Celebrating the release of THE LAST SISTER by Courtney McKinney-Whitaker

Here on Corsets, Cutlasses, and Candlesticks, we’re always pleased and proud to herald in another historical novel. Today we celebrate the release of one of our guest bloggers, Courtney McKinney-Whitaker’s THE LAST SISTER (Young Palmetto Books), which received a Kirkus starred review. Congrats Courtney!

 

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Set during the Anglo-Cherokee War (1758–61), The Last Sister traces a young woman’s journey through grief, vengeance, guilt, and love in the unpredictable world of the early American frontier. After a band of fellow settlers fakes a Cherokee raid to conceal their murder of her family, seventeen-year-old Catriona “Catie” Blair embarks on a quest to report the crime and bring the murderers to justice, while desperately seeking to regain her own sense of safety.

This journey leads Catie across rural South Carolina and through Cherokee territory—where she encounters wild animals, physical injury, privation, British and Cherokee leaders, and an unexpected romance with a young lieutenant from a Scottish Highland regiment—on her path to a new life as she strives to overcome personal tragedy.

The Anglo-Cherokee War erupted out of tensions between British American settlers and the Cherokee peoples, who had been allies during the early years of the French and Indian War. In 1759 South Carolina governor William Henry Lyttelton declared war on the Cherokee nation partly in retaliation for what he perceived as unprovoked attacks on backcountry settlements.

Catie’s story challenges many common notions about early America. It also presents the Cherokee as a sovereign and powerful nation whose alliance was important to Britain and addresses the complex issues of race, class, and ethnicity that united and divided the British, the Cherokee, the Scottish highlanders, and the Scottish lowlanders, while it incorporates issues of power that led to increased violence toward women on the early American frontier.

Have you always been interested in American history? What drew you to this particular time?

In elementary school, I read a lot of books set in the colonial period, including, memorably, Johnny Tremain and The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which remain on my list of books that most influenced me. I had several American Girl dolls (I think I was among their first customers back in the late 1980s/early 1990s), but Felicity, the character who lives in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1774, was my favorite. My husband and I have been visiting Colonial Williamsburg on a regular basis since 2003 because it’s a good central meeting point for a lot of family. The rest of the family wants to find somewhere else, but I secretly hope we don’t. How could anyone get tired of Duke of Gloucester Street? It’s called Duke of Gloucester Street. That’s so cool.

I grew up in South Carolina, where most of The Last Sister is set, and it always bugged me that New England got all the good colonial-era stories. See above, I love(d) colonial-era stories. When I moved north, I realized there’s a strong perception that Southern history started in 1861 and ended in 1865 and that we all live in Charleston or New Orleans, which isn’t true, obviously. Catie’s frontier world is a far cry from the way Hollywood stereotypes South Carolina, which has a much more complex history than we usually get pop culture credit for. The backcountry frontier South isn’t familiar territory for most readers, which makes writing about it both a joy and a challenge.

 Here on CCC we are always interested in other hist fic author’s process, in particular with research. How do you keep track of your research? Notecards? Computer files? Notebooks?

I’m a very tactile learner, which means that as a researcher I need to be able to physically touch and organize the information. I wish I could save more paper and use all those cool computer programs that are supposed to streamline my research, but to stay organized I need to print things and organize them in folders. I often handwrite my research notes because I’m more likely to remember them that way. I’m also a sucker for pretty office supplies, so I need to find ways to justify my purchases.

 Who is your favorite character in the novel?  Who is your least?

I’ve been thinking about this question for several days. It’s tough to say because they all have their strong and weak points, both in their own personalities and in how successful I feel I was in writing them, so I’ll just pick on a couple.

Lieutenant-Colonel James Grant, the acting commanding officer of the 77th Highland Regiment, was probably the most fun to write. He was a real person, so I had to juggle his fictional response to Catie’s problem with the real man. He’s one of those largely forgotten figures from history who just jumps off the page once you meet him, and he was a fascinating character long before I got to him. He wasn’t the stereotypical British officer by any means, which forced me to find a way to make his, shall we say original, views and behavior believable to a modern audience that might make certain assumptions about how a British officer of the time thought and felt.

