Monday, June 9, 2014

Alethea Williams, Walls for the Wind

Review and interview

I frequently puzzle over the gender divide in western and frontier fiction. Actually, it’s there in most fiction, a fault line between novels written mostly by and for women and those written by and for men. 

I don’t have statistics to support the claim, but I believe it’s generally agreed that women read more fiction than men, while women’s fiction has a harder time finding an audience and being recognized. For westerns, any measure of excellence is usually to male writers: Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, Max Brand, Elmore Leonard.

Background. Part of this owes to the nature of the genre. The traditional formula western is itself dominated by male characters, and women are typically only secondary to their stories. The men get most of the action, while the women lack what can be called “agency.”

If a character holds interest for the reader, it’s because they have the ability and opportunity to overcome obstacles and exert control over whatever difficult situation they happen to find themselves in. That may involve firmness of resolve and a fearless form of risk-taking that go against gender stereotypes for women, which generally ask of them to remain feminine, soft, and vulnerable.

When they figure into the plot of a western, they are there typically to be rescued or cause trouble. Since Owen Wister’s Molly in The Virginian (1902), they are also present to provide a plot thread involving romance. At novel’s end, they are often headed for matrimony with the male hero, who has fallen in love with them.

A subgenre of the western, the ranch romance appeared early on in B. M. Bower’s Chip of the Flying U (1906). While Bower wrote for a general audience, the form has evolved into what you find today between those steamy book covers with shirtless cowboys who look like they spend all day at the gym—the sort of western novel not likely to be found in the hands of a male reader.

Orphan train, Michigan
Plot. All this is prelude to some comments on Alethea Williams’ orphan train novel, Walls for the Wind, which steers a course between history and romance, while telling a story that explores the subject of gender in the frontier West.

Her central character, Kit Calhoun, is true to stereotype in ways driven in part by the genre and more interestingly by the social expectations of the time. She lacks agency, by being not just female but reared without family in a children’s asylum in New York. There she is the assistant to the asylum’s director, rescuing homeless immigrant children from the streets.

While important work, it is not empowering, and she yearns for a degree of independence that would come with a husband and children of her own. Through the first half of the novel, we see her constantly at the mercy of men who have the power to keep her subservient to their wishes.

Much of her energy goes into making adjustments to accommodate them. Reading her story, we learn how her thoughts are dominated by doubts, fears, and frustrations, as she ponders her powerlessness and dwindling options, while trying to meet and manage the expectations of others.

Orphans, Children's Aid Society
The novel takes off at the halfway mark as Kit is enlisted to help place orphan children with farm families on the frontier. While Kit would like to see them adopted by loving parents, the truth is that they will be treated as little more than indentured servants, paying for room and board with their labor.

Her moment of free choice in the novel comes when an orphan train reaches Colorado along the transcontinental railroad being built in the 1860s. There she agrees to adopt four hard-to-place children herself. It’s a responsibility she takes on (once again) to accommodate others, including two almost grown teenagers with independent minds of their own.

Taking in laundry and living in a tent, Kit is hardly able to provide for them, let alone parent them. Once again, despite her best efforts, she has little control over her life, and worse comes to worse as she is assaulted by a gambler who operates out of a Hell on Wheels saloon that follows the railroad crews.

Kit’s way out of her dilemma is to be rescued by a loving and generous man, and he appears midway through the novel as another dominating male she instinctively distrusts. He repels her even further by going into business as proprietor of a gentleman’s club, which she in her high regard for temperance and morality considers a den of iniquity. It takes considerable maneuvering on his part, including a shooting, to win himself into her good graces.

Wrapping up. I found this novel fascinating for its glimpse into the mind of a female character, whose location at the center of a western story allows for portrayal of a fully developed inner life. Prevented by circumstances of birth and gender from taking control of her own affairs, Kit Calhoun offers a welcome and informative dimension to the traditional male-dominated western story where women characters usually receive little but superficial development and are largely treated as window dressing.

