It is the two year anniversary of the historical novel Eliza Waite by author Ashley E. Sweeney. This novel is now in it’s third printing and won the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award. I thought it would be fun to help this author celebrate her anniversary by re-posting my review and interview with the author. I hope both the review and interview intrigues you into trying or re-reading this fabulous novel.
This is a fascinating story of a young woman who survives tragedy and reinvents herself at the turn of the 20th century. The setting changes from the Missouri social scene, to living a tough life on one of the San Juan Islands, to Skagway Alaska during the Goldrush of 1898. Eliza Waite, as did many women of her time, had very little control over her life living under her fathers roof. It was only after her marriage and the tragic loss of her husband and son that she started to make her own choices on the type of life she wanted to lead.
First time author Ashley E. Sweeney paints a historically accurate view of a woman on a journey of self discovery. In a time where the Woman’s Suffrage Movement was just beginning, and only a few states allowed women the right to vote, I was fascinated with the idea of a woman striking out alone amidst unruly and rough men, surviving relatively unscathed, and in fact, building a thriving business. You can tell that the author researched each area and the people who lived there pretty thoroughly. She even starts out each chapter with a recipe for an item that Eliza has baked, or will bake that seems, without my trying to bake one of them, to be a real recipe. The measurements using teacups instead of cups. A touch, that adds charm and realism to the story.
I loved the every day accuracy of this novel. This was not a book that created a false warmth for the Alaska winter. This book had Eliza, dressed in threadbare clothing freezing as the wind whipped through her clothing, had miners smelling just awful, dirt squishing through toes and sores becoming infected. The contrast on my senses when Eliza wI as able to buy a new pair of gloves and her fingers were warmed. The smell of cinnamon permeating the air when she was baking, and light flashing from the fireworks helped set the scene in a realistic manner. The good and bad were contrasted so spectacularly, that even though every moment was not fun to read about, it made the end game that much more enjoyable.
As a woman, I enjoyed seeing Eliza come to the realization that life’s experiences may not be easy, but it is better to take on the unknown alone, make her own choices and possibly make her own mistakes. This ultimately led her to a growth and happiness that she otherwise wouldn’t have known.
The following was an interview I did with Eliza Waite author Ashley E. Sweeney in 2016.
Me: Hi Ms. Sweeney, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to interview you about the release of your new novel Eliza Waite. When I read your bio on your website, ashleyesweeney.com, I was not surprised that you had a journalism background because of how descriptive you wrote Eliza’s journey. That must have taken an incredible amount of research. How long did it take you to prepare yourself to write about Eliza and her life in three such disparate settings?
AES: The genesis for Eliza Waite came to me after discovering an abandoned cabin on a cross-island hike on uninhabited Cypress Island in Washington’s San Juan Islands in the fall of 2008. Near the cabin, a plaque commemorates a Mrs. Zoe Hardy, who lived alone at Smuggler’s Cove in the 1930s. A recluse, Mrs. Hardy died mysteriously and her body was never found. I decided that day that a novel set in that locale could be equally mysterious and intriguing. I developed a character study and plot arc soon afterwards. The core of the story evolved over the first two years. The story grew with Eliza and Eliza grew with the story. It was especially interesting researching the Alaska portion of the novel; I traveled to Skagway and Anchorage to conduct interviews and pore over archival media: books, photos, essays, magazines, diaries, and cookbooks from the late 1800s. I finished Eliza Waite in late 2014. So it’s been an eight-year journey from conception to publication!
Me: As I read your novel, Eliza Waite, I identified the most with the Eliza that lived in Skagway Alaska, because by that point she was well on the way to self discovery, as I am in my own life. Which Eliza did you identify with the most? Why?
AES: I identify most with the Skagway Eliza. After Eliza makes the move to Alaska on her own, she blossoms from an ungainly, unattractive woman into a confident, beautiful one. Her unlikely friend Pearly and her growing sense of accomplishment and success help her along. By the end of the novel, Eliza has evolved in many ways while still retaining her innate persona. I believe that her transformation would not be as inspiring had she not had such a difficult past.
Me: Eliza had to overcome a lot of adversity; taken advantage of by her uncle, forced to marry and move to a reclusive island, and living on her own in the Klondike where lawlessness was the rule. Through it all, baking was how she found peace. The recipes that started out each chapter, were they real? Where did you find them? Did you ever test one out?