I don’t especially like the minor character of Sam Murray, the unfortunate victim of the one graphic scalping scene. He strikes me as weak, as a follower, as someone who lacks the courage of his convictions—even if those convictions are problematic at best. He’s a waffler, which is what gets him killed. There were characters I hated to lose, but he’s not one of them.

Do you have a favorite line in the book you’d like to share?

When Catie is comforting a sick toddler at Fort Loudoun, she thinks, “Why are so many of the songs we sing to children about death?”

The book’s title is a reference to the third fate in Greek mythology, the one who cuts the threads of human lives. Death is a huge theme in the book, as it would be almost by default in any book set in this time and place, where the reality of history is that many people died—of violence, of disease, of infection, of accidents—and that they were often quite young, especially by our standards, when they did. If my characters often seem callous or matter-of-fact about death, it’s because they expect it. They take it for granted, as we take it for granted that people will die of old age.

I spent much of my time as an academic studying children’s literature and the history of women and children, and this insistence on talking to children about death through stories and songs always struck me. Often the message is disguised, but it’s as if through most of human history, the first thing we’ve wanted to tell children is that life is only for a little while, something that makes sense if you think of the very high mortality rates people dealt with before antibiotics were widely available.

 Many authors like to immerse themselves in their character’s time, be it trying on period clothes, making vintage recipes, or visiting the places where their character might have walked.  Did you do anything of these things to get closer to your story?

 I grew up in the area where The Last Sister is set. When I wasn’t reading, I was playing in the woods, and sometimes I was reading in the woods. That intimate knowledge of the landscape helped a lot, and several specific places found their way into my story, like the creek bed where Catie and Jaime encounter the catamount: my brother and I used to play there, without ever meeting anything worse than a black snake. Fort Loudoun has been reconstructed on its original site, and I spent some time poking around there. That was so helpful in getting a sense of where everything was and how crowded the fort must have been when it was under siege. One of my husband’s hobbies is target shooting, and spending time with weapons similar in size and weight to those Catie would have used was helpful. Without that, I would have had no idea how much a rifle’s recoil can hurt or how awkward it is to carry something as tall as you are.

Do you have other works in process you can tell us about? If so, are you sticking with American history?

I’m querying a novel that’s a total departure from American history, but not from history as a whole. I’d love to write a companion to The Last Sister, but I haven’t started yet. I have a shelf full of books for preliminary research and a very rough idea of the plot, though.

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Courtney McKinney-Whitaker grew up in Greenville, SC and now lives in Peoria, IL with her husband, young daughter, dog/officemate/boss, and cat, where she is very good about working out and eating well and very bad about procrastinating and watching too much TV. As a writer who spends most of her workday alone, she loves (is desperate) to connect with other people: check out her website, her Goodreads page, or her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @courtneymckwhit.

 

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Who do You Think You Are? (And a Tale of Missing Fifes)

 

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When I lived in England there was a popular show on the BBC called Who do You Think You Are? In the show, celebrities searched for their family history, traveling wherever a clue takes them in order to discover his or her past. There is also an American version and it’s just as compelling as the British one.

I have long been fascinated by my family history, and when I was in the 8th grade I made a science project about family trees. I remember sitting on the floor at my grandma’s house listening as my Great Aunt Mary and Great Aunt Elaine told me a little bit about the Medved side, which is on my father’s branch. The Medveds were immigrants from Austro-Hungarian Empire and came through Ellis Island. Even though I was only 12, these people, whom I’d never met, fascinated me. Did I look like them? Did we share some of the same habits? Was there anyone in the past who loved to write and ride horses like I did?

Being a historical novelist, I’m even more fascinated by my past, and my Aunt Shirley (the one I dedicated my novel to) is the family registrar on my mom’s side. She and my mother traced our family line all the way back to England in the 1400s.

