron stamps once pulverized ore into precious dust that yielded gold and silver. I stood in the ramshackle houses where people had left belongings behind, even plates and cups on the tables, as if they had decided that they’d had enough of the dying town and up and left without a second thought. I climbed the bluff and looked down at the scattered buildings, the last vestiges of a once prosperous mining district. Finally, I visited the bookstore in the old Miners Hall and stocked up on books that would serve as reference material for my novel.

I returned to Bodie the next year right before moving to Nebraska for my doctoral program. Now, so many years later, the novel that sprang to life in Bodie will soon be published, and though it is many miles away, I hope that Bodie will be the springboard for many more novels to come!  

Brigid Amos is the author of A Fence Around Her, a Young Adult Historical novel set in 1900 in the gold mining town of Bodie, California. A Fence Around Her will soon be released by Clean Reads Publishing.