The Seven Year Dress – Devastation & Resilience

Today, I introduce you to Paulette Mahurin and her new WWII-era novel, The Seven Year Dress.

The Seven Year Dress covers one of the darkest times in human history from the perspective of one Jewish woman who lived to tell her story.TSYD-FRONT COVER The Seven Year Dress KINDLE(1) copy

The narrative tells how teenager, Helen Stein, and her family were torn apart as Hitler put in motion his plan to eliminate the Jews and other undesirables. With the help of one of those “undesirables,” a German boy who was also homosexual, Helen and her brother went into hiding for several years. Ultimately, they were discovered and Helen was interred in Auschwitz.

It was in that death camp that Helen suffered persecution, torture, and devastation at the hands of the Nazis. It was also in the death camp that she encountered compassion, selfless acts of kindness, and friendship. Ultimately, this is a story of the resilience of the human spirit.

The atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews aren’t easy to read about, but the story Mahurin tells in The Seven Year Dress is too important to miss. Click to read my review.

Telling stories for a purpose

Mahurin has written a number of books, most of them historical fiction. Her passion for telling stories supports another of her passions. The profits from all her books go to help rescue dogs from kill shelters. She tells me that so far this year, sales of her books have helped rescue 79 dogs.

More about Paulette Mahurin:

Paulette Mahurin lives with her husband Terry and two dogs, Max and Bella, in Ventura County, California. She grew up in West Los Angeles and attended UCLA, where she received a Master’s Degree in Science.

While in college, she won awards and published her short-stories. One of these stories, Something Wonderful, was based on the couple presented in His Name Was Ben, which she expanded into a novel in 2014. Her first novel, The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap, made it to Amazon bestseller lists and won awards, including best historical fiction of the year 2012 in Turning the Pages Magazine. Her third novel, To Live Out Loud, won international critical acclaim and made it to multiple sites as favorite read book of 2015.

Links to Mahurin’s books & more

Purchase The Seven Year Dress on Amazon

Check out all of Paulette Mahurin’s books on Amazon

Find Mahurin:

Blog:

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Learn more about Mahurin’s efforts to help dogs

How have you chipped away at glass ceilings?

“When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.” Hillary Clinton

NOTE – This is not a political post, so if Clinton’s name inspires you to rant, take a breath, relax, and hang with me as I muse in other directions.

Chihuly Garden & Glass, Seattle, Washington.

Chihuly Garden & Glass, Seattle, Washington.

The United States made history this week when a major political party, for the first time ever, nominated a woman to run for president. During her acceptance speech, Clinton made the statement above about ceilings, and I could not help but think about my own career and how many ceilings have broken since I entered the workforce in the early 1970s.

Back in 1973 when I joined the Soybean Digest staff as editorial assistant, I didn’t recognize what a major step my boss at the American Soybean Association took when he named me the first female editor of a national ag magazine. There were women home page and recipe editors, but no women editors of ag topics.

Yet, his willingness to push the boundaries only went so far. Each year when Secretary’s Day came around, the men took the (women) secretaries to lunch, and they invited me, too. Each year, I argued that I wasn’t a secretary so I shouldn’t be included. Each year he said I needed to go. Each year, I went along and enjoyed lunch with the other women. Then after lunch, I went back to the office and reimbursed him.

Every job I had in my career trajectory showed the challenge to shifting attitudes and acceptance of women.

As a member of the American Ag Editor’s Association, I participated one year in a panel of ag editors, including a (male) editor from Successful Farming magazine. During the panel discussion, that editor commented that his magazine would never hire a woman in an editorial position because a woman could never know enough about agriculture. At that moment I thought, Hey. I’m sitting right here.

In that moment, I was embarrassed, but also silent. He was completely comfortable saying what he did, and neither I nor anyone else challenged him. That was the time.

The upshot of this story is that nearly 10 years later, that same editor asked me to interview for one of the positions he’d said would never go to a woman at that magazine.

In my early years at CMF&Z (the marketing agency I worked at for 20 years), we pitched for a major national account. The agency knew that the prospective client would have a woman at the table, so it was agreed the agency needed one, too. And they wanted me to be that woman. Cool. Right? But I had specific instructions: Do not say anything.

I must say, I played my role perfectly. When I returned from that pitch, though, I vowed that I would never let myself be put in a position like that again. Nor would I let it happen to anyone who worked with me.

Over time, the attitudes of men at CMF&Z changed. Capable women were hired in account management positions, they led major accounts – including ag accounts, they were successful.

