Pat Wahler, Author

Penning stories to savor.

Category: Uncategorized (page 1 of 3)

Sharpshooter, Chameleon, and Rival

Years ago, I wrote a short story featuring Annie Oakley and her husband, Frank. I had a great time reading about her and the life she led, and it was fun imagining and penning a tale where Annie’s shooting skills dazzled a crowd of onlookers.

Annie Oakley preparing for an over-the-shoulder shot. I’m betting she didn’t miss her target. (Bettmann/Corbis)

In the course of gathering information, I ran across a young woman who was a major competitor of Annie’s named Lillian Frances Smith. With my focus on Annie, I didn’t pursue any in-depth facts on Lillian. I finished my story and moved on to other things, forgetting all about Annie’s rival.

Until a few months ago.

I discovered a new biography – in fact, the only biography – on Lillian Frances Smith, America’s Best Female Sharpshooter, written by Julia Bricklin. I couldn’t resist it, and ordered the book.

Lillian turns out to be a fascinating character in her own right.

Known as “The California Girl”, Smith amazed crowds at the age of fourteen, performing in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. As time changed circumstances, she was shrewd enough to reinvent herself in the public eye, becoming “Princess Wenona”. Chameleon-like, she used dark makeup and wore Native American dress, to bill herself as a Sioux sharpshooter. While she invented her Sioux heritage, her sharpshooting skills were real. Records credited to Lillian by the time of her death included such accomplishments as: breaking 71 of 72 glass balls thrown in the air while on the back of a running horse, hitting 300 swinging glass balls in 14 minutes and 33 seconds, and making 24 of 25 8-inch bull’s-eyes at 200 yards. Not shabby shooting at all.

A publicity shot of “Princess Wenona”. (Library of Congress via Smithsonian.com)

This biography not only brings Lillian Smith to life, but discusses the rivalry between Smith and Oakley in a way that helps us understand the differences and similarities between these two women. A look at how the Old West shows were operated by Buffalo Bill and other such entrepreneurs is a bonus.

Julia Bricklin is certainly qualified to tell Lillian’s story. She’s written for Wild West, Civil War Times, Financial History, True West, Smithsonian.com, and History.net. She edits California History.

If you’re looking for a well-researched biography about a strong woman from America’s past, I’d suggest picking up a copy.

Attention historical novelists! Wouldn’t “Princess Wenona” make a fabulous heroine for your next book?

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The Naked Truth

There’s nothing like the deliciousness of really good chocolate. Yesterday, I threw away any notion of the diet I ought to be on, and indulged in a chocolate covered caramel made by Godiva. Heavenly! Yet after I examined the packaging, something occurred to me that I never thought about before – probably since I’m primarily focused on, well, chocolate.

A visit to the Godiva website told me that Godiva, a business with roots in Brussels, named their company after Lady Godiva, for “values associated with her of boldness, generosity, and a pioneering spirit”. The company logo features a naked woman with long flowing tresses (strategically placed) and riding a horse.

As most people know, the story of Lady Godiva (968-1057) is that she took pity on the people, begging her husband to reduce his oppressive taxes on them. Figuring he’d found the perfect way to keep her quiet, he said he’d reduce taxes when she rode naked through their town of Coventry. Godiva, after sending out a strongly worded proclamation for people to stay indoors and not peek, called her husband’s bluff.

Surprisingly, not a person in Coventry failed to follow her order except for one man named Tom, who couldn’t resist the temptation to sneak a look. He was immediately either struck blind or dead (depending on which version you read) through swift heavenly judgement. Meanwhile, Godiva’s ride convinced her husband to reduce taxes and everyone joyously celebrated, except, of course, for Peeping Tom.

It’s all a very pretty story indeed, despite the fact that it never happened. There are no accounts by Godiva’s contemporaries of such an event occurring, and gossip being what it is, most likely her acquaintances would have at least mentioned it. (“Did you hear what Lady Godiva did last week? I’m telling you, I could have died!”)

The oldest form of the story doesn’t appear until the 1200’s, and “Peeping Tom” doesn’t show up until the 1700’s – not exactly the most reliable sources of information. As time went on, little details were added to shape the current legend of Lady Godiva.

