Sunday, April 16, 2023

Q&A with L.M. Elliott




L.M. Elliott is the author of the new middle grade historical novel Bea and the New Deal Horse. Her many other books include the middle grade historical novel Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves. A former journalist, she lives in Virginia.


Q: What inspired you to write Bea and the New Deal Horse, and how did you create your character Bea?


A: I still think and write like the magazine reporter I was for 20 years before becoming a novelist—looking for “holes in coverage.” There’re many wonderful, inspiring books about the Depression—but they tend to focus on the Dust Bowl or big cities or bootleggers. Few are set on the East Coast, with a mostly middle-class family—Americans who were also upended and undone by the stock market crash. 


As Bea says of her one-time banker father: “Ever since the Great Depression fell on us like a plague and his bank closed, Daddy's tried to make do with odd jobs. But a man who'd spent his adult life in three-piece suits and bowties overseeing bank accounts for Richmond's old society didn't exactly transition to being a handyman or tobacco picker.”


In 1932, 28 percent of Americans were out of work, unable to find even odd jobs, and had no income at all.


My father was a Depression-era kid, growing up on a chicken farm outside Richmond. A hard-scramble, hand-to-mouth life. And yet, all his cousins, aunts, and uncles—who lived in the city and struggled to put food on the table—came to Daddy’s every Sunday for their one good meal of the week, his parents sharing what precious little they had from their farming.


Even as a child I was struck by that matter-of-fact sense of responsibility to share and help others in a pervasive attitude of there but for the grace of God go I.


I grew up on what had been my other grandfather’s dairy farm. He was a “gentleman farmer,” a country lawyer who had to accept payment in the 1930s in crops, game, or furniture, even a piano once, because none of his clients had cash. Which made it hard for him to pay his own bills. But he did manage to keep the family’s small backyard stable and three much beloved horses.


So, looking to fill that editorial “hole” and combining the influences of my families, I set Bea’s story on a Fauquier/Loudoun County horse farm.


Bea herself is also an amalgamation of influences: looking at the somber faces of young teens in Depression-era photos; my having a pony named Stormy when I was little—(yes, named for the Chincoteague colt in Misty’s Foal, by Marguerite Henry); and my witnessing as a mother the extraordinary symbiosis possible between teenage equestrians and their horses, watching my daughter and her USPC/USEA compatriots train and compete their eventers and show jumpers.


Those teenage girls had such camaraderie, discipline, and grit, such joy soaring over fences. I was so grateful to their fierce, no-nonsense, sometimes gruff but utterly devoted trainers. (You’ll see the genesis of the Mrs. Scott character in that statement.) Women young and old who exude old-school feminism and sisterhood.


I’m nothing more than a “pleasure rider.” But I became a proud volunteer rally coordinator, horse nurse, and trailer-driver! And I learned so much standing along the fence listening to my daughter’s trainer teach and nurture her.


Without realizing it, I had been, what journalists call, “saving string” for years for this novel’s characters and riding scenes.


Q: How did you research this novel, and what did you learn that surprised you?


A: I’m embarrassed to say—despite being a lifelong Virginian—that I didn’t know about the 1930 drought that took Virginia to its knees and decimated Fairfax, Loudoun, and Fauquier counties. Wells and creeks dried up, hayfields and grazing pastures were scorched. Corn came up but withered without tasseling.


At that time, Fairfax County was the biggest dairy producer in the nation. But without food or water, cows had to be put down or dropped dead in the fields. Farms failed. Banks foreclosed. People were so desperate they even resorted to rainmakers. (More about that below.)


And yet, many managed to respond to this devastation with stoic resolve, ingenuity, and compassion for one another. So, I set Bea’s journey in the summer of 1932, when another terrible drought was beginning. 


I learned about that 1930 drought accidently—in one of those surprising, story-defining insights that research yields. I noticed a teeny caption on a map of “the Great Hunts of Virginia” that ran in a November 1930 Fortune magazine article about the transplanting of the Long Island hunt set to Virginia.


I’d picked up the article for another reason entirely—I’d always thought the Middleburg fox-hunting set was exclusively an old-Virginia gentry thing.


Not so.


Reading local histories, I saw reference to the Fortune article and discovered that the much-lauded Virginia hunt tradition really has a lot to do with an infusive of Long Island millionaires during the 1920s.


Evidently, those millionaire New York foxhunters were despairing over the fact the ground was so hard and dry that their hounds couldn’t catch the scent of foxes that they hoped to chase.  The caption reads: “So serious was the 1930 drought that foxhunters tried last month to commission Dr. G.I.A.M. Sykes, professional rainmaker. Suggested price: $12,000.”


My mouth dropped at the amount—$12,000 in 1930? (That’s just under $200,000 in today’s dollars!)


I wanted to know more about Dr. Sykes! I’m so indebted to Leesburg librarians who unearthed local and academic articles that described his large personality, his made-up, ridiculous pseudo-scientific vocabulary.


