The Life Fantastic, Question Two

Liza, why are you so interested in theater?

Ever since I was young, I have loved theater, music, and dance. The arts were an essential part of our family life, growing up. Music was always playing on our living room turntable, and our parents sang in the car with us on long drives. When our Nashville cousins came for summer visits, with their guitars, ukuleles, and their wonderful collection of songs, we sang for hours. 

My brother and I made up stories about our stuffed animals when we were young, and my friends and I invented characters and put on small plays. With the Ransom family—six boys whose mother loved theater—we put on plays (such as “Winnie-the-Pooh”) and played charades late into the night. I also liked dance, as this picture shows. I have no memory of the story behind it, but I recognize the dance studio in Vermont, where I spent childhood summers. I must have been about seven. 

Liza Ketchum dancing in Vermont

Here I am, dancing in Vermont. I’m the dancer on the left.

In "Ghost Train," I'm the actress seated on the chair.

In “Ghost Train,” I’m the actress seated on the chair.

In Junior High, I sang the lead of Mabel in “The Pirates of Penzance” (Gilbert and Sullivan), and in high school, I performed in the melodramatic play, “Ghost Train.”  (My most vivid and embarrassing memory of that performance was hearing my father’s laugh ring out from the front row of the audience. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized the play was a farce.) During my senior year, I was head of the Drama Club and often went to see theater in Boston, some of it experimental. I had a minor role in Shaw’s “Major Barbara,” probably the most difficult role I would ever play—because I was onstage for the entire play, but only had four lines. I had to act without speaking.

After high school, I attended The Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City for a summer, and there I was introduced to Method Acting. In a funny way, that eight-week course—where I had to improvise and inhabit roles of people totally different from myself —was excellent training for writing novels. Just as in fiction, I had to imagine what it would be like to inhabit the body, mind, and emotions of another person. I had to invent that person’s history, family, and experience—not easy for a young adult who didn’t know much about the wider world. (Just out of high school, my fellow students were all adults working day jobs while trying to break into the theater.)

I was a camp drama coach for three summers, but by the end of my first year in college, where I took a terrific writing class, I knew I would become a writer. I’ve never lost my love for live theater and I’m lucky to live just outside Boston, a first-class theater city.


The Life Fantastic, Question One

The Life FantasticLiza, what is The Life Fantastic about?

It is 1913 and vaudeville is America’s most popular form of entertainment. Thousands of theatres and opera houses across the country host vaudeville troupes, including the Princess Theater in Brattleboro, Vermont. There, fifteen-year-old Teresa LeClair—who has a “voice like a nightingale”—remembers the thrill of singing onstage as a child. But her parents gave up life on the road, and her father has decided that Teresa, blessed with perfect pitch, should drop out of school and work in the tuning rooms of the local organ factory. 

Determined to escape, Teresa wins an amateur singing contest in Vermont and steals away on the night train to New York.  She hopes to become a star on Broadway’s “Great White Way.” She has no idea of the challenges that lie ahead, and her younger brother, Pascal (a budding juggler) complicates her adventure by stowing away on the same train. In the city, Teresa struggles to follow her dream and care for her brother, while fearing that her father will find them and force her to return home.

Brattleboro Vermont

Brattleboro, Vermont today … the historic district

Luckily, a more experienced vaudevillian named Maeve—who performs with a troupe of circus dogs—takes Teresa and Pascal under her wing. She coaches them as they perform in two-bit, amateur night competitions. In New York, Teresa runs into Pietro Jones and his father, talented African American dancers who had also performed in Brattleboro. Teresa and Pietro become competitors as well as prickly friends. At a time when young black men could be lynched for simply looking at a white girl, Pietro understands, better than Teresa, the danger of their relationship. As they compete in one contest after another, Teresa’s father tracks her down in New York—and demands that she return with her brother to Vermont. Instead, Teresa slips away again, wins a place on vaudeville’s Silver Circuit, and travels west with Pietro, his father, Maeve—and the dogs.

