New Voices: Kate Mildenhall, Joy Rhoades, Helen Steadman & Theodore Wheeler

Myfanwy Cook

Casting new light on the past through detailed research and vivid recreations of past people and places are debut novelists Kate Mildenhall, Joy Rhoades, Helen Steadman, and Theodore Wheeler.

Theodore Wheeler is a journalist by trade. For the last 10 years, he has “covered a beat as a reporter at the Douglas County courthouse in Omaha, Nebraska, a building best known as the site of a race riot and horrific lynching in 1919.” He elaborates: “I first heard of the riot when my fourth-grade teacher displayed a famous photograph from the Omaha World-Herald of rioters posing with the lynched body of Will Brown, a 40-year-old black man who was dubiously accused of the rape of a young white woman. The image has stuck in my mind ever since.

“Having spent so many hours at the courthouse, the riot and lynching were something I thought about every day while walking the halls and surrounding neighborhood. Over time, while researching Kings of Broken Things (Little A, 2017), I’d come to learn about specific events that happened in these spots: where a lynch mob broke down the north doors and was beaten back with fire hoses; where, to this day, you can run your fingers over bullet holes in the marble facade of the fourth-floor balcony; the very spot where Will Brown was seized by the lynch mob and shot to death while he hung from a lamppost. It’s troubling material, and the only thing that made sense was to write about what happened, to hopefully shed some light on an explosive tragedy that is surprisingly little-known in this state.”

Wheeler discovered that once he had started writing the book, “the era itself was so pivotal and lively; it really was a joy to delve into the more exuberant aspects of Omaha at that time. The coalescing of immigrant culture, the madcap adventures of boys let loose in a city, and the brand of baseball played at the time. Despite its obvious flaws, I really fell for World War I Omaha and am thrilled to be sharing its story with readers.”

It was while she was walking in the woods that Helen Steadman’s novel Widdershins (Impress Books, 2017) began to take shape. She explains: “After reading Hilary Mantel’s magnificent Wolf Hall, I realised there was a historical novel in me, but I had no clue about subject, so I waited for inspiration to strike.”

Then one day in the woods, Steadman says, “I followed a lovely smell until its source became clear: loggers had cut down Scottish pines, revealing an amphitheatre populated by oozing stumps. Possibly in an altered state due to the pine sap, I was wondering what might have happened here in past centuries, when Florence and the Machine jumped into my head, singing ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’. Sacrifice. Ritual. Rituals could have happened here. Magical goings-on. Witches! Armed with nothing more than an overdose of pine sap, I knew my book had to be about witches. Strangely, the subject was unwelcome. Why witches? I knew no witchcraft. I knew no witches. Witches would not be easy. This would mean research. Sorry, this would mean Research, and lots of it.

“As the muse had been good enough to strike me down, I committed myself to research – deskbound and practical. For practical research, I undertook herbal medicine training at Dilston Physic Garden and then grew a potted herb garden to practise making my own plant remedies. This work inspired lots of the herbal lore in the book. The story itself arrived courtesy of Ralph Gardiner’s England’s Grievance Discovered, in Relation to the Coal Trade. It sounds an unlikely source of inspiration, but Gardiner described the Newcastle witch trials where fifteen people were executed. I couldn’t understand how this happened and the travesty lodged in my mind, eventually compelling me to write the tale.”

A compulsion to write can strike the unsuspecting author in the most unusual and unexpected settings, as Kate Mildenhall discovered. “I literally stumbled upon the story behind Skylarking while on a camping trip with my family and dear friends, almost three years ago now. Right next to the spot where we put up our tents, there was an historical gravesite, marked out with a white picket fence. In between endless trips to the toilet block with my two young daughters, I read the inscription on the grave. It belonged to a woman called Harriet Parker, and I learned that she had lived at the nearby lighthouse and was best friends with the Head Lighthouse Keeper’s daughter, a girl two years her junior, called Kate Gibson.”

Mildenhall says: “I was camping with my own best friend at the time. She and I had met when we were twelve and had been best friends ever since. I hadn’t been planning to write a novel, but it seemed so serendipitous to have found this story while I was there, doing the thing I loved most in the world, camping on the coast with my loved ones.”

During this holiday, as they “tramped around the ruins of the sandstone lighthouse high up on the cliffs,” she continues, “I learned more of the story, including the tragedy that befell Kate and Harriet. A tragedy that involved a fisherman named McPhail. And a gun.

“I quickly became obsessed with the story, hunting out any historical reference to the girls and the Cape St George Lighthouse I could find. I climbed up and down lighthouses, read the spidery handwriting in young Victorian women’s diaries and Googled endlessly.”

Mildenhall’s novel Skylarking (Black, Inc., Australia, 2016 / Legend Press, 2017) was fueled by imagining “what it might have been like to grow up as a young woman in such a remote place, and I drew on everything I knew about desire and envy and dreaming big dreams.”

The inspiration for The Woolgrower’s Companion (Random House Australia/Chatto & Windus, 2017) by Joy Rhoades was in part drawn from, she writes, “the wonderful stories I heard growing up from my grandmother. She was a fifth-generation grazier and had lived almost all of her life on her family’s sheep place in northern New South Wales. She loved the land, and she’d speak of people, of droughts, and the occasional flood, of bush fires and snakes, of her love of birds and wallabies.”

It was only as Rhoades wrote that she “found a story emerging, a story set in the Australian bush about a young woman, struggling to save her family’s sheep farm during the drought that lasted throughout WWII,” she continues. “I wanted the main character to be a young woman facing adversity, and follow her journey.

“And I wanted her world to be real. So I spoke to many experts: graziers, historians and others. Because although I had grown up on the bush, I had a lot to learn, and I wanted the story to be one that could well have happened. The area where I learned the most is the history of Aboriginal people. I am so grateful, and I salute the people who spoke to me. First among them are Catherine Faulkner, a woman of the Anaiwan Nation, who provided expert guidance on birthing practices, and help in ensuring respect for traditional knowledge and cultural practices. Activist and poet Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert, a woman of the Wiradjuri Nation, guided me too. Her keen eye on my manuscript and her gentle suggestions have taught me more than I could ever imagine.”

What Rhoades learned during the writing of The Woolgrower’s Companion was “about so many different things, and it has changed the way I see things. I very much hope that that learning is a quiet presence in the book, an artery that carries a story of resilience and hope.”

The writers of this rich vein of debut novels have been able to integrate their own personal experiences with those of their characters. In doing so, the novelists have also bequeathed to their readers a range of detailed research and intimate knowledge about the periods and places they have uncovered through their research and writing.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: MYFANWY COOK is a prize-winning short story writer, Associate Fellow at two British Universities, researcher and workshop designer. Please do email (myfanwyc@btinternet.com) about any debut novels you would recommend.

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Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 82, November 2017


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