Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

Landscape, Language, Teaching, Wildness, Beauty, Imagination


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A Blessed Busy

First page of Meadowlark

First page of Meadowlark

We read to know we are not alone. —C.S. Lewis

Wild prairie rose.

Wild prairie rose.

The past few weeks have been a swirl of blessings. I read one time that Barbara Kingsolver said,  “To have my first novel published was like singing in the shower alone, only to realize after that there was a room full of people listening to me.”  Meadowlark’s release, has thrown all windows and doors open on my intensely private journey of the last decade. The journey is richer shared. 

Story connects us to one another and to the world. Christina Baldwin describes this journey beautifully in Storycatcher: “Story—the abundance of it, and the lack of it—shapes us. Story—the abundance of it, and the lack of it—gives us place, lineage, history, a sense of self. Story—the abundance of it, and the lack of it—breaks us into pieces, shatters our understanding, and gives it back over and over again, the story different everytime. Story—the abundance of it, and the lack of it—connects us with the world and outlines ourrelationship with everything. When the power of story comes into the room, an alchemical reaction occurs that is unique to our kind: love or hate, identification or isolation, war or peace, good or evil can be stirred in us by words alone. The power of story is understood by the powerful, yet the power of story belongs toall of us, especially the least powerful. History is what scholars and conquerors say happened; story it what it was like to live on the ground.” 

I received a note from one of our dear family friends, with this photo from around 1975. I treasure this. I remember the moment vividly, as we kids listened to a rousing rendition of “Jack of the Beanstalk,” by one of the dads, Frank Lunetta. Mary Main wrote, “From listening to the story, to telling the story.”

Listening to story.

Listening to story.

This intensely private journey that is now out in the world, I’ve discovered, gives voice to others’ own intensively private journeys in ways that I could never have imagined those years that I spent writing alone. This has been the greatest gift—to share the journey of ‘what it was like to live on the ground.’ 

Here, some images of this shared journey:

The day that for so many years I thought might never happen. The first time I touched Meadowlark

First touch

First touch

Noé arriving home to celebrate after our first copy of Meadowlark arrived.

Noé arriving home.

Noé arriving home.

Books to personalize and mail. As I do this, my mind returns again and again to all of the moments of the past years when I doubted this moment would ever happen. Then, I pinch myself, give a prayer of gratitude, and I reach for another book. Each book I sign, a private letter between the two of us.

Books to personalize.

Books to personalize.

Meadowlark’s first public reading, hosted by Heidi Chase.

Meadowlark's first reading.

Meadowlark’s first reading.

Heidi surprised me with the world’s best cake. I had no idea this was even possible!

Surprise cake

Surprise cake

I marvel at the blessings that have come from a time of deep crisis. Two worn and tattered quotes were taped to my refrigerator during this time, “When you’re going through hell, keep on going,” and “I may be changed by what happens to me. I refuse to be reduced by it,” by Maya Angelou.

This is what I’ve learned from this experience, not only for myself, but the potential this holds for each of us. It is a time now of a blessed busy. There are not nearly enough hours in the day. The kids are back in school, the new semester ready to begin, and all that goes with each. 

Flying with Ravens, Carey Moore

Flying with Ravens, Carey Moore

The “Raven’s Time: Wildness and Beauty” online class through Story Circle Network started last week. Oh, what a gift to share this time with incredible, thoughtful, wild and beautiful people sinking into these ideas!

This first week, we’re exploring the ideas of water, language, and story. It has been a time of deep learning for me, as well, as I try to texturize the online environment. I’ve learned how to post videos within the course. Somehow, this makes me feel as if my students and I are all together.

Early-morning composing of Raven's Time class.

Early-morning composing of Raven’s Time class.

Here are a few videos, of Introduction and of the writing process of clustering and reading from Anne Lamott’s brilliant essay, “Shitty First Drafts.” 

Water, Language and Story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=yeq7VCSnyFo

Clustering and Shitty First Drafts (Part 1): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1J1fBVzlSU

Clustering and Shitty First Drafts (Part 2): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRgNyCj8yp4

As I write this morning, I prepare to leave tomorrow to give a workshop on Cultural Diversity and Awareness to people in the construction industry in Seattle. Yes, it is indeed a chapter of blessed busy, with the focus on blessed. Wynn Elizabeth turned 14 on August 14th. When Wynn was a little girl, she loved tiaras, which she pronounced to rhyme with Chihuahua. Clearly, she needed one for her party for old time’s sake.

