Over the years I have enjoyed all four of Lea Wait’s historical novels for young people. Last Friday I reviewed Finest Kind here on my blog. Today it is my privileged to introduce Lea for this interview.
What parts of Finest Kind are factual?
The background of FINEST KIND is accurate: because of the Panic of 1837, banks failed in Boston and other cities, there was widespread unemployment, and many families were in dire circumstances, as Jake’s family was. The acceptance (or, rather, lack of acceptance) of those born with physical or mental disabilities is accurate for that period. A little later in the nineteenth century there were institutions where families sent those with mental disabilities, but in 1837 such individuals were kept at home and hidden, or, as in Simon’s case, found a place within the community.
Wiscasset was, and is, a real town, and many of the people in FINEST KIND did live and work there. Dr. Theobold (who also appeared in my book WINTERING WELL) was the town doctor, and Thursey Seigars was his housekeeper. The minister, the shopkeepers, and other local people are real characters. Most notably, everyone who worked at (or who was incarcerated in) the Wiscasset Jail was a real person, including Samuel Holbrook, the jailer who also was a school master, and his wife Lucy and their children. The jail and jailer’s home did burn down December 3, 1838, and Lucy Holbrook, her children, and the inmates of the jail, were all saved by students who saw the flames on their way to school that morning.
The other characters in the book are fictional, although there were people like them in 1838 Wiscasset.
Out of all your historical books for young people, who is your favorite character? Why?
Who is my favorite fictional character? That’s an impossible question! It’s like asking me which of my children I like the best! I did love writing Granny McPherson, in FINEST KIND.
In general, I love my characters who are survivors; who find out their decisions can control their lives even in the worst circumstances.
They would include Abbie, in STOPPING TO HOME, who comes up with an ingenious solution to keeping what is left of her family together. Michael/Noah (he even changes his name to survive) in SEAWARD BORN, who gives up all he knows and loves for a chance at freedom. Will, in WINTERING WELL, who refuses to believe his life is over when he loses a leg in an accident. And Jake and Nabbie in FINEST KIND, both of whom are proud and stubborn and refuse to give up even when it seems impossible for them to take care of their families.
What is your favorite location in Wiscasset?
My favorite location in Wiscasset is, I’ll admit, that jail, which really is on Federal Street in Wiscasset.
The jail that is there now is the one built in 1839 to replace the one that burned in 1838. I first visited it when I was about ten years old and can still remember how cold and still those old cells were. How horrible it must have been to have been imprisoned there.
Now I sometimes give tours of the jail myself, and love pointing out the bars that one prisoner tried to saw through, and the drawings of a schooner another prisoner made on a whitewashed cell wall. The cells are dark and cold. Granite doesn’t burn, so the walls are the same ones Jake would have seen, and the worn stone floors are the same ones Sam Holbrooke and his wife Lucy walked on. I like feeling that through FINEST KIND many people who’ve never been able to visit a jail like this one in person have been able, through Jake, to find out a little about what it was like to live through hard times in the 1830s.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
We have some of the same problems today that people had then. Families still have secrets. People are still born with disabilities. We still have bullies. People still make fun of other people they don’t understand. There are still parents who can’t find jobs and parents who drink too much.
Writing about problems doesn’t solve them. But sometimes it’s easier to see problems from a distance. That’s what I hope my books will do: open windows to the past, and show how real people, with real lives, and real problems, lived then. They survived their problems, and we will survive ours.
Someday, when my younger readers now are grown, maybe one of them will write an historical novel set in 2012, and one of their young readers will wonder how people ever coped in the old days.
It could happen.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful answers, Lea!