Walls For the Wind is currently available in print and ebook formats at amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Alethea Williams

Alethea Williams has generously agreed to spend some time here at BITS to talk about writing and her novel. So I’m turning the rest of this page over to her.

Alethea, how did the idea for this novel suggest itself to you?
I started this novel when I read a review of a children's book on orphan trains around 2000-2001. I recalled that my great uncle had written a little book on life in their soddy on the Kansas plains; that his mother had been told by the doctor that she wouldn't have children and so they
“got” this boy to adopt. It got me wondering...

This was in the days before Amazon got so huge and the publishing industry exploded. Before that I had never heard of the phenomenon of orphan trains, but the history of it has certainly taken off in fiction since then. There is a PBS documentary and now the Orphan Train Complex and museum in Kansas as well.

Did the story come to you all at once, or was that a more complex part of the process?
This was one of those stories that just told itself as soon as the main character, Kit Calhoun, introduced herself to me. The only character in the novel who stayed hidden and had to have his part added in later was the bad guy, the gambler. I never did find out his name.

Writing about orphan trains and children’s asylums must have involved some research. What were your most helpful sources?
There was a bit on the Internet on the beginnings of social services in this country, the “placing out” of orphans, some on T. Loring Brace, the founder of the New York Children’s Aid Society, and quite a bit about the religious and social movements of the time: woman suffrage, the founding of colonies of adventuresome like-minded people in the west, and the building of the transcontinental railroad.

I found many more bits and pieces in lots of books, and made up the rest as I went along. I still mean to find time to watch the 1995 PBS documentary on the orphan trains! And I hope my history is accurate enough to pass muster.

There are many books already about the orphan trains. How did you go about positioning your own book among them to appeal to readers?
My book is more about what was happening as a result of the orphan train movement than about the orphans themselves. I look at a bigger picture, what was going on in the country after the Civil War, the assassination of President Lincoln, and the fruition of his dreams by acts of Congress that created the transcontinental railroad and the homestead act, which transformed the ambitions of common people from here to Europe to own their own land.

Talk a bit about editing and revising. After completing a first draft, did it go through any key changes?
The book basically rolled off the word processor as fast as I could type it. I sent it out several times and got back rejections. Then life intervened and I didn’t have time to keep worrying about getting it published, so it sat on my hard drive for about ten years.

Then I sent it to a publisher who wanted the book, but offered what I considered poor terms. I asked if he was willing to negotiate, but he was not, so I turned the offer down. But I took his suggestions for revision: a new title, and a bit more historic background. And that’s when the gambler showed up and inserted himself in the story.

Did anything about the story or its characters surprise you as you were writing?
I am continually surprised by how much we are like the people from past times. History is like a loop, repeating the same problems, actions, and political dramas over and over again, just on a smaller or larger scale. There is little that goes on this world that is truly “new.”

What about the novel gave you the most pleasure to write?
The history. I am a researcher at heart, being a writer grew out of my love of the past.

What aspect of writing the novel was the most challenging?
I was challenged to make the heroine’s character sympathetic. Kit is abandoned as a child, raised in an orphanage, and then has to find the courage to take on a role largely unexplored by the men in charge, let alone a sheltered 22-year-old woman. So she’s serious and anxious and scared she’s going to botch her assignment—yet she can’t bring herself to just sit back and allow any questionable character to walk off with the kids in her care.

How much consideration did you give to recreating the vernacular of the day?
I tried to be as accurate as possible without sinking into purple prose. It was a time of hyperbole and flowery description often meant to obfuscate the dreary facts. The railroad wanted to sell the lands they’d been granted, and so descriptions of the “Great American Desert” turned into portrayals of an Eden just awaiting the plow to blossom and make the settlers rich.

The Army and the railroad tried hard to paper over the facts of the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the tribes and the near extinction of the buffalo and the beaver. It was a stampede westward for land and riches, aided by pictures painted of words.