Statue of Lady Godiva in Coventry, England – scene of the infamous ride. (Tripadvisor photo)

Coventry, England remains quite proud of Lady Godiva and no one is willing to let her story disappear. The Godiva Procession, part of the Coventry Fair, has been held for many years with “Godiva” typically wearing a body suit and cloak (in case any Peeping Toms are curious). The event has changed over time, and is now called the Coventry Godiva Festival, with a decidedly rock concert leaning. If you’re planning a trip to Coventry around July 7-9, click HERE for the current lineup. Sadly, I didn’t see any mention of an appearance by Lady Godiva on the schedule.

At least there’s one thing of which we can be sure. A story might be only a legend, but Godiva chocolate? That, my friends, is real.

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Humor and History is a Perfect Combination

I love to laugh and equally enjoy learning quirky little tidbits from the past. If you do, too, I have the perfect book to recommend. Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History & Nonsense is a collection of eighty-six blog posts written by Sarah Angleton – friend and fellow writer – selected from five years blogging as the Practical Historian.  As the title suggests, readers will not be bored by dry history lectures. The stories are witty and clever; drawing parallels between events from the past and the daily life of the author’s own family in an entertaining and decidedly tongue-in-cheek fashion.

Sarah Angleton signing at North Cafe.

Because all pieces in the collection are short, the book is easy to pick up and read whenever you have a spare moment. The only problem might be in putting it down.  While humor abounds, it so happens one of my favorite stories is a bit more poignant.  We learn about the author’s niece looking for the perfect wedding gown, and how Queen Victoria started a trend. Trust me, if you’ve bought a wedding dress, you’ll love the story, On the Shelf of Rarely Used Things.

Yesterday, Sarah had her first book signing at North Cafe in Wentzville, Missouri. I stopped in to congratulate her, and get an autograph on my copy. Do yourself a favor and buy this book on Amazon, or request it at your local bookstore. If you’d like to meet Sarah, you can visit her next signing at Our Town Books in Jacksonville, Illinois on June 2.

Congratulations to Sarah on a fabulous accomplishment!

Support your local authors. They need you!

Attending her signing moves me to mention the hard work involved in letting people know about a book. In the old days, authors like Edgar Allen Poe or Ernest Hemingway would arrange a tour to read from their work and (hopefully) sell some books. Some authors are reported to have bribed  paid editors and critics for recognition. Others who had a little extra coin in their pockets  might hire people to wear sandwich boards and walk through town (history’s version of social media).

Any way you look at it, getting out the word is tough.

That’s where you, dear readers, are so crucial. Pictured is a chart of ways you can help your favorite author. I can promise she (or he) will appreciate it more than you know.

 

 

 

 

 

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Writing a Novel is Like a Giraffe Having a Calf

A few months ago, and with fingers crossed, I submitted a manuscript to a publisher in hopes they might consider taking it. I’d been playing with the story since 2010 – nearly seven years. Don’t misunderstand me, I love doing research and writing. But at some point, you have to finish what you start – and once a story is finished, wouldn’t it be nice if someone (other than your patient critique group) reads it? Even so, when I finally got the nerve to press the “send” button, I felt a little like a newbie actor must when trying out for the lead role in a play. Could they possibly pick me?

After waiting and sweating and chewing my fingernails to nubs, last week I heard from Amphorae Publishing Group. I’m thrilled to say, they offered me a contract for my novel, tentatively titled I Am Mrs. Jesse James.

Me putting my signature on the (undotted) line.

As soon as the terms were finalized, I jumped straight to social media. Publishing one little book isn’t such a big deal for the Stephen Kings among us. For me, it felt like an Academy Award nomination. So, I posted an announcement and said I’d write a blog post after the news had time to sink in.

Truth is, I’m not sure it’s sunk in even yet.

Maybe this has to do with the time and effort it takes to write a book. I’m not a speed-writer, especially when it comes to a work of historical fiction. To prepare for I Am Mrs. Jesse James, I’ve read more books, articles, newspaper clippings, maps, census reports, and opinion pieces on the James family and their nineteenth century world than I can count.

