Review of Fionna's Will
Boldt utilizes bold strokes to execute 'Fionna's Will'
Writers of what are known as "historical sagas," an increasingly popular sub-group of genre fiction (mysteries, Westerns, science fiction romances, et al), have a heavy responsibility.
First of all, they have to pick a period. Then they must create a strong, sympathetic character oftentimes a woman, who will endure for two or more generations; build a plot that is part travelogue, part historical fact; throw in a soupcon of intrigue, a dollop of romance, a splash of feminine perseverance; load the wagons, whip the mules and be on the way.
Things should move quite nicely after that, for the saga to be a saga in the classical sense should tell of a family, its trials and heroic deeds.
In "Fionna's Will" (Bantam, $4.50), Lana McGraw Boldt fulfills her responsibility, telling the story of Fionna Barry, a young woman from Virginia who crosses the Plains and, through indomitable will, spawns a family empire in the Willamette Valley.
Boldt, a native Oregonian who lives in Ashland, puts Fionna, or "Fee," through all kinds of pioneer paces - storms, lovers, disease, the Ku Klux Klan - while presenting a brief, well re-searched profile of Oregon from about 1860 to the mid-1920s. Fee is one tough cookie.
A 44-year-old with two teen-age daughters, Boldt is a graduate of the University of Oregon; she is a former teacher and Peace Corps volunteer who began writing in 1973 after the birth of her first daughter.
After exploring: "that black hole where short stories live," she struck out for New York to seek out agents and ask them what publishers wanted. They wanted proposals, she was told, and liked all of those she sent back.
Her first book, published in 1984, was "Flower in the Pacific," a saga about World War II that was inspired by her experiences in Micronesia while serving with the Peace Corps. For this novel, her research included reading 93 books, many on the war, but many also on Japan and the Orient, an area of the world that interests her greatly.
"For some reason I feel comfortable writing about the Orient," she said. "It must be that Oregon and the Far East have a lot in common. There is a feeling, hard to describe perhaps, but similar in a lot of ways."
Pedants may interject that "sagas" are not really literature, but mere extensions, or outgrowths, of the romance genre that has been waning the past few years. What happened, they will tell you, is that the better writers of historical romance novels, those who did their homework, survived just like Fionna did on the Oregon Trail. The market remains rapacious, however, as it does for other genre books, and sagas do have a unique quality that is very popular. You can read them and not feel guilty about just enjoying them.
James Michener and Louis L'Amour are lingering examples; and no one should forget Hervey Allen's enormously popular historical novel, "Anthony Adverse" (1933), which probably inspired "Gone With the Wind" and kicked things in gear. Jean "Clan of the Cave Bear" Auel also falls within more contemporary boundaries.
Unfortunately, the authors of these tomelike creations are often unfairly maligned by those who fail to see that some good stories are being told - some better than others - and that's mostly what writing is all about.
Boldt became interested as a child, listening to family stories around the kitchen table, stories that had been passed down through generations.
"I was intrigued by the history of Oregon. I had a great-grandfather and great-grandmother who were a lot like the characters in 'Fionna's Will.' Grandpa was always leaving her for other ventures, and there were a lot of women like her. They held things down while the men were out wandering around. I became intrigued with that kind of character. I read old pioneer journals and found a lot of women who were just surviving, but doing it very well. They were tough."
Boldt, admitting she likes to understand "the feel and smell of things," followed a portion of the Old Oregon Trail from Boise to Portland; she learned about wagons and mules firsthand, from an old Missouri muleskinner and spent hours researching in the Oregon Historical Society.
"It was fascinating," she said. "I learned that most immigrants came to Oregon from seven states, and their character influenced the kind of independence we have today. Most Portlanders came from New England, and we have that influence, too. Oregonians had to live so independently and alone in the old days, that they remain that way. They don't want anybody taking away their rights. We can be conservative and we can also be liberal."
Boldt liked to seek out characters who could be role models for her daughters.
Her next novel will be a contemporary story, perhaps about Oregon, she said, but maybe about the Orient too. She is still uncertain.
"One of the things I don't want to do is be pegged as a genre writer," Boldt concluded. "I love to write, though it's a lonely process, and I love people. I guess I just want to tell stories and have my stories well-written. That's all I can tell anyone, that I can promise them a good story.
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