Wynn, 14 years old

Wynn, 14 years old

Wynn's party

Wynn’s party

Rain on morning glories and black hollyhocks.

Rain on morning glories and black hollyhocks.

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Meadowlark Cover

untitled

It’s HERE! It’s here. It’s here. It’s here!

I just received the cover for Meadowlark from the publisher. And I LOVE it! I approached the cover with much trepeditation. I had some ideas. The publisher had some ideas. All I really knew was, “I’ll know it when I see it.” I worried that my expectations were too high, that whatever the image, it wouldn’t quite be it. I needn’t have spent energy on that. I am beyond thrilled. This image was taken on the ranch of the land Grace that walked and lived. I could go on and on about what I love about this cover—and all center on how this image conveys Grace’s story.

I am deeply grateful for what authors have written about Meadowlark:  

“Dawn Wink writes in the tradition of O.E. Rolvaag, Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, and Mary Clearman Blew, with a clear-eyed understanding of the connections between isolation and oppression, especially for women, on the Great Plains. Wink is not afraid to look at difficult and uncomfortable issues such as domestic violence, Indian boarding schools, or the law’s corruption. She also surprises us by writing about intimate and hidden issues like early 20th-century contraception. She has a fine sense for characters and a deep understanding of land. The scene where Grace Robertson, her protagonist, makes a punching bag out of a feed sack in order to work out her anger, and then returns to work and love, is worth the price of the novel by itself. This is a gritty novel but also a hopeful one, exploring the ugliness of power and the ways despair can drive good people to do awful things but also exploring compassion’s ability to bind, rejuvenate, and redeem.”     — Kent Meyers, The Work of Wolves (South Dakota One Book 2005), Twisted Tree, The Witness of Combines

“The lives of those who homesteaded in Dakota Territory were difficult; the men and women tough enough to survive were not always kind and well-behaved. Dawn Wink’s Meadowlark thunders with harsh truths learned from her own ranching family history, including her knowledge of Lakota ways. And in these pages the prairie sings its truths.”     — Linda Hasselstrom, South Dakota Author of the Year, No Place Like Home: Notes from a Western Life,         Between Grass and Sky, Feels Like Far, Land Circle, Going Over East, Windbreak

Meadowlark is in the tradition of the American Western Novel, but with a twist. The heroes of this heart-felt book are the women who populated the mythic west and the reader gets a credible glimpse of what life might have been like for them. Many of the scenes ring true due to the author’s obvious familiarity with the inner workings of a ranch, her interest in the plight of her characters, and her love of the land.”     — Dan O’Brien, Two time winner of the Western Heritage Award, Buffalo for the Broken Heart (South Dakota One Book 2009)The Contract Surgeon, Stolen Horses, The Indian Agent

Prairie, June 2013

Prairie, June 2013

Meadowlark is a love story of the best kind: achingly real. At its center is Grace, a turn-of-the-previous-century teenaged bride battered by her husband and left alone for days on the isolated South Dakota prairie with her young son and a ranch to care for. Grace learns to love the tough and surprisingly beautiful prairie, the horse on whose back she finds freedom, her son, the women friends who become her family, and finally, her own scarred self. This haunting story soars like the song of the meadowlark it is named for, determined to be heard.”     — Susan J. Tweit, Colorado Book Award Winner. Walking Nature Home, Season’s in the Desert, Barren, Wild, and Worthless

“This heroine’s quest for meaning in the shadow of an abusive marriage is every bit as lonely and piercing as a meadowlark’s song heard over miles of empty prairie.”     — Jamie Lisa ForbesUnbroken, 2011 WILLA winner for Outstanding Literary Fiction.

With unprecedented lyric beauty, Dawn Wink brings the myriad chambers of Grace’s inquisitive mind and indelible spirit alive to the point where no reader will ever forget her story.     — Laurie Wagner Buyer, author of the award-winning memoirs When I Came West and Spring’s Edge: A  Ranch Wife’s Chronicles 

Meadowlark will be released by Pronghorn Press the end of July, 2013.  