One may think, what’s the big deal? Review the research and get on with the story. Let me tell you what happens. After crafting a lovely little line about – for example – a ceramic bowl, fingers poise. Wait a minute? Did they have ceramic bowls in  1873? Then hours are lost to fact-checking ceramic bowls because there are tons of fascinating articles (with pictures!) on the history of ceramic bowls.  Then there’s the date you aren’t quite sure about, and need to verify, whereupon a brand new piece of information is discovered, requiring a previous chapter to be rewritten.

This is called chasing down a rabbit hole, and is a very effective way to lose time. I’ve really mastered the art of chasing down rabbit holes.

Here’s some of my material for this book. Sometimes locating a detail can be a tad challenging.

Further complicating matters, some sources were contradictory, and many pieces to the puzzle of Jesse James and his wife, Zee, were just plain missing. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. People who are on the run tend not to leave behind a helpful record of where they went, who they talked to, or what they did. So, I waded through the available material and brought to life Zee’s story based on what I learned about her.

After writing the first draft and revising it a bazillion times, off it went to my editor for her eagle eye to find any mistakes. Then I pored over the whole thing again. When I finally believed it to be ready, I sent the manuscript to the Amphorae Publishing Group – and here we are.

The contract is now complete, but guess what? I’m still revising, because there is one true statement about writing. Any work can always be made better.

You might say April the giraffe’s recent mind-numbing experience is similar to the work of a writer. It takes a long time to birth a book.

Watch for my book baby to be “born” sometime in mid-2018.  I hope you’re looking forward to the ride as much as I am.

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Picture Books – The Memory Makers

A few months ago, I wrote about a picture book that my dear friend, Sheree Nielsen, and I co-authored. Now tentatively titled, Midnight and Starlight, A Tale of Courage, the book has been scheduled for publication in Fall, 2018 by Amphorae Publishing. Sheree and I are beyond excited, because there’s a new announcement. (Drum roll, please.)

Our illustrator for the picture book will be Janelle Dimmett! The minute Sheree and I saw her work, we fell in love with it. Do yourself a favor. Click on Janelle’s name to visit her website and see what this very talented lady can do. I know Midnight and Starlight will be amazing–and well worth the wait.

This journey started me thinking about picture books. They’ve actually been around for quite a while.

From the first time ancient man painted a bison on the dark and damp walls of a cave, pictures told a story.  And as we evolved, so did storytelling.

Books, especially those written for children, almost always came with illustrations. Orbis Pictus, an early encyclopedia for children, was published in 1658 in Nuremberg.  It’s whopping one-hundred-fifty chapters were divided by intricate woodcut prints. However, it wasn’t until 1744, when John Newbery published A Little Pretty Pocket-book, that pictures were married with words not as a textbook, but as pleasure reading for children.

The nineteenth century saw this concept greatly expanded with the publication of illustrated fairy tale collections, and whimsical drawings appearing in such well-loved books as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

But the world of picture books, designed for the youngest children (and pretty much enjoyed by anyone who’s likes art), got its first blockbuster in Beatrix Potter’s book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Original edition. Wish I had one of these in my bookcase. (Wikipedia Commons)

When Ms. Potter’s friends read her scribbles, telling the story of a naughty little rabbit named Peter – and saw her drawings – they suggested she publish it. Ms. Potter obligingly sent the story to several companies, and alas, promptly received several rejection letters.  The process frustrated her so much, she decided to self-publish, intending to distribute the books only to her family and friends.

Shortly thereafter, Warne and Company came to their senses and reconsidered their original rejection. After more than a year of negotiations (Ms. Potter was nobody’s fool), The Tale of Peter Rabbit released officially in 1902.

The book hit it big. To date it’s sold more than forty-five million copies worldwide and created an empire. Not too shabby for a tale Ms. Potter originally penned (just for fun) for the children of her former governess.

When I think about the books of my own childhood, a lot of them include bright and colorful images. I owned a huge collection of Little Golden Books. Believe it or not, my favorite one, The Poky Little Puppy, is considered among the top selling picture books of all time. If memory serves, each Little Golden Book cost my parents a whopping twenty-nine cents.  The books are still in print today, although the price tag has changed – to somewhere around three dollars.

