Sunday, October 31, 2010

searching for Valdemar

Wind Point Lighthouse, Racine, Wisconsin Art Poster Print, 18x13
Wind Point Lighthouse, Racine  
 My dad's story was wild, but I wanted to believe it: In the late 1800s his grandmother, Christine, had been a servant in Denmark's royal palace. When she got pregnant by one of the princes, probably Valdemar, she was whisked away to America to work in a logging camp. Her baby grew up near the Wind Point Lighthouse in the Danish community of Racine, Wisconsin.

I'd always wanted to write this tale so last month I introduced myself -- via email -- to relatives in the Midwest, asking about our royal blood. Ha! They hadn't heard that one, but they mentioned a "family secret" that several had taken to their graves, and that records for Christine's firstborn were sketchy. His name? Valdemar. I knew it! She had so loved the prince, she named her baby after him. Coincidentally one of my cousins, Kris Olson Elbert, had already begun researching our Danish ancestry so our emails flew. We wanted to meet each other and visit our cousin, Bill Johnson, who had grown up knowing Christine. Bill lived near the Wind Point Lighthouse and was as curious as we were.

So I did what we've told our kids NEVER to do: met someone online, hopped a plane to Chicago, hugged hello in a hotel lobby, then drove to a new city to spend time with strangers. I didn't even have a Plan B.

Meanwhile Kris had scoured census records and with Bill's help found Christine's real name -- Maren Kristine Sorensen. This led to the discovery of a ship's manifest from the S.S. Island of the Thingvalla Line which arrived in New York on August 17, 1893. Captain Skjodt recorded that she was an unmarried servant from Copenhagen, age 26, traveling with one piece of baggage. I could picture that hot summer day on Ellis Island and Christine hiding her pregnancy from immigration officials.

Well, someone has to be level-headed in these matters. Kris did the math then broke the news: no prince. We're just regular Americans. Turns out Christine married a fellow Dane, Christian Nielsen, and their son Valdemar was born in 1895. But what happened to this boy, also called Walter? Did he run away from home because his dad was crazy? Maybe he died from hypothermia after rescuing a friend in a river, as one story went. We couldn't find any record beyond his birth until we looked through a dusty ledger at the Bethania Lutheran Church. The beautiful handwriting was in Danish but finally Kris spotted Valdemar Nielsen, son of Christian and Christine, who died in the spring of 1910. We were thrilled to see his name, but also felt sad. What happened? He was only 15. The cemetery didn't have any burial record.

For two days we hung out in Racine with wonderful family, all new to me. I learned that Christine's favorite flowers were violets gathered in the spring by her children. Bill drove us by her boarding house where she had had chickens and a garden, and cooked for eleven Danish men fresh off the boat. She listed herself as a widow when, in fact, Christian was in an asylum for 25 years. In Bill's kitchen -- which overlooked a beautiful and stormy Lake Michigan -- we scoured family letters, documents and photos, shared stories, laughed, and grieved a little. At the library Kris and I searched old newspapers on microfilm. Those things are hard to read, but we finally saw where an "undersheriff" took our gr.grandfather Christian to the State Insane Asylum. Then at last we discovered the obit for Walter. He died in St. Luke's hospital from "a lingering illness." Bill returned to the cemetery with these details and found Walter's grave and cause of death: pneumonia.
We still have many questions, such as, why was Christian "adjudged insane" on his daughter's 3rd birthday? But we're happy to have found Valdemar's resting place. One photo shows an earnest young man who would bring his mother wildflowers. He had three younger siblings and may well have braved an icy river to rescue one of them. Hypothermia untreated could have led to pneumonia.  Bill is going to straighten the crooked head stone and we'd like to have a family reunion. I'd love to gather some violets for Christine, to put on her son's grave.

Her daughter Gertrude -- my grandmother -- wrote that Christine was "noble and kind" with the "God-given strength of a Viking Pioneer in Amerika." I'll say.

"Son of C & C Nielsen" 1895-1910

Saturday, October 16, 2010

controversial book covers #1: no boys with knives!

True story!
In 1818 pirates attacked the Spanish owned village of Monterey, California then continued down the coast blasting cannons at various missions. One of the two ships was a 42-gun frigate captained by the cruel Argentinian privateer, Hippolyte de Bouchard. The other captain was Peter Corney a British officer who, lucky for me, turned out to have a way with words.

I say lucky, because he wrote of these dastardly deeds in the primly titled Early Northern Pacific Voyages, published in 1896. He made it sound like a travel article for Sunset Magazine, but nooo, these were bad guys. When I discovered his thesis I thought, perfect! I'd always wanted to know about pirates from my native state, especially because we now had two little boys. They hated reading so I hoped that if I could just tell a story with cannons and sharks and dead bodies, maybe just maybe they'd be enticed to read a few chapters.

The Stowaway: A Tale Of California PiratesSo I wrote The Stowaway: A Tale of California Pirates under the guidance of my pirate-y editor Regina Griffin. Main character is 11-year-old Carlito, a Spaniard who sneaks aboard the frigate. The original cover is lovely [PHOTO, top left], but I was hoping for something gritty and dreadful. I didn't complain because, gosh, it's such a thrill to have a book published. But when Scholastic told me they'd be reprinting the paperback with a new cover I said, "Oh! Oh! Please make Carlito dirty and scared."

The artist, Craig Nelson, did better than that. Not only was Carlito's shirt torn, ragged and dirty he looked terrified and was holding a knife. I loved it. Drama. Surely it would tempt boys to pick up the book. Well ... [big sigh here] ... we were informed that certain principals in certain school districts would never allow a book into their curriculum with a cover that depicted violence such as this. The pub date was near so instead of redoing everything, the knife was painted out [PHOTO, lower left]. At least we didn't have to give Carlito a clean shirt!

An encouraging note: Despite the cover Parents Magazine named The Stowaway a "riveting drama" and A Best Pick for 1995.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

life's small pleasures & My Darlin' Clementine

My husband and I have a saying when we're feeling discouraged by world headlines, or I'm bummed by another rejection, or we're missing our sons: "Okay, let's find an LSP!" -- Life's Small Pleasure. We're not as flowery as Anne Shirley of Green Gables, but seriously sometimes all it takes to feel better about life is to get outside and hear birds singing--or take a picnic to a soccer match and watch a friend's son play his heart out.

It was 91 degrees yesterday in Boise, Idaho. Parents were cheering from the sidelines, the boys ran the field in the happy clustering I remember from our sons' games. One of the kids wore bright yellow shoes--which I thought showed guts and creativity--and Nathan scored a goal. The LSPs were adding up.

But what a surprise when my friend's daughter, Katie, showed me a copy of  My Darlin' Clementine. She explained she was reading it for her 5th Grade class in Bellevue, and even had some questions for the author. I'm stoked this book about Idaho history is being used in schools. LSP times ten!

So it was a beautiful Saturday. We went home to our goldens who shook themselves from their nap to greet us. While my husband was cooking dinner, we enjoyed the best LSP: a phone call from Seattle where our sons and their sweethearts were about to watch the sunset. Sunset as in sunshine, a bonus for that rainy city. We smiled about their afternoon together, especially when one of them posted a terrific photo on Facebook.

My Darlin' Clementine

PHOTO above: on the soccer field with Jessie [L] and Katie, holding Clementine.