Welcome to my Second Acts Series!
Today, we have a different kind of second act. A character in Soul Mate author Linda Bennett Pennell’s novel, Confederado do Norte, is sharing her reinvention story.
Here’s Mary Catherine!
Set during the aftermath of the American Civil War, Confederado do Norte tells the story of Mary Catherine MacDonald Dias Oliveira Atwell, a child torn from her war devastated home in Georgia and thrust into the primitive Brazilian interior where the young woman she becomes must learn to recreate herself in order to survive.
Mary Catherine’s first recreation began when she was just a child of 10. Here is a mature Mary Catherine sharing that first recreation in her own words.
My story began at the end of a long war in which many lives and much property were destroyed. After all these years, I can still smell the acrid smoke coming off the ash heap that was the farmhouse where my parents and I once lived. It is as though no time at all has passed since Sherman’s March to the Sea. The only thing that Mama, my beloved nurse Bess, and I could do was watch from our hiding place and wish that Papa wasn’t so far away fighting.
When Papa finally found his way home from the war, it was as a changed man – bitter, lost, and given to unpredictable rages followed by deep melancholia. Even so, we were happy to have him home because we believed he would one day return to himself. If it hadn’t been for a newspaper article and a handful of advertisements my life would have turned out quite differently. As it was, it took little to convince Papa that leaving home was the only solution left to defeated Southerners. Emperor Dom Pedro II’s promise of free land in Brazil’s heartland and subsidized passage sealed our fate.
Shortly after we immigrated, my mother died of galloping consumption, leaving me in the care of my father and my mother’s only surviving brother, Nathan. Papa’s mercurial nature coupled with Nathan’s hatred of me left me uncertain and confused. You see, Nathan blamed me for my mother’s death. The fear that he might be right haunted me, but when I learned Nathan was demanding I be returned to family in Georgia, I became determined to do everything possible to prevent it. I had already lost Mama. I couldn’t bear being separated from Papa as well. At the age of ten, I became a self-taught housekeeper – cooking, cleaning, washing the clothes, tending the vegetable garden, preserving food – nothing was beyond my scope.
By age twelve I decided to pile my long auburn hair up on my head as I had once seen Mama do. It was safer and cooler when I did the housework. Nathan said I was too young to flounce around like a grown woman, but Papa said I did the work of two women so to leave me alone. It came as a shock when I realized that I really didn’t feel like a girl anymore. Somewhere between lifting wet clothes out of the wash pot and cooking on the wood fired stove, I had made the transition from little girl to young woman. Somehow all that I had experienced made that little girl seem like a stranger, as though I were a different person completely. Before I was twenty-one, I would recreate myself two more times because my life and freedom would depend on it.
I have been in love with the past for as long as I can remember. Anything with a history, whether shabby or majestic, recent or ancient, instantly draws me in. I suppose it comes from being part of a large extended family that spanned several generations. Long summer afternoons on my grandmother’s porch or winter evenings gathered around her fireplace were filled with stories both entertaining and poignant. Of course being set in the American South, those stories were also peopled by some very interesting characters, some of whom have found their way into my work.
As for my venture in writing, it has allowed me to reinvent myself. We humans are truly multifaceted creatures, but unfortunately we tend to sort and categorize each other into neat, easily understood packages that rarely reveal the whole person. Perhaps you, too, want to step out of the box in which you find yourself. I encourage you to look at the possibilities and imagine. Be filled with childlike wonder in your mental wanderings. Envision what might be, not simply what is. Let us never forget, all good fiction begins when someone says to her or himself, “Let’s pretend.”
I reside in the Houston area with one sweet husband and one adorable German Shorthaired Pointer who is quite certain she’s a little girl.
Favorite quote regarding my professional passion: “History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.” Voltaire
Where to find Linda Pennell…
Linda, thanks for giving us insight in Mary Catherine’s early life. I’m putting Confederado do Norte on my TBR list.