But here’s the best part for me. It’s so thrilling to see books I once loved now in the hands of my one-year-old grandson.

Before his birth, I bought him a copy of another favorite of mine – Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. This is a sweet story with bright and vivid illustrations.  The book, published in 1947, still sells around 800,000 copies per year and has been translated into practically every language.  Talk about an enduring legacy! Can you think of a better book to soothe a little one to sleep?

The perfect bedtime story. (Wikipedia Commons)

I’m proud to report my grandson is more inclined to pick up one of his many books, than any other toy he owns. I sit with him on my lap and he turns the book’s pages, pointing his tiny adorable finger to each image, which I’m then expected to identify for him. No matter how often, it never gets old for either one of us.

As children grow up, reading becomes a solitary pursuit. They don’t need mom or dad (or grandma) to read to them anymore. I’ve learned to grab my moments now, because reading together is one of the best memory makers you can find.

Who knows? It’s incredible to consider, but someday Midnight and Starlight may be on somebody’s list of favorites.  That’s a thought guaranteed to prickle me with goose bumps.

Take yourself back in time. What’s your most beloved picture book? Is there a special reason why?

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Yes-I’m a Romantic Fool

Unless you live under a rock, you know this weekend is the premiere of Disney’s live action film, Beauty and the Beast. Although this particular version is new, the story is definitely not.

Beauty and the Beast, print circa 1875. This beast has a distinctly walrus look. (Pook Press)

Beauty and the Beast may have sprung from the classic myth of Cupid and Psyche, where the beautiful Psyche is offered as a sacrifice to a monster. French author, Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villenueve, is credited with turning the myth into a story and publishing it in 1740. Over one hundred pages long, and containing a very savage beast, the story had plots and sub-plots and action galore.

In 1756, Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont, shortened the story and pared down the number of characters. This version is closer to the one most of us know today, where a simple working girl tames the beast, saving him with her love. Having a working-class girl as the heroine of a story with trouble brewing in the time before the French Revolution, must have made reading it a dangerous pleasure.

Beauty and the Beast, print circa 1885. This beast has evolved to the appearance of a wild boar. (Pook Press)

Over the years, the story of Beauty and the Beast has undergone many incarnations, but each of them seem to boil down to the same notion. Belle discovers the true nature of a man is found in his heart and soul, not in his appearance.

There are probably a hundred variations on this theme found in literature, movies, and plays. And why not? Who doesn’t love a story where good triumphs over evil, where what you are inside matters more than your imperfect exterior, and where true love triumphs over all.

Beauty and the Beast, print circa 1923. (Pook Press)

Will I be heading out to see this movie? You bet. I admit to being a romantic fool.

How about you?

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A Dog Like Sergeant Stubby

Dogs have been helping humans since ancient times. It’s not surprising. Ever since the first wolves crept closer to campfires to become part of the family, dogs have aimed to please their people.

Yet not all dogs have a story like Stubby’s.

In 1917, Stubby, a brindle-coated terrier mix puppy, wandered into an encampment of soldiers training for their upcoming mission to fight for the allies in France during World War 1. The men of the 102nd Infantry became so attached to the little guy, they smuggled him on board while shipping out on the S.S. Minnesota. Legend has it when the commanding officer discovered Stubby’s presence, Stubby charmed the man with a modified dog-salute soldiers had taught him to perform. The commanding officer decided to bend the rules decreeing no animals allowed.

Stubby with jacket and a few of his medals. (National Museum of History)

A big dog in a small but stocky body, Stubby wasn’t only a morale lifter. He found a German spy and chomped on to the man’s pants, holding tight until his pals could complete the capture. He alerted the troops to mustard gas attacks and detected incoming artillery fire before the shells exploded. Stubby located wounded men, and was, himself, wounded by a grenade. Stubby survived his injuries, and was soon elevated to the rank of Sergeant.

At war’s end, after serving in seventeen battles, Stubby’s primary caretaker, J. Robert Conroy, smuggled Stubby out of France the same way he’d helped smuggle him in.

But did Stubby relax into a quiet and well-deserved retirement? Not on your life.

