A few years ago I went to the village of Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, to scout out a location in my second novel of the Durant Family Saga trilogy: Castles in the Air.
Freshwater is a step back in time. It appears nothing has changed in this small coastal village since one of the characters in my novel, Ella Durant visited it over one hundred years ago to meet the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. Given its history I would be surprised if it wasn't a haven for artists and writers. The beauty of the cliffs and rolling hills is astounding.
After finding Tennyson's home, Farringford, which is not open to the public, I went to the Dimbola Museum, once home of the famous photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. I found a reference in a letter from Thomas C. Durant to his daughter Ella Durant dated April 1874 in which he stated he would allow Ella to stay with Mrs. Cameron in Freshwater. I speculate that the photo below may have actually been done by Cameron, although I don't know for sure. But in it Ella poses with her brother William and other friends at Isle of Wight, and it is dated 1874. Anne Thackeray Ritchie, an author and a family friend of Julia Cameron, stands tall in the back, facing right.
In a interview on the History Author Show podcast about the Durant Family Saga, the interviewer asked me a question that had me stumped:
If you could fill any gap about this fascinating family after three novels, what would you choose?
Of course, there’s more I could have uncovered about the Durants to turn my trilogy into a series. I've received emails from people who were reading my books and my research journey blog. They offered me tidbits of information, leads to follow, contact information of descendants with interesting histories of their own. But for me, enough was enough. I’d spent five years of my life researching this Gilded Age family. I had traveled to several libraries and museums on the east coast of the U.S., and visited the Isle of Wight in England.
At some point authors of historical fiction rely on conjecture. It is the lens we use to offer our interpretation of events given the information we have on hand. Indeed, at the end of the trilogy, in the novel, The Night is Done, the narrator, a historian, remarks:
I’m sure that in the future, someone will come along and find gaps in my research. It’s the historian’s curse. Our job is to sift through the tall tales and determine what’s worth including and what’s best left as fodder for others to chew on. The truth is found in the abyss of the unknown.
If my readers believe it’s me, the author saying these words, they aren’t far off. I put myself in the head of the narrator, a historian, tracking down and interviewing an elderly member of the Durant family, and by the time I was done writing the last book in the trilogy, it was how I felt.
We read historical fiction to discover history in an interesting and entertaining fashion. Authors of this genre are all too aware that some research could take up a lifetime and if we wait for all the facts to be known, the stories would never get written. This is especially true as libraries, newspapers and museums digitize their collections making them more accessible to the public, uncovering new details and facts about historical events along the way.
There are always new stories to tell, and I have moved on to tell them. My latest work in progress is about the men of the US Civilian Conservation Corps, who planted over a billion tree seedlings in the US during the Great Depression. The story revolves around the families who once lived in Cades Cove, a cultural heritage site at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After doing research about these families, I felt compelled to tell their stories. And I hope to have this novel published soon.You can read the first couple of chapters here.
From Kirkus Review
A historical novel, set largely in upstate New York’s Adirondack Park, about the troubled lives of real-life real estate investor William West Durant and his embittered sister, Ella.
Myers (Castles in the Air, 2016, etc.) continues the story of the Durants in this third book in her Durant Family Saga trilogy. Thomas C. Durant was a railroad magnate who lost a fortune and died under a cloud—and intestate—in 1885. His son, William, assumed control of the family’s remaining assets and began new real estate and construction ventures in the Adirondacks. His sibling, Ella, who was somewhat of a bohemian, always felt financially shortchanged and ill-treated by her older brother—which caused litigation between the two. In the novel, told in the form of reminiscences of various characters, readers follow the arc of William’s career from his early days as a high roller (starting in 1892) to his impoverished life as an old man (circa 1931). In the end, not only has William lost all of his own wealth, but also money and land that Ella won in her final lawsuit—so they both end up losing. However, as William wrote to a friend in 1932, “I am poor, but I am happy, what more can most of us expect?” Myers writes with skill and has chosen well in deeply researching the Durant saga, which remarkably parallels Greek tragedy. It’s a truly engrossing story, and Myers does it justice. William is effectively portrayed as being more clueless than anything else, as he honestly doesn’t understand that he is treating his sister—and his wife, for that matter—very badly. He’s also obsessed with his camps in the Adirondacks, giving readers the impression that he sees the whole park as his personal fiefdom. That’s likely the reason why Myers uses the very clever gambit of telling the story from the perspective of William in his old age, when he’s “calm of mind, all passion spent,” and being interviewed by wealthy Harold Hochschild, who now owns William’s old camp, Eagle’s Nest. To compare William to the aged Oedipus is not so great a stretch.