Union Pacific railway construction, Wyoming, 1868
If you happened to see any of the "Hell on Wheels" series on TV, how does it compare with your own picture of the railroad towns that sprang up along the transcontinental route?
I enjoyed the first episodes of “Hell on Wheels” just because I was on the lookout for historically accurate settings, and so I liked the tent towns: the mud, and the cheek-by-jowl dwellings, and the animals in pens, all of it right alongside the tracks. As the series progresses and the story moves to more settled town scenes with more elaborate furnishings (brought in by the railroad of course!) I am less interested in the sets.

How did you go about deciding on the novel’s title?
The book was originally called Guardian Angel. One of the criticisms of the first publisher who really looked at the book was its mundane title. After checking Amazon to see there were over 100 pages of books with some connection to the words “guardian angel,” I knew I needed something that was different. Noodling around on Google, thinking of the book’s Irish immigrants looking for their future in the American West, brought me to websites of Irish blessings. And so I used Walls for the Wind from this:
May you always have walls for the wind,
A roof for the rain,
Drinks beside the fire,
Laughter to cheer you,
Those you love near you,
And all that your heart might desire.
As a result, Walls for the Wind is the only book of that title on Amazon.

What were the creative decisions that went into the novel’s cover?
Whiskey Creek Press has an Art Information Form that writers fill out on acceptance of their novel, asking for a description of the characters, the setting, etc. The art director chooses a cover artist, who comes up with a design from the description provided by the writer.

I asked for the tracks. Other than that, I turned down three other iterations of the cover because I didn’t like the chosen stock models or one plain cover that resembled leather. So we finally settled on just the tracks and the title.

What have been the most interesting reactions of readers to the novel?
I’m happy that readers seem to like my portrayal of conditions in post-Civil War America. It’s always a worry in writing a historical that I’ll get wrapped up in the story and get something glaringly wrong in the history.

For male writers of westerns and frontier fiction, what is your advice for the portrayal of female characters?
I have read very few Westerns that I thought of the female character, that is just so wrong! Women are human with the same motivations as men. If women can write men characters, men writers can write women characters.

What are you reading now?
The Son by Philipp Meyer. Like One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, and Heart of the Country by Greg Matthews, The Son will be one that when I finish reading, I will say, “Gee, I hope I get good enough to write something like that one day.”

What can your readers expect from you next?
I’m working on another novel in the same time period as Walls for the Wind, a few years later and a few miles farther down the track.

Thanks, Alethea. Every success.

Walls For the Wind is currently available in print and ebook formats at amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: TBD


  1. Nice review and interview, Ron. It's certainly true in the traditional western that the women have a backseat role, but I think some of it is being overcome in recent novels like Lonesome Dove and others.

    1. McMurtry makes an interesting example, as his novels are more mainstream popular fiction than genre westerns, and women figure more strongly in them as characters, whether set in the modern-day West (e.g. Last Picture Show, Texasville) or the frontier.

  2. Ron, thank you so much for your in-depth review of Walls for the Wind and your patience in allowing me to have such a long interview. I just bought Volume One of How the West was Written and hope to delve into your history of the Western novel soon.

    1. Thanks for the opportunity to get into this subject in such depth.

  3. Hi Alethea and Ron, What a great interview and review! The Orphan Train movement was an important feature of the evolution of social work as a profession. I've included a yarn about the train and the adoption of a child in BY GRACE and loved creating that feisty little character and his story. Several years ago, I heard the group Border Radio perform in Santa Barbara when they tried out a new song by Kelly can guess about what! A woman in the audience talked later with the songstress and me about her grandma who was such an orphan but didn't share her history with her family...sad. I'm currently reading Christina Baker Kline's book on the subject but really look forward to yours Alethea!

    1. Saw and got to talk with Border Radio in Culver City not too long ago. Good group.