A Woman of Her Time: Research and Character in Nancy Turner’s Light Changes Everything

WRITTEN BY DONIS CASEY

Nancy E. Turner’s Light Changes Everything (St Martin’s Press, 2020) is a return to the world Turner so evocatively created in her Sarah Agnes Prine trilogy. Beginning in the summer of 1907 and set in southern Arizona Territory, the first-person narrator is Sarah Prine’s niece, Mary Pearl Prine, a naive seventeen-year-old with bigger ambitions than to simply become a wife and mother. She travels to Illinois to attend art school at Wheaton College, but finds a world very different from home. When asked what it was about Mary Pearl that inspired Turner to give the character her own story, Turner replied, “Mary Pearl was just a few months old in These Is My Words (HarperCollins, 1998), but by the novel The Star Garden (Thomas Dunne, 2007), sixteen years had passed, and in that book, Sarah Agnes speaks of Mary Pearl as being much like her, and the rest of the family concurs. I always loved Sarah as a strong, independent woman, yet an unreliable narrator who didn’t always see things the readers saw. This similarity made it difficult to hear the voice of Mary Pearl for several years, because I kept hearing Sarah tell the story.

“Of course, Mary Pearl had a very different upbringing, and not nearly so many of the life and death struggles Sarah faced, so other values formed her psyche and inner voice. She ‘came to life’ when I pictured a girl wanting to escape the bonds her protective mother had imagined for her, but it really began in The Star Garden, when she dreamed about going to school. Mary Pearl is purely fiction, but like my other characters, seems very real to me. Mary Pearl is a young woman with a deep set of values and a huge portion of courage, although like Sarah before her, she makes mistakes. I love the idea that women from all eras built this country by strength and courage and ingenuity, often fighting social and gender complexities.”

As in all of Nancy Turner’s books, the characters are fully realized human beings, and this is especially true of Mary Pearl, who is charming, daring, competent, but certainly fallible and sometimes thoughtless, a woman who is determined to make her own decisions.

“Fallible characters are my favorite kind,” Turner says. “I love the inner struggles of my people. I especially love the way Savannah [Mary Pearl’s mother] has to come to grips with Mary Pearl’s decisions. There’s no doubt she loves her daughter, but she cannot be her, nor choose for her. Naturally, Mary Pearl’s weaknesses are mostly about being a little bit spoiled, although she knows hard work. It’s just that she’s never had to make many choices on her own, nor face consequences of the magnitude that occur when she turns eighteen. She’s also very headstrong and – in a word – she’s immature. Life starts to spiral toward her as soon as she steps foot on the train to Illinois, and she is nearly crushed by the avalanche of adulthood.”

Anyone who writes historical novels has to deal with stereotypes about women, and the clichés about women in the West are particularly insidious. Turner is particularly talented at smashing those stereotypes and yet creating a true woman of her time.

“1940s and 50s Hollywood movies and western novels created the blueprint for the simpering ‘good’ woman who needed rescuing from everything ranging from spiders to bandits, Indians, and tornadoes,” she agreed. “As a young reader, I loved the novels of a very popular western writer, but one day, I asked myself why the men were so heroic and the women were such twits. If the girls had a line of dialog at all, it was to thank the cowboy for saving her, and her role often involved the necessary exposure of a comely breast. Was the only point in being a girl to wait for a hero? This question truly is what inspired the telling of the story of Light Changes Everything and the answer is that a woman can and must be the source of her own light if she’s going to see the world clearly.

“Western women were neither shrinking violets nor prostitutes with hearts of gold, they were as real and complex as any woman today. Plus, having to wait to attend college until my children were old enough to go with me, opened my eyes to the ways in which education changes everything for anyone. In The Star Garden, Sarah finds out that what she learned as a ‘real’ student didn’t come from books. That novel is more like what I experienced going to college as an ‘alternative’ student than anyone would guess.”