One of my many times grandfathers was responsible for bringing British emigrants to Virginia in order to settle it. The more people he arranged passage for, the more land the Crown granted him. Most of his land is now a state park. Another grandfather, Bennett Crafton, fought in the Revolutionary War as a major. Normally this piece of info would be interesting, but nothing I would spend a lot of time pondering. Until I found a letter of his, archived in the Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. Photos of my ancestors always amaze me, but I suppose because I’m a writer, letters and journal entries thrill me more.

Here is what he wrote:

Major Bennett Crafton to Brig. General Sumner
Camp Durham Halls, Febry. 6th 1782
Dr. Sir:
By Col. Sewell’s Express I must beg Leave to inform you of my having One Lewis Gant a man who has been Detected in Aiding & Assisting one of the State Legion to Desert. He has been Condemned to serve during the War by a Board of Justices. I should be glad you will let me know what I am to do with him.
I am Sir with Respt.,
Yr. very Hble. Servt.,
Bennett Crafton

A few weeks later my grandpa was writing again. This time you can really hear the irritation that flowed from his quill.

To Gov. Burke, From Maj. Bennett Crafton; Camp at Dr. Hall’s, February 28th, 1782
Sir;
On my return to Camp last evening, I found the Camp out of provision. I this morning sent to the Commissioner of Franklin County who was ordered by His Excellency Gov. Martin to furnish me with all necessaries for the men and horses until ordered from this station. He has refused to furnish me with any thing further. I am at a loss what to do on this occasion and would be glad if you would send me some orders and let me know in what manner I am to be supplied with provisions, &c, as I have not one ounce of any kind on hand.
There are, since I was down with you, ten men who have joined the Regiment from New Berne District. When I was at Halifax I did not receive the several articles that I much need that I did not mention in the memorandum I gave you, viz; drums and Colors and Fifes, pots and fifty men.

Bennett Crafton

I think I love this letter the best. No sign off, just his name, dammit. I can understand the need for pots (I’m assuming we’re talking cooking here and not chamber). What I really love is the anger over the missing drums, Colors and Fifes. I mean, grandpa, get a grip. Can’t you live without a few fifes and a drum or two? And a Color (or flag) is probably just for show or tradition. It’s nothing to get upset about. But usually, as with most things, it’s the small things on top of the bigger things that tip the boat over. And so it is, that in this last letter, I found the link between my ancestor and me. Like my many times great grandfather, I’m not easily irritated and I have a long fuse, but when something like a missing fife shows up on a bad day, I’m apt to act like Grandpa Crafton. I first name the culprit (Gov. Martin has refused) jump to sarcasm (I have not one ounce of any kind on hand), and then move on to blatant disregard for niceties (Bennett Crafton).

What about you? Is there something in your family history that you’ve found and can relate to? I’d love to hear it.

Mother’s Day and the Original Suffragettes

We’re celebrating Mother’s Day on the blog, and so I’m going to talk about my favorite historical mother daughter team that changed the world for women in England and inspired women in the United States: the original suffragettes, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.

Mother daughter suffragettes: Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst

Mother daughter suffragettes: Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst

 

Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst

The Pankhurst family in general was all about equality. Emmeline Goulden (1858-1928) was only 21 when she married Richard Pankhurst, a 44-year-old lawyer. Possessing a rebellious streak, Emmeline said she would have been happy to forego marriage and live with Richard instead. (This is something she must have forgotten when years later she disowned her second daughter, Sylvia, for living with a man instead of marrying.) Emmeline loved politics and was frustrated by the lack of career opportunities for women in 1878 England, but she found a kindred spirit in Richard. They had five children: Christabel, Sylvia, Frank (who died in infancy), Harry, and Adela. Emmeline and Richard fought tirelessly for women’s rights and the socialist movement, and after his death in 1898, she soldiered on with her daughter Christabel, founding the Women’s Social and Political Movement or WSPU. Two years after her death, a statue was put up in Victoria Tower Gardens near Parliament, where it still remains.

