Today I’m adding a new feature to my blog. Each Sunday, I’m going to post in a new brand new catagory, Tales of a Serial Novelist. No, not tales of a serial killer. I write children’s lit, remember? I’m taking about resurrecting the serial. (Nothing to do with Cheerios, either, guys.)
Charles Dickens was a master of the serial. He published many of his novels in tabloids, one chapter at a time. This is a very difficult thing to do! Not only are you forced to regularly complete a chapter, you can’t go back and change them later. He had to have a very, VERY good idea where he was going with each story.
I’m going to cheat. Instead of publishing increments of a new story each week, I’m going to delve into one of my recent publications, The Candle Star (American historical fiction, ages 10+). Every Sunday I’ll post the next chapter. If you tune in regularly, you’ll read the whole thing in nineteen weeks’ time. If you get impatient, well, click on the picture to the right and get the book. Ready? Here we go!
The Candle Star
by Michelle Isenhoff
Emily Preston threatened to hate every moment of her holiday, but sometimes curiosity overcomes even the best of bad intentions. She had to relax her indifference, just for a moment. Palms pressed flat against the cool pane of glass, her blue eyes drank in the sea of buildings whizzing past.
Detroit surprised her. She was certain she’d find a shambling frontier town, but the city was studded with hundreds of tall, flat-topped buildings that looked as if they’d been nailed into the ground by a giant hammer and abandoned at different heights. Wide avenues rolled with respectable folk carried along in every possible kind of horse-drawn conveyance, their clatter muffled by the window. And as the train circled the city, Emily counted no fewer than twelve church spires.
Of course the town wasn’t as gracious as Charleston, back home in Carolina, with its stately old homes and picturesque harbor, but a yearling colt could hardly be compared with the noble lines of a full-grown stallion. Detroit had its own charm, a rough and vital energy that Emily could have found invigorating.
If she hadn’t been banished here.
“Miss Emily, i’s not proper, you squashin’ yo’ nose agains’ dat glass.”
Emily turned to the old black man with a haughty shrug. “It really doesn’t matter how I behave, Zeke. I don’t know anyone in this entire state.”
“Yo’ uncle be waitin’ fo’ you at the station, miss. You makes a good firs’ impression.”
“My uncle,” she snorted. “He’s lived here so long he’s probably as dull as the rest of these Yankees.” She raised her voice, stretching out each syllable like a string of maple syrup. “We’re practically on the frontier. Michigan’s only been in the Union for sixteen years. Why, I’m nearly as old as the state.”
She tossed her curls, pleased with the dark glances she was generating.
The old man gave her a stern look. “You’s twelve yeahs ol’, miss, not sixteen, and you minds yo’ mannahs.”
“Oh, Ezekiel,” she pouted, “if my uncle dislikes me, maybe he’ll send me home.”
She’d never been away from Ella Wood before, and leaving the beautiful plantation had perforated her heart with a thousand holes, like the side of the smokehouse her brother had riddled with buckshot. Her joy had gushed out all at once, and her confidence, so thick at home, was slowly seeping out and dripping off her toes with every step north.
She missed Ella Wood. She missed the lazy fields dotted with Thoroughbreds swishing their tails and grazing hock-deep in clover. She missed the shady smell of the forest that sprawled so thickly across the hills one nearly stepped on the game sheltered in its tangles. She missed the spectrum of the sunset above the tobacco fields, turning them russet, then purple, then black. She missed the liquid sound of music flowing from the slave cabins after dusk.
But that was all a million miles behind her now, lost in a moment of high spirits – a tantrum, her mother called it – which convinced her parents that she needed a change of scenery and a firmer hand. So she’d been packed up and sent to her mother’s brother in Detroit.
They didn’t tell her the north was practically a different country, one that dispensed frowns of disapproval for traveling with an old slave. Nor did they mention the discomforts of railroad travel, the tasteless food, the terrible service. She’d just been tossed over the Mason-Dixon Line like a rabbit pitched into a kennel of hounds.
The track rounded a final bend and ended beside a busy waterfront littered with crates and barrels and coarse-looking dockhands. A score of ships lined the river, scratching heaven’s floorboards with their bobbing masts, waiting to take aboard the raw timber that rose up in towers beside the tracks.
Emily watched a dog dodge beneath a team of drays that stood ready to haul away the cargo being unloaded from a slumbering steamship. Beyond lay the murky green of the Detroit River, then the emerald plain of Canada.
The train shuttered and died, wheezing out a last breath of steam. Moments later, passengers poured from its belly, covering the platform like a brightly-knitted afghan before ducking into the depot with its cinnamon-colored bricks.
“You keeps out of trouble till I fines our luggage, Miss Emily,” Zeke admonished as he joined the throng.
Emily remained seated until the crush in the aisle disappeared. Through the window, she watched the whirl of people mixing and merging and sorting themselves out. Loved ones called to each other and embraced, and in the most crowded moment she felt a powerful sting of loneliness. But she adjusted her hat, securing both the headpiece and her courage, and stepped off the train.