AES: Yes! As Eliza is a baker first as avocation and later as vocation, I felt the need to bake and taste all the authentic pioneer recipes included in the novel. Many of the recipes came directly from 1880s newspapers. Because pioneer recipes do not include oven temperatures or baking times, much hilarity ensued as members of my book club, neighbors, family, and friends tried to replicate recipes in modern kitchens. But the results turned out surprisingly tasty, and I invite readers to try these recipes for themselves. My favorites are Miner’s Snickerdoodles and White Vegetable Soup.
Me: Even as a young woman living under her fathers roof in Missouri, Eliza had a strong will and liked to exert her independent thinking about women’s rights. As she moved across the country, the movement became stronger, as did Eliza’s opinions. How hard was it to write a fictional tale about a woman during that time, that included the Women’s Suffrage movement, and not force the story to be about the movement itself?
AES: Eliza represents an “everywoman” of the late 19th century because of the restrictions on her marriage prospects, finances, and careers. What sets Eliza apart is that she defied convention and struck out on her own. I was never enticed to make the novel into a women’s suffrage novel, although this cause was important to Eliza and all women in the late 1800s. I wanted to expose all the barriers a woman faced at that time. When we look at myriad issues that face women today—notably reproductive rights, equal pay for equal work, glass ceilings—these issues are part of the whole of our collective culture, and a novel set today might touch upon all of the those issues.
Me: Eliza faced evil in each place that she lived, yet she was able to draw from a core of strength, and move past it. Many authors would have used this theme of good vs. evil to make a religious statement. Yet, you chose to have Eliza draw strength, not from God, though she believed in him, it was her belief in herself that carried her through those difficult times. That resonated with me so strongly. Did you draw on a situation in your own life that made you write about Eliza’s strength of character in this way? Or was it just Eliza’s natural progression?
AES: In the spring of 2005 I suffered a tremendous blow to my personal and professional psyche when a superior at work wrongly judged me. I faced a crossroads at that time: Do I stand up for my integrity and move on? Or do I accept the false accusation and continue on in the status quo? It was both the easiest and the most difficult decision of my life; easy because I could not accept a smear to my integrity for something I did not do, and difficult because in doing so I was forced to leave a job I loved. I drew on strength that I did not know I possessed to get through the next two years, which included major transitions in my life. Faith played a large part in this journey. In this same way, Eliza also had to dig very deep over a five-year period, both personally and through prayer, to muster the courage and energy to take her life on a new, different, and exciting pathway.
Me: I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by asking about the end of the book, if you think otherwise, please let me know. It seemed that after everything she’d been through, and how much she had protected herself from men throughout the book, that she fell in love so quickly at the end of the book. I believe in timing, the right man, and love at first sight, and maybe all of those things apply to Eliza. Why did you decide Eliza should find happiness so quickly?
AES: It wasn’t that quick, if you span the years. Eliza loses her husband and son in 1893, and she finds happiness at the cusp of 1899, more than five years later. Eliza did much soul-searching during this time. I also believe that when the right partner appears, it’s important to seize the moment. Joseph Burns represents everything that other men in Eliza’s life have not: he is kind, funny, complementary, loving, and supportive.
Me: Ms. Sweeney, thank you so much for your time and this opportunity to let my readers see inside your mind as you were writing Eliza Waite. My last question is about the future, and what you may be working on next. If you have another book in mind, or have already started one, can you give us a hint of what’s on the horizon?
AES: I am currently researching for a novel about the first white woman to arrive in the Oregon Territory in the early 19th century, tentatively titled The English Mistress. I hope to be finished with the novel in 2018.
AES: Thank you for the opportunity to be interviewed on your blog!
About Ashley E Sweeney
Ashley Sweeney is a graduate of Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., the Stanford Publishing Course, and City University in Seattle, Wash., where she earned a Masters of Education degree. As a seasoned journalist, teacher, and community activist, Sweeney served as a VISTA volunteer in the late 1970s and continues community service today as a member of Soroptimist International, one of the largest women’s advocacy organizations in the world.
While juggling a large household complete with four children, various pets, and all the chaos that accompanies a life dedicated to raising a family, Sweeney found an outlet as a humor columnist and features editor for The Lynden Tribune in Lynden, Washington, where she garnered numerous awards for her writing over the span of a decade. Sweeney also taught English, Journalism, English as Second Language, and GED prep at both the high school and community college levels. She now lives in La Conner, Washington and writes for the hometown newspaper, The La Conner Weekly News.
Eliza Waite is her first novel.