The Setting

I forget what author said that writers have less insight than anybody about their own books. At the risk of not knowing what I’m talking about when I’m talking about my own writing, I’ll share a few thoughts about the milieu of Love and Lament.
The heroine, Mary Bet, was of a gentry that had gone to war and come home defeated, heads hung low in shame and bitterness and exhaustion. The land was empty; fortunes were gone up in smoke. Despite generous surrender terms offered by the North, it was still an occupied territory. But by the 1890s things were beginning to change. Mary Bet’s story takes place between this time and the first world war.
We tend to believe that there’s something simple and romantic in the pre-world-war era, and it’s true that people’s lives then were very different from ours. The pace of life was not as jittery, nor as instantaneous. Life expectancy was lower, resulting in outlooks and expectations that were not so unbounded. The story of your life, particularly in the South, was contained within the few square miles of a county. Most people lived rural lives—only about 15 percent of Southerners lived in a town in 1900 (the situation has now reversed, with an urban population of 85 percent). The expectation was that you’d be born, get married, grow old, die, and be buried in the churchyard beside other family members. To want more was to be considered proud, arrogant, “uppity.” Everybody had his place, and to act out of it was to upset a very carefully established social order and thus invite chaos.
Communities were smaller, quieter, and more obvious, mostly revolving around church and civic functions, and there was a clearer line between classes, especially between blacks and whites. Race relations were, by the 1890s, back on an even keel, owing to sporadic terrorism and the black codes of the Jim Crow South, and blacks took up their former subservient position and waited for a better day. Meanwhile, a war was coming in Europe, a war with no clear cause, enemy, or purpose.
But people also had the same pressing concerns of family and love and work and fulfillment as we do. And, for the Hartsoe family, those concerns came down to a matter of survival. In the 1890s, modern medicine was in its infancy; germ theory was taking its first steps. It was an era of fluxes, fevers, and midnight miasmas. The idea that there were microorganisms that could enter the body and do damage was just beginning to be accepted. In the meantime, if you contracted an infectious disease and your body’s immune system was not able to beat it, you had no choice but to suffer and die. People didn’t expect public health miracles on a regular basis, and they didn’t get them. The vaccine for typhoid—a deadly, contagious killer—did not appear until 1917. It took ten more years for tetanus. And not until the 1940s would the first sulfa drugs become available, and the war on infectious diseases could begin in earnest.
The modernization of America got seriously underway after World War I, and by then everything had changed. For Mary Bet and her family, those changes would come too late.