W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B. DuBois

Performing in Western cities and towns, their vaudeville troupe appears in five or six shows a day. They “jump” from one town to the next, sleeping on trains or in fleabag hotels. Every performer risks audience disapproval, which can cause a stage manager to give them “the hook”—and send them packing. As they travel, Teresa’s eyes are opened to the discrimination her black friends face on the road.  She also learns, from Pietro, about a new movement for equal rights growing under the leadership of the great civil rights activist and writer, W.E.B. DuBois.

Teresa’s friendship with Pietro deepens to attraction, even as they realize they could never be together. When Pietro’s father becomes ill and can’t perform, Teresa and Pietro sing a duet onstage—with dire consequences for their careers and their safety. Teresa’s struggle to find her voice onstage and in her life, far from the support of her family, takes place against a complex backdrop of American history.


Vermont’s Estey Organ Company

Fifteen-year-old Teresa’s father works at the Estey Organ Company. Teresa has perfect pitch, which means she can identify a musical note, or sing a named note without hearing any music. This talent would help her get a job in the factory’s tuning rooms, where organ pipes are tested for accuracy. Teresa’s mother believes the job would destroy her daughter’s beautiful voice. And Teresa knows she would never survive, locked up in the factory all day long.

Based in Brattleboro, Vermont, this website serves as the digital museum for the Estey Organ Company, with photos and history about the once-famous manufacturer of parlor organs that graced the homes of many families and churches across the country.

Estey pump organ

An Estey pump organ. Notice the Stradivarius posed on top of the organ.

Estey Pump Organ

An Estey parlor organ with pipes! Can you imagine the sound in your parlor?


Vaudeville Stars in Blackface

In The Life Fantastic, Pietro rebels against a common practice: applying “blackface” in order to appear onstage in vaudeville theaters. Smearing burnt cork on one’s face and hands was meant to obscure the skin color of the actor underneath the makeup. It was a carryover from the days of black minstrel shows. For Pietro and many other black performers, it was demeaning. And yet, African American actors, singers, dancers, and comedians appearing in blackface opened the door for black performers who would eventually go on stage without cork.

Stephen Foster Hard Times sheet music

Songs from this era, especially those of Stephen Foster, were favorites on the vaudeville stage. Yet they’re seldom sung today because of his lyrics, which reflect a time of racial intolerance. A number of historians share their feelings about Stephen Foster’s lyrics.

“It’s part of black history and it’s part of American history and you can’t change history. It’s good to reflect on it. I think it’s more important to study history as it is, lest we ever repeat ourselves.” –Nancy Griffith, musician

Learn more: (American Experience on PBS, “Blackface Minstrelsy”)


Vaudeville Stars, Fred and Adele Astaire

Footwork: the story of Fred and Adele AstaireFred Astaire personified grace and elegance for several generations. He and his sister Adele began their careers on the vaudeville stage as children. (My mother, who grew up to dance professionally with Martha Graham, dreamed of taking Adele’s place, when she was a child.) 

Here’s a picture book biography that tells the story of their beginning: Footwork: the story of Fred and Adele Astaire, by Roxane Orgill and Stéphane Jorisch.

Mental Floss shares “14 Toe-Tapping Facts about Fred Astaire,” which add depth to other biographies of this mega-star.

This slideshow features still photos of Fred and Adele from their days in vaudeville. And here’s one of my favorite dance routines from the brilliant Mr. Astaire, dancing with a coat rack in the movie Royal Wedding

Fred Astaire, dancing in Royal Wedding


A fascination with theater, dance, and storytelling

Many years ago, a little girl was born in Vermont. As she grew, she loved to make up stories and act them out. She enjoyed singing, dancing, and dressing up as the characters from the stories that she and her friends created. They might be royalty in the Middle Ages, or Greek goddesses, or Vermont farmers, or female versions of the characters in The Little Rascals. Like her mother—a professional dancer—the girl liked to tell a story through movement and music.

Liza Ketchum dancing in Vermont

That’s me on the far left. I have no memory of what the dance was.

In "Ghost Train," I'm the actress seated on the chair.

In “Ghost Train,” I’m the actress seated on the chair.

