This advertisement (found at the Library of Congress site) may look boring but I have been staring at it for an hour and now you can do the same. It is in fact a cornucopia of information about travel in 1857. First consider:
If you want to travel by rail from Manhattan to St. Louis you will find not one or two but eleven possibilities. Chose the rail company you want to start with, which of four stations you prefer, and whether you want to set out at 6 a.m., 6 p.m., or sometime in between.
Of course you will be changing cars. In fact, you will have to get out of one train and onto another train in Buffalo, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Or maybe, if you prefer, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Columbus and Cincinnati. Or Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Parkersburg, Marietta and Cincinnati. With all your luggage, in your heavy traveling costume.
But then you will be in Cincinnati, where you can board the Ohio and Mississippi Rail Road (as they spell it) which will take you to St. Louis — and you won’t have to change trains again. Though of course the train will be stopping in Cairo, Vincennes, Evansville, Louisville and Madison before you get to St. Louis. To make up for that, you will enjoy especially WIDE CARS and even BROAD GAUGE SALOON CARS.
You want to know what a saloon car was? Good question, but no obvious answers. I do know that there were no dining cars at this point, nor were there berths or friendly porters to make up the berth into a comfortable bed.
If St. Louis is not your destination, your friendly ticket agent can book for you a Missouri River Packet Steamer, a seat on the Pacific Rail Road (which as far as I can tell, was not operational in 1857) or a Mississippi River Steamboat that will take you to Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez or New Orleans.
There are two questions on your mind, two crucial questions: how long will all this take, and how much will it cost?
I posted a list like this once before, some years ago, and find that it is out of date. So here’s a more recent take on the type of fiction that is most likely to draw me in.
Note: I’m not claiming these are the best novels ever written. I know for a fact that some of them will raise eyebrows; the point is, I felt enough resonance with that piece of storytelling that I go back for more now and then. There are also novels I truly admire, but could not bring myself to read again. So you won’t find them here.
This list is not divided up by genre, so let me warn you: you’ll find pretty much everything here, from espionage and romance to very dark crime and sci-fi. And then there’s Austen and Dickens.
Richard Adams The Girl in a Swing
Jane Austen Persuasion; Pride and Prejudice
Toni Cade Bambara Gorilla, My Love
Amy Bloom Come to Me
James Lee Burke In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead; White Doves at Morning;A Morning for Flamingos
A.S. Byatt Angels & Insects; Possession
Chelsea Cain Heartsick (Gretchen Lowell series)
Jetta Carleton The Moonflower Vine
Michael Chabon The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Loretta Chase Lord Perfect; Lord of Scoundrels
Wilkie Collins The Woman in White
Laurie Colwin A Big Storm Knocked It Over
Jennifer Crusie Crazy for You; Faking It; Welcome to Temptation
Judy Cuevas Dance; Bliss
Junot Díaz The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Stephen Dobyns The Burn Palace
Dorothy Dunnett Niccolo Rising (House of Niccolo; 8 volumes)
Daphne Du Maurier Rebecca
George Eliot Adam Bede
Ken Follett Eye of the Needle
Ariana Franklin City of Shadows; Mistress of the Art of Death
Charles Frazier Cold Mountain
Thomas Hardy Far from the Madding Crowd; The Mayor of Casterbridge
Mo Hayder Poppet (the Jack Caffery series)
John Fowles The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Mark Helprin A Soldier of the Great War
Judith Ivory Beast
Baine Kerr Wrongful Death
Stephen King The Stand; Black House; Dolan’s Cadillac
Barbara Kingsolver Animal Dreams; The Poisonwood Bible
Lisa Kleypas Smooth Talking Stranger; Blue-Eyed Devil
Stieg Larsson The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and the next two)
Margaret Lawrence Hearts and Bones (Hannah Trevor series; 4 volumes)
Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird
Dennis Lehane Gone, Baby Gone; Darkness Take My Hand
Elmore Leonard Pagan Babies, Cuba Libre, Get Shorty
Gabriel Garcia Márquez A Hundred Years of Solitude
McCarry, Charles: The Bride of The Wilderness
Larry McMurtry Lonesome Dove
Jacquelyn Mitchard Second Nature; The Breakdown Lane
Right now I’m trying to get Little Birds off the ground, and it has been a struggle. It’s always a struggle, but these characters are not at all clear yet, and until I get a better sense of them everything is stalled.
