I met Mary-Eileen Russell, who writes under the nom de plume, Elena Maria Vidal, at the Catholic Writers Guild Live Conference in 2010. She reviewed my book, Supremacy and Survival, and I have reviewed all three of her previous historical fiction novels, Trianon, Madame Royale, and The Night's Dark Shade. I also "blurbed" the latter and this new novel, The Paradise Tree.
I interviewed her for her Historical Fiction Virtual Blog Tour:
1. Your first two novels were about Marie Antoinette and her daughter, so you researched the lives of famous historical personages and recreated them as historical fiction characters—particularly with Marie Antoinette, a historical person many people think they know all about. Was or how was your research different when writing about your ancestors?
The research was extremely difficult because, even as there is a great deal of information available on Marie-Antoinette, the information on my ancestors is largely unpublished, except for some scant information on Daniel himself. So my research had to consist in sifting through private family archives, those I was able to access, that is. I had a cousin, Mary O'Connor Kaiser, who was helping me, but she died in 2005, a great tragedy. I was able, however, to go do a great deal on my own and with the help of other relatives, accessing public records and going through letters and memoirs. The book is history at the grassroots level. Also, because there is so much unknown about their lives I had to be much more creative than in my books on the French Royal Family.
2. Anti-Catholicism is a threat to Daniel and his family both in Ireland and in Canada. Why do you think hatred, ignorance, and fear of Catholicism is so persistent and often so deep in English/Canadian/American culture? what effects did the Irish penal laws have on the O'Connor family?
The Irish penal laws forced the O'Connor family in Ireland into poverty. The O'Connors had been among the High Kings of Ireland and lords of their own land, but when the penal laws were passed in the late 1600's they had to pay rent for the land they had always lived on. They had been part of the Irish nobility but in order to live they had to become farmers and tradesmen, since they were barred from receiving any formal education or having a profession. Of course, if they had become Protestant, they could have had everything, full civil rights.
As for the deep anti-Catholic prejudice in the UK and Commonwealth, it goes back to Tudor times when Protestants saw Catholics as being allied to Spain or France, and placing obedience to the Pope higher than allegiance to the King or Queen. It was an obedience to the Pope as a spiritual leader, not as a temporal ruler. But in those times when religion was a state affair, many people assumed that Catholics were natural traitors to a Protestant government.
3. I loved the scene at the dinner table as Daniel defended the Catholic faith--the humor in that scene was delicious (just like the dinner)--did you have some record of such a conversation from family history?
The fact that Daniel would invite the ministers to dinner is mentioned in his obituary and in several private family memoirs. The purpose of inviting the ministers was so he could debate religion with them in order to teach his children the truths of the Catholic faith. At this time, many Irish Catholics in Ontario were becoming Anglican or Methodist for social and political reasons. None of Daniel's children ever left the Catholic church. The topics of the conversation I gleaned from a notorious book called Fifty Years in the Church of Rome by a Canadian ex-priest named Fr. Chiniquy, a highly anti-Catholic diatribe. I built the discussion around accusations against Catholics mentioned in that particular book.
3a. I also have to tell you that the high point of that discussion was the defense of the Church's use of Latin: as though Anglo-Saxon English was less pagan than Roman Latin!
There are times in writing a novel when the characters take over and speak their minds and the author does not feel he or she has much to do with it at all. That scene was one of those times. It all came together. It was pure grace.
4. Please tell me about the structure of the novel. I noticed that many of the chapters began in medias res--time had passed since the end of the last chapter and then the narration catches up the action in the interim. Why and how did you develop this technique?
I used the same technique in Trianon and Madame Royale . For me it is a way of placing the reader directly into a moment in time while bringing them up to date on all that has transpired between moments. It is like a scene in a movie in which there are flashbacks.
5. Comment about your use of Irish culture--the stories, songs, and even the rather mystical traditions of dreams and second sight. How do they co-exist with the O'Connor family's Catholic faith?
