A woman journalist and her husband, a meteorologist, settle in a small 19th C Nebraska town, where prejudice against Irish immigrants is even worse than anti-Indian sentiment–the Natives, at least, stay segregated on a nearby reservation. Child abuse is commonplace, bullies get away with murder, a drunk owns the local newspaper, and independent women are frowned upon, not admired. Does anything good elevate this sad tale something of literary value? And what does the Children’s Blizzard of 1888 have to do with it?
“A Killing Snow” by Dave Hoing and Roger Hileman. is inspired by the tragic blizzard of 1888, “a nice dramatic backdrop for a novel,” this writing duo thought. So were the unpublished memoirs Roger had in his possession from his great-great-uncle Michael Hileman Jr., who lived from 1820 to 1915. Hileman and Hoing had always wanted to find a venue to incorporate Michael’s story, and when they noticed in his memoirs that he had experienced the blizzard firsthand, they found it.
Lottie Pirnie and her father, Michael Hileman, Jr., at age 93. Michael was Roger’s great-great uncle. His memoirs give a rich, detailed account of life on the prairie during the Dakota homesteading years. He inspired the character of old Mike, who survived Andersonville during the Civil War, in “A Killing Snow.” Lottie also appears in the story, but her image here served as the visual template upon which the heroine Mariel was created.
Hileman’s ancestors also inspired the duo’s previous historical novel, Hammon Falls. “a journey through multiple settings, points of view, and time periods, with every scene, every emotion, and every action described in beautiful prose that sparkles but is never overwrought. Hoing and Hileman are musicians as well as authors… In addition to their skill with lyricism, Hoing and Hileman are also masters of clear, direct prose…” – Melissa Studdard, Amazon Reviewer
Dave and Roger have been collaborating since high school on projects ranging from stage plays and musicals to novels. Living 90 miles apart, they do all their writing via email, passing chapters back and forth. Roger is more structured and methodical while Dave prefers to a more ad-lib approach … at least at first. But because he also loves to revise, he eventually rounds up the words and makes them do his bidding. The Facebook page Hoing and Hileman “Where Fiction and Music Meet” is a treasure trove of photos and anecdotes that inspired this treasure of a novel. Click on the link, visit the page, and view images (nope, not gonna put them all here for your convenience) with captions like these: One of the earliest known photos of a tornado, taken, conveniently enough, in Dakota Territory in 1884. Our novel doesn’t actually depict a tornado as it’s happening, but it does mention a cute little fellow affectionately dubbed “Randy’s Whirlwind” that occurs while our heroine is out of town.
Back to “A Killing Snow” – here is the publisher’s synopsis:
In 1886, when school teacher Mariel Erickson leaves the civilized comforts of Chicago for Goss Valley, a small town on the Dakota prairie, she isn’t prepared for the hardships she and her husband encounter. As if hostile homesteaders, harsh weather, impoverished Indians, and shady frontier politics aren’t bad enough, she soon finds herself embroiled in Goss Valley’s first murder case. In full view of five witnesses, wagon driver Clyde Hartwig beats an Irish immigrant to death with a base-ball bat.
By all appearances, the victim was a decent and hardworking family man. Or was he? Rumors have surfaced of his involvement with homemade bombs and Fenian terrorism. Could that have been Hartwig’s motive for the killing? On assignment for the town’s fledgling newspaper, Mariel must get to the bottom of the incident by interviewing him before he is silenced by the hangman’s rope.
His January trial promises to be the biggest event to ever happen in the short history of Goss Valley, and the residents eagerly anticipate a fine spectacle.
Little does anyone know that a much larger force is about to visit the town, one which will reveal how capricious life on the prairie can be.
My own review went live at amazon and goodreads. It’s better if you read it there and click on the “like” button if you find the review helpful. Dare I include it here…? Okay:
A strong, smart, visionary heroine is hard to find, but the first place I’d look is in historical fiction by Iowa duo Dave Hoing and Roger Hileman.
“A Killing Snow” is inspired by the tragic blizzard of 1888, “a nice dramatic backdrop for a novel,” this writing duo thought. So did the unpublished memoirs Roger had in his possession from his great-great-uncle Michael Hileman Jr., who lived from 1820 to 1915. Hilman and Hoing had always wanted to find a venue to incorporate Michael’s story, and when they noticed in his memoirs that he had experienced the blizzard firsthand, they found it.
