Donis Casey is the author of the Alafair Tucker Mysteries. Her award-winning series, featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children, is set in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s. Donis is a former teacher, academic librarian, and entrepreneur. She lives in Tempe, AZ, with her husband, poet Donald Koozer. The latest Alafair Tucker novel, The Wrong Hill to Die On, was released by Poisoned Pen Press in October, 2012.
Donis can be found at www.doniscasey.com
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The British novelist Graham Greene said a lot of pithy things about writing, but one quote truly resonates with me: The moment comes when a character does or says something you hadn’t thought about. At that moment he’s alive and you leave it to him. Anyone who has ever written a novel knows Greene spoke the truth when he said that. And it goes double for the recurring characters in a long-running series.
I may have first put Alafair Tucker on the page, but it didn’t take long for her to stand up and walk away, and I’ve been following where she leads ever since. In the universe that she and I both inhabit, she lives her life the way she sees fit, and I am no more than her chronicler.
Of course, I do tend to complicate things for her. She is quite aware of this fact and often has a lot to say about it. When I was preparing to write The Wrong Hill to Die On, I caught up on the events that were happening in Alafair’s world by spending several days in the Arizona State University Library, reading the newspapers from January to March, 1916.
In 1916, there was a revolution going on in Mexico and a terrible war in Europe. The United States was desperately trying not to get involved in either one. These were big events that would shape the world to come. But Alafair Tucker, forty-two-year-old wife and mother of ten children, lives smack-dab in the middle of the country on a farm with no telephone, no daily newspaper delivery, no electricity or running water. The wars are far away from her, and there isn’t anything she can do about them, anyway. She has ten lively children and a farm, which means she has problems of her own. But there is one thing going on in the winter of 1915-1916 that would have affected Alafair very much.
Not just ordinary winter drizzle or even the odd rain storm, but unrelenting heavy downpour that went on over the entire Western United States for months, beginning in November 1915 and not letting up until February 1916. Epic floods plagued the country, washing out roads, train tracks, and bridges from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
The idea was still forming in my mind when Alafair told me that she didn’t like the look in my eye.
Alafair: What in the great big world are you thinking, Miz Donis?* I have already endured every kind of wet, dry, cold, hot, and blow there is. I’ve seen many a toad-strangler in my day, and many an overflowing creek, too. The weather in Oklahoma it jangles my nerves enough as it is. There’s no need for you to make it worse.
Donis: It’s not like I’m making this up just to torment you, Alafair. You can see for yourself what it says about the floods right here in the Muskogee Phoenix newspaper. All I’m wondering is how you’re going to handle it.
Alafair: Well, it’s not like this is my first rodeo. No, it’s a daily fight to keep the water at bay, but we know how to tuck in for a long haul. What I dread more than a flooded root cellar is when everyone in the family comes down with grippe. I have been known to spend the entire winter nursing sick young’uns.
Donis: Yes, that is a concern, isn’t it? It’s not like you can take the kids in for flu shots or a dose of antibiotics, is it?
Alafair: I don’t know know what them things are, Miz Donis, but I know a thing or two about doctoring a cold. I always keep me a stash of slippery elm and willow bark for fever, and a horseradish poultice or a turpentine wrap will shift a cough and a sore throat right well. And my children are a ruddy bunch. Well, except for Blanche. Ever since she was a baby she comes down with whatever is going around and takes longer to get over it than the others.
Donis: What would you do if her cough refused to go away? What if it’s something a lot more serious than a cold? (For a moment, the look on her face makes me sorry I asked. But sacrifices must be made for art.)
Alafair: I reckon I’d call out Doctor Addison and see what he had to say.
Donis: What if he told you that if you didn’t send her away somewhere sunny and dry, she might not ever get well.
Alafair: Well, now, that would be a poser. I cannot send my ten-year-old baby girl away to recuperate amongst strangers. I won’t. Her daddy Shaw and me will take Blanche to my sister Elizabeth in Arizona and stay with her as long as we can.
Donis: That’s right, you did mention during an earlier adventure that one of your sisters lives in Tempe, Arizona.** How very handy! I happen to live in Tempe myself. You’ll like it here, Alafair. When I moved here from Oklahoma myself some twenty-five years ago, one of the first things I noticed was that the weather is usually so calm and sunny that for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to spend my days watching the sky for trouble. It’s very relaxing.
Alafair: I have a notion that the nice weather in Arizona ain’t going to make up for whatever else you have in mind for me while I’m there.
Donis: In the first place, it isn’t going to be easy to get from Boynton to Tempe since so many tracks and bridges have been washed out between here and there. You may have to take a few detours. Maybe even skim the Mexican border.
Alafair: Why, ain’t there a Revolutionary army causing trouble down there?
Donis: So I hear. The General’s name is Pancho Villa. Seems to be making the folks who live along the border pretty nervous.
Alafair: Making them eager to take matters into their own hands, too, I’ll warrant.
Donis: True. There is the body of the Mexican man that you discover in the ditch after you get to Tempe. Looks like somebody was eager to get rid of him.
Alafair: I declare, you do make my life a bother. But all I care about is getting Blanche well, so you just stand aside, ma’am, and leave it all to me.
*Alafair would never address someone so much older than she is without using an honorific.
** The Sky Took Him : Poisoned Pen Press, 2009.