A well-wrought, classically inspired riches-to-rags tale.
Myers (Imaginary Brightness) satisfyingly concludes her historical trilogy set in the Gilded Age by presenting the detailed downfall of ruthless real estate mogul William West Durant; his exasperated wife, Janet; and his estranged sister, Ella. In 1931, the penniless Durant recounts his tragic life. After inheriting his father’s vast wealth and interest in the Adirondack Railroad, William immediately begins to make bad investments. He squanders money on yachts, panders to princes, and builds mansions he can’t afford to run, all while hiding assets from Ella. She sues him for her rightful inheritance and tries to overcome discrimination to become a novelist. Meanwhile, Janet, verbally abused and infantilized by William, begins an affair with her doctor. After getting proof of William’s own infidelities with an actress, Janet sues for divorce.....Myers expertly depicts a precarious era soaked in vicious gossip, stained reputations, and ostentatiousness. Readers will enjoy the historical details that bring this Gilded Age soap opera to life. (BookLife)
One of the pleasures of being an author is meeting with people at unique places to talk about books. This summer I met with teachers who were participating in the State University of New York Cortland Forever Wild in the Adirondacks. Teachers from various disciplines came from all over the country to stay in and learn about the Adirondack Great Camps built during the Gilded Age. History Professors Randi Storch and Kevin Sheets organized the event with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The week's itinerary included lectures on the history of land use in the region, and how it impacted the people who lived there. There were discussions on urbanization and industrialization, the respite wilderness offered for those living and working in the cities, and the romantic view people had about 'roughing it'. I spoke about the Durant family, who once owned over 1/5 million acres of land in the Adirondack Wilderness, and their plans to exploit it by developing a transportation system into the interior.
The teachers stayed at a Great Camp built by William West Durant and now owned by SUNY Cortland. Camp Huntinginton. They were even treated to an aerial view of the property with sea plane rides.
Activities included visits to other Great Camps built by Durant, (pictured below are the teachers from week 2 in front of Great Camp Sagamore), camp fire discussions about the readings, kayaking and paddle boarding on Raquette Lake. I was able to participate for one of the days and enjoyed a glorious sunset at the end. I was so grateful to be a part of the program and to meet so many dedicated teachers.
May 10th, 2019 marked the 150th anniversary of the meeting of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad lines in what was called the Transcontinental Railroad. This scene from the t.v. show Hell on Wheels recaps the end of the venture. Doc Durant delivers a compelling argument that the railroad could not have been built without the iron will and deceit of men like himself.
Are "truths delivered by lies no less true"? And are "dreams made reality by falsehoods no less real"? In this scene Doc Durant chastises the men in Congress who are now investigating him for his unsavory business tactics. He had a right to be indignant since the men investigating him were well aware he used bribery to get bills passed that favored and subsidized the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, lining the pockets of men like Durant and Collis P. Huntington of the Central Pacific Line.
I was writing the Durant Family Saga when someone told me about Hell on Wheels. Colm Meaney does a great job reanacting Doc's blustery personality (although he looks nothing like the real Doc Durant). My saga begins where Hell on Wheels ends. The Durant Family Saga is a reunion of Doc Durant's family in the United States, after he had sent them to live abroad while he built the transcontinental. During the 1860s Durant had acquired over 1/2 million acres of wilderness in the Adirondacks and expected his son, William West, to help him develop a new transportation line that would cut through the forests and reach Canada. Along the way Doc expected he would make another fortune selling off and developing land for vacation homes and resorts.
What Doc hadn't planned on was the financial panic of 1873 or the public, his business partners and stock owners turning against him. By the time his family appears on the scene in 1874, leaving behind their friends and family in England, Doc is financially bankrupt and his reputation in tatters. He had to contend with numerous lawsuits against him, a family that was not used to taking orders, and a son who had spent most of his life spending money rather than investing it.
Beyond the business dealings, the Durant family life offered enough drama for me to write a trilogy. But the legacy of the Transcontinental never ends. Congress instructed special committees to investigate the business dealings of the two railroad empires and Durant and Huntington were hounded by the press. Durant died in 1885, never having to own up to his wrong-doings. Huntington's company however was fined by the government and he spent his last years constantly defending his reputation.
He got his revenge though. Because soon after Doc Durant dies, Huntington takes Durant's son, William under his wing. This relationship proves unfortunate for the Durant family fortune. Huntington calculated revenge against his old rival and William was too naive to see this. William's hope to fulfill his father's ambition to develop the wilderness was financed with money borrowed from Huntington. In the end, Doc Durant was right, his dreams, made reality, were based on falsehoods.
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.