Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Fiction About Willow Vale

          There is a legend growing around my novel, Willow Vale.  While I’m flattered that readers think Willow Vale is a true story, the fact is that my fictional account of Francesca Sittoni’s adventures of coming to America is truly just that: fiction.
            Question from Sheila Nelson:  I do have a question about Willow Vale. In reading it I couldn't help wondering just how much of it is really fiction—things you invented to punch up the story—what is factual information—as much as family stories can be factual—and what things you guessed just to fill in the blanks and using historical information you uncovered.
            Fact: That’s my grandmother’s passport picture on the cover of Willow Vale.  Even without makeup ever touching her face, Nona was a beautiful woman, remarkably pretty even into old age.  Willow Vale is dedicated to her memory.  My grandmother immigrated to America after World War I, the new bride of a Tyrolean immigrant coal miner in Wyoming, just like Francesca.  From there, my grandmother’s real story and my character Francesca’s entirely made-up story share a few basic facts common to all immigrants.
            Willow Vale’s coal mining town of Hawk Point and the nearby railroad town of Rock Creek are fictitious, a useful amalgam of historic coal camps in Wyoming.  Because I don’t speak or read Italian, it was difficult to find the information I needed on the war’s crushing effect on the tiny communities of mountainous Val di Non, a gateway in the war’s path between Austrian and Italian armies.   I had better luck finding useful information on European immigration to America, the Union Pacific’s coal mines in Wyoming, and dry farming and homesteading in Wyoming in the wet years preceding the later drought and Great Depression.
            Comment from Sheila Nelson: I didn't realize that Francesca was so far removed from your grandmother; I'd imagined that many of the things in the story really happened to her. Well, that's good. It shows you made her realistic. And as for all the historical details, it must have been hard, if not impossible, to get them all correct. It seems difficult to get details from people who were there at the time to match up because everyone experienced them differently and memories tend to alter with age.
            Fact: One of the reasons for writing Willow Vale was the search for answers to the why of my grandmother’s immigration to America.  The language barrier between grandmother and grandchild yawned wide, and then there are just things adults find excruciatingly frustrating to try to explain to an otherwise loveable tot asking over and over again, “But why?  But why?”   Nona could not explain why her father owned land and yet they were so very poor or why her mother could not afford to give her even a penny for candy when she was a child.  She hadn’t the words to make me understand the lack of nutrients in Val di Non’s soil, the inability of the valley’s poor farmers to afford seed and fertilizer, the lack of railway or other rapid means to get a farm’s produce to market, the dead end of small plots of land and the many sons to divide it among.  After the war, while Val di Non struggled to rebuild new markets for its produce in Italy because its developed Austrian avenues were cut off, cheap foreign food began to compete on the European market.
            I want to stress that my grandmother’s verbal skills in English never quite caught up to her reading ability.  She read American newspapers every day.  A falsehood surrounds the education of European women of her era: she used to say she had reached the third grade.  As a kid, I was shocked.  As an adult who has done my homework, the answer to whether she was well educated is more complex.  What she had reached was the third level of education, such as the American primary school, middle school, and high school.  Austria at the time of Nona’s school attendance was proud of its educational system under the auspices of the Empress Maria Theresa.  Nona spoke proper Italian in addition to the Nones Blot dialect of Val di Non.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she spoke German as well.  She knew American politics and kept up with events here and in Europe, and I’m saddened that I didn’t make her fictional counterpart Francesca’s educational attainments more clear.
            Fact: My grandmother was married to a difficult man named Cesare, just like Francesca.  But where the fictional circumstances of Francesca’s life lead her to marry three times, my grandmother was married once, for about 45 years, to the same man.
            My heroine Francesca agrees to a contract of one year as housekeeper to Wyoming rancher Kent Reed.  Fact: My uncle worked on a ranch near Jackson on the Snake River, and I’m glad that my description of ranch life is so real readers think my family actually owned a spread in Wyoming.  But my grandpa worked in a coal mine.  My dad was a railroad man.  My family lived in a small house in a railroad town.  The nearest my family got to a ranch was visits to my aunt and uncle when I was a child.  
            I am thrilled with the attention Willow Vale is getting, and reviews help spread the word.  But thanks for following along as I try to clear up the fiction starting to grow up around my fiction.

See also:’s “5 Reasons Bad Book Reviews Can Be a Good Thing.” 

(Posted with thanks to Sheila Nelson and Kaye George.)


brblasi said...

I have been getting lots of questions about that too. Like you said, though, your story is so believable, people thought it was true!

Abbie Taylor said...

Like the main character in my novel, We Shall O vercome, I worked with my father in his coin-operated machine business. Although I didn't handle any of the company's business affairs or get a degree in business administration, I went with Dad to various establishments in my home town of Sheridan, Wyoming, and other surrounding communities and counted the money while he stocked the jukebox and vending machines and made any repairs. It's interesting to find out what part of a story is based on the author's actual experience.