Back when I was in college a classical Liberal Arts education was considered to be incomplete unless it included classes in subjects the student might never have chosen. The purpose was to expand horizons and introduce us to new ways of thinking. Because I was an Arts major I was required to schedule classes in music, theater, and literature, in addition to the art and design classes that were my particular interest. I learned a lot. One of the classes I scheduled was called “Oral Tradition” and it was one of those experiences that can change your life.
I actually do not remember much about the class itself but I remember the books we read for it. My eyes were opened. You see, growing up in a small, rural Pennsylvania Dutch town, story-telling was an everyday part of life. At every family picnic the aunts and uncles and grandparents would tell stories about when they were young; about their parents' tales from the “old country”; about how they met their spouse and how they raised their children. I remember my Grandmother Werner's story about her immigrant parents first encounter with a tomato. In our neighborhood, people visited on porches, or in my dad's shop, or my mother's kitchen, and, invariably, stories would get told. I loved listening to them.
To me those stories were just part of our way of life. Little did I know they were also something else, a cultural treasure called “oral tradition.” About this time Eliot Wigginton initiated the Foxfire project to preserve and record the folklore, crafts, and story-telling of the Southern Appalachians. I fell in love with those books and read each one as it came on the market.
Later, when I moved to Gloucester, Massachusetts, I was mesmerized by this town's rich sea-faring culture and was excited to discover that, in the local library, was an entire collection of audio-taped recordings of local folks telling stories about the early days of maritime Gloucester, as well as our great arts heritage. I checked them out one by one and listened to each of them. Some I listened to several times. It felt like being home again hearing those voices, that seemed so familiar, telling stories. This time about fishing, and storms at sea, and the journey from Sicily, instead of about hunting, and blizzards, and the journey from Bavaria. I began to realize that traditional story-telling was imbedded in my core and I needed to do something with that.
In my first novel, The Old Mermaid's Tale, Clair is a girl much like myself. She loves the oral traditions of her native farm community and, eventually, she meets a folk musician whose life's work is writing songs that preserve the stories of people he knew as a mariner. I loved writing the book and it has done well but it wasn't until a little over a year ago that I realized what I really wanted to do was write something that incorporated my own oral tradition. The result was a novella called The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood which was a modern day romance based on the Belsnickel tradition practiced in my Pennsylvania Dutch community. It was wildly popular, especially among people from my home town and they begged for more. They said, “Can't you write more stories like this?”
So I started thinking about some of the curiosities of my hometown: the fact that the nuns at the convent supported themselves running a backhoe service; that back during Prohibition a notorious moonshine operation ran out of an old grain mill; that there was an never-ending legend about a haunted grave in the local cemetery; and that a child lost in a winter storm was saved by two female elk. The more I thought about those stories, the more material I had to write about.
The result is my recently released The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Secrets of Marienstadt, which is available in paperback or for Kindle or Nook. So far people tell me they love it and are begging for more I've already started work on a sequel.
To me the most beautiful part of this that it all started when I was a child, sitting on my grandmother's porch saying, “Gram, tell me about how your parents came to America.” And she did.
Learn more about Kathleen at the links below:
Author's Web Site: KathleenValentine.com
Author's Blog: ParlezMoiBlog.blogspot.com
The Whiskey Bottle Stories: Secrets of Marienstadt