From bestselling author, Olivia Hawker, comes an epic novel about the American frontier. Wyoming, 1876. For as long as they have lived on the frontier, the Bemis and Webber families have relied on each other. With no other settlers for miles, it is a matter of survival.
But when Ernest Bemis finds his wife, Cora, in a compromising situation with their neighbor, he doesn’t think of survival. In one impulsive moment, a man is dead, Ernest is off to prison, and the women left behind are divided by rage and remorse.
Losing her husband to Cora’s indiscretion is another hardship for stoic Nettie Mae. But as a brutal Wyoming winter bears down, Cora and Nettie Mae have no choice but to come together as one family—to share the duties of working the land and raising their children. There’s Nettie Mae’s son, Clyde—no longer a boy, but not yet a man—who must navigate the road to adulthood without a father to guide him, and Cora’s daughter, Beulah, who is as wild and untamable as her prairie home.
Bound by the uncommon threads in their lives and the challenges that lie ahead, Cora and Nettie Mae begin to forge an unexpected sisterhood. But when a love blossoms between Clyde and Beulah, bonds are once again tested, and these two resilient women must finally decide whether they can learn to trust each other—or else risk losing everything they hold dear.
ONE FOR THE BLACKBIRD, ONE FOR THE CROW is an all American saga. It’s the kind of book I don’t find being written much more. It immediately drew me into the American wild west of the 1800’s. Hawker’s descriptions and research are unmatched.
Olivia has some interesting thoughts for those thinking about writing historical fiction.
MAKING FICTION FROM FAMILY HISTORY by Olivia Hawker
Authors of historical fiction most often find their inspiration in “big history”—major events that have played out on the world stage, and the important players who have directed and shaped those events. And there’s no doubt that readers love novels about royal courts, wartime spies, and great conquerors. But some of the most compelling stories of the past can be found in unexpected places: among the journals and artifacts of our ancestors, and in the oral histories our loved ones share.
While researching and documenting my family’s history, I’ve come across many gripping stories of survival, heroism, adventure, and love. I’ve turned two of my family’s histories into novels: The Ragged Edge of Night—a Washington Post bestseller about my husband’s grandfather, a humble music teacher in small-town Germany who became a resister against Hitler’s regime—and One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow (Lake Union Publishing; October 2019.) Blackbird tells of the hardships my great-grandparents and their families faced as sheep ranchers on the Wyoming frontier… and shows what can happen when love and hate are forced to live together under one roof.
My great-grandma Beulah was quite a character—a real chatterbox who never even paused for breath. My mom had a very close relationship with her grandparents and often drove my sister and me all the way from Seattle to Eugene, Oregon to visit them. Their house was full of marvelous, strange knick-knacks, and on the bottom of every single item in her house—literally everything—Beulah had affixed little adhesive labels bearing the name of a family member, and sometimes a short note about the provenance of that object. The labels indicated who was to receive that item after Beulah and Clyde (my great-grandpa) both passed away. Those labels were Beulah’s version of a will—an admirably simple system.
Now that I’m all grown up with a home of my own, I treasure the antique dishes Beulah “willed” to me. The faded labels on their undersides tell a family history in their own right. Most prominent is a label that reads: Georgia. Love, Mom in Beulah’s unmistakable handwriting. But next to that label are two others: one bearing Beulah’s name, written by her mother, Cora Bemis, along with the words, Is over 100 yrs old. Another label, also written by Cora, says, Belonged to Gram. Bemis, is old. What a touching treasure—a family heirloom dating back at least to 1866, possibly older, and bearing physical evidence of its being handed down from one woman to another over five generations.
But the labels on the milk-glass bureau dishes aren’t the only ones that tell an interesting story. My mother Cheryl inherited an extra-special object when Beulah died: a hand-carved wooden box decorated with a checkerboard pattern and Beulah’s maiden initials: B. B. On the bottom of the box, on a scrap of yellowed masking tape, Beulah wrote this intriguing message: Daddy carved it while in jail.
Naturally, I had to know how Beulah’s father ended up in jail, where the only pastime he had, it seemed, was woodcarving. I asked my grandma Georgia to tell me what she knew about the checkerboard box, and the simple family story she recounted became the basis for my One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow.
My two great-grandparents (Beulah and Clyde) grew up on neighboring farms on the Wyoming range, where their families scratched out a living raising sheep and training horses. With few other people in the vicinity, the Webber and Bemis families became close—too close, it seems. An extramarital affair developed between Cora Bemis and Frank Webber (named Substance Webber in my novel—Substance being an older family name which I couldn’t resist using.) As you might expect, discovery of the affair led to hard feelings on both homesteads; animosity persisted even after Mr. Webber died of illness. Shortly after Frank Webber’s death, Ernest Bemis—Beulah’s father—landed in jail for the crime of cheating an apple farmer out of some of his money. He cooled his heels behind bars for two years, which left Cora Bemis and Nettie Mae Webber to run their two neighboring farms with only their children for help. Survival without their husbands was so difficult that Cora and Nettie Mae thought it best to move in together and operate one farm until Ernest was released from jail… a trying prospect at the best of times, but especially difficult considering how much the two women despised each other in the wake of the affair. Their vexation must have only grown when a romance developed between their teenage children, Beulah Bemis and Clyde Webber, who eventually married and became my great-grandparents.
I knew as soon as I heard the story that this could be the premise of a fascinating novel. I set to work at once on Blackbird, though I changed quite a few details to add dramatic tension. I pushed the setting farther back in time, starting the novel in 1876 to isolate my characters more on the Wyoming frontier… and I added a murder to really provide a sense of stakes and afflict my characters with guilt and loss. But the core of Blackbird is a true family story—just as compelling, I believe, as the doings of European royalty or the feats of great military commanders—revealed thanks to a few family heirlooms and some faded stick-on labels.
The past is rich with human drama, but we may miss out on some of the best and most compelling tales unless we tear ourselves away from “big history” now and then, and delve into smaller spaces—searching for the stories hidden in our artifacts, heirlooms, and family trees.
Libbie Hawker writes historical and literary fiction featuring complex characters and rich details of time and place. She is also the author of the runaway bestseller “how-to” guide for writers, Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing.
When she’s not writing, Libbie can be found in her garden, at her spinning wheel, or hiking the trails of San Juan Island, where she lives with her husband and three naughty cats.
Thanks to Kathleen Carter Communications and Lake Union Publishing we have a copy to giveaway. Just tell us about your thought of the American frontier circa: 1800’s.
We’ll announce a winner soon. Good luck.
GIVEAWAY: USA only please