The yard reeked of grease, coal smoke, horse manure and fish, but she eagerly stretched her legs. From some distance on the river, the whistle of a steamship warbled in the breeze. All around her, the city throbbed with its own importance. Conversations flitted about like barn swallows, and a busy clop-clop testified to daily commerce taking place beyond the depot. Overhead, the sky shone as blue as the eyes of the china doll on her bed at home, and the cheery autumn sun poured down gold at her feet in welcome.
A hatless man approached dressed in a cheap, brown suit. It was unbuttoned and flapped in the breeze he created as he strode toward her. His necktie was skewed, and his forehead spilled over with a riot of dark curls which he brushed at absently and ineffectually. “Emily Preston,” he hailed.
She eyed him distastefully. Had her uncle sent this buffoon to meet her?
“Yes, I am Miss Preston,” she answered curtly.
Amusement hinted in the crinkle of his eyes. “Oh, it wasn’t a question. You’re the only southern belle on the platform. And a Milford through and through, I’ll add.”
Irritating Yank. She pulled herself up to her full height and gave him a scathing look. “Manners die out north of Richmond, I’ve noticed.”
The man bent in a sweeping bow. “Miss Preston,” he said, smiling openly now, “I’m pleased to meet you. I am your uncle, Isaac Milford.”
She gaped at him. “You can’t be!”
He threw back his head and laughed. “I assure you, I can. Were you expecting someone else?”
She bristled. “I was expecting someone more like my mother.”
“Ah,” he replied with a lift of his eyebrows, “someone refined and gentle and polite. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but my sister and I inherited very few of the same qualities. You’ll have to settle for blunt, tactless and stubborn. Thoroughly insufferable, I’m afraid.”
Perfect. At least he fit nicely into the theme of her trip.
Ezekiel approached just then carrying her carpetbag and his own small valise. Two sturdy railroad workers trailed behind him bearing her iron-bound steamer trunk between them.
Isaac thumped the black man heartily on the back. “Zeke, it’s good to see you. How long has it been, fifteen years?”
The old slave grinned, revealing few remaining teeth. “Long about dat, I ‘spects. Marse Isaac, you sho’ looks fine all growed up.”
Isaac chuckled. “Perhaps, considering the loose-kneed, gangly kid you remember. Well, come along, you two. My rig is parked out front.”
The “rig” was a large, open carriage. Harnessed before it stood two hacks of indeterminate breeding; one gray, one sorrel. The workers hefted the trunk onto the vehicle’s rear-facing seat, and Emily and Zeke settled across from it.
Isaac climbed onto the driver’s bench. “All set?”
Taking her shrug as an affirmative, he flicked the reins over the backs of the mismatched team. Emily vowed disinterest, but when the huge mills and dockside warehouses merged into rows of storefronts aproned in brightly-colored awnings, her traitorous curiosity got the best of her again.
They jogged around a corner and found themselves in the middle of an outdoor marketplace. The road broadened to twice its normal width, and in its center stood two long, low, open-air structures filled with vendors and their wares. In one glance, Emily took in a load of golden squash, a wagon displaying needlework and home-canned produce, a crate of squawking hens and three barrels of apples, each of a different color.
“This is Central Market,” Isaac informed them. “Michigan Avenue runs straight out to the countryside. Makes it convenient for the farmers to haul their goods to town.”
Next, they turned onto a wide avenue hedged with storefronts. Some of the buildings rose up five or six stories, with giant letters between each row of windows spelling out their business. Others boasted only two or three floors, with living quarters on the uppermost and gabled peaks above. All stood with shoulders crammed together so tightly a hand couldn’t have passed between them.
“We’re almost home,” Isaac called out, rounding one last corner.
Moments later they pulled up in front of an old brick house skirted with a gray porch and set back from the road. A row of brilliant mums grew before it like lace edging on the bottom hem of a dress. In the exact center of the building’s face sat a red door, with two windows on either side and matching windows above. The gravel drive curved into the backyard, and the front lawn boasted a sign with “Grand River Inn” painted in letters as curly as the locks on her uncle’s forehead.
Emily read the sign a second time. A hotel? Her uncle lived in a hotel? How had her parents forgotten to mention this tiny detail?
Isaac must have read her confusion. He explained with some pride, “This used to be a private residence, but I remodeled it into an inn. It earns me a decent living.” He offered Emily a hand down. “I hope you will consider it your home during your stay. It’s no Russell House, but there are those who’ve said it’s comfortable.”
Emily scanned the building with keen disapproval, like a judge about to sentence a felon. “I suppose it would do if one was used to primitive accommodations.”
Her uncle seemed to struggle with a twitch that pulled up one corner of his mouth. “I’m glad you’re here, Emily. I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to get to know my only niece.”
And that’s when her plan formed. The idea had nudged her on the train, but only now did she see the possibilities. She would make him regret that he had ever met her. She’d make herself so obnoxious and hateful that he wouldn’t be able to endure her – and he would send her home!
Read chapter two.