Pistols and Petticoats Is Out!

My new book, Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction, came out today! Find it in your local bookstore. If you don’t see it, ask for it to be ordered.

Pistols and Petticoats explores the struggles women have faced in law enforcement and in mystery fiction since the late nineteenth century. Working in a profession considered to be strictly a man’s domain, investigating women were nearly always at odds with society. These sleuths and detectives refused to let that stop them, and paved the way to a modern professional life for women on the force and in popular culture.

Read more about the book and how it came to be here.

And see photos from the book along with an introduction from me in this awesome slideshow on Time.

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Police officer demonstrates an arrest Source: Library of Congress

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Reading Louisa Adams: Or, Taking a Book Too Personally

Alexander Hamilton may be the hottest trend in Founding Fathers but my heart belongs to the Adams family. Always has.

I first fell in love with John Adams watching the movie version of the musical 1776. It started as torture – my dad loved that movie – and came to be a favorite (the same thing happened with Brussels sprouts). He’s obnoxious and disliked and yet so pithy and self-aware. And he married so well. Abigail was smart, curious, and politically minded despite having no formal education. She managed every aspect of their household and farm while John pursued politics. I read countless books on them and visited their homes. The Adams’ pleased my little colonial history loving heart.

But perhaps it’s a sign that my love has grown out of proportion when I find myself sad and hurt by the treatment of one Adams by many other Adams’, Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, while reading the new biography Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas. So much so that I sometimes lay the book down with a pained look on my face and tell my husband the latest mean thing that John Quincy said or Abigail wrote about her daughter-in-law.

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Louisa Adams (Wikimedia)

This isn’t my first brush with Louisa. I read Mrs. Adams in Winter by Michael O’Brien that detailed her journey from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Paris in 1815. Her marriage to John Quincy didn’t seem easy or always happy in that book.

But somehow this book has hit me harder, especially as Louisa suffers miscarriage after miscarriage with little sympathy (and often blame) from her husband. He’s introverted and struggles with the public aspects of public service while Louisa excels at friendship and adjusting to new situations and expectations (of which she has an epic number). Abigail is scarcely any kinder to her, seeing her as pale, weak, and coddled – no match for her son.

No one is perfect, of course, but I’ve been surprised how deeply I feel for Louisa and the difficulties she faced. Author Stacy Schiff has it right in her blurb – if “being born an Adams was difficult, marrying one was yet more so.” John Quincy was prickly and suffered from the high expectations he believed (rightly so) that his parents placed on him. And Louisa, the child of an American father and British mother, grew up in Europe, far from the New England world of her future husband and his family.

But as sad and disappointed as I feel about some of Abigail, John, and John Quincy’s actions, it’s also this complexity that makes the past real. It’s how I fell in love with history in the first place – reading books and visiting historic sites that made people in the past feel like real people with all of the good and plenty of the bad.

I haven’t lost my love of the Adams family by reading this book. If anything, it’s just demonstrated the power of great storytelling and great history to evoke real emotion in the present day.

Living Wilder in South Dakota

As a kid, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder and her “Little House” books. Every time it snowed (rare in Seattle), I’d imagine opening the front door to find a wall of snow like in The Long Winter. Or tying a rope from the house to the barn to find my way in a blizzard (not that we had a barn in the suburbs). When the power went out (a much more common occurrence), my parents and I would huddle near the gas fireplace. Though we never had to close off the upstairs of our house for the winter, I was ready if it became necessary.

I read the books so often as a child that the characters felt like members of my own family. I imagined living in Laura’s time as well as showing Laura my life should she ever come to the present for a visit.

Although its been years since I’ve read the books, I couldn’t resist a stop in De Smet, South Dakota, otherwise known as the Little Town on the Prairie. De Smet is the setting for five of Wilder’s Little House books. Pa Ingalls brought his family there in 1879. This part of South Dakota is marked by small rolling hills and glacial lakes under an enormous sky. The whole town is given over to Wilder mania… even the public restrooms.

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The two existing Ingalls homes are owned by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Association. There’s the Surveyors’ House, which was originally located on Silver Lake (Wilder wrote about it in By the Shores of Silver Lake), where the family lived for five months before moving to their own homestead. Down the street is the original Ingalls’ house that Pa built in 1887. Its a small white two-story frame house just a few blocks from what is today De Smet’s main street.

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Some of the buildings featured in Wilder’s books still stand in the quiet town, including the Loftus Store and Banker Ruth’s house. On a warm and sunny September day, De Smet’s streets are quiet. The few people we pass smile and nod at us, surely knowing we are there for Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Just outside De Smet is the Ingalls homestead where reproductions of buildings described by Wilder dot the spacious prairie grass. The 1862 Homestead Act provided that any citizen could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land. Claimants had to “improve” the plot by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. After five years, the land was given to the original claimant for only a small registration fee. Pa Ingalls staked his claim and moved the family out to their new farm.

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The land has passed through many hands since the Ingalls family lived there. I was far less interested in the recreated buildings than in seeing the landscape with my own eyes. Even many years removed from reading the books, I could still see the mental picture of the Ingalls’ life that I had created so long ago. It really is a beautiful place and seeing it in person (something I still can’t quite believe I really just did!), I can imagine why Pa had so much hope for this promising piece of land after so many years of hardship.

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New Book!

It’s still a ways off – pub date is January 7 – but seeing it in the Beacon catalog makes it more real!Erika Janik Marketplace of the Marvelous

Everything you wanted to know about what we now call alternative but what was known in the 19th century as “irregular” medicine. It’s not quite as irregular as you might think!