Current Winners – American Historical Fiction

The Winner of the 2017 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction Is Laurel Davis Huber for Her The Velveteen Daughter (She Writes Press)

Laurel Davis Huber, author of "Velveteen Daughter"Laurel Davis Huber’s Velveteen Daughter composes the documented but unassembled lives of author and artist, as well as mother and daughter Margery Williams Bianco and Pamela Bianco. While Margery Williams Bianco’s Velveteen Rabbit is still cherished by contemporary generations, her daughter Pamela Bianco was arguably more famous in her lifetime. Pamela was a child prodigy discovered in Italy in 1919. After a successful exhibition in London, Bianco gains a patron in Gloria Vanderbilt Whitney who sets the young artist up with a studio and an apartment in New York.

The novel takes place in the 1940s through 1970s. In the 1940s, we hear the alternating voices of Margery and Pamela during an acute episode of Pamela’s mental illness. Both often allude to the fateful moment when Pamela’s father the bookseller Francesco Bianco enters her into a contest in Turin which serves as the catapult to her international fame. While she is always anxious of her daughter’s celebrity and commissions, Margery is reticent to discourage her husband’s efforts. In the 1970s, Pamela is elderly and largely forgotten by the art world. She has survived one unhappy marriage and one happy one.

The lives of the Bianco family intersect with many artists and authors, some now remembered and some now forgotten. Eugene O’Neill marries and divorces Pamela’s cousin. Pablo Picasso comes to dinner and exchanges drawings with a four-year old Pamela. The Welsh poet Richard (Diccon) Hughes is Pamela’s unrequited and devastating love. While the novel includes vivid scenes of bohemian life both in Wales and Italy, as well as Greenwich Village and Harlem, The Velveteen Daughter is ultimately a novel about the intimate dynamics of familial and romantic love with its myriad expectations and disappointments.

Huber draws on letters and newspapers, and in the notes appended after the novel, carefully delineates fact from fiction. Yet the sources most central to the novel are those created by Pamela and Margery: Pamela’s paintings and Margery’s Velveteen Rabbit. Pamela’s art emerges in exuberant visions. It is spontaneous and joyful, a natural extension of herself. Yet this method does not always please the market, and her father urges her to paint in particular ways that are fashionable at the time to the detriment of her physical and mental health. Yet the velveteen rabbit of Margery’s story becomes real in his loss. So, too, does the Velveteen Daughter become in hers. The narrative ends with plans for a painting “just as I feel. Just as I wish”. — VL

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The Finalists for the 2017 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction Are Wiley Cash for His The Last Ballad (Morrow) and Janet Benton for Her Lilli de Jong (Doubleday)

Wiley Cash, author of "The Last Ballad"The Last Ballad is a fictionalized biography of Ella May Wiggins, an actual woman, with five children and a husband prone to stray. In the late 1920s she was employed in a carding room of a textile mill located in Bessemer City, North Carolina at the pitiful wage of $9 per seventy-two-hour workweek. Ella and her four children lived in conditions of acute poverty, powerfully shown to us by detailed descriptive writing that is neither angry nor sentimental. Labor unions had just begun to enter the struggle for better conditions in the textile industry. She was attracted to the union movement and began to use her vocal talents by singing at union rallies. Some of Ella May’s songs would later be performed by Woody Guthrie and recorded by Pete Seeger. Eventually, she quit her factory job to work full time for the National Textile Workers Union, a labor organization of the American Communist Party. After a particularly violent labor rally in June 1929, some goons, undoubtedly hired by the owners of the mill, murdered Ella May Wiggins. A precis of this story cannot do justice to the haunting emotions this novel’s lyrical writing evokes in a reader. Highly recommended. – DJL, Sr.

Janet Benton, author of "Lilli de Jong"Lilli de Jong tells a sad story that ends well. Lilli becomes pregnant by her well-meaning boyfriend Johan, who intends to marry her. He leaves Philadelphia, where the novel is set, to secure employment in Pittsburgh, unaware that he will soon be a father. Meanwhile Lilli is thrown out of her family home when her pregnancy becomes apparent, and the two lovers are unable to communicate because her father confiscates all incoming mail from the boyfriend, which letters contain his new address. An agent sent by the reimbursement-seeking charity hospital to locate Johan, falsely reports to him that Lilli has married another. Eventually Johan and Lilli reunite under circumstances that try the imagination, but, suspending that, all is well again.

While the couple are separated Lilly has her baby daughter in a charity hospital, refuses the expected gift of the child for adoption. Lilli’s severest trials begin when she is forced to leave the charity. The difficulties facing a single mother in the urban America of 1883 are vividly portrayed. Insult, sexual harassment, theft, lack of employment opportunity all face this determined mother as she is forced to sleep with her daughter in filthy alleys and train stations. It is a stinging indictment of self-righteous bourgeois America that makes 1883 seem worse than but still close to our own day. – DJL, Sr.

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I would like to informally discuss four books in lieu of the formal Director’s mentions of previous years. The Twelve-Mile Straight, by Eleanor Henderson (Ecco) is a Southern saga set against the background of Prohibition and the Depression. It is a grim work whose characters experience few transient joys and no enduring happiness. The novel has a remarkable structure, a Roshomon-like style where new interpretations open up as the novel progresses and our understanding of past events become subject to change or major alteration. It reminded me a bit of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet in that regard, although Twelve-Mile Straight lacks the pleasures and passions of Durrell’s work.

It is not an absolutely novel thing for characters with disabilities to appear in historical fiction. The winner of our own 2014 prize, What is Visible by Kimberly Elkins, had a protagonist, the actual Laura Bridgman, who had been stripped of sight, hearing, taste, and smell by childhood scarlet fever. Even so, disabilities seldom appear in historical fiction, and it is notable that three novels of the past season feature them.

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline (Morrow) is an excellent fictional biography of Christina Olson that describes her relationship with her family and their familial relationship with the famed artist Andrew Wyeth. Christina suffered from a progressive muscular disease that rendered her unable to walk, but was made famous in a sense by Wyeth’s use of her as a model for the famous painting “Christina’s World.” In Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Scribner), a significant character suffers from major muscle malfunctions, is quadriplegic, and can vocalize only poorly. Although she is only a secondary character, we do read of her impact on her family and on her sister, who is the protagonist. The debility is not named but is undoubtedly cerebral palsy. All She Left Behind by Jane Kirkpatrick (Revell), features a protagonist with a reading disability that she successfully overcame over the course of her life. Not named, it surely is dyslexia.

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