Today I had a kind of breakthrough, which doesn’t happen often. I’m writing about it here so I will remember exactly what happened, and also to entertain readers who happen to wander by.
Two of the primary characters in Little Birds are pretty well established in my head (they are Lily’s children, but you don’t know them), but a crucial third character — somebody entirely new — is missing. This has been causing me some distress. Of course I did what all writers of fiction do in this all-too-common fix: I found a way to procrastinate and went out to run errands.
Driving home from errands, I decided to turn off the audiobook that was playing (dry, but interesting) and turn on my current music playlist, which is set to shuffle. The song that started took me by surprise because I forgot it was on the list: Save the Last Dance for Me — the Drifters original recording.
And suddenly I had that third missing character. I don’t even know his name yet, but I can see him leaning against a wall, arms crossed, watching people dance. Or maybe, just maybe, somebody has offered him a fiddle and he’s playing and watching the dance floor.
Where did this come from, you might be wondering. I had to think about it to sort out the associations, but it ties into my own experiences while I was living in Vorarlberg in my early twenties. I did a lot of dancing. There were dances, all the time. Simple weekend dances. Big fancy dances for Mardi Gras or annual celebrations of one guild or another. Big or small they all featured local musicians and dancing. And lots of beer. And schnapps. You’re thinking ump-pa-pa, but no. That’s not what it’s like at all and I’m not sure I can make it clear how un-umpa this experience is, but I’m going to try.
Imagine a lot of people crowded onto the dance floor, some proportion of them much the worse for beer, still cheerful as they bumbled along. Some small portion — maybe fifteen percent — were there because they really liked dancing and were good at it. I was in that fifteen percent.
This is a video from Helsinki, a polka dancing competition. The music is scaled way way down, but I’m posting this here so you can see the dancing. You can hear the excitement in the audience, and hear them yodeling in appreciation. This captures part of what it’s like.
In your imagination you have to speed this up some, and also imagine it is happening in a hazy smoky dance hall (ca 1980), and now imagine the dancers are just regular (and somewhat younger) in their nice-casual clothes. But they can dance. Speed it up again. If you’re good at this there’s a lot of improvising, double and triple steps, stamping, things I can’t really describe but I could do, and do well. If I had stayed there I’d probably weigh 120 and be able to carry a calf around, no problem. It’s exercise and cardio exercise all rolled into a single package that you WANT. And that’s the trick, of course.
One of the chapters in Homestead was meant to capture what this kind of dance was like. Now, today, while I was listening to Save the Last Dance I had a flashback to the dance I described in that chapter. This is what happened in real life: Someone I didn’t know asked me to dance toward the end of the evening, when the musicians had had a couple shots of schnapps and they were just on a tear. I had noticed this guy dancing and hoped he might come ask me, because watching him I knew that I would dance well with him.
Here’s the thing, in this kind of dancing. If a guy who is strong and lithe and confident puts a hand on your waist and takes your other hand in his, and then he just takes off — and you can follow him — it’s the most exhilarating thing in the world. If you can follow him, and then assert yourself a little, and he responds to this … I’m going to say this but you won’t believe me. Better than the best sex. To this day I remember the feel of the stranger’s arm muscles through his shirt. I remember the way he smiled down at me, and winked. I remember he didn’t ask and I didn’t hesitate when the set ended, we just kept dancing.
I never saw him again, never learned anything about him, but we were absolutely in sync with each other in a way that is distinctly more than dancing. There were a lot of unplanned pregnancies in Vorarlberg at this time (and maybe still are, but apparently this kind of dancing is out of favor, to which I say NO NO NO), and I am convinced that some large percentage of them happened after two people click like this on the dance floor.
Now I have to go figure out who this character is. While I interrogate him you can watch this Bruce Springsteen cover of Save the Last Dance. It gives me chills, because: well, nobody can do a song like this better. After you watch this go look for his Tougher than the Rest.
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My name is Rosina Lippi. I'm a former academic and tenured university professor, writing full time since 2000. Under the pen name Sara Donati I am the author of the Wilderness series, six historical novels that follow the fortunes of a group of families living in upstate New York from about 1792-1825. A new series based on later generations of the same families was launched September 1, 2015 with The Gilded Hour. The next volume in the new series, Where the Light Enters, was released in 2019.