|Book Talk Bangor Public Library
By Ardeana Hamlin, Hampden, ME
Fact to Fiction
FACT, according to the 1957 edition of
Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, is defined as:
a thing that has actually happened or is true; something said to have occurred
or is supposed to be true.
FICTION, according to the same dictionary,
is defined as: anything made up or imagined, especially novels and stories;
something accepted as fact for the sake of convenience, although not necessarily
Fact is the raw material from which the
narrative of Pink Chimneys is woven. I spent two years collecting
those facts, some of which I wrote on index cards and arranged in a recipe
file box I borrowed from my kitchen. Other facts occupied manila
folders which collected in a cardboard box under my bed. At that
time, fiction did not concern me. But facts, I quickly discovered,
really aren't much good, and can be fairly dull, unless you figure out
something to do with them. I was not a scholar, then or now, and
I had no desire to add to the store of knowledge about local history.
I just wanted to learn something I didn't know. But the simple act
of learning wasn't enough; a collection of facts about a particular subject
or time period tends to take on a weight which expects the intellect to
respond. I found myself interpreting those facts. What did
they mean? Did they mean what I thought they meant? What happened
to those solid, staid facts when they encountered the chaos of my mental
processes? Were the compilers of the facts in the sources I
consulted leaving anything out? If so what? Were they
picking and choosing, as I was? Did they have favorites, as I did?
What had they got wrong? Why were there so many facts about men and
their lives and so few about women and theirs? Many questions.
Questioning the facts led me to speculate about them. Speculation led me
to embroider them. And embroidering them, even a little bit, led
me to bend some of those facts to suit my own purposes. An example:
the scene where Maude Richmond defies the British and ends up saving Bangor
from being burned to the ground. Colonel John and Captain Barrie
are facts, they existed, they were there, but Maude is a fiction and her
interaction with them is purely invention. Fact into interpretation,
into speculation, into invention - which is fiction. Turning
fact in fiction is an elusive, blurry process, but that was how I created
Pink Chimneys. I can't begin to tell you how much that amused me
and how enjoyable it was.
At that time, in the mid-1980's, I didn't
have a room of my own where I could collect my facts and work with them.
Indeed, my house was full to overflowing - I had five children - two 13
year olds, two 14 year olds, and a 15 year old, one of whom had a clarinet
and another who had a full drum set and a rock and roll band that practiced
in the barn. And all their assorted friends and school activities.
And an old house that was in a constant state of renovation. And
a husband with a sled dog team consisting of five huskies. And a
cat that was always asleep in my manuscript box, especially when I was
typing and wanted to use it.
Pink Chimneys was first published in 1987;
it's become an adolescent. In the past twelve years it has lived
a life quite independent of me. It has found its way into libraries
all over the United States. It has gone to Russia, Great Britain,
Canada and Bolivia. It has been read by men and women and young people.
It is included in the Maine Women's Writing Collection amassed by the late
Dorothy Healy at Westbrook College in Portland. It has been optioned
for film twice, unsuccessfully, another heart broken by Hollywood, to quote
author Cathie Pelletier. It is, however, back in Hollywood, although
not yet optioned for film. And now it's back in print by popular
demand ( and I thank all of you who may have had a hand in it's rebirth.)
It's been called, by some, a Maine classic.
Basically, Pink Chimneys is the story of
three women, Maude Richmond Webber, Fanny Abbott alias Hogan, and Elizabeth
Emerson, whose destinies entwine and are resolved at an infamous house,
known as Pink Chimneys, in Bangor, Maine, in the nineteenth century.
Most of the characters in the book and most of the events they participate
in are fiction, made up, imagined. Yet, readers frequently
respond to Pink Chimneys as if it were fact - they assume it to be true.
Maude Richmond Webber is a fiction.
However, her calling as a midwife is informed by records kept by Martha
Moore Ballard who practiced midwifery in Hallowell from 1795 to 1812.
Mrs. Ballard delivered 996 infants during that time and had only one maternal
death. She also doctored the ills of those who called for her help.
She treated burns, sore backs, sprains, frostbite, cuts, accidental poisonings,
coughs, sore throats, colds, fevers, earaches, headaches, asthma, worms,
shingles, rashes, dropsy, colic, apoplexy, chicken pox, whooping cough,
and mumps. She charged 8 shillings for her services, but often accepted
her fee in trade - she took rum, sugar, coffee, salt, flatirons, shoes,
butter, wheat, rye, calico, linen, and rice. Mrs. Ballard's diary
has been wonderfully analyzed and made more accessible in Laurel Ulrich's
book, A Midwife's Tale, published in 1990. A documentary film of
Mrs. Ballard's life was aired on Public Television several years ago.