In Junior High, the girl’s dramatic play turned serious. She sang the role of Mabel in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, “The Pirates of Penzance,” and performed in neighborhood plays. In high school, she had the lead in an old-fashioned melodrama (“Ghost Train”) and was president of the Drama Club. She went to theater school in New York City after high school, coached kids in drama during her college summers, and dreamed of a life onstage.

Instead—and happily—she became a writer.

How does this story relate to a novel about vaudeville, which takes place more than a century ago—when stars like Eva Tanguay, George Walker, and Bert Williams were all the rage?

Follow my blog to find out! I’ll be sharing information about the history of vaudeville, the suffrage movement, and the fight for racial and gender equality over the coming months.

Learn more about my newest book, The Life Fantastic.

Eva Tanguary, George Walker, Bert Williams

At left, Eva Tanguay, vaudeville performer. (Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Eva Tanguay” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed December 5, 2016.) On the right, George Walker and Bert Williams, vaudeville performers and theater producers (public domain).

The “White Pine Problem”

The “White Pine Problem”

Often, during a school visit or a reading, someone in the audience asks about teachers who encouraged or influenced me as a writer. In response, I give credit to my 8th grade English teacher, Norm Wilson; to Kay Herzog, whose high standards in high school English taught me to revise and revise; to Harvey Swados, who taught me about the relationship between writing, work, and life; and to the inimitable Grace Paley and her brilliant skills with voice and dialogue. But this morning, as I rode my bike up a country road in Vermont, I realized that one of the most important influences on my writing was not a writer, but the biologist and field ecologist, Ty Minton.

I met Ty when I was enrolled in Antioch’s Masters in Education program and signed up for his course in Field Ecology. The class I remember best took place on a sunny fall afternoon when Ty told us we ready to solve the “White Pine Problem.” We followed Ty into the middle of a forest populated only by white pines. Before we could ask any questions, Ty told us that the trees had not been planted. “Spread out, walk around on your own, see what you discover about these trees. Why are they here?”

I wandered among the pines, puzzled. If no one had planted these trees, how had they grown in such orderly rows? The pines were large. Their heavy branches, laden with long, soft needles, blocked the sunlight, so there was very little undergrowth—or at least, that’s what I thought. As I ducked under branches and knelt to touch soft moss growing on the north side of a tree, I noticed a few deciduous sprouts—a maple or a cherry seedling yearning for sunlight. The seedlings, I noticed, were about the same age and size.

Aha! I stood up quickly. We’d been reading about old-field succession, where abandoned fields give way to perennial grasses, wildflowers such as ragweed and goldenrod, before tough shrubs such as hardhack or hobblebush move in. In New England, paper birch and white pine are often the next plants to arrive. And after that: mature hardwood forest.

I hurried back to Ty, who waited in the shade of the pines. “This used to be a pasture!” I said. “Exactly.” He smiled. As we spoke, excited exclamations rose from different corners of the forest, as classmates also solved the “problem.”

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, that afternoon marked a turning point. I was studying for a graduate degree in teaching, with a dream of starting a school—something I accomplished a few years later. I’d also written a few magazine articles and co-authored a book on education. But standing beneath the pines, and for weeks afterwards, I wondered if I’d chosen the wrong path. Ecology was then a new field. Should I change direction, become a field ecologist? My science education, so far, had been very limited, so I’d have to start from scratch. Though I stayed for another semester of field ecology, I kept going on the path I’d chosen—but with a difference. Science and nature and the environment became important threads that informed my work with children, as well as my fiction later on.

I remembered Ty’s class a few days ago as I biked up a dirt road in Vermont. I was headed for the house where we lived when I was born. One of my earliest memories takes place in a field across from that house. I was in a hay wagon, pulled by a team of chestnut-colored Belgians driven by our neighbor, Hope Hazelton. I remember the smell of fresh-cut hay mixed with the scent of horse sweat, manure, and Hope’s cigarette; the sound of creaking wheels; the heft of the leather reins when Hope set them into my small hands and let me drive the team.

