December 14, 2009
Review: Fastened to the Marsh and Interview with Author Jan Durham
Synopsis: The story traces a family's legacy from arrival of an 18th century indentured servant to the begrudging return of her last legitimate descendant in the 21st century. Through flashbacks the reader is introduced to a procession of stalwart women who draw their strength from their connection to the rhythmic life on the marsh and an unfailing conviction that what cannot be bested must be borne.
I have recently become interested in historical fiction again, after quite a dry spell, and Jan Durham's book is a historical fiction lover's delight. Fastened to the Marsh reminds me of John Jakes' works, with its richly woven tapestry of southern history (especially that of Georgia, my home state) but less voluminous and with more emphasis on interfamilial relationships and spiritual matters. Marsh does not offer up as many characters as a typical Jakes tome, but the characters Ms. Durham does create come vividly to life and draw the reader instantly into the story.
Ms. Durham starts her book in the present day and treats the reader to flashbacks throughout that not only explain Savannah history but help to move the present day story along. No parts of the story are cliche or even predictable. Ms. Durham avoids causing Marsh to sound like cut and dried history which can cause me to close the book. Instead, she creates a story that played like a vivid film in my mind.
Fastened to the Marsh also has the distinct honor of highlighting the women through the generations. If you've read about history or taken history classes, you know about the men that fought in the wars, that built the plantation houses, that farmed the lands and oversaw the families. Ms. Durham, while including the men in the story, makes her tale center around the importance of the women, showcasing their strength and tenacity as well as their caregiving and homemaking and thus, gives them a proper place in history.
My mother suggested I read this book and I'm glad she did. Fastened to the Marsh drew me in quickly and didn't let go until I had read the entire history of the original Elizabeth and her descendants. Fastened to the Marsh isn't a huge production of a sweeping saga but rather a more intimate portrait of a family through the ages. Here is hoping that Ms. Durham gifts us with a sequel to this lovely story.
If you enjoy historical fiction, particularly early American history, with a dash of romance and adventure, and with living, breathing characters, Fastened to the Marsh is for you. For the discerning reader, there is no objectionable language, no descriptive sex or violence. I highly recommend it. Fastened to the Marsh would also be a wonderful choice for a book club.
Fastened to the Marsh is available now at Amazon and at Bonaventture Books.
* * *
I am delighted to welcome Jan Durham, author of Fastened to the Marsh to Psychotic State. She has graciously agreed to answer some questions for my readers.
Hi Jan. Let’s talk about your new book, Fastened to the Marsh. How did you get the idea?
When we bought a home on Skidaway, I started studying the history of the island and exploring the historical sites that remain including the graves of Elcy Waters and her infant son Thomas within a crumbling tabby fence. Intrigued by a woman who died in 1808 at the age of 26, I began imagining what her life must have been on a remote plantation and started writing down my thoughts. From those reflections emerged the women of Marsh Oaks Plantation from the arrival of an 18th century indentured servant to the begrudging return of her last legitimate descendant in the 21st century.
How much research went into writing Fastened to the Marsh?
Perhaps too much. I love history and often become so involved in my research that I forget to write. To me, history is not just about dates or specific events; it's the story of the people who lived them.
As a reader, I dislike finding a contemporary idiom in the middle of a period novel, so as a novelist, I am very intentional about my research. I read primary documents such as journals or letters written by people who lived during the period to become familiar with the language they used and to gain their perspectives on the happenings. I become immersed in the era as I research clothing, transportation, customs, anything that seems to distinguish the period from the present day.
Then I create characters who might have lived during that time. Many of my characters are loosely based on real people, often anonymous individuals mentioned in a newspaper account or an ancient chronicle. Several of the characters in Forsaken, the novel I am working on now, were inspired by people mentioned in 16th century Spanish chronicles and letters that documented the impact of the conquistadors on the New World .
Fastened to the Marsh had several generations of a southern family and, as a result, quite a few characters. Which character was your favorite and why?
He wasn't my favorite, but I enjoyed writing the character of Edwin Heard. Arrogant and self-centered, he says things I might actually like to say but don’t. Oblivious to the needs of others, he ignores his only daughter Eliza, blaming her for not being the son he so desires. When she needs him most, his only concern is how her behavior has embarrassed him. As I wrote his death scene, I sensed Eliza's approval.
Was there one character in the book most like you?
I think I related most to Elizabeth Leigh Brinson Crawford. She was the first character I created and I chose her name from my family tree. During the span of my years, I seem to have changed my identity several times as I explored new vocations and Elizabeth , for quite different reasons, does the same.
The daughter of a wealthy tradesman in Clovelly , England , Elizabeth is still unmarried when the reversal of her father’s business hastens his death and leaves her penniless. Educated beyond the norms of her era for a life that no longer exists, she recalls her father’s admonition that what cannot be bested must be borne and becomes an indentured servant. When she is transported from a mundane but predictable future in the drawing rooms of Georgian Britain to a life of uncertainty and even drudgery in a spartan British colony in America, she manages to reinvent herself more than once in order to survive.
A dear friend of mine, after suffering several losses in her life, shared her philosophy that after each loss, you must create a new “you.” Each of the women of Marsh Oaks suffers great losses and after each, they face having to create a new life.
Any chance that readers will get a chance to revisit any of the characters from the book?
The most frequently asked question when I speak to a group is, “Are you writing a sequel?” I consider that a true compliment.