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When Your Dad’s a Cowboy

With Dad, Cascabel Land & Cattle Company, AZ, 1978

With Dad, Cascabel Land & Cattle Company, AZ, 1978

This is my all-time favorite photo of my dad and me, taken in 1978 on the ranch in southeastern Arizona, where I was raised. We were in the corrals working cattle. I’d turned over the milk bucket to sit. Our Wink eyes are side-by-side. My mom describes the first time she met all of the Winks, “Somebody told a joke, everybody started laughing, and suddenly, nobody in the room had any eyes!” Every year the annual school picture involved the photographer telling me to open my eyes when I smiled. Every year I responded, “I can’t. I’m a Wink.” I’m sure Mom took this photo. During these years, I was usually pushing cows and calves down the shoot and giving injections, since I was too small to do much else. This photo means we’d ridden the day before to bring in the cattle. Cascabel Land and Cattle Company lay along the San Pedro River Valley in southeastern Arizona. We ranched there from 1976-1985. Riding and reading filled my days.

San Pedro River Valley

San Pedro River Valley, Cascabel, AZ

Riding on the ranch with my dad, through the rugged terrain of the Sonoran desert, was my heaven. As I think back, so much of what I’ve learned in life, I learned riding with Dad. Listen. Pay attention. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. Hard work and hard laughter go together. If your horse goes down, kick your feet out of the stirrups, in case you need to jump off. What you do matters and others are counting on you.  Take care of others. Leave the gates as you find them. Be kind. 

The following piece, “When Your Dad’s a Cowboy” was originally published in Range Magazine, 2005. When Mom and I published our book, Teaching Passionately: What’s Love Got To Do With It? (Pearson, 2005), the dedication read: “To Dean Wink, from the two women who love you most.”

In honor of my dad, my husband, my brother, and all the fabulous fathers out there, I share with you. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you oodles! Dawn

When Your Dad’s a Cowboy

By Dawn Wink

Range Magazine, Summer 2005

My dad flew off the big three-year-old gelding buckskin and landed on the rock-hard ground with a thud. He and I stared at each other for a moment, him flat on his side in front of the crowding alley and me in the doorway of the old barn on his South Dakota ranch.

“Are you all right, Dad?” Blood poured from a chunk of skin ripped off his nose.

“Well, I think I might have broke a nail,” he said and held his wrist aloft. It was in the shape of a well-formed S.

Dad's hand

Dad’s hand

Dean Wink has a long history of breaking bones, then waiting too long to go to the hospital. Whether it was the time he broke his sternum, had the bones in his thumb splintered into shards when his horse went down in a bog and crushed it against the saddle horn, or the most recent shattering of his right hand when a cow kicked it against a pipe holding her in the branding chute, he waited a week or two before going in. Just enough time to give the broken bones time to heal and be re-broken and set. Even he agreed that we needed to head to the emergency room this time.

The closest hospital was 80 miles away.

“You got good tires on this truck?” Dad asked as we flew over the prairie into town, making good time. “I don’t have time for a broken wrist,” he said over and over during the trip, his arm now packed in ice. 

When your dad’s a cowboy you learn to smile, nod, and put the pedal to the metal.

For as long as I can remember I have been trotting at the heels of my dad’s well-worn cowboy boots, bouncing beside him in a dusty pickup, or riding along with him as we moved cows. Whether the ranches were in Wyoming, Arizona, or South Dakota, I’ve often been at my happiest helping him with ranch work.

Last December I spent a week on my parents’ cattle ranch to write and gather information and images for my current novel, Meadowlark. I found myself chuckling when I realized that once again I was trotting along at his heels as we walked out to doctor a filly with a torn leg. I was doing the same thing at age 36, that I’d done at six. And I was still loving it.

That day, Dad and I were going to ride in the breaks, where the flat prairie pours down into rugged cedar- and juniper-dotted ravines leading to the Cheyenne River. It had been six months since Lucky (now renamed Bucky) had last been ridden, but he came in from the pasture and took the saddle well. Dad did expect him to crow hop a bit, so he mounted right there in the corral. As soon as Dad climbed into the saddle, Lucky started bucking. He bucked and lunged and spun. Several jumps later, Dad got off to the side. With the next buck, he was down on the ground.

Several weeks later, he wryly told me he was reading a book on horse training and had discovered what we’d done wrong: “We skipped chapters one through 10!”

After the horse wreck, 2005.

After the horse wreck, 2005.