He became a proud symbol of America’s war effort. Stubby led parades. Organizations such as the American Legion, Red Cross, and Y.M.C.A. made him a lifetime member. Honored by generals and presidents, Stubby received countless awards and traveled extensively to visit his adoring public. Hotels even lifted their ban on dog guests whenever Stubby came to town.

Stubby receiving a medal from General Pershing-1921. (National Museum of History)

Stubby leading one of many parades. (National Museum of History)

As though all that weren’t enough, when Private Conroy went to law school, Stubby became mascot of the Georgetown Hoya’s football team. Between halves, he’d scamper around the field using his nose to push a football, to the crowd’s delight. There is even speculation Stubby’s performance may have put a glimmer in someone’s head about the idea of a half-time show.

Before Beyonce and Madonna, there was Stubby. (National Museum of History)

This mighty little warrior passed away in 1926 at approximately ten years of age. Click HERE to read Stubby’s impressive and slightly poetic obituary (it took up a half-page) in the New York Times. Not many humans have received such a sendoff.

Stubby’s remains and the details of his story are preserved and on display at the Smithsonian. He’s one impressive canine, isn’t he?

Well, as you might imagine, I couldn’t wait to tell Winston all about Stubby, hoping to impress my own dog into performing amazing acts of courage in the face of frightening events.

Winston’s response to performing amazing acts of courage in the face of frightening events. 

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Tax Time

For the past few weeks I’ve been sorting pieces of paper from the basket where they’ve been hiding for the past year, and writing out categorized lists of income and expenses. While this can be an eye-opening (and sometimes horrifying) exercise, it’s the first baby steps I take when getting ready to file my taxes.

Me, at tax time. (Quickmeme.com photo)

Tax time isn’t a celebration. For most people, including me, the idea of preparing taxes only prompts fear, aggravation, and helplessness. Add frustration to the mix once you start dealing with Form A, part 3, subsection d. But no worries. If you have any questions, all you need to do is refer to a booklet containing over one hundred pages of instruction.

If we have to pay, can’t it at least be a tad bit easier?

Ah, taxes…

Even though everyone understands why we must pay them–to fund the structures and services that keep our country rolling–I don’t think anyone is particularly thrilled about the idea of doing it. And that isn’t a recent phenomenon.

Income taxes were “officially” launched in 1862, when President Lincoln needed revenue to help fund hefty Civil War expenses.  He signed a bill into law that would levy a three percent tax on incomes between $600 and $10,000, and a five percent tax on incomes of more than $10,000.

Lincoln discussing matters with General McClellan and other officers. Probably about how expensive it is to run a war. (Library of Congress photo)

It likely won’t surprise anyone to know the people weren’t happy about this development. Congress finally succumbed to pressure, and cut the tax rate in 1867. However, this did not sufficiently cheer taxpayers, and the income tax was repealed in 1872.

Sadly, the people’s joy would be short-lived. In 1894, income taxes were revived, but not without a resounding fight. So, in 1895, the Supreme Court stepped in to rule the income tax unconstitutional as it was a direct tax, not apportioned among the states on the basis of population.

In 1909, President Taft tried to set up income taxes again, and recommended Congress give the government power to tax income without apportioning by population. Much debate and bickering ensued, but the 16th amendment was finally ratified, giving Congress the power to lay and collect tax on incomes from whatever source, without regard to apportionment.

And we’ve been paying income taxes ever since.

You’ll be happy to know, after days of angst and struggle, I did my civic duty by completing a ridiculously complicated form, and filing my taxes. What a wonderful feeling to press the “submit” button. I actually became giddy once the whole transaction had been completed.

The best thing about filing income taxes is getting a refund.

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On Love Letters

Book cover, “My Dear Molly: The Civil War Letters of Captain James Love”, edited by M.E. Kodner.

At the January meeting of the Civil War Roundtable of St. Louis, M.E. Kodner presented on a collection of one hundred sixty letters donated to the Missouri History Museum. The letters were written by Captain James Love to his sweetheart, Molly, over the course of the Civil War. Ms. Kodner compiled them into a book. The letters give a fascinating glimpse of what daily life must have been like for a Union soldier from Missouri, and his affection for Molly warmed my heart.

