Monday, October 25, 2010

Book Review: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, an African Childhood

Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, an African Childhood (Random House) is a remarkable memoir about her family’s struggle for survival in southern and central Africa.

Spanning the period 1975 through the early 2000's, Bobo, as the author was nicknamed, makes unique observations about a life most people can’t even imagine. Born in England, Bobo moved with her family to what was then Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe, when she was three. Over the years the family eked out a living on a series of farms.

The author considers herself African and the story is told not from a visitor’s viewpoint, but from an African perspective. For a period of time, her father joins the side of the white government in the Rhodesion civil war, while her mother fights the battles at home–drought, wandering stock, reluctant crops and errant help. Her mother’s fierce love for her children isn’t shown with coddling, but rather as a model for hard work, self-reliance and dedication to managing their home. Her father seems fearless, determined to fight for what he believes, yet he’s quick with humor and wry wit. He throws himself wholeheartedly into whatever he’s doing at the moment, a profound example for his children.

Her family means everything to Bobo, yet at times it’s a tentative relationship–always with love, but often with shaky foundations

Fuller’s ability to show this unique lifestyle is extraordinary. With sly humor, she holds nothing back, but is always without judgement. Africa is a tough continent for anyone–the heat can be relentless, the mosquitoes deadly, tribal wars frequent, harsh terrain often unforgiving. Mere survival is a challenge.

At the beginning of each chapter, pictures of the family are shown, giving the reader a sense of being there (but without having to endure all the hardships). The first picture shown is Bobo as a very young girl loading a revolver.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, an African Childhood is told with stark honesty and sensitivity. It’s hard not to be cynical, yet Fuller’s story is unflinching and captivating. I wholeheartedly recommend this book.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Safety Tips for Driving in the Rain

Rain, rain, go away, come again another day...

Rain is a common cause of driving collisions. With winter just around the corner, it’s a good idea to review safe driving practices, especially for driving in the rain.

● Consult your car owner’s manual for specific safety instructions regarding brakes, cruise control and tires.

● Replace your windshield wipers at least once a year, ideally at the beginning of winter.

● Take time to defog your windows to improve visibility.

● Use extra caution for the first few hours after a long dry spell. Oil and grease accumulate on the road, making it extremely slick.

● Practice extra caution at intersections, on and off ramps, and parking lots. Road oil accumulates more in areas of slow traffic.

● Remember the rule: “Windshield wipers on, cruise control off.” Cruise control slows your ability to recognize changes in weather-related road conditions. Also, when there is less traction, cruise control is apt to malfunction.

● The deeper your tire tread, the more traction you have. Replace worn tires before winter.

● Avoid driving through standing water unless you know it is shallow.

● Vision is compromised in the rain. Another rule: “Windshield wipers on, headlights on.”

● Watch for pedestrians. They’re thinking about staying dry and may make a dash across the street to get out of the rain. Also, rain muffles road noises and they don’t always hear you.

● Posted speed signs are for ideal weather. Reduce speed for less than optimal conditions.

● When it’s raining, slow down. Reduced speed cuts your risk of hydroplaning and allows you more time to stop on slick roads.

● Allow more space than normal from the vehicle in front of you. For one thing, you avoid their spray; for another, it takes longer to stop in wet conditions.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Book Review: Follow the Dream by Heidi M. Thomas

Follow the Dream by Heidi M. Thomas follows the life of Nettie Moser who finally has what she’s longed for–life on a horse ranch and the freedom to ride rodeo with her handsome cowboy husband, Jake Moser. Her dreams are coming true.

Then along comes an opportunity of a lifetime. Her friend, famous bronc rider Marie Gibson, offers Nettie an opportunity to go to London and ride with Tex Austin’s International Rodeo. It’s almost too good to be true. Riding rodeo in London!

But dreams don’t always come true. As family responsibilities become more of a reality, dreams sometimes have to take a back seat. Nettie still dreams, but the dreams become more distant. Survival occupies her time and energy now. Riding rodeo, let alone going to London, seems even farther away.

Life is hard in the late 1920s and 30s. Money is scarce and even the weather turns against them, leaving dust where once lush grass grew. It’s a constant struggle to find enough grass for the horses to graze. Although the Mosers own their stock, they don’t own the land. As the drought drags on, they decide to trail the herd of 50 horses to Idaho, 300 miles away. The drive, an exciting, pivotal adventure of the book involves excitement, hardship and many anxious moments.

Moving back to Montana, life changes. The need for horses in the work-a-day world is dwindling with tractors replacing plow-horses and engines replacing the need for horse-drawn logging equipment. Their treasure isn’t worth what it once was. Their home becomes what they can find for shelter–tents, tarpaper shacks, a run-down hotel, even a granary. Jake takes whatever work he can find. Enduring love make the hardships easier to bear and again Nettie watches their dreams shift and change.

Thomas weaves an exciting, strong, credible tale with this story of love, hardship and adventure that spans 14 years. Follow the Dream is a sequel to her previous novel, Cowgirl Dreams, but each book stands alone as strong and engaging.

Follow the Dream is available through your favorite bookstore, through publisher Treble Heart Books in both print and e-book formats and autographed copies from

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Guest Blog: Reenacting for Writers

It is my pleasure to have as my guest Kathleen Ernst. Welcome, Kathleen. I have found your experiences with reenacting fascinating and am delighted to have you tell our friends more about it.

