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Review: "Portrait of the Past" by Kate Halleron

Portrait of the Past  by Kate Halleron is available in the Girlebooks catalog.

Since this year marks the 150th year since the United States Civil War began, Portrait of the Past is an appropriate offering for our ebook catalog. Author Kate Halleron demonstrates a firm grasp of the storytelling process, and her studies into the psychological aspects of the storyline are intriguing. Portrait of the Past grabs the reader from the beginning and doesn’t let go till the last sentence.

The story begins in the year 1880 with an obviously talented artist selling her canvases and miniatures on the wharf in San Francisco. We soon learn that the artist is African American; a former slave who was wronged by her former owner, her family members and her country itself. She protects her emotional scars by avoiding unnecessary human contact and by assuming that a benevolent deity, or perhaps any deity, does not exist.

While reading Portrait of the Past, I kept thinking of Gone With the Wind—from the underside. What if the family owning the slaves was not well off like the O’Hara family? What if the slaves were not the only helpless members of the household; the owners being as much a captive of the Southern economic system as the slaves? What if the protagonists lived in a border state (Kentucky), where allegiances were less clear-cut than in decidedly Southern Georgia?

Author Halleron pieces together stories of the years immediately preceding, during and following the civil war. She changes viewpoint starting with a story told bitterly by Marguerite Dumas (A.K.A. Daisy Carr). Later, an account of the same events is related by her former owner and yet another told by her uncle (also a former slave), each making clearer the picture of what actually happened to cause our protagonist’s bitterness.

By switching points of view, author Halleron offers us some unique angles and some interesting speculations regarding interactions between slaveholders, former slaveholders, freed slaves and those who had never owned slaves. Her stories also treat us to historical details regarding some of the ugly truths about the slavery system in the South, the battles fought in Kentucky during the war, and the workings of the Underground Railroad.

In her answers to my interview questions below, Ms. Halleron mentions that she has written mostly Sci Fi/Fantasy, and that the fact that she came up with an historical novel was a surprise to her. It is my sincere wish that we will be seeing some of her Sci/Fi offered here soon.

How long have you been writing? Tell us a little about your writing /publishing career.

I’ve been writing for my own amusement off and on since the third grade. Mostly I’ve written science fiction/fantasy, so the fact that my first (and probably my second) full-length book was a historical novel came as some surprise to me. Much of what I’ve written is fan fiction, and Marguerite first appeared in a fan fiction story I wrote several years ago. She’s lived in my head since then, demanding that I tell her story.

Other than on the Internet, this is the first thing I have published.

In “Portrait of the Past”, the attitudes of the San Franciscans that we meet seem to be very cosmopolitan for the 1880s. Do you use these attitudes as a literary convention, or do you have reason to believe that such openness actually existed then? (I keep visualizing the 1960s in the American South and Rosa Parks being asked to move to the back of the bus.)

The late Nineteenth century was more ‘modern’ than many people realize but, yes, I did wish to convey that the family Marguerite falls in with is different from most of the Americans she has dealt with – more tolerant, more open. As with many people, she needs their safe haven before she can find a way to heal.

Every time period contains people who are more progressive and open than the average. Even in the 1960s (even now) there were social progressives in the South.

Your story talks a lot about art. Are you an artist yourself?

I have dabbled in watercolor and taken some drawing classes – I like to try new things, but no, I am not an artist myself. As I said in my biography, I knit and am an amateur photographer, so I do have some experience with creating and with the kind of ‘eye’ an artist needs to have.

Marguerite’s experiences make a very vivid story. What inspired you to write Portrait of the Past and what sort of historical information did you rely upon? (Besides the historical information you mention in the back of your book regarding Civil War battles in Kentucky.)

I tend to write character-driven stories – and Marguerite is a character who has haunted me for some time. Even though I grew up in the South - Kentucky and Louisiana - I actually knew very little about the Civil War. I spent a year researching before I ever sat down to write – reading everything I could find about the US Colored troops, about contemporary attitudes to slavery and to free blacks, about the abolition movement, the history of Kentucky and many other things.

Much of your story is told in flashbacks. This mode of storytelling was very effective, and I was intrigued by how intricately the plot unfolded. However, I suspected that detailing the plot in this manner was more difficult than telling the story in a straight timeline. Was it difficult to keep up with your story lines when you were writing the book? Why did you tell the story in flashbacks?

I made a few notes, but no, it wasn’t terribly difficult to keep things straight. I write in what may be an odd way – the story has to be fairly complete in my mind before I sit down to write. I don’t make an outline, but I do need to understand my characters and their choices before I commit words to paper. The act of writing is merely recording who they already are and what they’ve done.

So the story came in flashback form because 35-year-old Marguerite was the one who needed the healing and she could only find that by reliving her past and coming to understand it, as many of us also need to do.

Another effective convention that you used is to have a character relate a past event, then later have another character relate the same event from a different viewpoint. This was especially interesting when you described the dilemma of a somewhat benevolent slave holder when the only “property” he has left is his slaves. I don’t think I ever came across that viewpoint before. What inspired you to relate this kind of viewpoint?

I hate villains who are evil because they’re evil – everyone has a reason for what they do, people are far more complicated than that. We all have our dark places and our demons. And sometimes cataclysm is the best thing that can happen to us. Life is messy. I prefer to read stories with some moral ambiguity – pure evil is as boring as pure goodness.

As to Lucian and his dilemma – I do think that the institution of slavery was a trap to the slaveholders as well as the slaves. I think of Thomas Jefferson and his own quandary, his description of ‘having the tiger by the tail’ when it came to freeing the slaves. Even most abolitionists at the time were in favor of gradual emancipation – the sudden release of millions of uneducated slaves was something only the most radical abolitionists desired.

Lucian’s dilemma reflected the dilemma of the South as a whole – when your entire economy depends on something vile, what do you do?

What authors have inspired you to become a writer and why?

Oh, that’s a hard one – there are so many. My mother taught me to read when I was four years old, and I’ve pretty much devoured everything I can get my hands on since then. My earliest stories were inspired by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz which my mother gave to me for my seventh birthday.

One book I read in junior high that had a profound impact on my writing was Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl. The story is told from two different viewpoints – from one viewpoint it’s a science fiction story, from the other viewpoint, it’s a medieval fantasy. From that one book I learned that viewpoint is everything – both in story and in real life.

Other writers that have profoundly affected me – Louisa May Alcott, Madeleine L’engle, Thomas Merton, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Alexandre Dumas, Ellery Queen.

Oh, yeah, I read a LOT.


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