By the time we made it to town, Dad could no longer move his legs. An hour later he was in excruciating pain with any movement in his torso, despite a pain threshold that mere mortals can only dream of. Before becoming a rancher 30 years ago, Dad played defensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles. He eats pain like others eat Wheaties. He has ridden over cliffs on crazy horses nobody else will ride, been caught between a gate and the corral fence and worked over while a 2,000 pound Brangus bull rammed against against it all the way up and then back down again; and been rolled over by a horse more times than I can count. After all of which he bounced back up with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Never once have I seen him do anything more than a brief wince—so I knew this was serious. 

When your dad’s a cowboy, you think he’s invincible.

Seeing Dad in such pain led me to the previously undiscovered wonders of straight tequila and cigarettes. At one point after a long day of painful tests for him, he was getting an MRI and for the umpteenth time that day I thought I was going to pass out. I lay down on the cool tile floor right there in the office, cheek to the tile, bum in the air.

The doctor saw me and said, “Um, ma’am? Would you mind waiting somewhere else, please?” No problem. I crawled out of the office and into the arms of José Cuervo and the Marlboro Man.

When your dad’s a cowboy, I recommend them for fainting spells in the hospital.

A separated pelvic bone, shattered wrist, internal bleeding—and, one week later, Dad was released from the hospital. His first day home, the yearling fillies got out of the corral. Dad was out there shuffling long with his rolling walker, trying to bring them back in.

Is it any wonder my heroes have always been cowboys?

Dad with mares and foals, Wink Cattle Co., SD, 2013. Photo by Joan Wink

Dad with mares and foals, Wink Cattle Co., SD, 2013. Photo by Joan Wink


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Meadowlark – Publication Announcement

I Am Who They Were by Ashley Gilreath

I Am Who They Were by Ashley Gilreath

You know how writers are…they create themselves as they create their work. Or perhaps they create their work in order to create themselves. ~ Orson Scott Card

Grace and baby, circa 1911

Grace and baby, circa 1913

Ten years ago I had an idea to write a book. The stories that swirled through my childhood about my great-grandmother, Grace, lifted into a single question, “Mom, what about Grandma Grace and Paul?”

She stopped and looked at me, the threads of time that bind past, present, and future tightened. “I don’t know,” she said, and smiled. “But, I’ve always wondered.”

I wrote a book to find out.

What I could not have known at the time was the journey that writing Meadowlark would take me on, how those threads of time would draw so close that the supposed distinctions between past, present, and future smudged together like pastels on a porous page, creating new colors with equal elements of each, until I’d lived in these blended spaces for so long they became my reality. I could not have known in that moment, that Grace’s life would ultimately save my own.

Meadowlark was the book that should never have been written. Too much happened in my life as I wrote. Too much upheaval, too much transition, too much pain. And yet, I couldn’t stop writing. Like Gretel following the bread crumbs, I stumbled through the forest of my life, focusing on that next bread crumb that Grace left for me so many years before.

Not long after I started writing Meadowlark, for the first time in any of their lives, Wyatt, Luke, Wynn, and I were apart every other week through shared custody. One friend describes the time separate from her kids, “like walking around missing a limb.” My own experience echoes the thoughts of Elizabeth Stone, when she wrote that to have a child was to “…forever have your heart go walking around outside your body.” It feels wholly unnatural to be apart from your children. Crippling, really. How does one function when your heart is beating elsewhere?

Well, initially one doesn’t, come to find out. I failed miserably at even minimal functioning when my kids and I were apart. The separation and thought of a future living like this felt unbearable.  One night I called a wise, wise friend, Lynn, who’d lived this already, and said, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it. There is no way in hell I can do this.”

“Yes, you can,” my wise, wise friend. “Use the time that you’re apart to create the best life possible for you all.”

In the terrifying and gut-lonely space created every other week when Wyatt, Luke, and Wynn left, I turned to Grace. When my mind and heart constricted into dark hardened kernels, Grace held each until they loosened through her story and expanded to allow air and light. I believed in Grace and her story, when I had lost all faith in my own. “Use the time that you’re apart to create the best life possible for you all,” sifted through the darkness. The night the kids left I crumbled, and the next morning I’d get up, hear Lynn’s words again, take Grace’s hand, and write—a concrete way to create a better life for us all.

Prairie

Prairie

Ten years of writing, editing, rejection after rejection from various publishing houses followed. I kept a now coffee-spattered, water-stained card with Winston Churchill’s quote above my desk, “Never, never, never give up.”

My literary agent and dear friend, Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli, believed in Grace. “Dawn, the rejection letters all follow the same vein—’The writing is beautiful, the story is incredible, it is just not the market of our publishing house.’ It’s the prairie. They don’t seem to get the prairie.”

