Jeannie Mobley is back for part 2 of her interview! And it is is a real treat; a walk through some Colorado history via the most gorgeous landscape… Don't miss the last part of the interview, where Jeannie tells us a little about her childhood, ladies underwear ads, and why she feels like she discovers stories. I know her ideas will stay with me for a long time. First, though, a recap about her 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!
Tam: The novel takes place during World War I, is that right? Can you explain to us how this time period, plus the legend, are preserved within the landscape? Can you walk us through some of the photos you have here?
Jeannie: Yes, my story is set in World War I. It's interesting that you ask how it is preserved in the landscape, because that's something I didn't really know until I started working on this book. I picked World War I as the time period because I wanted to emphasize women's issues and the home front during a war. The suffrage movement in that particular war really worked well to do that. However, I had no real idea what impact, if any, the war had on Colorado. What I learned was that there was a zinc boom – zinc was used in the shell casings for bullets and was in short supply. Mining in the Colorado mountains had fallen off in the late 1800s with the crash in silver prices, but there was a resurgence of mining, because there was zinc in the old tailings of silver and gold mines. So during World War I, miners flocked back to abandoned mines, to re-process the old tailings piles.
Tam: I didn't know that!
Jeannie: Of course, Colorado's other big industry, in addition to mining, has always been tourism, and tourism took a down turn during the war, much to the consternation of my main character Pearl, who makes her spending money off of tourists.
But I digress from your question. I'd love to take you on a tour of Como, Colorado, where Pearl lives.
Today Como is a town of only 200 residents, most of them only there for the summer. In Pearl's day it was larger, as a major hub for the railroad, with dividing branches that ran over Boreas Pass to Breckenridge, and the main branch that continued south to Fairplay. Several historic features associated with the railroad still stand in the town:
The old depot itself, currently being restored with State Historic Funds (this picture was taken in the summer of 2013, when restoration had just begun.)
The old railroad hotel, which has been purchased by a British expat, and partially restored to run as a small bed and breakfast. I highly recommend the bread pudding! My husband and I stayed there on the weekend of our 25th wedding anniversary, in a room that just happened to have a hint of Silverheels on the bedside table.
Many other old buildings are found in Como, including the historic roundhouse, for moving engines to and from different rail lines, and even this old building, across the street from the train station:
Today, it is a small store, but I learned on my visit to Como in 2013 that it served as a lunch counter in the 1920s, and served lunch to people from the train, much as Pearl's café does in my fictionalized version of the town. Somewhere between those two dates, it had yet another use, and the word "Saloon" is still just barely visible in paint above the windows.
Another series of scenes in SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS takes place in the Buckskin Joe cemetery, where rumor has it, the ghost of Silverheels has been seen in black veil and black dress, walking among the graves of the miners who died in the epidemic.
I cheated a little in my book, and actually moved the location of Buckskin Joe from the south side of Mount Silverheels, near the town of Alma, to the north side, near Como. I wanted Pearl to live in a town near Buckskin Joe (which would be Alma), but it was also important for the story that she be in the railroad town (which was Como). So in the end, I chose Como, and shifted Buckskin Joe to make it close enough for Pearl to visit in an afternoon.
However the cemetery still exists at Buckskin Joe. Marble and granite headstones mark many graves, but the oldest ones are marked by an outline of cobbles and a wooden cross, as I describe in the book.
Most of the crosses are unreadable, but some have had the name scratched back onto the wood when the graves have been tended, another detail I replicated in the story:
I also drew on my explorations of the Como cemetery, with which I'm more familiar. Cemeteries, in general have an interesting, remembering quality to the air, a feeling of accumulated memory that seems to permeate them, and that I try to remember when I write those scenes. This view of the Como cemetery was clear in my mind when I wrote the overall description in the book:
What I did not include in my book, were the many, many poignant markers, like this one, that show how hard life was in the early 20th century in the Colorado Rockies:
Finally, my tour of Pearl's world would not be complete without a visit to Mount Silverheels, Colorado's 99th tallest mountain at an elevation of 13,822 feet.
The summit of Mount Silverheels is not as visible from Como as I make it out to be in my book – another geographic liberty I took. A smaller mountain blocks the direct view of the peak, though the lower slopes of the mountain are right there. However, just a few miles out of Como, the view of the summit is stunning.
There is also supposedly a trail to hike the mountain, not far out of town, and in an ambitious moment last summer, my husband and I decided we would climb the peak. But though we found the sign directing us to the trail, we never quite managed to find the trail itself. It turns out our twenty-year-old forest service map was grossly inaccurate on the matter of trailheads and access roads.
On our random search for the trailhead, we did encounter this abandoned bit of mining equipment:
In the end we attempted a cross country assault on the mountain, which we started much too late in the day, and was further slowed by a bad choice of route and some brutal scrambling through down timber. We didn't get much past timberline before turning back (at about 12,000 feet above sea level, and still nearly 2,000 feet in elevation, and quite a few miles in hiking distance, below the summit) but we did take the opportunity to take a terrible, sweaty, selfie. Memo to self: do not use your camera while oxygen deprived.
And finally, on our way back down the mountain, we encountered a sage hen, who led us off into a forest away from her chicks and directly into a field full of these beauties – Rocky Mountain Columbine, the Colorado state flower, and another personal favorite.
So despite our failure as mountain climbers, it was a lovely day all around.
Tam: Oh my gosh. I really feel like you whisked me off on a tour! While my whole body is buzzing with all of those details, let me ask you one final question. What does the landscape in Searching for Siverheels mean to you, Jeannie?
Jeannie: Well, that's probably obvious for my "you asked for an inch, now here's a mile" response to your question above. This is a place near and dear to my heart, where everywhere you look, there is some glory to be discovered – simple small glories, of nature, or survival, or history.
The landscape of this story is in the central part of Colorado, an area that I find exceptionally beautiful, but also a part of the state that holds many fond memories for me growing up. Memories I hope to keep building for years to come, too.
My family camped and fished and played in this area from early in my childhood. I have one distinct memory of my sister and I hiking cross-country, only to come upon an old, falling-down miner's cabin, off on a remote ridge, far from anywhere. We poked around inside, and discovered, along with square-cut nails and broken glass in blue, green, and amber, that some lonely old miner had wallpapered the walls with the ladies underwear ads from the Sears and Roebuck catalog (circa 1920s or so). Things like that have always sent stories singing through my blood – made me feel like I am not making up stories so much as discovering them, everywhere that people have been before me. That everyone's story is crying out to be told. That people are colorful and quirky and funny and poignant, and that the world is a big, grand place of sweeping beauty – even when the beauty is in the form of old underwear ads on a cabin wall.
Tam: Thank you so much, Jeannie, for this rich exploration of central Colorado! And for sharing so much of your time and you.
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Jeannie Mobley writes both historical and contemporary middle grade fiction. Her debut novel, Katerina’s Wish (Aug 2012, Margaret K. McElderry Books (S&S)), won the 2013 Colorado Book Award in Juvenile Fiction. It is on the William Allen White Award Master List, and was selected by the Library of Congress to represent the state of Colorado at the 2013 National Book Festival. Her second novel,Searching For Silverheels, released September 2, 2014. When not writing or reading fiction, Jeannie is a mother, wife, lover of critters, and an anthropology professor at Front Range Community College, where she teaches a variety of classes on cultures past and present. Jeannie is represented by Erin Murphy of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.