Writing novels about actual historical characters, as Cathy Slusser does, can present some odd dilemmas.
Slusser is the director of historical records for the Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court, and she’s just self-published her third novel, “From a Heavenly Land: Caroline’s Story.” It’s the final installment of a trilogy, and all three novels deal with members of a family that lived in Manatee County in the middle of the 19th century and early 20th century.
One of the earlier novels in the series was titled “From a Heavenly Land: Eliza’s Story.” In that book, Eliza was a sympathetic figure.
Caroline, the central character in the third book, was Eliza’s daughter-in-law. The book spans about 35 years, from 1880 to 1915 or thereabouts, but Caroline lived to age 102. She died in the 1970s, and there are still people around who knew her. Slusser even met her son, Arthur “Babe” Fogarty.
Caroline and Eliza didn’t get along, but because of harsh circumstances and bizarre laws of the era, Caroline ended up being dependent on Eliza for money. Eliza would taunt Caroline about that.
“Eliza would burn $100 bills, throw them in the fireplace, to show Caroline that she was going to leave her with nothing,” Slusser said.
As a historian, I’m always looking for creative ways to teach people about Manatee County history. A lot of people won’t pick up a history textbook. But they’ll pick up a novel.
Slusser sticks as closely as possible to historical accuracy in her novels, but she has to use some creativity when she’s interpreting her characters’ behavior. She had to account for the once-sympathetic Eliza becoming someone who would psychologically torture the widowed mother of her grandchildren.
“It was difficult for me, because Eliza was the heroine in the earlier book,” Slusser said. “I decided that dementia must have been setting in.”
In the latest novel, Caroline Lindemeyer marries William J. Fogarty, Eliza’s only surviving son. Eliza’s other children had all died young.
William and Caroline have four children. He is lost at sea, presumed drowned, and the widowed Caroline, still young, is left to raise their children.
According to the laws of the day, widowed women had to petition the court for custody of their own kids and had to file annual reports detailing all the money they spent on their kids, including clothes and presents they bought. Their husbands’ money did not belong to them. Eliza was essentially in charge of Caroline’s money.
Eventually, Caroline moved to St. Petersburg with her children and Eliza. Women in St. Petersburg actually had the right to vote before the 19th Amendment was passed.
According to the laws of the day, widowed women had to petition the court for custody of their own kids, and had to file annual reports detailing all the money they spent on their kids, including clothes and presents they bought.
“I imagine that she got involved with the suffrage movement,” Slusser said.
Slusser will make a couple of personal appearances in the area in coming weeks to talk about her books, the historical figures of Caroline, Eliza and Julia and the rich Manatee County history of which they were a part. (Caroline was the daughter of German immigrants, brought to Florida by the governor at the time who wanted to create a German settlement in northern Manatee.)
She’ll be at Palmetto Historical Park at 10 a.m. Saturday and at Manatee Village Historical Park at 5 p.m. Nov. 18. Both events are free and open to the public. Slusser’s books will be available for sale and she’ll autograph copies. You can also purchase copies at cathyslusser.com.
Slusser admits that she has to use some imagination and creativity when she’s writing about what her characters think and feel. But her motivation in writing the books is to impart a sense of Manatee County’s history. “Caroline’s Story” includes an appendix detailing what parts of the book are historically accurate.
“As a historian, I’m always looking for creative ways to teach people about Manatee County history,” she said. “A lot of people won’t pick up a history textbook. But they’ll pick up a novel.”