The prairie herself is a primary character of Meadowlark. Anyone who has lived within this landscape knows that it can be no other way. The prairie is a visceral experience who demands primacy through sheer force of personality. We continued to look for a publisher who understood her.

Writing with ear plugs and scarf.

Writing with ear plugs and scarf.

During this time, I wrote to my dear friend and award-winning author, Laurie Jameson, and asked if she might give the manuscript a glance and write a blurb that I could share with future publishers. Busy with her own writing, she graciously agreed. I bundled up the hard-copy manuscript and sent it off to Texas. That quick glance turned into Laurie dedicated herself to months of editing suggestions to lift Grace’s story. Laurie’s wise suggestions honed and shaped the story to its essence. It involved months of editing for me, usually sitting at the kitchen table with ear plugs and a scarf wrapped around my head, as now teenage Wyatt, Luke, and Wynn, my new husband, Noé, and our highly-exuberant German Shepherd, Clyde, moved around me. Editing again at this stage was as much fun as rolling naked through broken glass. I knew it my heart that it had to be done. I trusted Laurie and I trusted myself. And there were the glimpses of beauty in the process, when I found myself so caught up in the prairie that I would lift my eyes and be disoriented to find myself in the high-desert of Santa Fe.

I made Noé promise that if anything happened to me, if I was randomly hit by a bus, that he would somehow make sure this book one day saw the light of day. “What?!” he said. “Don’t even say that.” I meant it, and he promised.

I continued to look for publishers who might understand the prairie. I looked through the list of novels that had won the WILLA Award in my writing community Women Writing the West. Through this process, I found Pronghorn Press and submitted a query. Editor Annette Chaudet understands the prairie. Her own exquisite editing eye demanded two more rounds of intense editing and writing. These editing suggestions created scenes that I now cannot imagine the book without.

A toast!

A toast!

Yesterday I received a signed contract from Pronghorn Press and can now announce that Meadowlark will be published in June/July 2013. I sat holding the contract in my hand, staring at it, not saying anything. I didn’t trust myself. The book that should never have been written, rejected time and again by NYC publishing houses, will soon see the light of day. Noé and I raised our glasses to toast Meadowlark, Pronghorn Press, and life.

I love to read about writers’ histories with writing. I especially love those writers whose publishing career began in their 40’s, Madeleine L’Engle and Isabel Allende top the list. These stories gave me hope through the round after round of rejections. Madeleine L’Engle wrote of receiving a rejection on her 40th birthday, putting a towel over her typewriter, sure she should just give up, putting her head on the table to weep, only to realize that in her head she was writing a scene of a writer receiving a rejection. She threw the towel off and wrote, and didn’t stop writing for the next 50 years. Isabel Allende’s first novel The House of Spirits was published in her early 40s. It started as a letter to her grandfather who was dying and whom she could not visit, because she was living in exile outside of Chile. She wrote it in her closet, after her family went to sleep at night. I just celebrated my 45th birthday. In the fable of the tortoise and the hare of my writing life, I am in all ways the tortoise.

The first half of my life has been one of searching and surviving. As I enter the second half of my life, I fill with a sense of deep gratitude for the place where I now find myself, the elusive place I had given up hope to ever find. A place of family, stability, and home. A place of peace. A place where I can at last settle in deeply to love, live, and write. I feel at last there is traction under me, where for so long my wheels spun in the air.

A surprise celebration.

A surprise celebration.

One never knows what the future will bring. This is perhaps the one truth that life has taught me. So for now, I’ll just enjoy the moment. Yesterday evening after receiving the contract, Noé and I were each at work on our own projects. I had started this piece to share the news with you, and Noé was outside putting together some shelves for our garden tools. He said it was like someone tapped him gently on the shoulder, “Hey, what are you doing? This is a moment to celebrate!” The threads of time binding past, present, and future tightened again. I know that shoulder tap was Grace or Paul. Minutes later, Noé and I were dressed, and out the door. I dressed so quickly that after running gel through my hair, I realized it didn’t smell like it usually did. I looked at whatever tube I’d grabbed, and realized that I had just styled my hair with shaving gel.

The waiter at the restaurant asked what we were celebrating, and later surprised me with a gorgeous ice-cream dessert, complete with whipped cream, strawberries, and a candle to honor my book. We never know what life will bring. This moment that for so many years I thought might never come still feels somewhat unreal.