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Christabel Pankhurst

Christabel Pankhurst

Although all Emmeline’s children were involved in the WSPU, Christabel was almost a facsimile of her mother. She was very pretty, very feminine, and had a leader’s way about her. Women would follow her anywhere and do anything for her. She even had a group of women who called themselves the Young Hot Bloods, carrying out her militant directives without question. Christabel had received a law degree from Manchester University but was unable to practice law because she was female. The Bar Council in England forbade women from using their law degrees until 1919 when the government made such exclusions illegal.   Christabel directed most of the WSPU operations and was not a foot soldier. She only went to jail three times and fled the country to Paris in 1912 to escape a three-year sentence. She did return to England before World War I but only served a month of that sentence. She became very religious in her later life and moved to the US in 1921, dying in Los Angeles at seventy-one.

 

Prison Companions

Prison Companions

Both Christabel and Emmeline could be very demanding and unfaltering in their work. Emmeline often sacrificed her children’s happiness for the movement. They both agreed to cut ties with Sylvia who was spending more time fighting for the rights of working class women and the poor, and Adela who they accused of being useless to the movement, banishing her to Australia. But for all their faults, this mother daughter team did much to ignite the women’s movement, and I, for one, am truly grateful!

Guest Post: Back to the Future: How Dystopian Lit Led Me to Historical Fiction by Courtney McKinney-Whitaker

Whenever I attend a conference, I stand in the audience and think: I’m going to find my next friend…right now. And then I randomly choose a seat. Without fail I’ve always sat next to someone who becomes a lifelong friend. Last year at the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Writer’s Day conference, I plonked myself next to a fellow historical novelist (what are the chances?). Courtney and I became fast friends, and I was very pleased when she accepted our invitation to be a guest blogger.

Courtney’s novel, THE LAST SISTER will be published by Young Palmetto Books, an imprint of the University of South Carolina Press, in October.

And now…here’s Courtney!

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Courtney McKinney-Whitaker grew up in South Carolina and has since lived in New Jersey and Illinois. She holds degrees in history and library science from the University of South Carolina and a degree in English from Illinois State University. While trying everything on earth to avoid writing novels, she worked with toddlers to adults as a children’s librarian and as a college composition teacher. She lives with her husband, dog, and cat in Illinois, where she is awaiting the birth of her daughter in September and the publication of her first novel, The Last Sister, in October. It’s going to be a busy fall. Follow her on Twitter: Courtney

