I have the opportunity to welcome Ann Weisgarber, author of the just released The Promise as well as previous release The Personal History of Rachel Dupree. I had the chance to meet Ann back in 2013 at the Historical Novel Society Conference when she was speaking on a panel of the American Experience in Historical Fiction. When I heard that she was publishing a novel that centered on the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, a subject that has fascinated me, I knew I not only had to read this book, but that I would love to hear how she encountered this oft forgotten tragic event. Please help me welcome her and read her fascinating tale.
Remembering the Forgotten
Guest post by Ann Weisgarber, Author of
After I finished my first novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, I wrote articles for The Islander, a magazine based in Galveston, an island a few miles off the coast of Texas.
Location of Galveston Island
The focus of the articles was unusual or quirky businesses, and in Galveston the options were nearly endless. Each month, I set up interviews to get the scoop on a particular business or job. I talked to people who worked in the downtown area such as the man who organized the Historic Home Tour, and I interviewed the owner of a wedding chapel. All were fascinating but it was an interview with a brother and sister on the West End – the more rural part of the island – that eventually inspired me to write The Promise.
The brother and sister own and manage a small grocery on the part of the island where there’s a mix of beach homes, campgrounds, acres of undeveloped wetlands, and small cattle ranches. The customers are weekenders, tourists, and the few locals who live year round in the area. Although the grocery is small, it’s well stocked with everything from fishing lures to pricey wines. In the summer, customers jam the narrow aisles but in the winter, everyone seems to disappear.
In 1963, the brother and sister were teenagers when their parents bought the grocery store. “There wasn’t much here back then,” the brother told me. “Just a scattering of houses and a liquor store.” It was so isolated “you could shoot a shotgun down the road and not hit a thing,” he said. His sister added that there were more rattlesnakes than children.
Unlike the downtown area where most Galvestonians lived, electrical outages were common and the water wasn’t safe to drink. Cold drinks and refrigerated food were sold out of ice chests. “Grocery suppliers refused to deliver to us,” the brother said. “We were too far out of town.” Even the bread man wouldn’t make the drive.
The interview ended and I wrote the article. But I kept thinking about the rustic conditions of Galveston’s West End. What was that area like at the time of the historic hurricane that struck the island on September 8, 1900? The storm was and still is the deadliest natural disaster in the United States. At least 6,000 people were killed and some historians think there might have been 8,000 – 10,000 people who lost their lives.
I’ve long been fascinated by what was commonly called The 1900 Storm. It’s very much a part of Texas history and families pass down stories about ancestors who perished or who survived the storm. All other hurricanes are compared to it, and many of the buildings that withstood the storm are marked with historic plagues. Yet, everything I’d read about the hurricane focused on its impact on the downtown area.
Did anyone live outside the city limits? If so, who were they? Did they survive the storm?
Determined to find the answers to these questions, I read every non-fiction book and novel about the storm that I could find. To my disappointment, none mentioned people who lived on the rural part of the island. St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum was outside of the city limits and the disappearance of the buildings and the tragic deaths of the nuns and the children are still a part of the 1900 Storm lore. But was St. Mary’s completely alone without neighbors?
My question took me to the Galveston and Texas History Center at Galveston’s Rosenberg Library. With the help of the archivists, I eventually found names of people who lived outside of the city limits. They were fishermen, ranchers, and dairy farmers. The facts were bare and sparse but combined with the interview with the grocery store owners, I had enough to get started on a story.
The Promise is my tribute to the forgotten – the women, men, and children -- who lived on the rural part of the island on September 8, 1900, the day a massive hurricane forever changed their lives.
Ann Weisgarber's latest novel is The Promise. The Promise was shortlisted for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, making Ms. Weisgarber the first American to be a finalist for this UK prize. In the United States, THE PROMISE was a finalist for the Spur Award in Best Western Historical Fiction and The Ohioana Book Award for Fiction. The novel was a Women’s National Book Association Great Group Read, a Pulpwood Queen Pick for October 2014, and the Pulpwood Queen Bonus Book of the Year. Weisgarber’s first novel was The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, which actress Viola Davis’s JuVee Productions has optioned the film rights. For her first novel, Weisgarber was nominated for England’s 2009 Orange Prize and for the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. In the United States, she won the Stephen Turner Award for New Fiction and the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction. She was shortlisted for the Ohioana Book Award and was a Barnes and NobleDiscover New Writer. Weisgarber serves on the selection committee for the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction and is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters. Originally from Ohio, she now divides her time between Sugar Land, Texas, and Galveston, Texas.
In THE PROMISE, critically acclaimed and award-winning novelist Ann Weisgarber returns with a deeply moving story about the Galveston, Texas 1900 Storm, the worst natural disaster in the United States in the twentieth century. While there are accounts of what happened to the city of Galveston and its residents, little has been written about what happened to the families on the rural, isolated end of the island, something Weisgarber sought to remedy.
The story begins a few weeks before the storm and is told by two narrators. The first narrator, Catherine Wainwright, is a concert pianist fleeing scandal and Ohio society by marrying Oscar Williams, a recently widowed dairy farmer who lives on the island. The second narrator is Nan Ogden, the local young woman Oscar hired to care for his home and small, grieving son, Andre.
Nan has grown attached to Oscar and Andre, and she struggles to accept Catherine in the household. As for Catherine, she is overwhelmed by her secrets, by motherhood, and by the rougher surroundings. But when the hurricane strikes, Catherine and Nan are tested as never before.
Also from Ann Weisberger
The Personal History of Rachel Dupree
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