Many readers ask what happened to the first Elizabeth after she left the island. As I moved on to the antebellum period and Eliza's story, I did envision the events that took place during the intervening century just to ensure continuity, but I didn’t write about them. I never imagined readers would be so concerned about Elizabeth that they would want to know too, but the question has come up so many times that I am researching the late colonial period. Although it was not the next novel in my queue, I’m considering not a sequel, but a supplement that would relate the story of the women of Marsh Oaks from the colonial era to the civil war—from Elizabeth Brinson to Betsy Rogers.
Can you let us know what you’re working on now?
Before I finished Fastened to the Marsh, I was already plotting a new novel that has no connection except that it too takes place on a Georgia island. I have finished the rough draft and am revising this second historical novel.
In 1526, seventy-five years before Jamestown , a Spanish fleet sailed from Hispaniola with 600 people—including African slaves—to found the first European settlement in North America , but it lasted only a few months and was abandoned. Although no archeological evidence has been found, primary documents provide sketchy facts about Mission San Miguel de Gualdape on the coast of Georgia . The novel Forsaken speculates about the human aspect of the demise of the colony through not one but a series of catastrophic events—both physical and behavioral—that doomed the settlement.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I'm told that every English major wants to write the Great American Novel, but the possibility always seemed extremely remote. My greatest regret is that I didn’t heed that desire and begin trying to write sooner. I had a superb—and demanding—high school English teacher who taught me to love the written word and still critiques my work.
Any particular authors that inspire you or that you enjoy reading?
So many it's hard to enumerate them. I loved the Brontes, Daphne du Maurier, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Maugham as a student and currently enjoy reading Philippa Gregory and Geraldine Brooks. Norah Lofts' Wayside Tavern and Michener's The Source influenced the format for my writing and when my very serious writing critique group compared my next novel to Ken Follett, I was quite flattered.
Can you take us through a normal day in the life of Jan Durham?
I would love to say that I rise early and go to my desk to write uninterrupted for several productive hours, turning out a wealth of flawless pages. That would be a complete untruth. I am still in the stage of my career as a writer that I let the mundane interfere with the magnificent. Unfortunately I consider writing my reward for having done the things I have to do, but I’m working on it. Next year I will write first!
If you could offer one piece of advice to an unpublished author, what would it be?
Learn all you can as soon as you can! The publishing industry is very competitive and costly.
With the advent of word processing, almost anyone can write a book, but publishing one is a different story. With so many to choose from, publishers have to be sure a book “has legs” before they invest time and money in it. I was very fortunate to find a publisher for my first novel in a relatively short time and we’ve all heard of authors who attain overnight fame with a first novel. It does happen, but the norm is that would-be authors spend years honing their skills and pitching their work trying to find agents and publishers. For most authors, writing is a pastime not a career and only about 5% of novelists support themselves by writing.
Once a book is published the real work begins. Hemingway may have had the privilege of being a recluse (as many who love to write would like to be) but today published authors are expected to carry the major load for the success of their work. Marketing leaves little time for doing what we love most.
So why do I bother? To paraphrase Somerset Maugham, I write not because I want to, but because I have to. When I’m not writing, I can’t wait to get back to it.
If you could use only one word to describe or sell Fastened to the Marsh to a reader, what would it be? Why?
Belonging. The contemporary heroine of Fastened to the Marsh is a successful woman approaching retirement yet still searching for a sense of belonging that has eluded her since childhood. The novel explores a multitude of issues including family relationships, caregiving, aging with meaning, and the will of God in our lives, but the overarching theme is finding where we belong, the place that is the source of our strength and security.
The title is taken from Sidney Lanier’s poem “Marshes of Glynn.” As the marsh hen fastens her nest to marsh grass to protect it from the rising tide, the poet fastens his hope on the greatness of God. For generations of the women of Marsh Oaks, their home on the marsh is a metaphor for belonging, the source of their strength and security.
And lastly, if you could be your favorite literary character for one day, who would you choose and why?
That’s a difficult question because I tend to relate to the writer rather than the character. I suppose I would be Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. I have always thought that I was born several centuries too late, but I believe I would have had difficulty adapting to the mores of English society just as Elizabeth did. I still would prefer to be Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, or Agatha Christie.
Thank you, Jan, for taking the time to stop and chat with us today. I wish you the best of success with Fastened to the Marsh, as well as your second historical novel.
A native of Savannah, Jan Durham spent most of her adult life in Atlanta after earning her B.S. in Secondary Education from Georgia Southern, but she has never lost her love for her roots in the marshes of coastal Georgia.
She attended Candler School of Theology and after ordination as a clergy member of the United Methodist Church focused on issues of aging and congregational care. She has been a volunteer chaplain with hospice and started an adult day center for families coping with Alzheimer’s disease.
She is the author of After the Example of Christ, a model for servant ministry by and for older adults, published through the General Board of Discipleship and used in congregations throughout the United Methodist Church. She also co-authored a manual on congregational respite care with the Georgia Department of Aging and the Georgia Alzheimer’s Association.
Jan now lives on Skidaway Island on the Georgia coast where the 19th century graves of a woman and her infant son enclosed in a tabby wall inspired her historical novel Fastened to the Marsh. She continues her involvement with the Alzheimer’s Association and hospice.
She is a member of the Landings Writers’ Group. She is currently working on a second novel set on Sapelo Island.
Review copy of Fastened to the Marsh borrowed from a relative.