This charlatan not only wrangled thousands of dollars out of foxhunting business tycoons, but also convinced struggling farmers to pay him 15 cents per acre to bring rain—with nothing more than fireworks, base drums, lightning rods, and a lot of hooey.


That chapter was great fun to write in terms of painting an outrageous carnival-barker-type figure, and it’s a good character reveal for my austere Mrs. Scott, who we come to learn is a steadfast and generous defender of people—and horses—in trouble, despite her flinty persona.


Most importantly, thought, the chapter allowed a show-rather-than-tell scene depicting just how life-and-death water was, how precarious the promise of a safe and stable home was during the Depression. 


Reading about events in Middleburg that year, I also learned about the Bonus Army: Thousands of WWI veterans—white and Black—from across the nation, who marched to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress for a bonus—compensation for the income they’d lost during their time fighting overseas that had been promised to be delivered to them in 1945.


But given the Depression, the veterans needed the money then—in 1932—when unemployment levels were at their worst.


Patriotic and hopeful, the veterans kept vigil on Capitol Hill as Congress deliberated, many of them bringing their children along to witness history. They camped in Anacostia, creating an impressively organized tent town, divided into small streets named for states. The Salvation Army even ran a library in its middle.


Each night the veterans and their families gathered for music—gospel, blues, country, popular—Blacks and whites listening and performing together. Visitors were astonished by the two races so peacefully and happily sharing billets, chores, and rations.

Local authorities and the regular Army, however, saw the veterans’ growing numbers and integrated cooperation as threatening, as “subversive,” socialist, Bolshevik. The House passed the bill. But when the Senate voted it down, President Hoover sent troops to drive the Bonus Army out—even though the veterans had already dispersed themselves from their Capitol Hill vigil, singing—despite their shocked disappointment—“America, the Beautiful.”


Cavalry ran the veterans down, soldiers charged with bayonets and lobbed tear gas at them—under the orders of young officers Patton, Eisenhower, and MacArthur. The Army then went to Anacostia and burned down the veterans’ tents and all their belongings.


For many, this cruelty was the last straw in the Hoover administration’s disregard for the plight of the average American.


They turned their attention and support to the then relatively unknown progressive Democrat, FDR, who was on a whistle-stop train campaign saying, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. In these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose the path of hope and the path of love toward our fellow man.”


Reading about the Bonus Army led me to make one of my minor characters a Black WWI veteran.  Malachi is representative of the many brave African Americans who fought in Europe in segregated units. Some were assigned to the French Army, fighting in the harrowing Argonne Offensive. France awarded 175 of them the Croix de Guerre.


These Black veterans returned to the US expecting their courage under fire and their service to bring them more equality back home. Tragically, this was not the case. They met a backlash of racism and white resentment—friction that boiled up into what was one of the most violent periods in American history, the “Red Summer” of 1919, when race riots rocked 26 cities across the United States, including D.C..


Some Black veterans were even attacked as their communities held parades to honor their service overseas—which is Malachi’s backstory, the cause of his impaired vision.


Q: How would you describe the relationship between Bea and Mrs. Scott?


A: They lift one another up.


You know the term “farm out?” We mostly think of it as giving a task to someone who knows how to do it better than we do.  But it comes from the Depression—when parents, desperate to keep their children fed and safe—would “farm them out,” sending them to relatives or friends who had farms and therefore food.


That’s what happens to Bea.


After the Depression takes everything from them—her daddy’s job, their home, her mama’s health and life—Bea’s father leaves her and her little sister Vivian in a hayloft, hoping the farm's owner, a long-ago acquaintance named Mrs. Scott, might take the girls in.


The question becomes: Can Bea convince this formidable horse woman—a total stranger to her—to take in two stray children? Mrs. Scott’s money and farm are drying up in this new drought, too. She’s deep in debt to the bank—so much so, Mrs. Scott may have to sell off her horses, including a beautiful but violent chestnut she had rescued from abuse.


After a long, anxiety-filled campaign to win over Mrs. Scott—maybe even a place in her heart—Bea and Mrs. Scott decide to attempt training the volatile horse to jump. The hope is Bea might compete him in an upcoming horse show, rekindling Mrs. Scott’s reputation as a superlative trainer of horses and riders and perhaps winning prize money. Giving them all a new chance, a new deal.


Bea is a horse-adventure. A story of overcoming adversity. Found family. Matter-of-fact courage. The power of hope and learning to believe in others again after disaster or abandonment or terrible accidents. And about strong-willed, opinionated, exquisitely persistent women.


One of the essays in Horse Girls aptly describes seasoned horse trainers as “Strong, independent businesswomen, who demonstrate affection by raising jumps and taking away your stirrups. . . unsentimental about horses but devoted to them for life.”


Mrs. Scott is all that, an astute, self-possessed, 60-something woman, who’s become solely responsible for her horses and for farmlands that have been in her family for generations (so she has the added burden of living up to legacy.)