Men had to change their attitudes, but women did, too. Some women at CMF&Z felt that if one woman held an account management position, that was all there could be. Because I was there, they considered the path closed to them. That wasn’t true, of course, but only time could prove that.

I didn’t consider myself as breaking ground – or cracking ceilings – though I see now that I was. So we’ve come a long way, baby. All of us. And I agree with what Clinton said. When we break a ceiling, there’s upside potential for all of us.

What do you say? Have you broken ceilings yourself or helped someone else do it?

Unidentified flying objects inhabit prairie

The prairie is a strange and wonderful place. Each time I visit, I discover wildlife from both the plant and insect kingdoms I’ve never seen before.

I’m not nearly as good at identifying the insects that inhabit the prairie as I am the plants, but as I explored the prairie this weekend, my eyes were drawn to the insects as much as to the plants because the air was a virtual O’Hare Airport of flying creatures.

It’s gratifying to see so many varieties of milkweed in the prairie and to see butterflies enjoy the blossoms. My prairie is only a patch, but I’m happy to do my part to encourage these insect beauties.

Here are a few insects I captured with my iPhone. Obviously, I need a camera with greater magnification (and either a steadier hand or insects that will sit still) to get better images.

Orange butterfly on Whorled Milkweed

Orange butterfly on whorled milkweed.

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The first time I’ve spotted this little black & white beauty. Less than an inch long.

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Monarch on butterfly milkweed. Finally one I can identify.

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A lovely black and yellow dragonfly. Look closely to see how big the wings really are.

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We never lack for bees or black-eyed Susans in the prairie.

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Two Japanese beetles do what they enjoy most on a purple coneflower.

Japanese beetles

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The second thing Japanese beetles do – make lace out of plant leaves.

Japanese beetles

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Two insects in this picture. Very tiny. Very fast. This is the closest I could get.

I'm sharing this Rattlesnake Master because I love the make, how weird the plant looks, and it's the first time I've seen it this year. No insects visible. here.

I share this Rattlesnake Master because I love the name and how alien the plant looks, plus it’s the first time I’ve seen it this year. No insects visible.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little visit to my prairie. If you can identify any of these unidentified flying objects, please leave the details in a comment. If you can’t identify them, leave a note anyway.

After the fire – Beauty

We burned our prairie this spring, and the fire my husband lit spread rapidly through the dried residue of the previous year’s grasses and flowers. Within minutes, we were left with nothing but a bare, black expanse.

The prairie was bare, but not barren. Within a few weeks, green began to show and now, only two month’s later, all evidence of the fire has disappeared. In its place are a multitude of flowers and grasses. After a burn, flowers are actually more plentiful. and we may see flowers we haven’t seen before. Here are a few prairie bright spots since the burn.

Fire moves rapidly through prairie residue.

Fire moves rapidly through prairie residue.

Spiderwort is one of the earliest flowers.

Spiderwort is one of the earliest flowers.

Butterfly milkweed is the only orange flower we see, and it's stunning.

Butterfly milkweed is the only orange flower we see, and it’s stunning.

This is the first year I've spotted whorled milkweed in our prairie.

This is the first year I’ve spotted whorled milkweed in our prairie.

A pale purple coneflower also made its first appearance.

A pale purple coneflower also made its first appearance.

Wild bergamot, butterfly milkweed, and common sunflower - beautiful in combination.

Wild bergamot, butterfly milkweed, and common sunflower – beautiful in combination.

A common milkweed blossom.

A common milkweed blossom.

Fire is a necessary element of a healthy prairie, and we burn ours every four years.

Have you walked in a prairie? If so, what was your experience? If you have not been yet, I encourage you to do so.  The prairie offers infinite beauty.

Language barrier? Don’t the Irish speak English?

International travel can be a challenge, especially if you don’t speak the local language or do so minimally. One of the advantages to traveling to Ireland is that they speak English, right? Yes and no. My recent visit to Ireland revealed a range of word play that gave new depth to the language I use every day.

Road signs in Ireland provide directions and a lesson in Irish.

Road signs in Ireland provide directions and a lesson in Irish.

Road signs are the first indication you’ve entered another world. The signs were easy enough to understand, but the words describing what a sign means the driver to do might be different. We say “Yield;” the Irish say “Make way.” “Entrance” becomes “Way In.” “Exit” becomes “Way Out.” Spotting these was a delight. All Irish road signs also come with a lesson in Gaelic. Just don’t ask me to pronounce it.