Women learned midwifery from other women
by attending the birthings of their friends and relatives, but whether
or not they served formal apprenticeships with established midwives is
one of those places where I bent the facts. Thus we come to Sally
Cobb Robinson from whom Maude learns midwifery. Mrs. Robinson is
a fact. She lived in Orrington, she was a midwife, and it is said, (notice
how the line between fact and fiction blurs here just a tad), she rafted
alone across the Penobscot when the river was in flood, more than once,
to attend laboring women. Did she smoke a pipe? I don't know,
but I like the image of her doing so. Was she concerned with the
cleanliness of her hands and her linen when she attended her lying-in cases?
I have no idea. Certainly, she would have been concerned with the cleanliness
of her cheeses, which would spoil if not properly washed, so it seemed
to me that she might have drawn a comparison between the cleanliness of
cheeses and the cleanliness of the materials that touched the bodies of
the women she attended. A perfect example of speculation, on my part.
Did a man midwife, (fact) like Edmund Damon,
(fiction), find his way to the Penobscot region? I never found a
fact that said so, but it is a fact that during that period midwifery was
passing from the hands of women into the hands of men because women were
denied medical training and access to advances in medical technologies
of that time - such as the use of forceps.
Midwives knew about certain measures to
prevent pregnancy, but how, or if, they passed that information on to other
women, and whether or not they charged for that service, as they did for
attending a birth, is not clear. And where fact is vague, or missing,
fiction is clear, giving me, as a writer, plenty of room to invent a way
for Maude to tell Anne Stinson, soon to be married, what she needed to
Fanny Abbott alias Hogan (fiction) is based
on the very real Fan Jones. However, when I shaped Fanny Hogan the only
thing I knew about Fan Jones was that she presided over the Sky Blue (not
pink) House of Pleasure which was frequented by sailors and woodsmen intent
on having a boisterous good time. But that fact interested me so
much, and held out such imaginative possibilities, I didn't want any other
information. I wanted the fun of inventing a life history for Fan
Jones, embodied in the character, Fanny Hogan.
In Pink Chimneys, Fanny, a country girl
from Fort Point, is left pregnant by a ne'er-do-well sailor. She
is rescued, in a sense, by Joshua Stetson (fiction), a man unable to give
or receive love. Those circumstances propel Fanny to Bangor in it's
boom-town, lumber capital of the world years. And there she finds
herself the mistress of Pink Chimneys.
It was only after the publication of Pink
Chimneys that I discovered how close to fact I was in my fictional portrayal
of Fan Jones/Fanny Hogan. Wayne Reilly and Dick Shaw of the Bangor
Daily News published an article in Down East Magazine about Fan Jones.
In the article I discovered some interesting parallels. Fan
Jones was from West Brooksville, not all that far across the water from
Fort Point where Fanny Hogan is from. Fan Jones is known to have
associated with the son of a wealthy Searsport seafaring family, the Havener's.
Fanny Hogan associated with the wealthy son of a Portland seafaring family.
Fan Jones, at mid-life, adopted a 16 year old girl (I've always wondered
if that girl was, in fact, her real daughter whom she had left in the care
of someone she trusted). Fanny Hogan's illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth,
appears in Fanny's life just when she's certain she'll never see her child
again. Fan Jones was once described as a 'tailoress', that is, a
seamstress. Fanny Hogan, in her earlier years, had been trained to
sew, by her sister, Mercy, a skill she disliked.
I am acquainted with two books on the
history of prostitution - The Lost Sisterhood by Ruth Rosen, published
in 1982, and Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Mercy by Anne Butler, published
in 1987. Both authors suggest that women who found themselves living
the life of prostitution did not do so as a career choice. They suggest
that the women in prostitution were frequently the victims of sexual exploitation
at a fairly young age, usually early to mid-teens. That exploitation
included rape, incest, and pregnancy. In the 1800's, the standards
for women's sexual behavior were very rigid and very narrow. A woman
was either 'pure' or she was not. And if she wasn't, she was considered
not fit to associate with 'pure' women; she was viewed as a sexual outcast
and became fair game for ongoing exploitation. If her family cast
her out, then she had little choice but to sell the only thing she owned,
her body. Thus, Fanny Hogan, and perhaps, Fan Jones, is caught in
that very situation. Fanny Hogan got life lemons. What else
could she do? She made lemonade. Was that also true for Fan Jones?
