Tuesday, April 14, 2015

DEAD WAKE, by Erik Larson

            I finished reading Dead Wake several days ago, and still can't stop thinking about it. Larson unwraps the story step by step, just as the events happened. By giving us names and details about various passengers, he gives this historic event a sense of immediacy.
            The narrative switches back and forth between the captain of the German submarine that ultimately sank the Lusitania and the shipboard days that unfold during the Lusitania's fateful final trip to England. Again, the details are what make the story.
            I've read The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck, also by Erik Larson, so I knew I'd enjoy Dead Wake. But I had no idea how thoroughly captivating this book would be. I read every word, all the way through the end notes--which are interesting in themselves.
            Larson's narrative voice shines through Dead Wake. You don't have to be a history buff to appreciate this story. It's one of the best books I've read in a very long time.

Monday, March 30, 2015


          My great-grandparents' journey over the Oregon Trail with their young children was filled with detours. Funds were scarce, so my great-grandfather, William Kirk, followed the developing railroad lines to find work. Some of these lines took the family far off the beaten trail west.
            They spent the winter of 1882 in a tent on an Indian reservation in Montana so William could take a job hauling freight from Missoula to railroad camps in the area. When spring approached, the freight-hauling work came to an end.
            William and another man then took a job hauling rock to rip-rap a river bank. (Rip-rapping is using loose stone to line a stream bank in order to prevent erosion.) When that task ended, it was April of 1883 and William was anxious to resume the trip to their planned destination--Washington Territory. Nearly a year had passed since they left Missouri, and they were still far from their goal.
            The distance between their camp in Montana and Spokane Falls, in Washington Territory, was only about 125 miles. However, the earliest date the road over the mountains would be open for wagon travel would be sometime in June. Rather than wait, William decided to backtrack the way they'd come--to Deer Lodge and southwest to the Idaho line.
            I can't help but wonder at my great-grandmother's reaction to this decision. For all intents and purposes, it was still winter where they were. They had six children, now ranging in age from 15 (my grandfather) down to a three-year-old. Living in a tent was no picnic, but traveling in a wagon through snow, ice, and mud wasn't going to be a stroll in the park, either. They left their winter camp on April 17. Seven days later, still in Montana, they arrived at Deer Lodge, a distance of 124 miles on today's roads. 
          In 1997, my husband and I retraced their route. This photo shows our "covered wagon" when we stopped for lunch between Birch Creek and Argenta. My husband is the sandwich maker at the tailgate of our pickup.
            The road south took them (and us) through a narrow canyon--boulders on one side and the creek on the other. Traveling down a 6200' pass, they passed through Argenta and Bannack. We probably drove over the same road they traveled.
Here's a photo of Bannack (now a preserved ghost town), taken in 1997.

On May 2, they reached the Idaho border. It snowed on that date, so they stopped for a couple of days to wait for the trail to open up again.

 Here's a photo of how it looked when we were there--old road, new signs! 

Soon they were traveling through the Idaho desert west of the lava beds (now a National Monument). On May 22, they reached Boise City, where they set up camp. In his memoir, my grandfather wrote, "This was the first time and place we had enjoyed any spring weather. People remarked when we came into town, 'These people are wearing their winter clothes.' "
            They camped there for at least two weeks, while William took a job transporting firewood to the Idaho State Penitentiary. June 14 found them crossing the Snake River into Oregon. At this point, they still had to travel north through Oregon before they reached Washington Territory.
            In September, 1883, they finally arrived in the area of Washington they had started for when they left home on May 12, 1882. They still needed to locate a homestead site, and another winter was coming on.
            But that's a story for another day.    

Monday, December 1, 2014



    Sometime back, a friend and I were discussing my upcoming novella, State of Matrimony, to be included in the Oregon Trail Romance Collection from Barbour--release date April 2015. Since my great-grandparents came west on the Oregon Trail, my friend asked me what Christmas on the Trail would have been like. I replied that most emigrants traveling west made every effort to reach their destinations long before Christmas. Typically, families would depart from Missouri in April or May, and allow six months for the journey. Thus, they'd arrive in the fall, hopefully well before snow fell in the mountains.
    However, my great-grandparents, William and Harriet Kirk, weren't typical emigrants. They had limited funds to cover the entire journey--think ferry charges, food supplies, animal feed, etc.--so they stopped along the way to allow my great-grandfather to find work. He was an expert at handling horse teams, and most often sought jobs with the railroad lines that were pushing westward at a rapid pace.  They left Missouri on May 12, 1882, as part of one of the last great wagon train migrations. Their family consisted of themselves and their six children, who ranged in age from 14 (my grandfather, James) down to a two-year-old. 
    When the fall of 1882 arrived, instead of hastening west they turned north into Montana. Here's their story, taken from my grandfather’s memoirs:

    In September they arrived in Missoula, Montana, where the Northern Pacific Railroad was under construction. William Kirk stopped the family at a railroad construction camp about twenty miles northwest of Missoula, just inside the Flathead Indian Reservation (now called the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes). William did team and scraper work grading the roadbed for three or four weeks, then moved to another railroad site in October for a few more weeks.
    In November, they packed up and moved farther northwest to another grading job. The family set up camp on the Clark Fork River, not far from the Idaho line and about sixty miles from Missoula, still on the reservation. William and James worked on railroad construction in a narrow valley following the river until the grading was finished, well into the winter. William then spent the rest of the winter hauling freight from Missoula to railroad camps where rock work was being done along mountainsides. My grandfather remembered the temperature dropping to as much as 40 degrees below zero part of the time.
    And where was the rest of the family--Harriet and the five younger children--while husband and eldest son were on the road? They were living in a tent on the Flathead Indian Reservation. I'm assuming it was a canvas wall tent, similar to those used during the Civil War. At most, it probably would have measured 12 x 14 feet. To give you an idea, although the snow isn't as deep, above is a photo of our tent taken during one of my husband's elk hunting trips.  Picture six to eight people living inside for five months during a Montana winter.

      They had a little camp stove for cooking and heat, which kept them warm until the fire went out during the night. James remembers waking some mornings to find that water left warming on the stove when they went to sleep had frozen solid.
    My grandfather's memoirs are filled with events he witnessed during that winter. Perhaps in another blog I'll share more of his story. Unfortunately, he didn’t mention Christmas at all, which leads me to believe it was a very limited celebration.
    Under these conditions, Harriet would have done what she could to create a Christmas celebration for her family. Since William and James had access to supplies from Missoula, she had necessary staples to supplement the wild game her husband and son furnished. Perhaps their Christmas dinner consisted of a venison roast, or a roasted wild turkey. Given what she had to work with, there would have been potatoes, biscuits, gravy, and perhaps a precious orange or two from Missoula. This photo from Sunset Magazine helps me to picture my great-grandfather returning to the family tent with Christmas supplies.    

What if Harriet brought carefully packed jars of canned mincemeat or berry jam from home? Spices also travel well--cinnamon, cloves, or nutmeg would flavor sugar cookies. She may have stayed awake after the children were asleep to knit mittens or hats for them. Would William have brought any toys or books from Missoula as gifts? I wish I knew.

    For the sake of this different Christmas story, we'll picture the family together, warm, and well-fed in their tent on that special day, and let our imaginations fill in the gaps.

    What do you think they may have done to make the day special? I'd love to hear your thoughts.