Uprooted from Chicago, aspiring journalist Mariel Erickson makes the best of her new life in the mostly fictional location Goss Valley, a small town on the Dakota prairie, in the mid-1800s. Her husband Randall has a passion for meteorology and high-tech (for the times) equipment he checks daily in order to give weather reports, and out here, the weather is every kind of harsh. So are the local homesteaders with their shunning of Irish immigrants. Back then, the Irish were a hated minority, but not as hated as the natives, impoverished Indians displaced from their homes. Mariel and a priest seem to be the only people who care about their minority neighbors. Her boss is a chronic drunk, but he teaches Mariel how to run a printing press and put out a newspaper. The story she covets most is that of a Civil War soldier who survived imprisonment in Andersonville, but Mike Hammon won’t talk about it, and who can blame him? Still, Mariel has to extract the details from him, and get permission to publish them. Conflicts and richly developed characters lead to subplots grounded solidly in historical records.
Goss Valley’s first murder case, for example, is so unbelievable, the authors may have had no choice but to explain its real-life counterpart in their “Afterward: Fiction and History.” (More on that in a minute.)
With the ring of authenticity emanating from the most unbelievable events (which all too often really happened), Hoing and Hileman write historical fiction so believable, you’d swear the authors have been alive since before the Civil War. The prose is spare, poetic, and vivid. I’m amazed at the research that allows them to casually narrate so many everyday details from a life we no longer live. The printing press alone is a masterpiece. So is the cash register. I’ve blogged about some of this at carolkean at wordpress.com.
In the Afterward, they explain that Herb Goss is loosely based on Herb Gann, who founded Gann Valley in 1883. The tragic blizzard of Thursday, January 12, 1888, is better known as “The Children’s Blizzard” and is the subject of various books. Mike Hammon is based on Michael Hileman, the great-great uncle of co-author Roger Hileman.
Okay: the murder. In Marion, Iowa, in 1847, a farmer named James Carnagy was clubbed by James Reed in view of witnesses. Carnagy dies of these injuries a month later. It took a year for the case to go to trial, and when it did, the killer was acquitted by a jury who dismissed the incident as “an old feud fueled by drink.”
Historical fiction is brutal because it so often springs from outrage over events like that one. One of the consolations of reading this genre is seeing how times have changed for the better. Then again, people do not change all that much from age to age. Some of the scenes ring true today as much as they did a century earlier, before women were “liberated.” While husband Randall is a fine, intelligent man, an accomplished pianist, and more, he resents Mariel’s independent thinking to the point that he’d physically chastise her for it. Mariel puts him in his place, but it isn’t much of a victory.
On a related note, today as well as then, some husbands play the invalid, moping about, expecting to be waited on. Women can be just as guilty of exploiting their husbands, I know, but as a woman reader, I wince and cringe for Mariel.
The same sins and virtues go on, and on, and gifted storytellers bring them to life as if these stories had never been told before.
Page after page, I was grinding my teeth, wincing and shaking my fist at people in 19th Century Nebraska. All long dead. Good riddance! Then again, there were so many good people, like Mariel Erickson, giving everyone a fair chance, even the man who killed a family man and got away with murder. Then again… karma comes round, and Nature delivers a blow to the killer.
It’s so hard for me to discuss the fine points, insights, nuances and developments of a novel without that “SPOILER” risk (yes, I’ve been accused of it, chronically). However, we know from page one that Mariel Erickson is still angry twelve years after Clyde Hartwig, killed an Irishman and hardly anyone cared.
“What’re these people to you, ma’am?” one local asks Mariel. The dead man’s “brood” is “just another family of filthy immigrants.”
The “filthy” family are not just Irish, but Travellers as well, a group as shunned and mistrusted as the Romani “Gypsies.” That murdered man may have some shady secrets, but does that mean his killer did the town a favor? Land of the free, home of the brave—unless the jury just doesn’t like you.
Knowing the town folk, it chills my heart when James, a full-blooded Crow Indian, enters Mariel’s classroom. Ahead of her time, Mariel laments “the lifestyle his people had had to abandon in order to assimilate into white society.” There’s a story she could tell him, e.g., she knows his Crow name is Howling Dog, but Mariel is a woman of discretion and sensitivity.
Deep down, after so many years, so many deaths, Mariel seethes with anger at all the injustice she’s witnessed. This does not make for the most uplifting of endings – fans of the genre, you have been warned—but it does make for great literature.
* * *
Meanwhile, here are more captions, from the authors, which you’ll find with photos at the Facebook page:
A hay burning stove. Loose hay produced too much smoke and required constant monitoring, so it was twisted into twig-like bundles called “cats.” These were much more compact, produced less smoke, and didn’t need to be watched all the time.
This is the Buffalo County courthouse in Gann Valley, South Dakota, circa 1914. “A Killing Snow” is set almost 30 years earlier in a similar, although fictional, town called Goss Valley, before the Dakotas were states yet. The courthouse is the venue for the big trial near the end of the book.