Elizabeth Emerson is a fiction. But
it is a fact that young women from farm and working class families of that
time had little choice of employment open to them if they found themselves,
as Elizabeth does, alone and obliged to make their own way. She could
'take in' sewing or 'hire out' as a seamstress. She could 'hire out'
as a cook or housekeeper or as a nurse-companion to an aged invalid if
she happened to have those skills. She could teach school, go to
work in the spinning mills, or work in a shop making and selling hats.
She would not earn much money. She would have to 'board' with
relatives or family members and be dependent on them for a roof over her
head. Her best hope for the future was to marry.
Sewing was, for the most part, a female
fact of life in the 1800's. Susan Burrows Swan in her book, Plain &
Fancy: American Women and Their Needlework, 1700 -1850, offers this quote
from The Young Lady's Friend, published in 1837:
"A woman who does not know how to sew is as
deficient in her education as a man who
write. Let her condition in life
be what it may, she
cannot be ignorant in the use of her needle.
truly feminine employment, a moral power
sedative effect in needlework; it composes
and furnishes a corrective for many of
irritations of domestic life."
Ready-made clothing was not widely available
in the mid-1800's when Elizabeth was trying to make her way in life.
Every garment, including socks, gloves, and slippers had to be made by
hand, one patient stitch at a time, even after the invention of the sewing
machine in 1845. Not only did clothing have to be made, fabrics of
all persuasions - be it tablecloth, sheet, petticoat, or pants - had to
be maintained, i.e., mended, patched, taken in, let out, buttons sewn on,
or darned. And that doesn't take in account the decorative stitching
- embroidery, crochet, tatting, and knitting - that women did.
In a way, sewing is the metaphor that guides
the characterization of Elizabeth. The decorative sewing, the embroidery,
she does on the baby's dress gets her the job at Pink Chimneys. The
frilly nightgown she mends for one of Fanny's girls, and tries on, leads
her to the tragic event that changes her life. She is mending towels
when she confronts a new fact of her life. And she has become the
proprietor of a seamstress shop when happiness comes to her, at last.
Indeed, the stitching metaphor is one of
the narrative threads that binds the lives of Maude, Fanny, and Elizabeth
(binds, indeed, the lives of women of that time) together. They quilt,
they embroider, they mend, they darn, they patch, they knit, they weave
- warp and weft, embellished or left plain, mended at the worn places,
something plain made beautiful, something out at the knee and elbows made
whole and serviceable.
Writing Pink Chimneys made me understand
that the line between fact and fiction is a tenuous one, a line on which,
for all it's vagueness, balances infinite opportunities for imagining,
inventing, and improvising. It made me understand that sometimes
fiction is as true, or more true, than fact. But, after all
is said and done, Pink Chimneys is a story, nothing more, nothing less.
I'd like to add that when I received my
first royalty check for Pink Chimneys, I spent it on a chimney for the
ell that was being added to my house. I bought the brick, I paid
the mason. But I did not paint the chimney pink. Someday, I
hope someone bends that fact to say that I did.
Pink Chimneys: an engaging story of three women
on the Maine frontier. In
1814 British troops sail up the Penobscot terrorizing
the inhabitants of
Hampden and Bangor. Dr. Richmond goes to
aid the militia leaving his
daughter, Maude to treat the sick, and in doing
so, she discovers her
calling as a midwife.
In 1831, Maude is living in Portland. She
is called to the lying-in of
Fanny Abbott alias Hogan seduced and abandoned
by a sailor. Rescued by the
charming and unscrupulous Joshua Stetson, Fanny
is manipulated into Johsua's
schemes to become the wealthiest, most powerful
man in Maine.
In 1851, Bangor is a boom-town, it's commerce
fuelled by lumber barons and
shipping magnates, one of whom is Joshua Stetson,
who has installed Fanny
Hogan as the mistress of an infamous house known
as Pink Chimneys. Fanny's
illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth Emerson, unaware
of her relationship to
Fanny becomes a seamtress at Pink Chimneys.
A random act of violence
reveals Elizabeth's identity and leads Fanny,
with Maude Webber's help, to
come to terms with her life.
First published in 1987, Pink Chimneys, by popular
demand, was recently
reprinted a third time. It is available
at Bookmarc's Bookstore on Harlow