I’ve written that the life of my grandpa’s aunt Rose influenced the creation of Jo Harper and her circumstances in the 1910 town of Willowby, Wyoming. This was especially true with Jo’s initial outing in Waiting for a Comet. But it wouldn’t be fair to say Jo is Rose. Like all the fictional characters we create, she and her friends Frog and Constable Abby Drake are amalgamations built from imagination. But Rose is in there, and so’s my great-grandma, Louise.
Rose Prosch was the daughter of a German emigrant who came to America, first to Iowa, then Nebraska, looking for a better life. Johann (John) Prosch left an embittered and war-weary Schleswig-Holstein in Bismarck’s fledgling German empire after his family saved up enough money for him to make the journey to Schleswig, Iowa.
Nearby, in the small town of Early, Iowa, another German immigrant named Clausen was raising a family under similar circumstances. His daughter, Louise, went to school in Early, and Odebolt, Iowa, before moving west. In Nebraska, she would meet and marry Rose’s brother, Arthur Prosch.
Art and Louise were my great-grandparents. I never knew Art, but both great-grandma and Aunt Rose lived into their nineties, so I heard all their stories first hand. Some of their experiences have found their way into Jo’s life. There was the time Rose and her sister lost control of a Model-T in a corn field (Racing a Dog Star) or when Louise saw an important man in town coming home drunk from a saloon late at night (Shooting the Moon –available soon). But those real life incidents were just starting points, the first stitch in a fictitious tapestry.
Great-Grandma’s autograph book is a different story. I dropped it whole-cloth into Roping a Planet (Jo Harper No. 3). Another cherished hand-me-down, I’m looking at it as I type: a paste-board covered sheaf of yellow paper, made in Germany, a 1906 Christmas gift to Louise. While it’s not integral to the plot, I couldn’t help but use it as one way of showing that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just like today, twelve-year olds in 1906 were interested in what their friends wrote about them in social media (even if back then it was on paper). The kids represented in Grandma’s book seem most concerned with happiness, death, and being remembered. Not so different from the sentiments expressed in my high school yearbook, or now left on BFF Facebook comments.
A lot of the pages are filled with whimsical poems, apparently a tradition at the time. A few have fairly dark subtexts:
In April, 1907, Anna Wetzstein wrote:
I wish you health and happiness
I wish you gold in store
I wish you heaven after death
What can I wish you more?
Or how about Hazel Little’s words from December, 1907:
A place for my name in your album
A place for my name in your heart
A place for us both in heaven
Where kind friends never part.
I’m thinking if some kid wrote that last one on a FB wall today, he or she would probably be suspected of planning a murder or suicide. Or both.
Some of the poems were more light-hearted, like this one from Helen Burhardt of Wall Lake, Iowa who wrote on August 4, 1907:
When you see a cat climb a tree
Pull its tail and think of me.
And while none of the comments could be considered bawdy, I did get a chuckle from this one from cousin Dora Clausen (September, 1907):
Louisa is your name
Single is your station
Happy is the little man
That makes the alteration.
Writing the Jo Harper series for Painted Pony Books has been a journey of discovery, about myself, my family, and about the way are country and culture have changed since 1910.
And about how some things don’t ever change. Jo and her friends, like Rose and Louise, we all look for friendship, we all wonder about death, and we look forward to what our future holds.
Reaching out to make our marks in the social media fashion of the day, we all hope to be remembered.