There’s tragedy in her past. Like Bea, she has to go on her own personal odyssey during the novel, learning to open up her soul to others again, and coming to recognize that she can’t force “the jump” into people if they don’t instinctively have it. She can be terse, intimidating, and yet the most unwavering champion a person could have.


As the ancient stable hand says of “Miss Milly” as he calls her—when Mrs. Scott rides a harrowing cross-country course herself and “tipped her hat in total sass” to the man who had once abused the chestnut:


“Ho-ho! Look at that. That girl always was nervy.” Ralph chuckled, wiped his eyes, and blew his big old nose in a handkerchief. Then, with reverence and relief and unmistakable love in his voice, he said: “See that ride? That's because of you, Beatrice. You opened up her heart again. And trust me young’un, it's a lion's heart.”


Q: How would you characterize Bea’s relationship with the chestnut?


A: Wrestling with her own hurts and distrust stemming from all the catastrophes that have befallen her in her short 13 years, Bea instinctively empathizes with the horse’s wary, angry, and at times dangerous attitude—especially after learning of his mistreatment under a previous owner. She saves the chestnut from colic and the glue factory.


In turn, he will learn to trust her, carry her in breath-taking flight over jumps, and teach her to find joy again. After many mishaps and doubt, this “beaten-up horse and beaten-down girl” will find that poetic and almost balletic communion possible between a horse and a gifted rider.


If I may quote this scene, which shows their kindred spirits and bond:


There was just a hint of sunup, a thin red glow seeping along the earth as I came to the stable. The horses were still asleep—except for the chestnut. He was gazing out his stall’s back window, away from the sunrise toward the dark, toward the mountains. If I were a poet, I could explain it better—but there was a what-the-heck-will-this-darn-day-want-of-me apprehension about him, a bring-it defensiveness. If a horse could have a proverbial chip on his shoulder, his was the size of a barn.


Somehow, seeing his angst, his desolation, in a moment all the other horses were sleeping blissfully—just like I had snuck out into the night, twitchy with disappointments and questions, while my sister and Mrs. Scott slumbered—made my heart ache. For him. For me. It's as if that horse embodied all the fury and fear and loneliness, the self-doubt and what's-coming-next anxiety I was feeling that morning. Heck—had felt every second since Daddy disappeared.


Hearing me approach, the chestnut swung around, pinned his ears back, and threw his head up and down threateningly—until he realized it was me. He went absolutely still then, pricked his ears forward, and knickered.


Stupid tears stung my eyes.


He knickered again, drawing me to him.       


I held out my hands. He sniffed them, tickling my palm with that exploring upper lip horses do in greeting. And then he put his muzzle up against my head and rested there. I didn't move. He didn't either. We stayed like that for a long moment of wonderment for us both.


Q: Bea’s father is a banker; how did you create his character? He has a huge impact although he’s not actually in the story as it moves forward.


A: I’ve partly answered this in your first question about what inspired Bea’s narrative. I was looking to explore the impact of the Depression on middle-class families—those we tend to believe are not vulnerable to economic crises.


But the Great Depression devastated so many of them as well. The divide between the haves and the have-nots grew stark during the 1930s, a huge gulf between the mega-wealthy and the rest of the nation.


After the stock market crash, bankers were vilified—often for good reason—but what about tellers or officers who were merely employed by a bank. Or the George Baileys of the world, genuinely committed to their communities? What happened to them, I wondered.


I do a deep-dive immersion into an era as I research and write: reading novels of the time, playing its music nonstop, hanging up photos or artwork around my office, and watching movies—(well-researched ones)—set in the time period.


In this case, two movies really influenced me.


Cinderella Man opens with a pan-shot view of James Braddock’s comfortable, wall-papered bedroom, a bureau decorated with bright-lit lamps, a silver-framed wedding photo, a small, overflowing jewelry box, and elegant enameled hairbrushes that then fades forward to a 1930s spartan, bare-boned apartment, its bureau with the same photo now sans frame, no jewelry box or brushes, and one dim lamp.


Seabiscuit opens with the famous racehorse’s jockey, Red Pollard, as a teenager in a lovely, book-filled, lace-curtained home, sitting at a dining table set with crystal goblets, china and silver, his father in business-suit attire lovingly quizzing him on memorized verse. That scenario then gives way to his family on the road, carrying precious books in a burlap sack.


Both of these cinematic sequences are haunting and helped push me to create the family and banker-father I did. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A docudrama YA novel like Walls and Suspect Red, this one exploring the extraordinarily eventful year of 1973—with Watergate, the fight for the ERA, the end of the Vietnam War, and the Supreme Court decision on Roe vs. Wade.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Just that Bea’s narrative is a story for adults too—I promise! The School Library Journal kindly wrote: “VERDICT: a gorgeous, almost bygone era tale of overcoming adversity, full of wisdom for all. Upper elementary students, high schoolers, and beyond can learn resilience and wisdom from these characters.”


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with L.M. Elliott.

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