Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Where the Heck is Pembina?

Ox Cart Angel’s main character, Claire Dumont, comes from the town of Pembina, now part of North Dakota. In 1862 when the novel takes place, however, North Dakota was part of Dakota Territory, which took up South and North Dakota, as well as much of what are now the states of Montana and Wyoming. The Dakota Territory was formed in 1861, only a year before the events in the novel take place, so for most of Claire’s life, Pembina was part of the Minnesota Territory. It’s a bit confusing, I know. However, despite which country, territory or state Pembina used to belong to (Canada once even thought it belonged to them in the early 1800s) it is still in the same place it always was; hugging the Red River and snug right up against the present-day Minnesota border on its eastern side, and almost touching Canada on its northern side. In fact, the Pembina State Museum has an observation tower from which you can see Canada.

It’s a small town, its population under 600 in 2010, but what it lacks in size, it certainly makes up for in its importance to our country’s history. I hope to make it up there this next summer. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to find it. If I get lost on the way, I can always listen for and follow the ghostly squeaking of ox cart wheels that once plied the area. Surely they can still be heard if you listen hard enough. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Oxcart, Ox Cart, Ox-Cart - Which one is right?

When working on Ox Cart Angel, I wasn't quite sure of the correct way to spell ox cart. Was is it oxcart, ox cart, or ox-cart? As I dug a little, I found the word spelled each of those ways, and finally decided to settle on it as 'ox cart' - two words - but it seems that any of those ways are acceptable.

For example, there is an Ox Cart Days celebration in both Crookston, Minnesota and Star Prairie, Wisconsin.

There's a well-loved picture book called Ox-Cart Man written by Donald Hall and illustrated by Barbara Cooney.

Winner of the Caldecott Medal!

However, Merriam Webster's online dictionary has the word appear as oxcart. (Hey, did you know the first known use of the word oxcart was in 1749?)

Wikipedia has it listed as both oxcart and ox cart.

The cart in Ox Cart Angel, though, might more appropriately be called a Red River cart, even though a Red River cart is at heart an oxcart (ox-cart? ox cart?) - just a little more specialized for the area it traveled and the cargo it typically carried. But Red River Cart Angel just didn't have the same ring to it as Ox Cart Angel. What do you think?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Origins of Ox Cart Angel

I’m a genealogy buff. I love searching through old censuses, looking up obituaries of long lost relatives, visiting graveyards. Might sound a little morbid, perhaps, but from those, I try to piece together what little I can of my ancestors lives. Most of it is conjecture. I don’t have a famous ancestor whose life was written about in magazines and biographies, and none that I know of kept a detailed journal that managed to survive from one generation to the next, so it’s very hard to know what their lives were really like.

A couple of my ancestors have been particularly elusive to me. I don’t really know their names, other than the last name of one may have been Fallman or Tallman, and he was a photographer who came down to the U.S. through French Canada. I also have an ancestor who was Ojibwa who lived in Pembina. About her, I really know nothing else, other than that she married another ancestor of mine who was a voyageur with the last name of Demarais (or something like that. It eventually was shortened to Demar.)

When reading about Pembina, trying to find out more about this Ojibwa woman, I learned about the Metis, and about the ox cart and Red River trails. It’s quite an important piece of history, and one that doesn’t get a whole lot written about it. That got my imagination working. What was it like to travel from Pembina to St. Paul back in the 1800’s? Had any of my ancestors made that journey? What if they had to make it alone? From that sprang Ox Cart Angel. Even though Fallman/Tallman the photographer never met or knew the Demarais ancestors, I combined them for the sake of the story.

And for some reason, while plotting the story, I kept envisioning the main character, Claire, in an oversized wedding dress that had belonged to her mother, and the people whom she crossed paths with oftentimes felt that she looked angelic dressed this way.

A lot of great material for stories can be found simply by looking back at our past, or the past of our ancestors, and the times and places they lived in.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Great Slideshow of Ox Cart Photos

Minnesota Conservation Volunteer has an excellent slideshow of ox cart photos - many from around the same time Ox Cart Angel takes place.

Click here to view this slideshow that accompanies their article Echoes of Oxcart Trails.

Also, a number of the photos are carte de visites, which are the same type of photograph that Claire's father takes.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Nice Review for Ox Cart Angel!

I recently received a very nice review from Jenna Anderson's Novella & Short Story Reviews blog.

And excerpt from the review:

"The captivating storyline carried me from the first page to the last. At times I was on the edge of my seat and others I was sad, enraged, and awed. More than once I found myself starring blankly at my Kindle screen. Mr. Arnold has a way of painting beautifully detailed scenes and situations. He sets the reader up for deeper thoughts and knocked me out of the story - in a good way. Themes of pioneer days, racism before it was called such, survival, family, beliefs, society were all presented in this middle grade book. I couldn't help but stop and reflect. An author with this skill - especially for young readers - is a fantastic find."
Click here to read the whole thing.

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Squeaky Wheels of the Red River Carts

Squeaky wheels - one of the signature characteristics of the Red River ox carts that hauled bison furs from the Dakota Territory to St. Paul in the early to mid-1800s. They say that the squeaking noise could be heard from two to six miles away. One source even mentioned 10 miles!

And you thought fingernails across a chalkboard were bad! I have heard a sample of a Red River cart wheel turning, and it reminded me of whale song. Kind of mysterious and melancholy. However, that was just one cart. Imagine a train of hundreds of them all moving at the same time!

Why were the ox cart wheels so noisy? It was because the Red River ox carts were made entirely of wood with strips of animal hide to lash the pieces together. The axle - the pole that connects the two giant wheels to the cart - was also made of wood, usually something strong like oak.

The axles couldn't be greased, because grease would pick up all the dust on the trail and quickly wear away the wood. Even so, on a typical trip along the trails and back, a driver would go through multiple axles. They brought spares along because of this.

So...when you have wooden wheels turning on a wooden axle, you've suddenly got a recipe for a loud, continuous squeak.

Why not use a metal axle and metal wheels? There were no Goodyears or Jiffy Lubes on the trails at that time, so the riders had to rely on native, easy-to-find materials - and wood was usually easy to find. If part of the cart broke, a replacement piece could be quickly fashioned, and the noisy ox cart would be on its way again.

The Metis drivers must have had a high tolerance for this noise, or at least got used to it fairly quickly. Can you imagine living along the trails and hearing this noise for hours as an ox cart train passes you by?