The sixteen-year-old bride who lived a century ago continues to take me by the hand. I’ll follow.

Thank you, Grace. For everything.

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Meadowlark – The Veil Thins

Grace and baby, circa 1911

Grace and baby, circa 1911

And so continued the journey.

I wrote earlier how my novel Meadowlark began with a question that has lingered in our family for decades, a question that I wrote a book to answer. In the midst of writing Meadowlark, the story of my own life interrupted and, “The books about the prairie and notebooks remained shoved onto shelves and closed for the next number of years. Until one day, Grace whispered from the past to begin to write her story again. I had no idea that writing her story would save me.”

I dusted off the notebooks on the shelves and lifted the story threads once again.  What I didn’t realize at the time was how integral Grace would be in my navigation of the splintered constellation of my life . My new world completely foreign, I opened the notebooks and loosened the stiff pages pressed tightly together. The soft crackle of the pages releasing each other loosened something deep within me. Grace’s story became the bedrock island of my quicksand world. The more I delved into her life and experiences, the more the veil between our worlds thinned, until I learned to trust the unknown.

Ranch, Winter 2013

Ranch, Winter 2012

Wynn wearing the wedding dress of her great-great grandmother Grace.

Wynn wearing the wedding dress of her great-great grandmother Grace.

The thinning of this supposed separation continues. My family and I spent this Christmas with my parents on the ranch in South Dakota where Grace lived. One week before we arrived, a mysterious package arrived from our cousin, and Grace’s grandson, Kurt. Mom opened the package to find Grace’s wedding dress and riding jacket, in perfect condition. I describe Grace’s wedding dress in the novel as moss green. Our 13-year-old daughter, Wynn, tried on the dress and jacket. When she walked out, the air stilled.

We spent the next week in the house where Grace lived, on the land she walked and rode. Noé and I walked to the corrals and he stopped and looked around. “I feel Grace here,” he said.

I felt her everywhere—standing on the steps of the root cellar, looking out the window above the kitchen sink, and walking with long strides out to the corrals. I felt her most keenly in the moments I was deep in thought about something else and her presence appeared. Her bedroom is now our dining room. As we sat to eat Christmas dinner, I glanced at her shallow closet, now holding stacks of ceramic dishes and linens, I thought I saw the feint outline of dresses hanging from the pegs.

After we’d returned to Santa Fe, Mom called me, “Honey, there was a journal of Grandma Grace’s with the dress and jacket.”  A journal neither one of us had known existed. The first page of the journal reads, “Rapid City, January 2, 1907  My dear daughter, May your life be like footprints in the sand, Leave a mark, but not a stain. Your Mother.”

Grace's journal, pg 1

Grace’s journal, pg 1

Here are two pieces, written years ago, lifted directly from the Meadowlark manuscript:

“Tucked in the trunk, under her clothes and along with her books, was the journal bound in chocolate-brown leather that her mother had given her shortly before her death. Inside on the first page, in her exquisitely neat handwriting, her mother had written, “To Grace, A place to wrest to paper the many exciting and happy times you’re sure to have. I wish you a lifetime of love and joy. Your loving mother. July 30, 1910.”

“Grace looked at the floor. It was fitting. Wherever Mae went, she left her mark. No doubt about it. People know she’s been there. Me? I feel more like dust on the wind. I want to leave a mark that I have walked this earth, breathed this air, loved and cried here. I want to leave footprints.”

Author Julia Alvarez describes discovering historical facts she writes about in detail In the Time of the Butterflies, a novel based on the real lives of three sisters, Las Mariposas, who lived and died under dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Alvarez discovers these facts, which she writes about in minute detail, after the book had been published.

Paul Overacker

Paul Overacker

Meadowlark is work of fiction, founded on that lingering question I asked Mom as we folded laundry and Mom smiled, “I don’t know, but I’ve always wondered.”

Grace, Tom, and Paul, are main characters of the novel and based on my great-grandmother, great-grandfather, and the ranch foreman, became as much a part of my life as the living, breathing people surrounding me. They’ve never left the ranch. There are countless stories of their presence in the house and around the ranch headquarters. “I heard Paul walking in the bedroom above me again last night,” my dad called to tell me. “He had his boots on this time.” Isabel Allende writes of her relief after moving to a new house, to hear the spirit of her daughter, Paula, arranging the furniture above.

