Saturday, May 12, 2012

Real Characters

First edition cover
When Sinclair Lewis published his immensely popular novel Main Street in 1920, it was no secret that the setting of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, and the characters that populated it were derived from his hometown of Sauk Centre.  The people upon which Lewis based his characters were understandably none too pleased with Lewis's rendering of them: blowhards, boosters, back-stabbers, hypocrites, and culture-vultures.
     However, only five years after the book came out, Sauk Centre High School's teams changed their name to "Mainstreeters," a name they still use today.  I suppose you can't argue with success.
     Because Darkness Visible is an historical novel, I had no choice but to use characters based on real people--Hugh O'Donnell, for example.  My portrait of him was derived from reading contemporary accounts of his role in the Strike and the trial afterward for murder (in which he was acquitted).  He seems one of the more tragic figures in a story that has many tragedies.  He was stuck in a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't situation that offered no happy ending.  He tried valiantly to stop the battle before it started, and he was the one who negotiated the release of the Pinkertons from the barges.  But the strikers thought he was too soft in his dealings with the company, and the company vilified him as the leader of the strikers. In the end he was blacklisted and ostracized, wandering about trying to pick up work as a journalist.  That's history.
Hugh O'Donnell, c. 1892
     Another kind of history is family folklore, stories handed down from generation to generation.  I knew my Grandfather Busch, but as an old man, a retiree who loved listening to the Pirates' game on the big old radio console. After my grandmother died, he came to our house on James Street for dinner each day.  I can't recall him ever appearing not wearing a white shirt and tie.  For my father I relied on the stories of his father as a youth, the eldest of 11 sons and 2 daughters. Apparently the boys were hellions, rampaging through the neighborhood, knocking over outhouses on Halloween. I also knew his sister Kate as an old woman in a nursing home, a huge stone Romanesque edifice in Braddock, straight out of the Addams Family series.  She seemed to me kind, yet tough, a woman who had survived the literal knocks from her beer-swilling, tuba-playing husband. I  imagined that her mother, whom she resembled, had a similar personality.
Kate Busch Wieland (2nd from left) and Susanna Busch (3rd from right), early 1900s.
     For impressions of John Paul, I had to rely on secondhand stories told by my father.  Because my father's editing so blurred the lines on his portrait of his grandfather, I had to come up with an imaginative rendering of this ancestor who eschewed the war-torn land of his fathers to come to America.  I can only guess how desperate he must have been to come to Homestead to take that fateful job starting furnaces for Carnegie Steel.
     Only one of the fictional characters is based on someone I knew. Virgil of the open hearth resembles a classmate at William and Mary, a Tidewater Virginian.  Although my friend had a more patrician background than Virgil (from a farm in the Shenandoah Valley), his personality is much like the character's.
Kip races ahead with the ball as Nant looks on at the dog park.
    The only fictional figure that is based on family members contemporary to me is the doctor's dog Cerberus.  He is a composite of my two border collies, Kip and Nant.  He has Nant's face (blue and brown eyes) and intense sheepdog "eye", but Kip's easygoing personality and large frame. Kip would always stay by my side and come when called. We traveled thousands of miles together, even crossing the border into Canada several times. I imagine Cerberus having the same loyalty to the the doctor, the family member he could always rely on.  Kip and Nant are gone now, she in November 2010, he in April 2012, but both live on in the book as Cerberus, the gatekeeper of Homestead.
Kip drinks from Lake Superior, while Nant takes her usual "polar bear" dip.

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