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DIANE WHITESIDE | Special Places and Meals with Family and Friends

November 6, 2010

Diane WhitesideThe Devil She KnowsIt’s November and time to think about sharing a meal with loved ones. I’ve always tucked bits of my family history into my Devil books but I didn’t realize how many ways they’d crept in until I started thinking about Thanksgiving traditions.

sod house on prairieMy grandmother was born in a sod house in the Oklahoma Territory, where her father was an itinerant farm worker. She didn’t remember the house fondly — it was more of a hut, really, especially for seven children. It was dark and scary inside, the roof often dripped clods of dirt or mud into her food and hair, and continually sweeping the dirt floor never improved it.

Somehow, years later, that dark and scary place climbed out of my subconscious to become Viola’s first home in THE IRISH DEVIL.

The mud-brick hovels revealed themselves as a pitiful group, with ill-fitting doors and crumbling bricks”This hut was smaller than the others and its only window was broken. The ragged curtains fluttered gently in the rising breeze…;

“He cautiously entered the tiny hut. Mud-brick walls were totally covered by peeling pages from magazines and catalogues, forming a poor man’s wallpaper. The roof was a canvas tarpaulin, split open over one corner. A pool of water underneath the rip showed the stormy cause of the roof’s failure. A pair of mice skittered away over the hard-packed dirt floor, and into the gloom.”

My grandmother’s great joy was when cowboys would arrive unexpectedly. They usually offered rides on their horses — I suspect acceptance depended on her mother’s permission. Best of all, they always, always brought candy. She adored dining with them.

I grew up in an 1870 Victorian farm house. Let’s be kind and call it a fixer-upper: It still hadn’t recovered from the 1906 Great Earthquake decades earlier by the time my family moved in. My father was a general contractor and matters gradually improved, although there was always a project going on. New plumbing, new electricity — OMG, do you know what living with four women and one unreliable circuit for the entire downstairs was like? — windows that actually opened and shut, and so on.

My father came home with a great deal on paint that he swore was grey and my mother held her head up in the neighborhood by calling it lavender. My friends simply described the end result as “the big purple house on the corner.” Whatever. The end result was a shade that faded into twilight and shadows — absolutely perfect for Halloween decorations.

Even better, we had enough room to welcome the entire clan for family dinners at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or whenever we just felt like getting together. Hot weekends in August were always good for a gathering where, sooner or later, the little kids would race each other around and around the house.

My memories of looking out over the tall hedge to the neighboring houses crept into THE NORTHERN DEVIL, where William and Viola defeat the treacherous telegrapher.

On the other hand, Gareth Lowell, the hero of THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS, never allowed himself to be linked with a single place before this book. He pops up in Arizona for THE IRISH DEVIL, Missouri for THE RIVER DEVIL, Nebraska in THE SOUTHERN DEVIL, and Colorado for THE NORTHERN DEVIL. Footloose and fancy free — or was he running away from his demons? Worse, the slippery devil insisted on going even farther afield for his own book — first Arizona during the Apache wars, then Constantinople, the millennia old capitol city located where Europe meets Asia.

The stagecoach station where Gareth first meets Portia reminds me of my grandmother’s favorite haunts for antique glass, that’s been aged in the desert sun:

Pueblo RuinsBuilt atop an old Indian ruin, the stagecoach station’s lone building was sunk halfway into the ground and no wall stood more than four feet high. Its pale stones melted and blurred at the corners like their builders’ ghosts. Only a few, dark brown splatters survived to hint at why those inhabitants had departed, with deep gouges beside once crimson stains.

A single circle of stones rising in the center courtyard stood stalwart below its wooden arch, silent witness to this outpost’s long purpose. A well was priceless in this wilderness of sand and thorns, carved by mountain ranged like coiled rattlesnakes. Reaching the next drink of sweet water meant riding hard for at least one day, while a man’s skin twitched every time a breeze blew lest it be an Apache death blow.”

My grandmother’s favorite glass pitcher now regularly greets family and friends from my table. I love to fill it with bright flowers to remind me of the sunshine she sought in its glass and the laughter we shared in our expeditions.

Do you have any favorite places that you’ve shared with family and friends? Any special meals at those places?

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