I found my way to writing historical fiction by way of dystopian futures. All that mortal danger. How could it not lead me into the past as quickly as into the future? All those sticky love triangles. Sticky love triangles are everywhere, in all the times. All those badass adolescent women. How else have adolescent women survived all these years except by being badass?
I had a plot already, a dystopian novel I’d written almost as practice just to see if I could actually write a novel. I broke it down, used it for parts.
I needed a setting, somewhere mortal danger figured greatly. I wanted a place I knew, a place I could write about with confidence that I wasn’t getting everything totally wrong. As an undergrad, I majored in history at the University of South Carolina. I grew up in Upstate South Carolina, where my ancestors had parked themselves just prior to the American Revolution and stubbornly stuck for two and a half centuries. My husband’s job had exiled me to the prairie, and I wanted to remember that mountains and thick forests existed. I wanted to go home.
And all that is how I came to write The Last Sister, a YA historical fiction about a young woman caught up in the all-but-forgotten conflict known (where it is known at all) as the Anglo-Cherokee War. In terms of mortal danger, it doesn’t get any better (worse?) than this.
In 1759-1760, when The Last Sister is set, there were wars within wars. The Seven Years War, sometimes classified as the first global conflict, was raging. The French and Indian War was the North American theater of that war. And then there was the Anglo-Cherokee War, a conflict between the British colony of South Carolina and the Cherokee Nation that neither government wanted, in short because the British couldn’t hope to defeat the French without Cherokee help and the Cherokee had become dependent in many ways on British trade goods.
Sometimes people are determined to fight no matter what their governments say, and sometimes mid-level politicians make really bad decisions that get a lot of people killed. In the summer and fall of 1759, backcountry South Carolina, populated mostly by impoverished settlers and a world away from the wealthy townhouses and plantations of Charlestown and the surrounding parishes, was simmering. In 1760, it exploded. If you were a Cherokee outside the protection of your town or a settler outside a fort—and those were quickly besieged—you were dead already, and something none too pretty was likely being done to your body as a warning to others. The violence was probably much worse than what I’ve depicted. I didn’t think people would believe it. Many times, I nearly stopped writing, thinking, There is no way anyone survived this. No way. Everyone was constantly shooting, scalping, dismembering, and/or burning everyone else.
I found ways because that’s what authors do. We find a way. If we write historical fiction, we find a historically plausible way.
This setting gave me more than mortal danger, though. It gave me a cool opportunity to think about interactions between the many ethnic groups in backcountry colonial South Carolina. The English, the Lowland Scots, the Highland Scots, and the Scots-Irish all saw themselves as very different peoples, and they were quite frequently ready to fight over it. Along with the Anglo-Cherokee War itself, that’s a largely forgotten part of American history that I find worth examining.
So I had my badass protagonist, the middle-class daughter of a Lowland Scottish missionary and an English baronet’s daughter, lost in the wilderness of the borderlands of what’s now South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee. I had her fall in love with a Highland Scot, in true romance novel fashion. (Because, really, who doesn’t think Highlanders are hot? Sadly, there was no viable way to put the man in a kilt. Ever. In the whole novel. Stupid historical accuracy.) My beta readers all think this is the best part, except for my husband, who thinks there is too much kissing and not enough scalping during the development of this relationship. Oddly enough, they were all big fans of the one especially gory scalping scene, too. I had no idea I had such bloodthirsty friends and family. Seriously, people. I’m over here having research-induced nightmares, and everyone’s like, “More scalping, please!”
In a lot of ways, historical fiction is a hard road. There’s a lot of research, and every era has its issues that most people would rather not touch with a ten-foot pole, much less comment on. Still, if you take that road, you get to see some really cool things, and you get to be reminded of how lucky you are to live in the twenty-first century.

 

Spring in the Edwardian Era and the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race

After one of the harshest winters in history, we have finally arrived at spring. For Americans, the spring is ushered in by baseball—spring training, Little League tryouts, and the first game of the season. For Edwardians, especially the middle and upper classes, spring was heralded by one of the biggest sporting events in England: The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, which took place, and still takes place, on the last weekend of March or the first weekend of April.

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The race remains an annual event between the Cambridge University Boat Club (light blue) and the Oxford University Boat Club (dark blue). The Race began in 1829, and has been held every year since 1856, apart from during World War I and World War II. Today the event draws a quarter of a million spectators who view the race from the riverbank at Putney, Hammersmith, Barnes, or Chiswick. And there are millions more viewing the spectacle on television.

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The two teams race in eight-oared rowing boats, which is steered by a cox. The course begins in Putney and finishes four miles and 374 yards later at Mortlake.
After a flip of a 1829 sovereign coin, the crews row upstream on the Tideway (the tidal part of the River Thames), which includes the Thames Estuary, Thames Gateway, and the Pool of London. The course record stands at 16 minutes and 19 seconds, which was set by Cambridge in 1998. This year, celebrating its 160th year, Oxford won, which brings the overall standings to Oxford at 78 wins and Cambridge at 81 wins.

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I have always been intrigued by the tradition and national passion of the Boat Race and when I was thinking about a talent for Edmund Carrick-Humphries, Vicky’s fiancé in A MAD, WICKED FOLLY, I knew he had to be a rower, and a good one. Good enough to row for Oxford. And good enough to help break Cambridge’s three-year winning streak. And of course Edmund looked very dashing and swoony in his dark blue uniform.

Just as dashing as these guys, I’m sure!

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