My childhood home in Western Maryland.
As I gear up to accept my North Carolina Author Project Award in Nashville, Tennessee, I think about the deeper reasons why I wrote my YA, Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town. Sometimes when we authors pen a tale, we don’t necessarily tap into specific memories, at least not consciously. So taking a few moments to analyze the crux of Upside Down, not just for me, but for my readers.
I grew up in Western Maryland, in a family of four active little girls who probably should have been boys. Even though I was born at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, my parents decided that living out in the countryside would be more advantageous to their daughters’ lives. So, at the age of six, I was packed up along with our household belongings and moved into a fourteen-room farm house situated on a low hill in the middle of a newer neighborhood. The neighborhood was (and still is) known as Carroll County Trails, each of the streets named after a type of horse. My street was Suffolk Road. This is what you do out in the countryside, you name streets after horses, or trees, or flowers…
The house was built in the late 1860s, and is flanked across the front by a wide curved porch. The roof is tin. The outside walls are slatted wood. Because the early 1860s still knew slavery, the home, when I lived in it, had a summer kitchen on the side, and a smokehouse in the back. The summer kitchen (which, sadly, was removed by the current owners a few years back), was originally used by a slave or servant, or even the lady of the house, to cook meals during the summers because it was too hot to cook in the actual house. Inside the dark 10 x 10 space was a large stone fireplace, probably dormant for over a century. It had a narrow staircase leading up to a loft, perhaps where a caretaker slept, but was better suited to a growing country girl like myself as a place to play truth or dare, or make out with boys who looked like David Cassidy. The smokehouse, which squatted at the corner of the property, was about 4 x 4, with tall walls and no floor. This building would have been used for curing meat in order to preserve it for meals, especially in the winter when it was difficult to get to a butcher. Up until the day I left home in 1981, that smokehouse, which we turned into a bathhouse to go with our above ground pool, never stopped smelling like bacon. To this day, if I smell bacon in a restaurant, I am reminded of our old smokehouse.
As a young girl, I had a grand imagination, though it didn’t lend itself to faeries and dragons and such. And even though my home was incredibly haunted (a tale for another blog post), I tended to stick to an average girlish script during playtime, specifically playing “house.” In the second grade I had a crush on a little neighbor boy who I deemed, without his consent, my playmate. I’m sure he would have rather been playing baseball or shooting cans with a slingshot, but I was little Miss Bossypants as a child, and convinced him he should play what I wanted, which was farmer and wife. I made him pretend to be the man who grew crops and smoked meat, and I would be the wife who hand washed clothes and took care of all the cooking. My memory of these summer days are a blur, but the feelings hidden beneath the memories are strong and laced with happiness and comfort. You see, I found that playing a farmer’s wife came easy to me, as though I’d lived before as a woman who washed and cooked and kept the fire in the hearth going. I enjoyed roughing it, and getting my hands dirty. I still do. I never complain about scrubbing toilets or doing laundry, as if it is a part of my DNA. So, as a kid out in the countryside, it seemed like the perfect role, this farmer’s wife.
My hometown is filled with expansive farms, rolling hills, horse stables, ponds, creeks, tire swings, gardens, and cows dotting the rolling hills everywhere you look. Growing up, everyone I knew played a part in this country life, from an old friend of my mother’s who taught me how to can, to my private violin teacher who taught me how to collect eggs and shear sheep, to the 4-H Club which awarded me ribbons for keeping a cat journal. The busy city life of Baltimore was only thirty minutes away, but we felt so far removed from that world. Many of my friends were from farming families. The ones who weren’t farmers chose to live alongside the corn and cows because there is a sense of freedom and simple living so far away from the city.
One place in my hometown that stands out for me is the Carroll County Farm Museum. This gorgeous homestead has remained in tact since 1852 and is a living museum that replicates what it was like to live in the 1880s. Originally built on over 300 fertile acres, there is a main house, a springhouse, and other outbuildings. They have live animals, tours, classes, and a gift shop. I remember being dazzled by its beauty year round: Fourth of July fireworks; autumn hay rides; dazzling Christmas decorations; and many school field trips. I even dragged my husband there a few years ago to prove to myself it was as wonderful as I remembered, and it was.
I tell you about my home and the living museum because I have come to the conclusion that these are two of the reasons I wrote Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town. Sure, I read the Little House books as a child, and watched every episode of the television version, including reruns. Laura Ingalls Wilder has always been a part of me, and I even picked up her nickname, Halfpint, when I was little, because I resembled Melissa Gilbert who played Laura on the show. But honestly, I do not think that she (Laura) is the real reason I wrote the book.
Old homesteads, old farms, old outbuildings give me the ookies. They make my stomach flip in a good way. So much so, that I am now living in a tiny Southern town in my second Victorian home. I have been to the Bennett House in Durham, and hid my tears when I saw that the inside of the home was nearly identical to the fictional Western North Carolina home I’d created for my novel. Ironically, as a teen, I couldn’t wait to get out of my tiny Western Maryland out-in-the-sticks town and find a bigger city. I actually moved to Southern California at nineteen and lived in beachy apartments for twenty years. But one day, it hit me that I missed that country life, at least a little bit. Many of us, as we get older, end up living as we did as children, since that is where we find comfort. A part of me yearned for the countryside, to know that cows and horses and farms weren’t too far away. So I moved to a place that brought those feelings back to me.
For Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town, watching sixteen-year-old Brooke Decker, the main character, learn to live without the accoutrements (and perhaps confines) of the modern era, I was able to once again experience those summer days of pretend farming, of washing socks in a bucket and hanging them on the line to dry, of recognizing even as a child, that a day working hard with your hands is the best day ever. And that living a life, even for a few months, like Laura Ingalls, can teach us what it means to understand nature, to envelope oneself in quiet, to feel the tired in our bones from a productive day. I didn’t grow up like Laura Ingalls, but I think I always wanted to. And as much as I once prayed to leave the cow town I grew up in, I feel damn lucky I had the opportunity to be a country girl for a while. That country girl will always be a part of who I am, and I thank the universe she found a way to become a part of Brooke Decker, too.
My website: www.leslietallmanning.com
Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01AS5ZQZU
Carroll County Farm Museum: http://carrollcountyfarmmuseum.org/exhibits/