Donis Casey, author of the Alafair Tucker mysteries, spoke at the Velma Teague Library as part of the Authors @ The Teague series. She was at the library to promote her latest book, The Sky Took Him, the fourth in the series.
Donis started her program by mentioning that it was Earth Day, a very appropriate day to talk about this series. She said she bases these stories on her grandmother and other family members, and for them, it was always Earth Day. Those people never wasted anything. She said Alafair, who has ten children, raises her own vegetables and the animals for meat. She and her family are self-sufficient. At the beginning of the next book, she's growing a Victory Garden because it's set during World War I. Casey said she still remembers her grandmother laying sliced apples on burlap on the the tin roof of a shed to dry the apples. She said she loves to research the lifestyle of her characters, although she remembers a lot of it because she saw it when she was growing up in Oklahoma. The self-sufficient lifestyle was a way of life in the first half of the twentieth century. Now it's almost gone. Few people sustain themselves on a farm in the way Alafair Tucker's family does.
Casey mentioned that she was born just after World War II. Her next book is set in World War I, but as she did the research she realized a lot of the things going on were the same as what she heard from her parents about the Second World War. For instance, during WWI, Americans lost a lot of civil liberties. They passed a law that made it illegal to criticize government policies out loud, even it it was the truth. People went to prison for criticizing the government. Some were labor union organizers. People found socialism frightening. Donis Casey's next Alafair Tucker title will probably be All Men Fear Me. It's based on a WWI poster of a woman pointing, with a cap on that says "Public Opinion", and the poster says "All Men Fear Me."
The Sky Took Him, Casey's latest book, is set in 1915, when the war is coming. It's already going on in Europe. A lot of people are opposed to the U.S. getting into the war, and there is a lot of sympathy for the Germans. In fact, Wilson was elected on a platform about keeping the country out of the war. This is relevant because Alafair has a new son-in-law who is German, and they are starting to get flak. Alafair doesn't want to hear about the war. She is involved with her family, and with war talk, she considers her sons, and it frightens her.
Donis Casey's first three books were set in Boynton, Oklahoma in the eastern part of the state. But, in The Sky Took Him, she takes a trip Enid, to the northwestern part, the Cherokee Strip. The land had belonged to the Cherokee, but they never lived there. They grazed their cattle. By the end of the 1800s, they leased it to cattle ranchers. That led to the Cherokee Land Run, in which a gun was fired, and the people who had lined up took off in cars, wagons, bicycles and their feet, running to the plot of land where they had staked a claim. Then, they had to go to the Land Office, and stand in line. It was so busy, they were doing a "land office" business. They had to live on the land for two years.
Casey's sister-in-law's grandfather had made that run and owned land in Enid. Casey said she set this book in Enid because her publisher wanted her to avoid the St. Mary Mead syndrome. In the Miss Marple books, St. Mary Mead is a small town in which a number of people are murdered. So, her publisher told her to take Alafair somewhere.
Donis' sister-in-law lives in Enid, and when they go there, she likes to take Donis and her husband to a historic restaurant in a converted building that was a laundromat. There are historic pictures on the wall, including one of Randolph Street, the main street in Enid, with a millinery shop and Klein's Department Store. And there is picture of this street that shows two women walking down the street. If you've seen movies that start with a still photograph that segues into live action, that's how Donis saw that picture. She saw Alafair and her oldest daughter, Martha, walking into Klein's. That's the first scene Casey wrote for The Sky Took Him.
Alafair Tucker is a farm wife with a large family, so she needed a compelling reason why she would get on a train and go somewhere. So, Casey decided Alafair would go to visit her sister in Enid. And, she would only go for a family emergency, such as someone dying. So, Donis gave Alafair a dying brother-in-law, so she would take the train to support her sister as a family duty. She's the mother of ten kids, with Martha the oldest at twenty-four, and Grace, the youngest, at three. Martha volunteered to go with her mother to help, and that surprised Alafair. Martha has a job in a bank that she loves. But Martha had reasons to get out of town, and it involved a man.
Casey had to decide what time of year to set the book. She said Cherokee Strip Days, when Enid celebrates the run in September, were the most interesting days of the year. She went through old newspapers at the Enid Library, and went to the ones for Sept. 16, 1915 to find how the town celebrated. She hadn't realized it was only twenty-two years after the run, so most people were still alive who had made the run. There was a huge celebration in Enid, on the large double town square. For three days, that huge square was blocked off for a carnival, street dances and an two hour parade. The parade was led by the Cheyenne Indians. Donis' husband, Don, tells stories of seeing the Cheyennes come to town, and setting up their tepees. The population of Enid in 1915 was 25,000. Casey copied the description of the town celebration for her book. Eugene V. Debs, the head of the Socialist party, was the speaker. At that time, Oklahoma was a "lefty" state.
