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Rural Michigan, 1934.
During the throes of the Great Depression Polly marries for money. After her husband Sam dies in a bizarre farm accident, new bride Polly assumes she is set to pursue her dream of opening a hat-making business. Instead, she becomes the prime suspect in Sam’s murder. Secrets abound and even Polly’s family can’t figure out the truth.
Reverend Wesley Johnson
Sunday, June 24, 1934
This morning, finding myself at the pulpit I looked down at the congregation, I no longer felt rancor about our family’s current situation. I told Willard’s story veiled in anonymity, his mother being too ill to attend church, anyway. I mentioned the problems in my own family and the unknowns we are facing. Somewhere in the sermon I recited the list of sick members and the fact that right now almost all of us were facing challenges we’d never anticipated.
I remarked how we all wanted to be facing decisions about whether to electrify our houses and put in an indoor bathroom. Instead, we were facing decisions about how long we could hold on, and whether we’d lose our crops if rain didn’t come, what we’d eat this winter if our gardens didn’t produce and what we’d do if we lost our farms. I don’t think anyone expected me to be this specific about our collective worries.
“Lord, lift these worries from us. Lift them high above us. Lord, lift these worries from us.”
Next I asked everyone to take a minute and count their blessings.
“Instead of focusing on what we don’t have this morning, think about what we do have and be thankful. What are you happy about today?”
“I need an hour,” my friend John Newson piped up. Everyone laughed.
By the time we started our last hymn, “Joyful, Joyful,” there was a smile on every face, including mine.
Why Include a Methodist Minister and Why Include a Country Church in The Unveiling of Polly Forrest?
When I was conjuring up the plot and the setting of The Unveiling of Polly Forrest I settled on one of the three narrators being a Methodist farmer-minister who served a small country church a few miles down the road. His neighbors were also members of his congregation. This was a common model back in the rural Midwest during 1930’s when the book was set. I grew up going to a small Methodist country church and similarly my husband’s grandfather was a farmer-minister in several small country churches in southern Illinois.
Being both a minister to and a neighbor of your parishioners makes for complex relationships and I wanted to make that evident in the book. Wesley, the minister is also is best friends with a neighbor, and church member, John Newsom, and that also creates a complicated twisting of roles. At one point, Wes decides to confide in his friend, at the same time, realizes that he is breaking professional boundaries. But he understood that the emotional bond he had with his friend trumped that artificial boundary.
The church itself is a one room structure without a finished basement, just a cellar begging to be made into a social hall. While the church is crude and rudimentary it also becomes a shelter for a homeless, itinerant who has mental health issues. In creating this sub-plot I wanted to portray both pastor Wes and his friend John as compassionate and humane. Given the contrast of Wes’s other side which was flawed, to say the least, I wanted his moral fiber to shine through.
I decided to create an Easter sunrise service, so common to Methodist churches, and certainly one near and dear to my childhood. So I used this scene to introduce an element of distraction, while also portraying Polly with her Easter bonnet creations, as another wrinkle in the main plot. During the sunrise service the parishioners put out their candles as the sun arises, symbolic of the Christ rising from the dead. Hopefully the reader resonates with the multiple themes and writing conventions going on in this chapter.
Another scene in the church comes at a time when many characters in the book are struggling with economic issues, really that of survival. Again, pastor Wes intrinsically understands that he must buoy up the congregation, attempting to help them see God’s grace in the midst of economic upheaval and intense despair. He again breaks professional boundaries and instinctively and emotionally shores up his sheep. It is a small moment in time but one of intense emotion.
Because the church is one of the critical institutions for farm families during this period of time, I deliberately made it central to the book. I also wanted to point out the myriad of flaws that the minister and his congregation held. No person is perfect, not even a Methodist minister, and the theme of all working together and accepting each other became predominant in the book.
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Charlotte Whitney is the author of historical fiction set during the Great Depression in the rural Midwest. Her most recent work, The Unveiling of Polly Forrest, a stand-alone historical mystery follows her groundbreaking novel, Threads A Depression-Era Tale, which was met with both critical acclaim and commercial success. Raised on a farm in southern Michigan, she often She received a master’s degree in English at the University of Michigan, and after a short stint of teaching at two community colleges, worked at the University of Michigan where she was an associate director of the Lloyd Scholars for Writing and the Arts. Currently living in Arizona with her husband and two dogs she enjoys hiking, bicycling, swimming, and yoga.
Author’s website: https://www.charlottewhitney.com
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Charlotte-Whitney/e/B001KCTFWQ
Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/CWhitneyAuthor