When a culture is deeply Catholic, like the Irish Catholic culture once was, then vestiges of paganism were not seen as a threat to anyone's faith but rather were seen as natural or preternatural phenomena. They believed in fairies and other stuff. There were things that they acknowledged as existing but which no one could explain. Everything unexplained was not immediately attributed to the devil. That is a Protestant reaction.
There is an old book with an Imprimatur called Occult Phenomena by Alois Wiesinger, O.C.S.O. which tells how some "psychic" phenomena can be explained as the "vestigial" powers of the human soul left over from its pre-fallen state. To quote: "Theology teaches us that in Paradise man possessed powers which were afterwards lost to him. The question is, which powers were lost completely, which were merely weakened, and whether certain of these powers, which may have remained latent, might... be capable of revival." In the novel such phenomena are never seen as a replacement for the virtue of faith or Catholic teaching.
Of all the Celtic customs which the Irish retained into the twentieth century, the one which the Church most frowned upon was the tradition of "keening," in which women would loudly wail and rend their hair when someone died. It is a form of mourning common among ancient peoples but the English found it repulsive, preferring stoic silence, the "keep calm and carry on" attitude. To the English it was another proof that the Irish were uncivilized. The Church saw the custom as exhibiting a lack of belief in Heaven and the Resurrection. So in the book when one of the children dies and Brigit begins to keen, Daniel stops her gently but firmly. Although I once had an Irish lady tell me that when the Irish stopped keening it led to an increase in alcoholism. I do not know how true that is.
6. The sudden deaths of two of Daniel and Brigit's children are certainly reminders of the immediacy of death in the midst of life--do you think our ancestors responded to death with greater faith and even comprehension of its role in our lives than we do today?
Life was extremely hard. They had to toil for every bite of food. Food was seen as a gift. Life was seen as a gift. Death was always close. There were no antibiotics and few vaccines. Many women died in childbirth. Many babies and small children died of ordinary childhood diseases. For people who are against vaccines, if they would read of all the people who would die of tuberculosis, mostly children and teens, they would be glad that we now have such advances in medicine. And there was no rabies vaccine; catching rabies from an animal and dying of it was not uncommon for people in the countryside. Living so close to death made them keep thoughts of eternity ever before them.
Their Catholic faith, symbolized by the Paradise Tree, the Wood of the Cross, bearing the Savior of the World, helps them bear so many dangers and difficulties, doesn't it?
Yes , the Cross of Christ gave meaning to their sufferings.
7. You write that you see your "books as a window into the past, as paintings which come to life and bring history to life for the reader. In this modern world we are surrounded by negative images, images which can seduce and disturb the soul, generating despair." You want your books to "bring people hope". How to you think The Paradise Tree brings people hope?
We live in a time which is difficult for many people, with an unstable economy, with wars and rumors of wars, and families falling apart. In the novel, Daniel and Brigit bring up their children to be educated and law-abiding, in spite of living in the wilderness and not having a church or school near-by. They later had a school and a church but not in the early years. In spite of sorrows and hardships they are a happy, loving family. I want to show once more how happiness does not consist in material possessions and fleeting thrills, but in devotion and commitment, in the steady hard work of a life well-lived.
I enjoyed reading this novel with all its episodes of family life in Ireland and Canada. Daniel and Brigit radiate life and face all life's joys and challenges with faith and resilience. The book also passes the ultimate test--it is easy and fun to read aloud. The very evening of the day I received my comp copies in the mail I read the chapter I allude to above in question #3, "Of Blue Willow and the Reverend Mr. Smith" (chapter 8 in Part II) aloud to my husband. He enjoyed the details of the meal and the conversation and the scene's humor and substance. The O'Connor family faces many troubles and dangers, and also celebrates happy events and festivities--Elena Maria Vidal captures it all with great affection and verisimilitude. While her technique sometimes passes over events by referring to them rather than depicting them (Daniel's militia service, for example), she keeps the focus on the family and their home, on the relationships between husband and wife, parents and children, friends and neighbors. The home and the kitchen are the center of this story--and perhaps the kitchen most of all!