As I biked, I worried. Was the field still there? The hollow where we lived, once home to dairy farms, has given way to McMansions. Our former house is twice its original size, with a two-car garage and extensive lawn. Many cow pastures are forested now. What had happened to the Hazelton’s field? As I came around the corner near our old house, I noticed a grove of white pines partway up the hill. Ragweed, goldenrod, and Queen Anne’s lace were in bloom below the pines. I slowed down. Were the pines beginning to create a forest like the one we visited with Ty? I kept pedaling and saw a page-wire fence running along the edge of the road. I stopped. The fence also went up the hill beside an old trail. I couldn’t see any animals, but the clipped grass told me that the field is no longer a hayfield—but it is a pasture.

As I biked home, I realized that I never really gave up on ecology or the study of nature. I’ve been an avid gardener all my life. When I taught preschool, I wove science into our curriculum. In my novels, I pay close attention to the natural world my characters inhabit, whether it is a California gold field (Newsgirl), a bluff above the Ohio River in 1828 Kentucky (Orphan Journey Home), or the tides of the Bay of Fundy (Out of Left Field).

OOLFDraftAnd now my writing life is even more focused on the environment. As the earth warms and nature is under assault, I have joined a bee committee in our town, I’ve planted gardens attractive to pollinators, and I’m writing—with two dear, esteemed colleagues—non-fiction books for kids that focus on positive stories in nature. (Stay tuned.)

When I work with students, I compare the theme or emotional line of a story to a closet rod, something a story’s scenes and intention can hang on. I also imagine that the theme is like the drone on a bagpipe, the single note that hums below a story’s melody. Fifteen books, many articles, and numerous talks on setting later, I see that a passion for the natural world is a note that thrums through everything I write. So the white pine class wasn’t a “problem” at all. It was an opening and a reminder that writers can benefit from diving into other disciplines—and that great teachers can change a life. Thank you, Ty.

Red Sox shortstop Orlando Cabrera escaped Nomar Garciaparra’s 2004 shadow

Because "O-Cab" was acquired at the July 31 trade deadline from Montreal, few cards exist of him from that year depict him in a Red Sox uniform.

Because “O-Cab” was acquired at the July 31 trade deadline from Montreal, few cards from that year depict him in a Red Sox uniform. This Topps “Heritage” set was modeled after 1955 Bowmans, which honored the then-new “Color TV.”

Orlando “O-Cab” Cabrera had the huge task of replacing fan favorite Nomar Garciaparra at shortstop.

His stellar efforts included 17 post-season hits and 11 RBI.

Tributes from Red Sox fans flowed after after Cabrera’s 2011 retirement.

[Post footer OOLF]


Team ‘Poet Laureate’ Dick Flavin rhymes for Boston Red Sox


The Red Sox are the only pro team to sponsor a yearly literary series, entitled “The Great Fenway Park Writers Series.” Flavin and his new book received July honors. Learn more about the series at the event website. Speaking of Series, admire the World Series ring on the hand of the PA announcer/poet. (Photo courtesy of Julie Cordero, staff photographer, Boston Red Sox.)

I’m not the only author who has written about the Red Sox.

Dick Flavin is the team’s poet laureate. The daytime PA announcer appeared on a popular radio program in April.

This month, his book comes out (Red Sox Rhymes: Curses and Verses).


[Post footer OOLF]

Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield relied on catcher Doug Mirabelli in 2004

Back-up catcher Doug Mirabelli was the perfect team player for the Red Sox, doing anything needed -- even welcoming ceremonial first pitch participants in 2002. By U.S. Navy photo by Journalist Seaman Joe Burgess. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Back-up catcher Doug Mirabelli was the perfect team player for the Red Sox, doing anything needed — even welcoming ceremonial first-pitch participants to Fenway Park in 2002. By U.S. Navy photo by Journalist Seaman Joe Burgess. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If baseball was basketball, stats might credit back-up catcher Doug Mirabelli with 12 assists for knuckleballer Tim Wakefield’s dozen wins in 2004.

As “Wake’s” personal catcher with over-sized mitt, he gave the hurler the perfect defensive partner