Grace and friends

Grace and friends

People joined Grace as I wrote. One day I lifted my head to see Mae Thingvold, doctor and girl homesteader from the East Coast, driving her buggy up over the horizon and chiming, “Grace! Grace, dear, fret not! I’m on my way!” Ike was not far behind and he never failed to make me laugh.  Then, Daisy Standing Horse slipped in silent as a shadow, and soon she and Grace were intent on their beading and sewing in front of the fire. As I came to know these women, their strength, resiliency, humor, and friendship guided me through the new terrain of my life.

When life felt too painful in my own turn of the century, I slid gratefully into Grace’s world. I raced bareback across the prairie, the wind on my face, the surge of the horses’s muscles beneath me, and  hooves pounding against the earth. I laughed with Mae and savored the way beads twinkled in the candlelight with Daisy. When the time came, I returned to my own world strengthened.

And, always the land. As I walked the prairie through the seasons, the rhythms of the plants, animals, wind, and weather seeped into me. The sun broke through the lead gray sky of winter and set the crystal beads of hoarfrost on the tree limbs sparkling in a million prisms. I marveled at this land’s ability to shift between darkness and light in a moment’s notice.

In writing Grace’s story, I gained faith in my own.

(Thank you to cousin Kurtis Gentry, for your generous spirit—for the treasures of Grace’s dress, jacket, journal, and photos of Grace & child and Paul. For thinning the veil.)

Open prairie, winter 2012.

Open prairie, winter 2012.

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Writing Meadowlark

The manuscript for “Meadowlark: A Novel.”

It all started with a question.

In 1911, my great-grandmother Grace came as an 16-year-old orphan bride to a sod hut on the prairie of western South Dakota where my family still ranches. My mom spent summers on the ranch as a child and I’d grown up hearing stories about Great-Grandma Grace, of her life, and of Paul. My own memories of Grandma Grace are of the feel of the paper-thin skin on her hands.

Grace, circa 1911 and the time of her marriage.

In Mom’s stories, her grandmother, Grace, came alive as a young woman – one who worked hard every day of her life, made sure my mom got the first weekly bath in the tin tub with one inch of water on Saturday nights, so all would be clean for church on Sunday. The line-up for water began with my mom, then Grandma Grace, then my Uncle Jim, and finally, once the water was cold and had seen three bodies already, Paul bathed.

There are not many stories of kindnesses that happened on the ranch in my mother’s childhood. Almost all center around Paul, the ranch foreman. In the summers of my mother’s youth on the ranch, it was the four of them: Mom, Jim, Grace, and Paul.

Again and again I heard the stories – of what happened on Grace’s wedding day after she climbed into the buckboard with her new husband, and of Paul galloping his horse over the rise and toward the ranch house shouting something nobody could hear and all ran outside as he raced toward the ranch to finally make out the words, “Skunks! Skunks!” and see his smile. Paul made Grandma Grace and my mom and uncle smile and laugh in a world that held precious little of either.

Abandoned shanty near the ranch.

One day years after first hearing these stories, Mom and I stood above the bed folding the mountain of clothes that came with my three young children, in the same ranch house where Grace and Paul had lived all those years. I had a sudden thought. “Mom, what about Grace and Paul?”

“I don’t know.” A slow smile spread across her face,”But, I’ve always wondered.”

I wrote a book to find out.

* * *

The stories I knew formed the cradle into which I started to place research and information gathered about the time and place of Grace’s life. I drove to every historical museum and bookstore I knew of and the piles of original journals, books written by pioneer women, stories and experiences of Lakota women, and cowboy journals grew on the shelves of my house, each filled with sticky notes and my own markings. Slowly, the stories I’d heard began to gain the context of history and place. I scribbled notes, stories, and observations about the landscape in notebooks. Through the seasons, the heat and storms of summer, cool bite of fall, the hoarfrost of winter, and capriciousness of spring on the plains, I walked the land and listened.

And then Grace’s story was interrupted by my own. My marriage ended and the intensity of the chapter of my own life took over. The books about the prairie and notebooks remained shoved onto shelves and closed for the next number of years. Until one day, Grace whispered from the past to begin to write her story again.

I had no idea that writing her story would save me.

Sunset light

Summer clouds.

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Early morning editing

I took this photo a few days ago as I was editing the manuscript for my novel, Meadowlark. What I remember is lifting my eyes and a moment of surprise not to see the prairie of western South Dakota out the window. This is what I saw. Early morning editing

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