Then, there’s the accent. Early in presentations, each guide asked, “Can you understand me?” Most were easy. However, one man – a farmer who also served as tour guide in the other-worldly, sandstone landscape of The Burren – was more of a challenge.

Can you imagine farming on this landscape? Our tour guide raises cattle on The Burren.

Can you imagine farming on this landscape? Our tour guide (in the CIA cap) raises cattle on The Burren.

Shane Connolly spoke so rapidly and with such a strong dialect that I’m sure I caught little more than half of what he said. Yet he was one of my favorite guides. A wealth of knowledge on history, geology, botany, and agriculture, Shane caught us off guard, surprising and delighting as he sprinkled American history and political and cultural references throughout his talk. The consensus of our group was that Shane knew more about American history and culture than many of us. And we got his message, even through the accent.

Undertakers, Plantations, and Craic

However, the real mind-bending challenge was how words that mean something to me as an American mean something entirely different to the Irish. Two of those words are “undertaker” and “plantation,” which came into play as guides related the centuries-long English/Irish, Catholic/Protestant conflict.

For many years, the English government and Church of England, were intent on removing Catholics from any power. During the “Plantation period,” Catholics were removed from the land they owned and farmed and Protestants were “planted” on that same land as the new owners. These new owners “undertook” to farm the land they’d been given and in so doing became “undertakers.”

The injustices described came uncomfortably close to America’s own treatment of Native Americans and Blacks. My head swam each time the words plantation and undertaker were spoken as I worked to re-direct my brain away from the American South and death.

On a lighter note was the word “Craic,” pronounced “Crack.” In Gaelic, craic means fun or a good time. So our guide might say, “That was craic,” or “Ye’ll have great craic.” We found the use of “ye” instead of “you” charming, while this word craic always caused laughter since seekers of American crack are looking for a whole different kind of fun.

"Welcome"

“Welcome”

All this play with language caused me as a writer, to think about the authors who write about countries other than their own. Getting a story factually right is challenging under any circumstances. To add in the possibility that words do not mean the same thing at all adds a whole new level of difficulty.

We did encounter one sign that was always, only, in Irish. That was Fáilte. Fáilte means “Welcome.” Even without the translation, we all knew that word because we felt it so clearly from every person we met. No language barrier there.

Have you traveled to another country and encountered words and phrases that caused you to think about language differently? What was your experience?

Clocks, stoves and life & death coincidences

As a child, I grew up singing a song about a clock that counted the seconds of a man’s life. “My Grandfather’s Clock” – Are you familiar with it? The refrain goes like this:

“Ninety years without slumbering
tick, tock, tick, tock
His life seconds numbering
tick, tock, tick, tock
It stopped, short, never to go again
When the old man died”

I recall this song, which I’d always considered a made-up story, because I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother. Her 100th birthday would have been this month. She lived a full, active life until she passed on nine years ago.

Mom's stove served her faithfully.

Mom’s stove served her faithfully.

On the weekend she died, my husband and I drove to Preston, the small eastern-Iowa town where she lived. We intended to spend the weekend, knock off the list of chores Mom invariably had for us, and return on Sunday afternoon. A typical weekend visit home.

When we walked into the kitchen on Friday afternoon, Mom (age 91) was standing at the stove canning tomatoes. That stove got a lot of use, every day for more than 30 years, since putting meals on the table three times a day was a task Mom thoroughly enjoyed. Because it was so well used, it’s no particular surprise that the stove was on its last legs. In fact, three of the four burners worked intermittently, if at all, and the fourth gave out that day.

Well, my mother couldn’t live without a stove, so we all trooped down to the local hardware store, which also sold major appliances, and picked out a new stove. They delivered it to her house on Saturday morning, in time for Mom to bake an apple crisp and cook lunch. Don’t you love small town Iowa?

That same morning, I convinced Mom to throw out the dish cloth she’d been using because it was worn to threads, held together mostly by the thread she used to sew each new hole closed. With a new stove and a new dish cloth, she was all set.

That afternoon, my husband I drove to a nearby town to finish off the list of chores. As we left, Mom lay down to listen to Rush Limbaugh and take a nap, as she did every afternoon.

When we returned, barely an hour and a half later, we learned from a neighbor that while we were gone, Mom got up to defrost the deep freeze. In the process, she had a stroke. Less than six hours later she was dead.

Past the shock of her sudden passing, I couldn’t help but think about Mom’s stove and her dishcloth. They gave out on the day she died. Just like the Grandfather Clock.

