It is 1900. Well, very close to it. For revealing the culture of coal mining, rural farm life, and the difficulties facing African Americans, children, and European immigrants in 1900, I revisited research gathered while a graduate student at Illinois State University and then wrapped the fiction around the facts. For example, Spring Valley’s race riot took place in 1903 while “The Location” was the name of the segregated neighborhood. Tarot cards as we know them today became popular after 1910. Orphan Train Riders were sent from the Brooklyn Orphanage to Illinois families from 1850s to 1920s. The House of the Good Shepherd, an asylum in Chicago, took in abandoned girls in dire need of shelter and food. The description of St. Patrick Church, alive and well in LaSalle, is a blending of many Catholic Irish churches I have visited over the years. St. Bede Abbey in Peru, Illinois, has functioned as a Benedictine school and Abbey for over a century. I appreciated the monks, faculty, and students for befriending me as a teacher from 1999-2005. The underground tunnel exists, and if you felt your way through it in the dark, well, it is as creepy as one can describe.
The characters in the manuscript are fictitious. Jonathan, Casper, Annette, and Father Kelly, as well as their friends, family, and pets, are products of my imagination. My goal was to create believable, complex characters and place them in a historical context. If you are interested in reading my research, I will happily share my findings with you.
She is fourteen and desires to become a physician. Angry at adults who orchestrate her life, she escapes the confines of authority by cultivating a nocturnal habit of wandering the orphanage halls as quiet as a ghost. On the Moriarty farm, she falls in love with Scott and runs away to Chicago with him, abandoning her brother. In turn, she is abandoned when she discovers she is with child.
At ten, he is artistically talented and in his spare time draws for ladies to earn pennies. He adores his sister and is thunderstruck when she gallops away with a field hand and disappears. Sent as a boarder to a Benedictine monastery, he dabbles with oil painting and his talent opens the door to a new world. He has one last opportunity to say goodbye to Annette, but Jonathan is not sure he can forgive her.
Father Kelly is a neophyte priest who has been assigned to St. Patrick’s church in Peru, Illinois and finds he’s little more than a glorified altar boy. In Spring Valley, Eastern and Southern European immigrants working in the coal mines suffer from an outbreak of tuberculosis, attacking a neighborhood of Russian Lithuanians. His ordeal heightens when he struggles to understand his feelings for the eldest daughter of the Pupka family.
Running from the law, he befriends Annette and Jonathan on the train. Soon Casper finds work in a coal mining town, hiding under the earth, grasping for ways to survive the descent into blackness. He tells himself that soon he will have enough money saved to rejoin his family in Chicago, but the haunting of Amelia, a white girl he fell in love with many years ago threatens to claim his sanity. His situation worsens topside when he becomes implicated in a theft.
In the farthest compartment in the procession, in the dark humidity among the stalls containing a horse, a calf, and a Border collie, a colored man sat in the shadows, his head swaying to the rhythm of the train riding the rails. His head fell forward, and he wept into his calloused hands. “You sure in a pickle,” he said clumsily. Since the attack two months ago, and a part of his tongue was sliced off, his words were incoherent. He forgot, sometimes, and when he spoke aloud, he was startled at how ridiculous he sounded. Ashamed, he clammed up and avoided people as much as he could. He was growing accustomed to the stub in his mouth, and he could still hum a tune, so when he was alone, he listened to the sounds of his voice in that way. He peered at his right calf where the blood seepage on his overalls made the shape of an enlarged circle. He ripped the material in order to see the bullet wound. The blood was thick and purple, clotting over the hole. His thoughts were rapid. “Get the bullet out. You lucky the bullet missed the bone. They will be waiting for you at the next stop. Cross the border into Illinois.”
He dribbled and snorted. What to do? Casper steadied his breathing and bubbles came out of his mouth. He wiped the sweat off his face with his palm. The black and white collie sat on her haunches and stared at him, head cocked, the same way his mama used to when he had done something foolish. He thought to the dog, “Yes, I bet I look a might peculiar.” The man snickered and shook his head because he could imagine the black, petite face and alert eyes of the dog transform into his dead mother. “That white patch around its belly could be Mama’s apron, and the white spot on the head her turban.” He saw her appear, pretty and scolding and frowning and sad all wrapped up at once. “Boy, where’s your wits?” She told him, “Take care of your wife and son. Stay away from white folks, and maybe you’ll live to see your son grow up, isn’t that what I always said? You’ll be lynched before the year is out, attacking those men.” She would have wagged her head. “Gone and killed one of ‘em.” She would have held out her arms to embrace him. “Come here, boy.” Casper imagined his mother rocking him. Even though she had been dead for almost twenty years, he liked to have conversations with her like this in his head. The train mimicked his mother’s motions and the panic floated away. The respite was momentary, for soon more warnings interfered. “They’ll find you. They’ll gut you like a carp. You will never see Clementine or Petey again. You will be dead by the end of the day.” He snapped open his eyes and wondered how to save himself….