By Anna Brentwood
People often ask me why I chose to write a story that takes place in the 1920’s, but this story chose me. Hannah, my main character came to me in a series of dreams that over a long period of time, I became compelled to explore and eventually write about.
What I discovered when researching the 1920’s is a strong respect for my character and her friends, all women who came of age in a world that is as foreign to us today as an alien world on another planet would be.
The twenties were a time when people lived hard, worked harder, smoked incessantly, drank continuously and got steady doses of heroin, morphine, cocaine and opium in their soft drinks, candy or medicines. People could pretty much get away with murder, and often did. It was a rough, bawdy time where fortunes were lost or made in a single night and criminals became kings. Fashion was innovative, shocking and society’s rules and morals and tastes were being challenged daily.
City life was very different from country life but life in general was brutally hard, short and contained very few pleasures. Even the standards and luxuries of the very richest of that time pale in comparison to the common luxuries we all take for granted today.
In The Songbird With Sapphire Eyes, Hannah begins her life on a rural farm in Kansas where all her widowed mother, Emalith does is work. A rainbow in a world of beige, young Hannah yearns for a life that offers more than hard work.
A young woman's prospects for marriage were restricted to the size of her town or neighborhood. It was common (and not a crime) for girls as young as fifteen to be courted by men twenty, thirty or forty years older. If a girl were a sheltered, so-called respectable girl, her family would have a say in whom she could love or marry. Because there were so many “rules” between family approvals, religious and social orientations, proper methods of meeting, and because men were the ones who had to both initiate and propel courtship, a woman’s choices, especially if she were poor were limited.
Few learned about the "birds and the bees" factually and garnered the information through gossip, misinformation or supposition witnessing animals mating outdoors or attending funerals of women who died in childbirth. Puberty was shrouded in fear, shame and mystery and when a girl started her menses, there was no such thing as sanitary pads or tampons, and instead rags were bundled and boiled clean and reused. Usually discreetly and G-D Forbid, never discussed openly.
One of the elderly widows I interviewed had grown up in the country, in a small, rural Oregon town. She’d attended school in a one room schoolhouse and as a young woman began working in a neighboring town as a law clerk. She met a young man studying to be a lawyer and they got engaged. They planned to marry after he finished his studies. She looked forward to finally moving into her own home and starting a family.
One day after church she attended a cousin’s party. Her male cousin’s friend, a young man new to the area and a Scot was nice but she didn’t think much of him, his dress or his looks and quickly forgot all about him. However, he did not forget about her. With seeming assistance from her cousin, he seemed to pop up everywhere she went with her family. She didn’t think much of it but it wasn’t more than a week or so later that her fiancée suddenly began avoiding her. Soon after that to her utter shock, without explanation he broke off their engagement.
She was heartbroken, but in those days, a respectable young woman didn’t chase after a man or show up at his home uninvited or demand an explanation.
Her cousin and his friend in tow started showing up on the pretense of cheering her up. The Scot would sometimes show up alone or at her work. He’d bring flowers, presents and tell her stories that made her laugh. What she didn’t know at the time, but found out many years after she’d been married to her persistent Scot was that he had purposely sabotaged her engagement. While he never would admit the exact details of what he’d done, she suspected he’d either threatened her beau or insinuated something that had humiliated the fiancée.
Entranced by her romantic courtship, I asked her if she’d “loved” him. Like every single woman of that era I spoke with, she was uncomfortable with the term love. They all would shrug, stammer or say “I grew to love him…we were married for 60 years…or he was a good man, a good provider, a good father…he didn’t beat me…he wasn’t a drunk but they didn’t think in terms of love.
All of them could not wait to marry. It was a way out of their parent’s rule and to be on their own. They looked to marriage and having children as a major achievement and this was their definition of success. A good provider was key to all of them. They all defined themselves and their lives by their husband’s financial success and their children. Unlike us today, who seek to match so many different criteria to define ourselves and our relationships, they were much less complicated. They simply sought someone they shared common values with, someone who would treat them kindly and maybe they could grow to love, but mostly they married for security and family. They wanted someone to take care of them and be a good provider.
When you consider that the average American life expectancy then was age 53 for a man and 54 for a woman and that is only if you survived childhood, maybe there was a good reason they didn't spend years trying to "find" themselves. Or date incessantly to find "Mr. or Mrs. Right."
What about sex? Most of them chuckled, laughed and as a group, felt it was a bother. Something that was expected, something that some of them disdained but tolerated because they wanted children and/or didn't want to upset their husbands by saying no. They were relieved in their old age that they didn't have to think about it. In the grand scheme of life, it didn’t hold a lot of importance to any of them.
One said her husband had demanded sex three times a day for the whole sixty years of their marriage up until the day he'd died. Impressed, I asked her what happened if she said no or wasn't in the mood. She told me he'd be angry and sulk for days so she'd just learned to grin and "bare" it and never say no. Think wham, bam and thank you, Ma’am!
Less is more. This never was as true as back when sex was not as readily available with almost anyone and the idea alone was intoxicating. Just a hint of gam and a whispered innuendo and a girl who understood and used her sexuality knowledgably could have men eating out of her hands, and often did.
My character Hannah learns this as she both observes her friends behaviors and struggles to survive in a town where opportunities for women are few.
With no such thing as reliable or safe birth control and two hundred and forty-eight thousand children under five dying annually, childbirth and having children was dangerously risky. If you managed to survive it, often many times, you were worn-out, middle-aged at thirty and back then, thirty was definitely not the new forty!
