The story takes place in 1876, in the middle of an economic depression caused by too much railroad speculation. Banks failed, farm prices went down, and many families, like my character Carrie Daly, struggled to get by. Families were still recovering from the effects of the Civil War that ended in 1865. However, it was a time when new and exciting things were on the horizon, too. Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his telephone. By the end of the year, 3,000 were in use nationwide. Philadelphia held a Centennial exposition. The newspapers were filled with stories of General Custer’s last stand against Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. The modern-day Kentucky Derby had begun the year before, and this interest in horse racing is what prompts my hero, Griff Rutledge to stay in Hickory Ridge to train a horse for a local race. P. T. Barnum toured with Jumbo, the elephant just acquired from London’s Royal Zoological Society. At picnics and parties, people gathered to sing the latest tunes of the day, including, “Grandfather’s Clock” and “I’ll take You Home Again, Kathleen.”
How does it parallel our own post-war circumstances?
For the past several years, we’ve seen our own economic hard times, haven’t we? With the housing bubble, the bank bailouts, and the decline of manufacturing, families are struggling now, just as they were back in 1876. But we are looking forward to better times, too, with new inventions every day and new songs to sing. Americans are a resilient people. Like Carrie and Griff, they make the best of their circumstances and hold onto hope for a better future.
What would you like readers to come away with from reading Beauty for Ashes?
I hope that every reader brings her own experiences and expectations to the story and makes her own meaning from it. Some readers will focus on the love story between Griff and Carrie, some will be intrigued with the mystery of Rosaleen, and I hope everyone will enjoy the weaving together of the historical and the personal that is the hallmark of each of my southern historical novels.
What inspired you to write Beauty for Ashes?
It’s the second of my Hickory Ridge novels. When I created Carrie Daly in the first book, Beyond All Measure, she was mourning the death of her husband at the battle of Shiloh. My heart hurt for her, so mired in grief and loneliness. I wanted to give her a second chance to build a life with Griff and find love again.
As in recent years the postbellum period in much of the South, including Tennessee, were difficult. A widespread depression made jobs scarce. People struggled not only to put their losses behind them but to figure out a way forward. Many people in our country today have struggled with the same kinds of losses. In writing Beauty For Ashes I wanted to tell a story that reminds us all of God’s goodness and of his promise to give those who mourn beauty for ashes and the oil of joy for mourning.
Is there a character that you relate to most?
I feel a connection to all of them. Griff was such a wonderful hero to write. He’s so dashing and adventurous, but underneath that, desperately lonely and vulnerable. And as I’ve said, I so wanted Carrie to be happy again. I even love Mary Stanhope, because even though she’s impossible, she does change and grow throughout the story, and I liked her quite a bit by the end.
You’re from Tennessee. Is Hickory Ridge a real place? What made you set Beauty for Ashes in Tennessee?
Hickory Ridge is not a real place. It’s based loosely on the Cade’s Cove area in the Great Smokies which was a farm community in the 19th century, although not as large or as prosperous as Hickory Ridge. I set the series there because of its great beauty, its rich history, and because the South in general is a place that is not as often chosen as a setting, compared to Texas or the far west. I hope readers will love spending time in someplace new and will come back to Hickory Ridge for one last visit when Every Perfect Gift, the final book in the series, comes out later this year.