My little sister Shannon is a better writer than I am. (She is better at most things, but how important is whistling anyway?) In 2016 having just started my first draft of Mount Hope, I was in my writing infancy. Meanwhile, Shannon had already knocked out a completed transcript and published her debut novel, The Dust Prophet. It is an absolute masterwork. Her book is such a well-written, dark, and delicious spiritual roller coaster that I am at a loss for how to describe its impact on me, but I will try. In short, my sister’s work has served as the bar of excellence I aspired to reach and the inspiration to complete my own provocative work. You can imagine how her literary gem motivated my commitment to writing. Her opinion about my work was so important to me that my entire ego structure was holding its breath, waiting for her approval. I dreamed of us writing screenplays together like Nora and Delia Ephron’s, You’ve Got Mail.
Once, before either of our books were on Amazon, I sent Shannon something I had written for her opinion. It felt like an eternity waiting for her response. When her email finally arrived, I was crushed. She did not respond with infinite praise, as I naively believed; instead, she offered a single brutal assessment. She said, “I can’t even get into the story because it reads like one long run-on sentence.” My ego bruised, I started as most desperate grabs for approval might, with the words Yeah, but.
“Yeah, but what about the clever plot and intriguing characters? And what of the contrasting themes?” She had no time to teach and replied, “You got to fix the sentence thing before I can go there.” Though I pouted like a toddler, she did me a favor that day. Sending me back to the table to clean up the word vomit was just the first in a succession of brutal requested edits over the years. I am better for it.
Here is the synopsis of her book, The Dust Prophet:
“In 1921, the tiny farming town of Harmony, Kansas, reeling from grief and desperate for comfort, places its faith in the daughter of a poor dirt farmer. But Esta Macphee is no ordinary girl. She speaks of being touched by God. And she possesses knowledge only the Lord could have bestowed upon her. But is she God’s handmaiden or a clever con artist? The local pastor believes she is something more sinister, and he will stop at nothing to expose her evil. The Dust Prophet is a story of unyielding ground, the limits of human suffering, and the desperate need for faith. At a time when even the earth rose up against them, a unique family of hardscrabble yet gifted women forged a path through the clouds of dust.”
Doesn’t that sound rich? You know this story will be bitter and sweet, like dark chocolate. My devotion and admiration for Shannon’s first novel are so absolute that my novel stopped midchapter and nodded a greeting at her book, a symbolic bow of respect. Let me explain. In her story, young Esta performs a ritual for a mother who lost her twin boys. She places apples near the gravestone and waits three days. If ants appear, then the boys are at peace in heaven. This ritual is a fictional wives’ tale created by my sister.
The Dust Prophet, Pages 95-97
“Your bones are dust.
Your breath did cease.
Tell me, do you rest in peace?”
“An apple with ants, the dead do dance.
Washed clean in the rain, they rattle their chains.
Swarming with bees, pray on your knees.
But plucked from the grave, they’ll not be saved.”
Flash forward to my book. The female protagonist is a detective walking Mount Hope cemetery with the owner.
Mount Hope, page 84
“What about this apple? Does that mean anything?” An apple
sits perfectly poised at the base of a gravestone. Ollie assumes
this person must have been a teacher.
(The cemetery owner)
“An old wives’ tale. If someone is worried about the salvation
of the person, they will place an apple at the grave. After
three days, if ants appear, then their loved one is in heaven.”
This nod to my sister within Mount Hope symbolizes admiration and a familial chord that binds our stories. Shannon has a small tattoo of an apple on her shoulder, commemorating the completion and publication of her novel. It is tempting for me to get the same apple tattoo. I should. After all, despite my achievement, I am in complete awe of her talent and still desperately seeking her approval.
The Dust Prophet by Shannon Macfarlane can be purchased here.