Cosmic coincidence? A mysterious link between animate and inanimate? The workings of my idle mind trying to make sense of life and death? I don’t know. But it was curious, and something I think about.

Have you ever experienced something like this?

Murals fuel & memorialize Irish conflict

Murals as a form of political, social, and cultural expression rose in importance during “The Troubles” – a 30-year conflict that began in 1968 and divided Northern Ireland. Though The Troubles more or less ended with the Belfast “Good Friday” agreement of 1998, murals continue to be a powerful method of communication. Often called the Belfast Murals, these graphic messages are also prominent in Derry where conflict was also heated.

Here are a few I saw on my recent visit to Northern Ireland.

A Protestant, King William of Orange and his victory at the Battle of the Boyne are still celebrated by Irish Protestants.

Protestant, King William of Orange and his victory at the Battle of the Boyne are still celebrated by Irish Protestants.

The republican prisoners commemorated in this mural sought prisoner of war status. Rather than wear prison garb, they opted for blankets; their action became known as "the blanket protest." The prisoners also initiated a hunger strike. Some died before the protest ended.

The republican prisoners commemorated in this mural sought prisoner of war status. Rather than wear prison garb, they opted for blankets; their action became known as “the blanket protest.” The prisoners also initiated a hunger strike, with some dying before the protest ended.

This mural commemorates a a young girl killed during The Troubles. The girl's father continues to visit the mural regularly.

A young girl was one of the thousands of civilians killed during The Troubles. The girl’s father  visits the mural regularly.

Some believe the British Army must be held accountable for the deaths they caused during The Troubles.

The campaign continues to hold the British Army accountable for the predominately Catholic deaths they perpetrated during The Troubles.

The fight for a united Ireland continues.

Arguing for a united Ireland.

Murals take on new causes as well as old.

Artists take on new causes as well as old.

An artist works on a new mural.

New murals are created, as artists take up current events and new causes.

The history of Northern Ireland is complicated. Loyalists – Unionists – Republicans – Nationalists – Catholics – Protestants. Even with repeated explanations by our guides, I am confident I don’t have it all straight.

What these murals did for me was convey the tremendous emotion surrounding all of the issues. More than words, these murals told me the issues remain, even though, thankfully, people aren’t still killing each other.

On Memorial Day, we remember those who fought and died for our country. With these visual reminders, every day is Memorial Day in Northern Ireland.

Readers: Have you seen murals used in a similar way in other parts of the world? If you have, please share.

How important is “place” in writing?

My recent trip to Ireland has me thinking again about the importance of place to a writer. Ireland has a rich written history, including literary greats James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yates. Those names were prominent as we toured the Emerald Isle landscape that inspired their writing.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates' poetry.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates’ poetry.

At the 2,000-year-old Drumcliff Church, we visited W.B. Yates’ grave and then, as we drove through the countryside where Yates lived and wrote, we were treated by our guide Eilo to recitations of Yates’ verses.

After choosing subjects for his verse from a number of other countries, Yeats said:

“I convinced myself … that I should never go for the scenery of a poem to any country but my own, and I think that I shall hold to that conviction to the end.”

In view of Benbulbin – Yates’ favorite mountain – I listened to the rush of a waterfall, gazed at sheep pastured in fields ringed with ivy-covered rock walls, and knew exactly why Yates came to the conclusion to center his writing on this place.

Woven into Irish place are centuries of conflict – British vs Irish, Protestant vs Catholic – aspects of Irish place that continue to influence Irish writers today. 

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

A treat during the tour was having lunch with historical fiction writer David Lawlor. We met via social media and I’ve become a big fan of his writing.

In 1921, at just age 20, Lawlor’s grandfather joined scores of IRA men in an attack on the Dublin Custom House. Lawlor’s grandfather survived; others did not.

Each day, Lawlor walks to work past the Custom House, a symbol of British rule in Ireland. The social and political history Lawlor traverses daily inspired his series of novels set in the years surrounding the Irish War for Independence.

Everywhere I travel, I am inspired. In fact, inspiration is one of the reasons I hit the road. But, as I left the emerald landscape of Ireland and returned to the green fields of Iowa, I was affirmed in my own decision to write stories based in Iowa, past and present. I also know that if I ever need more inspiration, it will be waiting for me in the homeland of Yates and Lawlor.

To read more about Lawlor’s grandfather and other ‘bit players of history’ visit Lawlor’s blog History With A Twist.

