We are thrilled, once again, to have Jeannie Mobley here with us, this time exploring her second novel, Searching For Silverheels.
Set in a small Colorado town at the dawn of World War I, the story centers around Pearl, who helps her mother run the family café. She entertains customers with the story of a legendary dancer name Silverheels who nursed miners through a smallpox epidemic. Her neighbor, Josie, makes fun of her though, and challenges Pearl to find proof that Silverheels was, indeed, such a saintly person or…help Josie pass out her suffragette pamphlets. As Pearl searches for the truth about Silverheels she discovers more about her town than she bargained for. History, romance and intrigue are woven together in this beautiful story!
Jeannie is one of my favorite people in the world. As I found out the last time I interviewed her, we share a deep appreciation for landscape and the stories it holds. We are lucky to have her back here.
Tam: Welcome back Jeannie! I am going to just jump right in! I know from our last interview about your debut, Katerina's Wish, that landscape is really important to you; that you are able to center yourself and rejuvenate when you are in a quiet space in nature. You spoke about that Buddhist concept of distracting the senses in order to free the subconscious (I love this); that nature does that for you. Has this shifted at all? Changed? Deepened?
Jeannie: Sadly, in the last few years, I haven't gotten out into nature much. I've been busy, preoccupied… I'm not exactly sure what I've been, life just somehow gets diverted and you don't realize how.
Tam: I can relate to that…
Jeannie: But I still seek out nature in what little ways I can. I walk along the canals that run through town and enjoy the little micro-environment there, and I do most of my writing in my sunroom or on the back patio where I can at least look out at grass and trees, squirrels and bunnies. What I crave, though, is that quiet, alone time in nature. It's no coincidence that the idea for Searching For Silverheels came to me while driving alone across the state of Colorado, a 9 hour drive from the southwest corner to my home in the north central part of the state. Most of the drive is through rural, wild mountain areas, and on back roads instead of the interstate. And I can tell you exactly where on the drive the key ideas for the story hit me, the connection between the place and the story were that strong. Not long after it came to me, I actually pulled over at a rest stop on La Vita Pass, and sat out among the golden aspen trees (it was early October, and the peak of the fall color).
Jeannie: I'm not sure if I did that to give thanks or to think. Mostly I just sat and gave myself over to the moment. I just needed to be in nature as a part of the process.
Tam: Pearl is the main character in Searching For Silverheels. What does landscape mean to her?
Jeannie: Pearl lives in the shadow of Mount Silverheels, in the small mountain town of Como, Colorado, which in 1917, when the story is set, was one of the biggest towns in Park County, with a whopping population of nearly 500. In other words, she is definitely a rural kid. She doesn't spend a lot of time pondering landscape, but there are many little things in the story that show her connection to this place she lives in. She notices the fancy shoes of the city folks that come through on the train, and how they look like they've never stepped off pavement in their life. She wonders how tourists can worry about bears and wild animals as she rides out of town at twilight and feels soothed by the quiet of nature and the mother deer with their fawns in the meadows. She looks up at the bright sweep of the Milky Way at night (if you've never viewed the night sky at an elevation of 10,000 feet above sea level, in a place with no city lights, you really should put it on your bucket list!) and she reflects on the beauty and comfort of her world. And most definitely, she notices the changing moods of the mountain peaks around the town. She's a Colorado country kid at heart - just as I am.
Tam: Can you speak a little about the legend that Searching for Silverheels centers around? The one about Mount Silverheels and the dance hall girl it was named after?
Jeannie: Silverheels was a dance-hall girl during the gold rush era in Colorado (the 1860s), famous for her beauty. In the harsh winter of 1861, she was in the town of Buckskin Joe when a smallpox epidemic hit. Doctors from Denver could not reach the town, and many of the healthy fled, but Silverheels stayed to nurse the sick and dying miners. Eventually, however, she contracted smallpox herself. She survived, but her face was badly scarred, and her legendary beauty ruined. The miners took up a collection for her, but when they took it to her cabin, she was gone. They searched, but found no trace of her, so they named the nearby mountain after her to show their gratitude.