When asked how she handles controversial topics, Turner said, “I leave modern controversial topics out of my stories. It’s the past that influences the present, not the other way around. I’m always looking for the lives that have gone untold, and unless it pertains to my story, I don’t try to broach current issues. Certainly you can’t ‘cure’ the past by looking at it through the glass of the present or by denying that it happened.

“I wrote The Water and The Blood (Regan Books, 2001) based on prejudice and racism and tried to make it clear that in using racial terms the goal was not political correctness but historical accuracy. I know there was a sign on a hotel wall that stated ‘No Irish allowed.’ I know there was a ‘Colored only’ sign over a drinking fountain. I found a property deed in Phoenix with a clause stating the house could not be sold to Chinese. We know things were different. People have always found reasons to hate and distrust each other. I believe it is a huge disservice to the progress humanity has made, to whitewash what it once was. If we don’t learn from our past mistakes, we can’t learn to be better.”

Turner notes that, “The one thing I want from any novel is to take me someplace new; make me believe I’m there, put the camera on your shoulder and let me watch. First imperative is that the author has to have walked the ground on which their story is set. Smell the rain, feel the sun burning your eyes, climb the hills and embrace the wind. Mary Pearl’s life was heat and sun and dust and her father’s pecan harvest, with a background track of coyotes singing. No wonder she longed for something else that might be found in a big city college.”

Turner skillfully uses actual historical events and figures in her stories, weaving history into people’s lives. When asked how much of the story is based on fact and how much did actual incidents serve as a jumping off point, she replied, “It might be more fun to talk about the things left on the cutting room floor… but… I begin every novel with my nose buried in books. I try not to get lost in the ‘rabbit hole’ effect, but I want to know about so much more than dates and names. I want to know the morality of the day such as, could a girl speak to a boy first, or did she have to wait for him to ‘make the first move?’ Some of the questions I asked myself to lead me into this novel were: What clothes, especially hemlines, were in vogue in 1912? Can a horse survive a rattlesnake bite? Can a mountain lion kill a full-grown horse? When did the Mexican Revolution begin and what happened in Arizona before that?  Before working on this novel, all I knew of the Mexican Revolution was that it involved a Robin Hood-like Pancho Villa and that he’d raided a town in New Mexico. What I discovered was that that war was fueled by Germany shipping arms and men through remote Arizona deserts with the intention of invading the United States from the south. By the time Pancho Villa invaded the US in 1916, the German army had already retreated back to Germany and invaded Belgium in August of 1914, starting WWI. So, did all that belong in this novel? Not really. But history is so full of amazing things, it may fuel another novel.”

Through all of Turner’s books, one thing that particularly stands out is the beautiful, subtle change in voice that occurs as the character changes and grows. “I’m not sure there could be a more complicated element in any period novel than the voice,” she says. “It has to maintain a sense of time while still being accessible to modern readers. I like to use a character as the narrator, too, which keeps a high fence around any intrusion of author voice on the page. It no doubt helps that I have always been around ranching people, and I like to read books and articles written in the time period of the novel I’m writing. One thing I’ve discovered is that an educated reader who’d finished eighth grade in 1910 had a vocabulary and reading aptitude easily ten years beyond what is common today in colleges. In Light Changes Everything, I simply kept my narration in Mary Pearl’s voice, and cut out anything corny even though it might have been actually a very natural statement for the era.”

It’s one thing to be accurate about historical events, dress, detail, but it’s much harder to be truly authentic. Turner makes sure that her characters behave and think in a way that is appropriate to the time and place they live in. “I’ve had people accuse me of ‘channeling’ my novels rather than writing them,” she says, “as if I had a spiritual link to the past. I think perhaps it’s just a practice of writers, to learn to read between the lines of a newspaper article for the emotional passion and the human lives involved, to tell a story.”

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: The Wrong Girl (Poisoned Pen Press, 2019) is Donis Casey’s latest book in a fresh new series starring Bianca LaBelle, star of the silent screen in the 1920s. Donis has also authored ten Alafair Tucker Mysteries set in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s. She lives in Tempe, AZ.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 91 (February 2020)


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