Susan here, delighted to welcome our guest today, Eileen Charbonneau, author of SEVEN APRILS, released just this month. Eileen has written several other historical novels, and she is more than a very talented historical novelist–she's also a friend of some of the Wenches, so we are especially pleased that she is visiting with us!
Eileen Charbonneau is the author of the multiple award-winning Code Talker Chronicles series as well as Rita winning and finalist historical novels for adults and young people. Her stories explore America through the eyes of immigrants, native peoples, and women. Her books have earned praise from Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist and many others, so she's on to something. Eileen runs a small bed and breakfast inn with her husband in the brave little state of Vermont, and she is addicted to maple creemies, period dramas, and American roots music.
I just finished reading SEVEN APRILS and loved it. It's the captivating, heartfelt story of a young woman's journey during the years surrounding the Civil War. In the guise of a soldier, Tess becomes a surgeon's assistant, experiencing war and friendship, loyalty and love, life and death as she works beside a dedicated doctor in field hospitals and on the field. Along the way she discovers her own strength and abilities, and finds a future she had never dared dream about. Richly detailed, impeccably researched and beautifully written, with characters who have warmth, strength, and dimension, the story pulls along at a steady and compelling pace. SEVEN APRILS is simply a fascinating read, an exceptional Civil War novel with an earthy naturalism that adds even more depth to a wonderful read.
Q: SEVEN APRILS is a remarkable novel and an incredible achievement. It represents years of work and dedication, a true book of the heart. I remember our conversations years ago when you first thought about writing it. What drew you to this powerful story?
EC: Thank you for the wonderful compliment. I love transgressive gender bending women and men in story and song, from "When I Was A Fair Maid" to David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" and Dar Williams' "When I Was a Boy." I have enjoyed reading novels about women dressing as men to serve in the Civil War, but I never found a story about a women who made it through the whole war undiscovered. So I wrote one.
(photo: Sarah Edmonds, who hid her gender to work as a soldier and a spy during the Civil War)
Q: Tess is a fascinating character, strong by nature, toughened by life and the demands of her situation. At her core, she is compassionate and sensitive. Where did you find inspiration for the character?
EC: Tess is a character whose inspiration started in real life: my sister Tess. She leads with her courage and I have always loved and admired her. When I started thinking about my Civil War era character, I thought she would have to be a person like my sister. (photo: Eileen and her sister Tess, bedecked with mermaid hair)
As my fictional Tess continued to form I studied the accounts of the actual women who served in the Civil War (still largely hidden, about 250 documents with speculation towards 800 total) and was further inspired. I wondered, of course, about what kind of man would a woman like Tess be attracted to? I think, especially for the romantic elements, I was very glad to have the cross-dressing heroines of Shakespeare's comedies to draw on. As Tom (Tess) listened to the woes of Ryder's love life, I often pictured Rosalind (Ganymede) rolling her eyes at Orlando in As You Like It.
Q: The challenges experienced by Tess as a woman disguised as a man during the Civil War are relevant today as well–women finding their strength, along with issues of gender equity and identity too. As you wrote, what connections did you particularly see between then and now?
EC: The America of the mid-nineteenth century was strongly influenced by Victorian separation of the sexes, with a women's place as "angel of the house" and the men in charge of all the challenges on the outside. Of course this concept was modified within the economic classes of both countries, but being a women meant a "lesser than" existence. In Seven Aprils, Tess' life improved immeasurably once she put on trousers.
We are still living with the legacy of hard gender lines. My sister Tess and I grew up as New York women, where a certain, shall we call it–forthrightness is more acceptable in a woman than it is in other parts of the world. Imagine my surprise to be considered unladylike because I was used to speaking my mind freely without a lot of caveats, adverbs or adjectives? When these things are masculine they are praised as forthright and clear and assertive. Out of a woman they can turn into arrogant, aggressive and the great sin of having, as one of my teachers once said "colossal nerve!" We are exploring the many ways to be a man and a woman today, thanks to the influence of the women's rights and LGBTQI communities. For some, it is difficult to understand, inspires fear and threatens the status quo. But I believe it is healthy and liberating for us all.
Q: The Civil War is a challenging subject for a writer, and you delved deeply into it here. The level of detail and authenticity is masterful and convincing. How did you go about the research?
EC: I was very fortunate to live on or near many of the battlefields of the Civil War when I made Virginia my home. More of the Civil War's battles were fought on Virginia soil than any other state's. It is alive with enactments, historic commemorations as well as excellent research libraries and facilities. I also lived in the Hudson Valley of New York State, where Tess and Ryder are from. I worked as a tour guide in a beautiful Federal-era house that I turned into Ryder's home. I listened to my fellow guide and historian Minnette Gunther tell me stories about the three social classes of Big Woods, Town and River people and what they were doing in the Revolutionary, Federal, and Civil War periods. Wow, was I lucky. (photo: Boscobel, Hudson Valley mansion where Eileen guided tours)
EC: For me, there is nothing easy about writing a book! But I want to know what happens next, and once I do, I want to make it get up and dance. I accept the challenges. As I'm rewriting, if parts make me cry or laugh, I think I might be on the right track. At the end of Seven Aprils, when Ryder finally figures everything hidden about this person he's loved for years he, of course wants a happy-ever-after ending with Tess. But he's been damaged by the war. He looks down at his hated walking stick and says, "I'm not the man I was." Tess replies, "Neither am I."
I thought, Eileen, you crazy woman, did you write this whole damn book just so you could put that joke in?
(photo: unknown Union officer, by Matthew Brady)
Q: Are you planning another related novel to Seven Aprils? What's next for you?
EC: Yes, American Civil War Brides is a series. Book 2 is called Mercies of the Fallen. I'm hoping to get in published in 2020. Here's a taste: Maryland plantation heiress Ursula Kingsley is content with her secluded life in a convent. Until the bloodiest day of the Civil War brings a downed soldier into her care. Blinded Rowan Buckley only knows he’s in deep love with the woman who pulled him off the battlefield. His superiors claim she’s a spy. He knows she’s full of secrets, but he’s out to prove that treason is not one of them.The two negotiate the crucial times of the Battle of Antietam, Gettysburg, and the New York City Draft Riots. Treachery from North and South, from friend and foe meet them at every crossroad. Will their love survive?
Eileen, thank you so much, and best of luck with SEVEN APRILS and all of your books. We hope you'll visit us again. And to our readers — we always welcome your comments and questions!