I’m grateful to Mary for allowing me to be a guest today. And I’m grateful to readers! I love my work, and I’d be nowhere without you. Leave a comment here, and your name will go into a drawing for one free book. The winner can choose any of my sixteen titles. Old World Murder, one of my American Girl mysteries, a Civil War novel—the choice will be yours!

My husband, daughter Meg, and I reached Spring Hill, TN, in a driving rain. The temperature was dropping. The parking lot—a field intended to hold the vehicles of 10,000 or so Civil War reenactors and their gear—was a sea of mud. The actual camping areas were located well beyond the parking lot. The horses and wagons provided to help haul gear had trouble slogging through thick muck on the hilly terrain.

Fortunately, my family was traveling relatively light. Meg and I would be spending the weekend in a recreated refugee camp, helping visitors remember that soldiers weren’t the only people affected by military campaigns during the Civil War. After we hiked to the clearing where the refugee camp was being created, Scott helped Meg and me set up our little tent. We watched him tramp off to find his military comrades, the incessant rain darkening his wool coat and dripping from his hat brim.

Welcome to the wonderful world of reenacting.

That weekend was challenging, to be sure. It was also one of the best experiences I had during the decade plus I spent reenacting. The people organizing the refugee camp had done an amazing job of researching and presenting a bit of life as it might have been for some of the thousands of Southern civilians left destitute and homeless during the war.

It also provided me with an amazing opportunity to immerse myself into the 19th century for a few days. We talked with visitors as they came through, but at the end of “public time” each day, we ladies and children were alone in the clearing, with no modern intrusions in sight. I savored the richness of sensory details the experience provided. One evening we heard hoofbeats, and a column of Union cavalry emerged from the trees and rode past our camp. A woman ran to the lane, shouting “Give ‘em hell for East Tennessee!” Her portrayal provided a vivid reminder that the pocket of Union sympathizers in that area suffered terribly during the war. It was an unexpected and magical moment.

I knew before the weekend was over that I needed to channel the experience into a novel. The result was Hearts of Stone, about a young woman named Hannah Cameron from East Tennessee. After Hannah and her younger siblings were orphaned, they wandered through Tennessee and eventually took shelter in a refugee camp—much like the one I helped portray.

If you write historicals, there’s a good chance that someone—or many someones—reenact your period. Even if you don’t want to participate yourself, visiting a reenactment can transform a story from ho-hum to wow. Reenactments can provide a myriad of specific sensory details to bring your story to life. Learn what musket smoke smells like, listen to musicians playing period music, discover (with permission) what homespun linen feels like. If you get lucky you may experience one of those unexpected “bubble” moments, when—just for a split second—you forget that you live in modern times.

Many reenactors are passionate historians. They know a lot, and they love to share what they know. Some are also collectors. If you have questions about material culture during your era, you can likely find the answers.

One word of caution: attending a reenactment to do research is like searching the world wide web for information. You’ll find a lot, but you will need to use some filters. Don’t assume that everything you see and hear is accurate.

I don’t do much reenacting these days, but my experiences and memories will always help inform my work. In my new book, Old World Murder, protagonist Chloe Ellefson is a curator at the historic site where I was first introduced to the hobby of reenacting. I plan to get Chloe to other historic sites as the mystery series continues. Sooner or later she’ll experience a reenactment. She’ll encounter a mystery to solve. I’ll get to revisit some great memories.

Kathleen Ernst is celebrating the publication of her first adult mystery, Old World Murder (Midnight Ink). She has also written eight mysteries for young readers. Several have been finalists for Edgar or Agatha awards.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bridging Oregon's Coast

I began to think we were traveling in circles. Driving south on our way to Coos Bay, Oregon, we passed over an attractive bridge in Newport. It’s graceful arches spanned more than half a mile across the bay and, in the middle of the bridge, spires pointed to the sky, like miniature castles. Now, as we approached Waldport, we drove over another familiar-looking bridge. “Didn’t we just do this?”

What we were to discover is that along Highway 101, a stretch sometimes called the Oregon Coast Highway, a series of bridges look similar, and for very good reason. The same man, Conde B. McCullough (1887 - 1946) built most of the bridges linking the coastal highway. In the waterfront town of Waldport, we visited the historic Alsea Bay Bridge Interpretive Center to learn more about these fascinating structures.

Though McCullough designed hundreds of bridges in Oregon, it was not the quantity of bridges that made him famous, it was the quality and innovative graceful arches, pylons and spires.

Using the most advanced techniques of the day, McCullough built bridges with a combination of function, form and grace. He served Oregon’s State Highway Department from 1919 to 1946. Remember, in those days there were no design tools like computers or even calculators. Everything was done by hand. A display at the interpretive center shows a replica of McCullough’s office with its drafting table, wooden file drawers, a clunky typewriter and surveyor hand tools.

After World War I, the United States’ military encouraged the completion of the highway as a means of national security. With the popularity of automobile travel, the tourism industry added impetus to completing the highway. Up until that time, channels along the coast had to be crossed by ferry.

Many of McCullough’s bridges are eligible or have been listed on the National Register.

If you have a chance to visit Oregon’s spectacular coastline, be sure to take special notice of these inspiring structures.