If that was not deterrent enough, should a girl succumb to premarital relations and be discovered or worse, exposed by a pregnancy, she could be shunned, sent away, discarded, married off, ostracized, ruined and her children if she even got to keep them were labeled "bastards." In a society where respectable jobs were almost nonexistent for women, many were forced to turn to prostitution to support themselves or risk a dangerous and almost always-lethal back-alley abortion.
Such is the case when Hannah’s best friend, Meg is faced with this exact situation.
Women on their own were often forced to use their sexuality and often their bodies to survive. If they were even smarter, they also used their heads. I spoke to two women whose grandmothers were Madams and ran their own whorehouses during this time. Both were forced into these circumstances because they’d been widowed young and had young children to raise. Both were savvy businesswomen and though they gave up their respectability, they created a means in which to support themselves and their children, remain in a position to choose who they slept with and both eventually retired with enough money to move and live out the remainders of their lives elsewhere where their pasts were unknown.
With such limited choices, you have to respect the women that did manage to survive and thrive no matter what.
Diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea ran rampant. A man didn’t have to tell his wife or other partners what or whom he was doing because he was a man and he had a man’s prerogatives so there was no disclosure. Nineteenth century doctors “knew” venereal diseases were immoral and originated with prostitutes. They expected children of these mothers to be born infected in the eyes, but genital gonorrhea was neither routine nor acquired at birth. They assumed most infected children were poor, working-class or Afro-American girls claiming to have been sexually assaulted, concluding these girls had been raped, sometimes by their father.
It wasn’t until they discovered how to detect venereal disease (late 1920’s) their beliefs changed. Genital gonorrhea was so widespread among girls, it was epidemic. This puzzled the mostly male medical community.
They could not fathom how so many good girls from white, middle and upper class, respectable families could be infected. They totally ignored the possibility of incest or rape. They believed that only foreign or ignorant men abused their daughters. When the evidence pointed to men from their own class; they determined that girls could become infected from non-sexual contacts like toilet seats, towels or bedding because the tissue lining their vaginas was so thin, it provided little protection from bacteria. Interestingly, after penicillin was introduced in the 1940’s and slowly eradicated venereal diseases, medical interest in the source of young girls’ infections disappeared.
You might even remember that old toilet seat warning yourself!
Back then, love was an ideal but marriage was forever whether you were happy or not.
The popular Fanny Brice song, My Man epitomizes the acceptance and the dependence a woman of that era had when it came to her man.
“Two or three girls has he, that he likes as well as me, but I love him.
I don’t know why I should, he isn’t true, he beats me too, what can I do?
Oh, my man, I love him so, he’ll never know, all my life is just despair, but I don’t care, when he takes me in his arms, the world is bright, all right.”
|Find it here|
Before I researched and wrote, The Songbird With Sapphire Eyes, I judged Hannah and her friends harshly. The era was so diverse and different on so many levels it would be hard to touch on all of it here, however I learned to appreciate the fact we all have circumstances that we are born into and must either accept or overcome no matter our time. We all have dreams and goals and face obstacles and choices.
The twenties was a fabulous backdrop and what I appreciated most from sharing Hannah’s story, was her strength and determination to not only follow her dreams, but the courage and strength she had to deviate from societies norms. She had the guts to face the dangers and take the risks and the consequences to be who she wanted to be and always, no matter what, remain true to herself.
The Songbird With Sapphire Eyes by Anna Brentwood
In 1918, Kansas City is Sin City.
Forced to leave home at age fourteen, beautiful Hannah Glidden struggles to survive, but with help from her childhood friend, Meg, mistress to a wealthy married man and her roommate, the irrepressible, flapper extraordinaire, Rosie, she thrives as a cabaret singer.
The early 20’s roared. Fortunes were made or lost in a single night, and criminals mingled with kings. Neither the government nor Prohibition could stop the flow of alcohol or the lure of the “good life.” Handsome rum runner Johnny Gallo is part of New York's large, growing criminal empire where the sky is the limit. The ruthless Gallo has a knack for knowing the right people, and a single-minded devotion to getting what he wants. And, he wants Hannah.
Hannah goes with Johnny to Al Capone’s Chicago and eventually to Brooklyn, New York where she basks in the glamorous shadow world of gangsters and their gals. Johnny becomes a force to be reckoned with, but in time the free-spirited Hannah clashes with her controlling lover.
She faces the dark side of her dreams but dares to defy Johnny despite the dangers and unwittingly discovers that for her, dying just might be the only true path to freedom after all.
Anna (which is her real first name) was a bookworm almost since birth and was recognized as a writing PRO by Romance Writers of America in 2002. An active professional member of Willamette Writers, RWA, the Rose City Romance Writers and NIWA, Anna grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Philadelphia’s, University of the Arts where she majored in Illustration. She pursued a successful and versatile career in children’s book illustration, graphic arts, publications and public relations in Southern California before being lured to the Oregon wilderness by her desire to write professionally and raise her family in wholesome and healthy surroundings.
‘The Songbird with the Sapphire Eyes’ recently reached #3 in Coming to Age fiction and #6 in Historical on Amazon’s Top 100 downloads. Anna's debut novel began as a series of dreams that so haunted her they became a personal quest to explore possible past life memories. The journey was both eerie and exciting and the manuscript finaled and won second place in the Women’s Fiction category of the 2006 Tara Awards.
Anna is inspired to write about interesting characters whose lives take them on journeys we can all enjoy and perhaps learn something meaningful from. She is busy working on a sequel to 'The Songbird With Sapphire Eyes' which will take readers on a journey through the 1940's with Johnny and Hannah's son, wartime hero, playboy and New York mobster, Anthony Gallo.
Twitter @annabrentwood Facebook.com/annabrentwood