Here’s a line from his letter of January 3, 1862: “I believe I am blessed beyond the power of words in your true love. No shade of doubt ever crossed my mind. I pray that I may ever return it-as you deserve.”

Molly must have been suitably impressed by his devotion, as they were married on May 2, 1865, after Captain Love escaped from a Confederate prison and made his way home to her in St. Louis.

This book, along with the approach of Valentine’s Day, got me to thinking about love letters. Does anyone write them anymore?

There have been some glorious letters composed in the past by names we all know. It surprised me to find this ancient snippet from Pliny the Younger, written circa AD 100: “If your letters are so dear to me, you can imagine how I delight in your company; do write often as you can, although you give me pleasure mingled with pain.”

There’s something beautiful about seeing loving thoughts set down on paper. They’re tangible and real and took some time and effort to prepare. The writer considered what to say, wrote it down, addressed an envelope, and carried the missive somewhere else for mailing.

“Old Letters” by Jarmoluk, CCO Public Domain via Pixaday.

I used to be a prolific letter writer. If my current “crush” went out of town, you can bet he’d receive pages and pages from me-often accented by the tiniest touch of perfume. I wanted my letters to trigger the senses in more ways than one.

This brings me to my point. On Valentine’s Day, instead of buying a greeting card or using social media, how about writing a heartfelt letter to your beloved telling him/her how you feel? It doesn’t matter whether the object of your affection is a sweetheart, spouse, your child, or a friend-I’m betting this could be one of the best gifts they’ve ever received. Imagine someone reading what you wrote five, ten, fifteen or more years from now.

Talk about a treasure!

Don’t worry. I have suggestions. For anyone who needs inspiration, click on this LINK to read bits of love letters written by a multitude of people from history. You’ll see love letters can be sweet, tender, or playful.

Take some time to jot down thoughts on what makes your loved one special to you. Organize your thoughts and let the words flow. Please, please, don’t type. Hand-write what you want to say-in cursive, of course.

Now it’s time to spill secrets. Do you have a stack of precious letters tied with a faded ribbon and stored in an attic or trunk?

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Just an Ordinary Guy and His Cats

Recently, I finished a book from the tall stack of volumes (also known as the to-be-read pile) sitting next to my bed.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler, is told from Zelda’s point-of-view, and describes her life with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Let it suffice to say the story often shows Mr. Fitzgerald in a less than flattering light.  In an even dimmer beacon, is the author’s portrayal of Fitzgerald’s friend and competitor, Ernest Hemingway.

Reading the story immediately reminded me of my visit a few years ago to Key West, Florida. I toured the beautiful home Hemingway and his second wife purchased in 1928 . Talk about working in Paradise!

Hemingway Home in Key West, Florida.

My first surprise occurred when I went through the gate and discovered the 52+ cats that live on the property. They go where they want to go, as long as its within the compound walls. Apparently, the animals are trained from kittenhood not to run out the gate, which is wide-open during business hours. Right off the bat, my mouth dropped open in amazement. I can’t train my cat, Bogey, to stay off the kitchen counters.

These cats have another unusual quality…their toes.

Legend has it a sea captain gave Hemingway a six-toed (polydactyl) cat named Snowball, because polydactyl cats bring good luck. Delighted with the feline, Hemingway soon became a die-hard cat lover.

Snowball, of course, went on to do what cats in pre-spay and neuter days did. He (or she) began to reproduce. Hemingway favored litters that produced “lucky” polys, and to this day, descendants of Snowball live a life of freedom and luxury at the Hemingway Home and grounds. They sit on furniture visitors aren’t allowed to touch. They frolic in the garden. They play rough as little tigers. One even pounced on my hand and left her mark. It didn’t bother me a bit. How many people can say they were scratched by a descendant of Hemingway’s cat?

Hemingway’s desk. A cat undoubtedly dozed in his lap as he worked. Because that’s what cats do.

So in response to the book’s depiction of Hemingway, maybe he did drink too much, sleep too little, and let the fact that he had a wife at home slip his mind from time to time. I still can’t help thinking that anyone so fond of cats could be all bad.

A poly at the Hemingway Home.

Hemingway, his two sons, and a few feline friends. (Wikimedia Common)

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