I promised in my last post to say more about the setting for my latest novel Home Place, and I have LOTS to say because that Home Place is based on MY Home Place.
Okay, let me be clear. I don’t live there now. In fact, I haven’t lived there for decades. But this particular dot on the Illinois landscape is where I spent the first fourteen years of my life and where my deepest roots are planted. And yes, I still think of and call that house and that farm as MY Home Place.
The novel Home Place honors this land and the people who homesteaded, (my great-great-grands), ran mills on the Pecumsagen creek (three generations of Crosiars), built a 15-room/2-bath house (great-grands), farmed (four generations), lived, died, ached, loved, and played there (five generations!) Can you start to see why this place is so dear to me?
Home Place, the novel is set in the present day when Kat Patterson and her brother Paul are set to inherit their family’s farm. Their concerns are modern, so the history of their Home Place is discussed only enough to show how deeply Kat feels connected to her ancestral home. (Yes, she and I do share that connection, but truly, Kat is her own person and not an autobiographical version of me!)
The history of the place fascinates me – and not just because it was ours, though I know little of the time before my people settled there. Surely Native Americans – the Peoria, Illini, Potawatomi who lived in the Illinois River valley – roamed the timber along the tributary to the Illinois they called the Pecumsagen, but in the manner of white settlers everywhere, Native history held little significance for my ancestors.
The history we know begins with Simon Crosiar, his bride (and probable cousin) Sarah Owen, and their first-born son Amasa Owen Crosiar, newly arrived from southwest Ohio. In fact, Amasa was born on a flatboat on the Ohio River in October of 1817 before the family made their way to the Mississippi and then the Illinois to a place then called Shippinsport. Simon put his hand to many trades among them river pilot, postmaster, miller, store owner. He built a mill on the Pecumsagen in 1833 (LaSalle County History, 1877) on a site I might be able to find still for the bullrushes that grew in the sand there. If so, I’m the only person alive who could.We think, because of my father’s accidental stumble while hunting, that the Chicago-Peoria stagecoach crossed the creek at that spot.
It was my great-grands Amasa and Lovina who in the mid-1800s built the house that graces the cover of the Home Place novel, expertly rendered by artist Nancy Lane. They built it big to house their eleven children, in-laws, necessary hired men, and school-teachers who boarded with the family (including my own mom in the 1930s.) And they must have had inflated visions for a showplace of a home. We’re lucky to have these historical renderings done about 1870 – that make the place look far grander than it probably ever really did.
We don’t have modern photos of the house, except as a truncated background for kids in Easter finery. This despite the fact that my father was an amateur photographer. Especially in my attempts to convey what the place looked like in my memory, I could have wished that Pop’s documentation was of the house rather than that new bonnet and Mary Janes.
It’s likely that the house was always meant for multiple generations which could account for two of everything – kitchens, dining rooms, etc., and made the impracticality of Kat’s plans for the house in the Home Place novel an obstacle I had to work through. A bed and breakfast? Not a lifestyle a character like Kat would choose. A duplex? Not quite a lofty enough goal. What did she do? You’ll have to read the book! While you do, you might find it helpful to visualize how the rooms of the house fit together. Here’s the house plan I drew so I could keep my memory fresh while I wrote.
Kat and Whip spend most of their time on the north side of what Kat describes as ‘no-man’s land.’ My grandma’s sitting room served as a buffer zone between her side of the house to the north and where my parents, siblings and I lived to the south. People rarely sat in Grandma’s sitting room, arguably the nicest room in the house, but it saw plenty of foot traffic as we went between our side and Grandma’s side of the house.
In the novel, only Kat and her father occupy the house so they had little need to use the upstairs where bedrooms roughly mirrored the rooms downstairs. We used five of those rooms and the two or three bedrooms on Grandma’s side were again only aired out for company – off-limits to us kids. I do remember a diagonal wall, but where and why? I guessed for the drawing. I only remember two closets in the whole big house and not a single fireplace which caused my younger self great concern on Christmas Eves. And of course, central heating was more myth than reality in a house built before insulation. Being sent to my room as punishment was not a tactic my parents used since the upstairs in particular was frigid in winter and boiling in summer.
No doubt you’ve got a collection of stories of your childhood and the place where you spent it. I hope you look back on that place as fondly as I do mine and as Kat Patterson does in Home Place. Once again, I’ll insist that Kat is not me and that this novel is not autobiographical. But Kat and I are alike in our deep regard for the place we grew up – the history, the people who built there, the land itself.
If you read the novel Home Place – and I hope you will – I hope you’ll root for Kat as she fights to protect what’s hers. And I hope you’ll enjoy her stories – some of which are admittedly my own – of what it was like to grow up in a place where she, I, and generations of family dug their roots deep.
By the way, Google Earth confirms that Amasa and Lovina’s house does still stand – next to the golf course that used to be our farm. Will Kat manage to save her ancestral home as my family could not save ours? Find out here! Paperbacks are available as of November 3, 2020 and the Kindle version releases on November 18.