Tam: Does the legend have any truth to it?
Jeannie: As for the truth behind the legend, that is uncertain. Different version put her in different towns, and various speculations have given her various real names (several of which appear in my story.) There is no independent historical record of the smallpox epidemic. Whether or not Silverheels herself was real, however, there are many well documented cases of dance-hall girls and prostitutes becoming nurses during epidemics in the west, so it isn't particularly improbable that the story is true. But like all good legends, it's probably been embellished as well.
Tam: In our last interview you articulated how being in a place that has a rich history makes you listen to the landscape. Have you been to the place where Silverheels is set? Did you do that there? Listen?
Jeannie: Yes, South Park, (the real South Park, where Como is found, not the TV version) is a place that I have loved all my life. My family traveled and camped there, and I've had so many amazing experiences there - watching golden eagles hunt, clambering around on mountainsides, stumbling blindly onto unique historical tidbits. So much to see, so much silence to listen to, such a deep yearning inside me. One place that I kept coming back to in my mind, a place where the silences are full and deep and saturated with stories, is the old cemetery at Como. In the story itself, Pearl and Frank visit the cemetery at Buckskin Joe, and I have been there too. But the way I describe it in my book is really more like the cemetery of Como, because that place draws me in.
Tam: When were you there?
Jeannie: I don't know when I first explored that cemetery. For a long time, I remembered it and thought about it, but didn't know where it was, it was just a memory that was so old, the kind of memory that you think sometimes might just have been a dream, strong, and ultra vivid, but disconnected from other memories.
Tam: Yes! One of those memories! I've had those…
Jeannie: But the moment I stepped again into the Como Cemetery, I knew it - strong and familiar.
Tam: Is the cemetery haunted?!
Jeannie: All old cemeteries are haunted - if not by ghosts, then by the memory of sadness and loss and love. You cannot read a headstone that gives the age of "3 months and 1 week" and not feel the pull of a mother's love and loss at your heart. Nineteenth and early twentieth century mountain cemeteries are especially poignant that way. It was hard to give birth and keep babies alive at an elevation of 10,000 feet above sea level, and the many graves of young wives, babies, and children attest to those struggles.
But there is something comforting too, in the Como cemetery. The aspen trees create a rich, golden light, and nature is taking back over graciously, with tall grass, and wildflowers, and a gentle dappling of light and leaves. I think I'd rather be part of nature fading comfortably back into beauty when I die, rather than a stiff, mown lawn and sprinkler system.
Tam: Duly noted!
How did you manage to create such a rich, true landscape when it is not here today for you to go visit, and research? How did you gather and then articulate the details of this landscape? I asked this about Katerina's Wish, and I am curious about it with Silverheels too…
Jeannie: I did less archival research with Silverheels than I did with Katerina, because the town of Como really hasn't changed much since Pearl's childhood. Also, my dad was an old railroad buff, and through him I already knew a lot of the history of Como and the railroad hub that existed there. I did, however, look at some historic photos of the town, and at some census data to get a sense of its size. But mostly, I gave Pearl my childhood love of the mountains and turned her loose in them, just as my parents turned me loose. Pearl is much more my childhood me - day-dreamy, romantically minded, and a bit afraid to stand up for herself - than Katerina is. That said, I also didn't try too hard to portray Como exactly as it was. I fictionalized the town to make it what I needed it to be. I wanted to be true to it in spirit, but not necessarily in the geography or layout of the town. So I was amazed (and a little weirded out) when I discovered that the building across from the train station really had been a lunch counter that served people off the train in the 1920s. I had just made up the café and the idea that that was how they got their main business, and then it turned out to be accurate.
Tam: I can totally picture that café and train station. And I want to picture more… Thank you for taking the time, Jeannie, to explore both your and Pearl's relationship to landscape, and for whetting our appetites with this teaser of a description of Como…
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