Casey also did research at the Museum of the Cherokee Strip. Like many towns, they had moved a schoolhouse, a Victorian house, and an old land office to the museum. There was also information about the oil boom going on right about that time. There was a big oil strike in 1916 right outside Enid. Donis said there were a million ways a person could kill themselves in the oil fields. When drilling oil wells, they often became plugged up. In order to open the well, they sent a torpedo down the well, made of nitroglycerin. Then they'd drop a weight down to explode it and open the well. There were special groups of people who did that work. And, they blew themselves up a lot. They were called shooters, and received huge bonus pay. They could be recognized by their missing body parts. Donis named one Pee Wee, and he had one eye, and missing fingers.
Census reports from 1910 and 1920 where a big help. In 1910, the population of Enid was divided by race, White, Black, Indian, and Asian. There was one Asian person in 1910. In 1920, there were five Asians. Donis said she wondered about that one Asian person, and what they were doing there, so she created an Asian woman for her book.
So, she has one Asian person, a shooter, oil wells, a fair, and Alafair comes to Enid during the fair. Her niece's husband has disappeared on a business trip at this time, and Alafair thinks he just took off, since she doesn't have a good opinion of him. There is also an evil businessman character, who owns an enormous bank building. He's an enemy of Alafair's dying brother-in-law. They both made the run twenty-two years earlier, and something happened. Also, Martha was running away from someone, who turns up in Enid. There are a number of side stories in the book. Casey said she loved the way The Sky Took Him turned out.
In describing Enid, Donis said it's flat, part of the Great Plains. The Chisholm Trail runs through it. It's flat, with oil and wheat fields, and red dirt. People who grew up there, like Donis' husband, are often claustrophobic because they're used to wide, open spaces. She said he grows nervous in sections of the country where the trees grow over the road and form a tunnel. In Enid, the wind blows continually.
Casey said she grew up in Oklahoma, and was thirty-six when she moved to Arizona. She realized it was the first time in her life she wasn't watching the weather all the time. She felt her shoulders relax. In Oklahoma, there's wind, and cold, tornadoes and ice storms. It's windy all the time. They have one nice month, October. In Arizona, the weather is calm, and she feels calm. In Oklahoma, people must be tough, and have a mental toughness to put up with the weather.
Donis was asked about Grace, and she said Grace is one of the most popular characters. Gee Dub is the other one, and he's based on a real person. He's the other one people like. She even received a letter from a man who knew the time period of the books, who told her not to kill Gee Dub in WWI.
She said she's trying to write one book for each kid in the family, and hopes she can pull it off. Each kid is different, so she might succeed. Grace was born in 1912. By the time she is 18, it will be 1930, and the Depression. Casey said she doesn't want to write about that period because that's the only thing so many people think of for Oklahoma. They don't realize that Oklahoma was rich. She wants to write about the booming, rich period.
In saying that, she said her publisher said not that many people would be killed in a year in a small town, and Donis laughed and commented that the publisher didn't know Oklahoma. That wouldn't be a stretch there, even today.
Donis pointed out the covers of her books, and that there are family pictures on the front of most of them. She bought the picture on the cover of The Drop Edge of Yonder because the woman looked just like her Aunt Mary, and Alafair's daughter, Mary, is the focus of this book. She told us the picture in the background is the family home, Alafair's home, in Boynton. And, the little girl on the cover of The Sky Took Him is Donis. That's supposed to be a picture of Grace.
The Sky Took Him is a statement Grace makes during the story. All of the titles are something a character says. When Grace goes to sleep, she says she goes to the sky. Grace is somewhat like her mother, extra-intuitive.
When she was asked about her characters, Casey said the characters become real people, and talk for themselves. According to Donis, Graham Greene said the first time a character does something you didn't expect is when they come alive, and then you let them to it. For her, writing is almost a spiritual experience. It's torture to write, and it takes her a year to write a book. But, once in a while, something happens, and it just comes out. There is a revelation at the end of The Sky Took Him, and Donis never saw it coming. She was just as shocked as Alafair when Alafair realized what had happened.
Donis Casey said, don't overthink the story. Just get out of the way.
For personal reasons, Donis has not been able to tour for The Sky Took Him. We're very grateful she was able to appear at the Velma Teague Library for the Authors @ The Teague series.
Donis Casey's website is www.doniscasey.com.
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The Sky Took Him by Donis Casey. Poisoned Pen Press, ©2009. ISBN 978-1-59058-571-9 (hardcover), 252p.