I am featuring an essay today by my writing friend and colleague in the Skagit Valley Writers League, Judy Kirscht, who has had her second novel published, The Inheritors, a book that I couldn’t put down.
Synopsis: Raised in Chicago’s Latino working class community during the Sixties, Alicia Barron uncovers her mother’s Caucasian roots when she inherits a time-worn mansion, the remnant of the estate of a Chicago industrialist who, she discovers, is her grandfather. Her search of the house takes her into the lives of past generations of women whose love carried them across forbidden boundaries, and into the conflict of class, nationality, and race that is the history of the city itself. The identity she finds there, however, leads to increasing conflict with her first great love, Ricardo Moreno, who wants Alicia to reject her gringo roots.
When Heidi Thomas explores the life of her rodeo-rider grandmother in Cowgirl Dreams, she draws us into the life of one of those women who defy the forbidden boundaries of gender roles. We share a fascination for such women, and I think that, slowly over the years, they have created, for us, the same sort of freedom-seeking legends of the frontier for the men.
It is a little less obvious that the immigrant women of the cities contributed to the same identify-forming activity, but in marrying across class, nationality, and culture lines, I believe they did, and my novel, The Inheritors, explores the pain and anguish as well as the determination of such lives.
“Stick with your own,” Thelma O’Malley, advises in The Inheritors, and the large majority of both genders do just that. They hold tight to the security of the familiar town, religion, nationality or social class of their birth. For they know well, as Thelma says, that going beyond those boundaries spells trouble.
And trouble, of course, is what novels are about. In Cowgirl Dreams, it is written into Nettie’s DNA that she will be forever torn between the rodeo ring and her family and forever battle the opinion that she doesn’t belong in the ring. As Hispanic/Caucasian Alicia Barron searches through her mother’s family, she finds a long trail of women who, like her mother married beyond those boundaries. Those stories, like that of her grandmother, Lucetta, are potent mixes of great love and tragedy, but through all of the stories, there is an energy and determination that over the generations has shaped Alicia.
To be so drawn to the horizon beyond is to be American, but in the traditional male legend, the cowboy rides off into the horizon unencumbered by wife, children or any responsibilities beyond his own needs. This is not a woman’s tale. The women in The Inheritors bear the responsibility of shaping new roles for their children, and indeed, this is the conflict faced by women today.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Eighteenth Century French critic/ admirer of American democracy, decided the American experiment, though misguided, would succeed because of its women. It was the American women, he found, who carried and passed on the moral code of interdependence and community obligation and would, in the end, provide a counterbalance to individualism—a brand new concept he was sure would degenerate into selfishness. Food for thought. Indeed, I think deToqueville’s Democracy in America should be required reading in our high schools and colleges.
For now, the women in these novels reshape our idea of ourselves and the role we’ve played in the creation of America. Cowgirl Dreams focuses on the individualism half. In The Inheritors, I’ve focused on the ways these women shape the attitudes and identities of their children because I think this role is vital in the ever-transforming American culture, and because I think women will rediscover its importance very soon.
Judy was born, raised, educated and married in Chicago, and raised her family in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She went back to school as an adult and began to write, winning two writing awards from the university—one for a novel and another for an essay. She taught academic writing at the University of Michigan and continued at the University of California, Santa Barbara where she was active in developing career paths for non-tenured faculty. Though she continued to write fiction during those years, she published largely professional articles and, finally, a textbook (Engaging Inquiry: Research and Writing in the Disciplines) with colleague, Mark Schlenz.
Judy lives in Washington State to write fiction full time and has two novels published: Nowhere Else to Go and The Inheritors.