Laudanam: Used as a pain reliever and cough suppressant for centuries, it was about 10% opium by weight and could be bought without a prescription at any drug store well into the 20th century. Although it’s still around, laudanum reached its height in the late 19th century, when a powder known as salicytic acid started to overtake it in popularity. Salycitic acid was then further refined, and in 1899 it was widely manufactured and marketed as a pill known as aspirin.
A Scholes & Glidden typewriter, 1876. Our fictional newspaper editor Herb Goss has one (okay, this one, I can’t resist sharing):
A sewing machine, circa 1880. Our ladies of the Fragment Society use them. (Carol has one too!)
A mid-1880s cash register from the National Cash Register Company. Our general store owner is very proud of his.
This is an anemometer, a device used to measure wind speed. Before there was a National Weather Service, the Army Signal Corps used to take weather readings and issue “indications” (forecasts). These Signal Corps readings play a big role in the novel.
A macabre practice of the 19th century: photographing dead family members as if they were alive. Our upcoming novel “A Killing Snow” touches on this curious fad.
The tombstone of Herst Gann, the founder of Gann Valley, South Dakota, upon whom our fictional character Herb Goss is loosely based.
This is odd-looking contraption is a Beardslee portable telegraph machine. The things only had a range of ten miles or so, and didn’t work worth a damn. 🙂
What’s up next for this writing duo? Scroll to the end of this post. Meanwhile, the bio:
Dave Hoing is a library associate in the Special Collections and Archives unit of the University of Northern Iowa Library. He lives in Waterloo, Iowa, with his wife, Joni, a dog named Doodle, and a cat named Itzy. Dave is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America who no longer writes science fiction or fantasy. He dabbles in composing, drawing, painting, and sculpting. Music is his first love, but he concedes that he’s better at stringing words together than notes, so there are times when he must tear himself away from one kind of keyboard to work at another. He also enjoys traveling—42 states and 27 countries to date—and collecting antiquarian books printed before 1800.
Roger Hileman writes nonfiction for a testing company by day and fiction by night. Naturally, the biggest challenge for Roger is keeping them straight. He and writing partner Dave Hoing collaborated for many years by mailing reams of paper back and forth through the US mail. Then one day someone invented this thing called the Internet. There was much rejoicing.
Through the years, Roger has been involved with numerous musical theater productions on stage, in technical roles, and as orchestra director. He gigs around Iowa with groups such as the New Venue Big Band and CR Jazz. He began his writing career as a playwright, but Dave eventually turned him to the dark side of prose. Roger loves history, especially the family kind, so his ancestors frequently become fodder for his fiction.
In his nonfictional world, Roger and his wife, Lu, live in Iowa City. No pets, but he plays a bass trombone he named Eddie.
Up next, “In the Blood,” a title with a double meaning. Dave posted on Facebook:
Our buddy Midori at Penmore Press has pointed out that my posts about the new book are mostly word counts, with virtually no information describing what the book’s about. She’s right, of course. When we first started this project, I mentioned the premise, but that was a while ago, so it wouldn’t hurt to do it again. Here’s the deal:
It’s 1948 in a racially divided town very much like Waterloo, Iowa. An exceptionally gifted musician has a dream of playing alto sax for a jazz band. The problem is, the musician is a 19-year-old white woman named Kasey Brown, and the jazz band is made up of middle-aged black men. This was at a time when black musicians could occasionally cross over to play with otherwise all-white bands, but it was never the other way around. In addition, while some women sang in jazz bands, it was exceedingly rare for them to be instrumentalists, especially alto sax.
The story is told from two separate points of view, one the 19-year-old Kasey, and the other a 50-year-old black trombone player named Freddie Ross.
The novel not only explores race relations and the economic caste system separating white from black, but also looks at the (platonic!) friendship that develops between Kasey and Freddie, and the interactions of whites with other whites and blacks with other blacks (the term African American didn’t exist then). If that isn’t enough, Freddie has a troubled past and an even more troubled relationship with his wife, and Kasey’s not having much luck getting along with anybody, including her fiance Jack and either of their families.
And of course you can’t have a post-war novel without talking some about the effect the war had on the characters. Kasey lost her beloved brother in North Africa in 1943, while one of the black characters discusses some of his experiences as a sailor in Hawaii.
BTW, for those of you who have read our first novel “Hammon Falls,” “In the Blood” is set in the same quasi-fictional town of Waterton, Iowa. Freddie Ross is the son of Lewis, a secondary character in “Hammon Falls,” and one of that book’s main characters, Will Hammon, even makes an appearance.