Wednesday 17 August 2016

What Cynthia A. Graham learnt while researching for Beulah's House of Prayer

Next in the "What I Learnt..." series is Cynthia A. Graham. She is the winner of several writing awards, including a Gold IPPY and a Midwest Book Award for Beneath Still Waters. Cynthia is a member of the Historical Novel Society, the St. Louis Writers’ Guild, the Missouri Writers’ Guild, and Sisters in Crime. Her latest book, Beulah’s House of Prayer, is her first foray in the land of magical realism.

What Cynthia Graham learnt while researching for Beulah's House of Prayer

The past has always been fascinating to me because I never felt like it was some distant, forgotten time. It surrounds me, influences me, it contains the building blocks of who I am and where I’ve come from, it is everywhere. My family has always been a family of story. My dad was a master storyteller, relaying to me tales of his own childhood and those of his ancestors. Stories of covered wagons, twisters, music, and chopping cotton filled my thoughts and dreams.

 I grew up reading the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott and when I matured devoured every novel by Jane Austen and any sister with the surname Bronte. While the stories they wrote were contemporary for their time, I was struck with the fact that our basic human needs and desires have not changed over the decades or centuries.  These authors helped me to fall in love with the mannerisms and the hardships of the past.

The Great Depression has always intrigued me, perhaps because I have known people who actually lived through it and have seen firsthand how it changed them. Their experiences colored their lives and the way they looked at the world forever. I suppose I wrote Beulah’s House of Prayer because so much of the American mystique regarding the Depression is defined by John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath. But not everyone who lived through this time was a Joad -- an Okie traveling from home to try their hand in another place. In fact, the majority of Oklahomans stayed behind and these were the people who fired my imagination. I wanted to learn about them, why they stayed and what they suffered.

The Oklahoma Panhandle, where I set Beulah’s House of Prayer, was particularly devastated by the “Dust Bowl” days. It is easier to see the big picture when it comes to dust storms -- those eerie black and white photos of enormous clouds swallowing up houses -- than it is to understand the everyday nuisance and the absolute misery these storms created.  It is nearly impossible to comprehend how difficult it was to keep the dust out of a house. It had to be carried outside with a shovel after every storm. Towels and washcloths were wetted and placed in window sills to keep the dust from seeping in. Spiders, centipedes, and other insects sought shelter inside of homes and people would often wake to find them in bed.

It was also impossible to keep the dust off of and out of bodies. It is strange to think that something so seemingly benign could be deadly, but inhaled it caused dust pneumonia, an often lethal disease. To try and combat this, the Red Cross distributed Vaseline to citizens, instructing them to rub it in their nostrils to try and keep the lungs clear. But the dust was stealthy; it crept through masks, nestled in shirt pockets, and filled ears. It was impossible to escape.

Every day living was tedious and difficult. The storms were powerful enough to cause car batteries to short out leaving motorists stranded and they created the phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire. Even a doorknob could deliver a considerable shock if the storm packed enough energy. Day after dust-filled day blotted the sun and eventually killed livestock and choked creeks and rivers.

But, above all, I believe these dust storms wore away at the fortitude of those living through them. They were soul killing. The mental and emotional toll caused by the constant monotony of storms, cleaning up, and hunger was staggering.  While some died from the dust outright, in the form of pneumonia or exposure, there was a hidden death toll in alcoholism and suicide. Those who didn’t succumb lived on prairie chickens and jackrabbits but they survived. And the heroism in this simple act of survival, in enduring one of the worst natural disasters in recent history, was what I sought to honor with Beulah’s House of Prayer.


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Buy Cynthia's books:

Beulah’s House of Prayer

Beneath Still Waters

Behind Every Door

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