If you enjoy historical adventure stories, you’ll enjoy Lawlor’s book “Tan” and the subsequent books in the series.

How important is staying plugged in?

“Is it plugged in?” That was the first question tech support always asked back when computers were new and I called to find out why the alien on my desk wouldn’t work.

Dutifully, I’d untangle my feet from the writhing morass of cords under my desk and track the computer from the wall outlet to the back of the computer. With embarrassing frequency, the connection was loose. Plugged in securely, the computer returned to life.

Ireland - Plugging into a new source of energy.

Ireland – Plugging into a new source of energy.

Eventually I caught on to that game and checked the connections before I called tech support. When I smugly assured those helpful wizards that my computer was indeed plugged in, they had this head-slapping advice:

“Then unplug it, wait 30 seconds, and plug it back in.”

Following their advice, the computer almost always blinked rapidly and woke to do my bidding. My word. If life were always so simple. Anne Lamott suggests that it may be. She says:

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes .. including you.”

For much of the past many months, I’ve worked diligently to write the first draft of my novel. For most of this time, I’ve been securely plugged in, writing most days and thinking about the characters and story when I wasn’t writing. I have made great progress, though with increasing frequency, my energy lags.

I know it is time to unplug and re-boot. To that end, my sister and I embark this month for a trip to Ireland. We have no Irish ancestry that we know of, but we are both drawn to the green of the Emerald Isle, to the coastal landscapes, to the people and the pubs. The sense of place is important to my writing, and I am fascinated to see the place that has spawned so many great writers and enduring stories.

During most of May, I will be unplugged, literally and figuratively. No computer. Limited wi-fi access. Any writing I do will be old school, using the notebook and pencil in my pocket.

When we return, I expect to plug in, blink rapidly, and spring back to this life, fully charged with the energy and perspectives travel invariably offers.

I look forward to sharing thoughts on my journey – when I return and plug in again. In the meantime, I wish you moments of unplugged luxury, too.

Courage – Would you have enough?

Harriet Tubman – abolitionist who liberated more than 700 slaves.

Harriet Tubman. Oskar Shindler. Esther. People iconic for their courage and the bold actions they took to save the lives of others, actions that put their own lives at risk.

Every time I hear a story about someone who stands up to society, their peers, their family – someone who goes against the norm – to right an injustice, I wonder if I would be so brave. Fortunately, I have never had to put my own life on the line; fortunately, most of us never have to.

But most of us do encounter events in our daily lives when we see something happening that we know is wrong. Then we face the choice: engage or walk away, speak up or remain silent.

I confess, I have failed the test more often than I like to admit. One time in particular sticks in my mind.

For 30 years I worked in the public relations business, a job that sent me all over the United States interviewing farmers, veterinarians, and scientists who used my clients’ products. One trip to a North Carolina tobacco farm in 1977 opened my eyes to race relations as I’d never experienced it before, while leaving life-long scars on my heart.

As the interview wound down, the farmer and I were standing in the yard, exchanging pleasantries about the weather and local sports teams. Just then a young black boy, maybe eight or nine years old, came out of the barn.

“Hey, Joseph.” The farmer waved him over. “You need to dance for this lady.”

The boy stood, his arms limp at his sides, his bare feet covered in the soft dust of the lane.

I blanched. Dance for the lady? “Oh, no,” I excused myself. “I need to be going.”

“He likes to do it. He’s a real good dancer,” the farmer insisted.

The boy looked at me. I cannot recall if I smiled or even met his eyes.

Dance for the lady? All I could think about was slave owners forcing their slaves to entertain visitors. Sweat poured down my neck. Thunder roared in my ears. My eyes swam. I wanted no part of this. Yet I could see no way out.

The boy danced for me. And I said nothing.

Why? Out of some misguided sense that I would offend the farmer, my client’s customer? Because I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say? Because I was a coward? I really don’t know. What I do know is that I will always wear the shame of not stopping that demeaning act.

Confronted with a blatant injustice today, I hope I would do better, that I would have the courage to act. But who knows for sure? The circumstances are seldom simple, the decisions seldom clearcut.

The question of if, when, and how to engage in the face of injustice is at the heart of the novel I’m writing now. In the course of her work as a consultant, my main character must face her own biases and decide how long she can remain on the ‘it’s not my job’ fence.

The story is autobiographical only in that the issue is one I’ve always thought about. Like me, my main character doesn’t always get it right.

What has your experience been in speaking up – or not – when you saw something that seemed unfair?