The Literary Hill – September 2017

Louise Farmer Smith, shown here at the 2017 Literary Hill BookFest, has written a new book about pioneer women. Photo: Bruce Guthrie

A Pioneer Everywoman
During the trek, she cared for the children, did the cooking and laundry, pitched the tents, and yoked the oxen that pulled the wagons. Once the family staked a claim, she collected buffalo dung for fuel and toiled in the fields. And she did it all while maintaining a “lady-like appearance” and holding firm to the 19th-century feminine ideals of purity and submission.

In “The Woman Without a Voice,” prize-winning author Louise Farmer Smith explores the stories of the pioneering women who helped settle our country, frequently giving up comfortable lives to move into unknown territory. Their new homes were often dark, cramped dugouts which they shared with the snakes and insects that fell out of the dirt. “Look at it,” Smith exhorts, directing the reader to a photograph of one such dwelling. “It looks like a windowless hole in the ground to me.”

The pioneer experience is not an abstraction for Smith, whose own family was forced to sell their Nebraska farm following the Panic of ’93. Lured by pamphlets promising free Indian land for white settlers, they decided to set out for Oklahoma. Or, at least, the men decided; their wives merely obeyed. “Women of this period,” writes Smith, “had little or no voice in the family’s big decisions.”

Drawing on family history as well as diaries and photographs, Smith reveals common threads in the lives of pioneer women, and she also discovers truths about her own foremothers, including a great grandmother who was mysteriously left behind in Nebraska when the family moved to Oklahoma. In the end, the voiceless woman of her title becomes both a generic Everywoman and her once-lost relative who, “like the pioneer women for whom there was no going back home once their husbands had insisted on the perilous journey, was powerless … thrown back on her powers of endurance and her habits of obedience.”

Louise Farmer Smith is the author of two collections of interrelated stories, “One Hundred Years of Marriage” and “Cadillac, Oklahoma.” “The Woman Without a Voice” is her first non-fiction book. Find her at

Author Bill Gourgey displays a copy of “Attic Ward,” his YA novel about a teen artist, at the 2017 BookFest. Photo: Bruce Guthrie

The Artist in the Attic
Brooke Rowe’s days are numbered. The 15-year-old escaped from Virginia foster care to make a new life for herself in DC, holing up in an attic room in the Smithsonian Castle and landing a job “copying” famous works of art. But now her probation officer is closing in, threatening exposure. “I am not going back to being a ward of the state,” she vows. “Now that I’ve had a taste of living like an artist, I never want to go back – back to all those unhappy families.”

In “Attic Ward,” Bill Gourgey’s latest novel for young adults, Brooke’s problems only go from bad to worse. When she discovers a plot to steal a priceless painting, more than just her lifestyle is on the line. As one character tells her, “You’re in a heap of trouble – on the run from the State of Virginia, involved in a forgery ring, caught up in some kind of art heist.”

As he did in “Capitol Kid,” the first book in the Cap City Kids series, Gourgey masterfully conveys not only the angst of being a teenager but also the courage and resourcefulness that a talented, impassioned young person can muster. As a preternaturally gifted artist, Brooke finds the thought of someone trying to steal a work by her beloved Delacroix “makes my blood boil.” But where to turn for help rescuing the masterpiece – and getting her life back on track?

“I’m an orphan and I’m on my own and I can’t trust anyone,” she declares, “especially not grownups.” Happily, by the end of “Attic Ward,” Brooke’s shell has begun to crack and she wonders whether there might, after all, be a chance for her, as well as for some of the adults in her life.

Bill Gourgey frequently writes about science and technology and, in addition to Cap City Kids, is also the award-winning author of “The Glide Trilogy.” Find him at

“Calamity at the Continental Club” is the third in the Washington Whodunit series by Colleen Shogan, who was at the 2017 BookFest. Photo: Bruce Guthrie

The History Detective
“I don’t go looking for trouble!” protests Hill staffer Kit Marshall. But in “Calamity at the Continental Club,” the third in Colleen J. Shogan’s Washington Whodunit series, trouble once again finds Kit.

The congressional aide has taken a few days off to join her fiance and future in-laws for a meeting of the Mayflower Society of history buffs at a downtown DC club. And guess who stumbles across the dead body of one of the members, spreadeagled on the floor of the library? When her future father-in-law becomes a prime suspect, Kit puts together the team of friends who served her so well in “Stabbing in the Senate” and “Homicide in the House,” and starts sleuthing.

Coming up with alternative suspects is made easier by the fact that the murdered man was “tolerated due to his wealth and power, [but] no one really liked him.” In fact, everybody in the Mayflower Society seems to have had a reason for wanting him dead. The police are stumped, so it’s up to Kit to discover the damning combination of motive and opportunity that will point to the killer.

The Society’s field trips give Kit an excellent opportunity to mingle with and interrogate its members – and provide Shogan with a great excuse to give readers inside tours of Mount Vernon, the National Archives, and other historical sites. Her knowledge of DC is prodigious – including all the bars with the best happy hours – and it’s always a pleasure to spend time with Kit and her cronies, as well as her fiance Doug and her dog Clarence. Also, as Kit says, “You can never read too many mysteries.” Hear, hear!

Colleen Shogan is a senior executive at the Library of Congress where she works on programs such as the National Book Festival. A member of Sisters in Crime, she won a Next Generation Award for her first novel, “Stabbing in the Senate.” Find her at

On the Hill in September
East City Bookshop presents Chad Carlson, author of “Making March Madness,” Sept. 6, 6:30 p.m.; Nan Doyle Alexander, author of “Dig Where You Are,” Sept. 13, 6:30 p.m.; Gabrielle Zevin, author of “Young Jane Young,” Sept. 14, 4:00 p.m.; Maria Mudd Ruth, author of “A Sideways Look at Clouds,” Sept. 14, 6:30 p.m.; Danzy Senna, author of “New People,” Sept. 18, 6:30 p.m.; Jess Arndt, author of “Large Animals: Stories,” Sept. 19, 6:30 p.m.; Bob Mitchell, author of “Time for a Heart-to-Heart,” Sept. 25, 6:30 p.m.; and a launch party for Malka Older’s “Null States,” Sept. 28, 6:30 p.m.

The Library of Congress presents the 2017 National Book Festival, Sept. 2, 9:30-7:30 p.m., at the Walter Washington Convention Center; a talk with Peggy Seeger, author of “A Life of Music, Love, and Politics,” Sept. 7, noon; “Comics and the Power of Intellectual Freedom,” with Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Sept. 15, noon; and the inaugural reading by new Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, Sept. 13, 7:00 p.m.

Smithsonian Associates starts a four-part series, “American Novels of the ‘20s,” with “Age of Excess: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby,’” Sept. 18, 6:45 p.m.; and presents “1922: A Literary Watershed,” with Bill Goldstein, author of “The World Broke in Two,” Sept. 6, 6:45 p.m.; “One Life: Sylvia Plath,” Sept. 12, 6:45 p.m.; and “T.S. Eliot: Daring to Disturb the Universe,” with author Daniel Stashower and actor Scott Sedar, Sept. 28, 6:45 p.m.