Novel set in Victorian Birmingham
Talking Location With author Jess Lederman – Alaska and Nevada
9th March 2019
#TalkingLocationWith… Jess Lederman, Author of Hearts Set Free: Alaska and Nevada
Did you ever wonder what you would do and where you would go if given only a short time to live? My late first wife and I were faced with just that question when she was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). We’d been living in Dallas and decided to do perhaps the least practical thing imaginable: leave the big city behind and head for Alaska, the Last Frontier.
We wanted to spend our time looking out at the glory of God’s creation and reading books that would bring us closer to Him. So we bought a house in Southcentral Alaska over the internet, inspired by the view purported to be had from the living room window. As it turned out, the pictures in the real-estate listing were for real! Here’s what I saw through that window at daybreak one October morning:
The idea for my novel Hearts Set Free was born during this time, when we lived in Wasilla, Alaska (yes, of Sarah Palin fame, and no, I could not quite see Russia from my back porch). It’s about forty miles north of Anchorage, in the Mat-Su Valley, an area the size of West Virginia which boasts a handful of towns and a total population of about 90,000.
The story begins in the Alaska Territory in 1925, with these lines, written by Luke, who narrates many of the chapters:
My father deserted my mother and me when I was thirteen years old. He had become famous that winter on the Great Race of Mercy, one of the Athabascan mushers who brought diphtheria serum to Nome and saved ten thousand lives. He’d done the impossible, a blind run in the howling darkness, crossing the open ice of the Norton Sound, the temperature falling to sixty below, the sun a distant dream…
The population of Nome was doomed unless serum could reach them in time, but in mid-winter that would only be possible—if at all!—by dogsled. The Great Race of Mercy was followed breathlessly nationwide, and became the inspiration for the annual Iditarod dogsled race that takes place in early March. It’s a test of endurance and skill in which teams consisting of a single musher and sixteen dogs cover nearly a thousand miles, from the Willow in the Mat-Su Valley (after a ceremonial start in Anchorage) to Nome, often battling blizzards and gale-force winds. It’s hardly a coincidence that the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters (and museum) is located in Wasilla just a few miles from my Alaska home. The museum is well worth a visit!
In my novel, Luke’s father, Victor, has abandoned his family for a beautiful woman his mother vows to kill, and the two soon set off on a quest to bring him home. After a thousand-mile journey to Skagway, they set sail for Seattle, and their last sight of Alaska might not have been too different from the grand, frozen vista shown below. I took this picture at the Matanuska Glacier, about an hour northeast of Wasilla, (ironically, not long after I’d waited in line with a small army of adolescents to see Disney’s Frozen). It’s the largest glacier reachable by car in the United States. Alaska’s glaciers can have a surreal beauty and should be one of the highlights of anyone’s travels to the far north.
From the Far North to the Nevada Desert
Over the next several years, Luke and Yura’s quest takes them across the USA, to New York City, Louisiana, and then, in 1930, to New Orleans, where they discover that Victor might be working in one of Nevada’s many silver mines—places fraught with terrible danger:
In the New Orleans library, I had paged through one story after another about silver mining in Nevada. I didn’t share them with my mother, for they made me sick at heart. Hundreds had perished, hundreds more maimed. Some mines plunged thousands of feet below the surface, where underground hot springs drove the temperatures unbearably high. Men had been blown to bits by premature explosions, tumbled down shafts to their deaths, or been crushed by runaway ore cars; but most terrible in my mind were the cave-ins, burying men alive. What would a man’s last thoughts be, trapped in the suffocating darkness? What thoughts would my father have?
Two of the best places to get a feel for what those mines were like are Virginia City (which baby boomers might remember as the setting for the iconic TV series Bonanza), just half an hour from Reno, and Tonopah, located three hours northwest of Las Vegas. I chose Tonopah as the site for a dramatic mine rescue in Hearts Set Free.
Back in 1930, Las Vegas was a minor railway stop with a population of 5,000. But, as the Great Depression deepened, the project that would one day be called the Hoover Dam became the only place in the country that was hiring thousands of men. Then, in 1931, Nevada legalized gambling, and the stage was set for Las Vegas to be utterly transformed.
The early days of Las Vegas, and the construction of the great colossus in the desert—more than twice as tall as any dam that had been built before—provide the background for much of the novel. Many scenes take place in the tent cities, dubbed Ragtown and McKeeversville, that sprang up near the dam site, as men arrived by the thousands, desperate for work. They often brought their wives and children, little realizing what they were getting themselves into. In the summer, heat would bounce off the canyon walls and concentrate in Black Canyon, where the job seekers had set up camp, sending temperatures to 120 degrees. Luke relates a bit of what it was like in this passage from Hearts Set Free:
I’d return to McKeeversville each night after dinner. You could see its fires from miles away, for each family burned its own trash. There was no running water; it had to be hauled in, or else you’d have to filter water from the Colorado, which was thick with silt. There were two outhouses that everyone shared. One of the county workers put slaked lime in them once or twice a week.
While any visit to the Las Vegas area should take in the Hoover Dam, the best place to find out more about this fascinating time and place should visit the Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum in Boulder City. It’s small but packed with history.
Thank you so much to Jess for such an insightful journey.
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