putting on style and agony

My current book commission is a trove of so many stories it is sometimes hard to stay on-task. Every box I pry into or ancient-looking book I pull off the shelf at The Cedars (my client’s wonderful, completely haunted old family home) opens some deep vein of another story that, in and of itself, is novel-worthy. A movie could be made from such a book about Civil War-widowed G-Great Grandmother Jennie Bessie. Without her “darling husband,” and no other prospects for livelihood, Jennie took her five littles (age 11 to 2) to Kansas-Nebraska territory in 1878. I have her diaries to work from, and have stayed for long stretches in the headspace of this brave woman. Naturally, I had to go meet her.

Fortunately, I had a copy of an 1889 plat-map that indicated the location of Jennie Bessie’s claim. On Good Friday, a day when all government offices in Hodgeman County were apparently closed or tumbleweeds had pulled down the phone lines–I couldn’t rouse a soul down there to advise me–I headed without much of a strategy in hopes of finding this remote place where the Widow Simons and her young brood took turns freezing and starving for ten years. No one in the Simons family has been back there in almost 150 years, so I had no directions to follow. There were no roads on the map, only the Santa Fe Trail. I wasn’t sure how to find Jennie Bessie’s land with any certainty, but I took off from Lawrence and drove west and southwest. About 48 miles from where I thought it should be, I noticed Ft. Larned and decided to stop and ask for help.

A fresh-faced, digital-native named Canvas was the young docent (an oxymoron if there ever was one) who welcomed me at the historic site. Canvas wasn’t a bit daunted by the challenge. He studied my map, then manually plugged the coordinates of Jennie Bessie’s land into his iPhone’s satellite navigation app, which he then pinged onto my phone. For the next 65 miles, I just kept watching the blue dot of my car get closer to the red flashing dot of the claim’s latitude and longitude on the landscape. Eventually, I had to turn off the paved road onto washboard-gravel, proceeding slowly the last ten miles or so until the two dots were joined on the screen. Then I stopped the car, looked around, and this is what I saw:

It was the limestone block foundation of her house—the one Jennie Bessie had built to replace the newly-completed soddy that soon-after collapsed during the only big rain they’d have for the next two years. From her diaries, and son Collie’s writings, I knew exactly what I was seeing… even the creek in the distance—the one perpetually dried-out or flash-flooding. I stood right where the door had been… the very door where the horse named Bird finally stopped, having found its own way for many miles through a blinding blizzard with Jennie Bessie wrapped in a quilt in the wagon bed to keep from freezing to death. Inside that door were her cold, hungry children who would finally have something to eat.

If I’d discovered the holy grail it wouldn’t have thrilled me more than finding this arid, godforsaken place. I hadn’t seen a sign of life for miles and miles but, surprisingly, I didn’t feel alone. The wind, unruly, exuberant and strong, blew from every angle, jumping up and knocking into me like a big dog. There was a meadowlark song-talking, pausing occasionally in case I might sing-say something back, which I did, but not in a word-way. My reply was to feel the presence of stories in this place. My mind went into them until some sound said there was surely a rattlesnake dozing between these stones–a descendant of the one Collie stomped to death after it bit Bird, the beloved, reliable horse who was buried near the maple tree Jennie had transplanted from back home. It also didn’t survive.

As I sat on the hewn-limestone blocks, warm and companionable, I imagined how different this would have looked in her day. Instead of parched corn or sorghum fields, this would all be strong prairie tall grass, undulating and verdant. It would not feel desolate but hopeful, at least early-on. After the two-year drought, Jennie Bessie had to find work teaching in any nearby town where she could board with Grace, her toddler. The older sisters, Julie and Etoile were also sent to board with town families, leaving Collie (age 9) and Louie (7) on the claim until they could prove it up by 1883.

They abandoned it in the end, but she kept her family alive, reunited her children and raised them to become incredibly successful adults. This was Jennie Bessie Simons, “and don’t you forget it while she was teaching school and putting on style and agony.”

And I am the luckiest wordsmith in the world who gets to tell her story.


Before it titled Michelle Obama’s book, it was the title that perfectly described the subject of BECOMING MARJORIE, the story of one of America’s unsung heroines of the feminist movement, so that’s what I used! I wrote that biography and launched it in 2017. And today (for the first time), I saw one of the TV interviews done at that time:


I’m storytelling in Cromarty Courthouse Garden, June 23, 2018.

Last month I was invited to read from my own work at the Cromarty Courthouse Museum Garden during Garden Opening Weekend (see photo) in this beautiful village on the Black Isle of Scotland. I’ve written a lot about Cromarty–a search of this blog will reveal that. But I am rarely paid to write in my own voice for my own reasons. Instead, my clients commission me to write, ghostwrite, edit, develop and doctor their books. It’s incredibly satisfying work, especially when my clients are as amenable as David Bland whose book (working titled provided below) is going to change the world. What a privilege to participate in his story.

I felt the same with about ghosting Dr. William Reed’s memoirs, The Pulse of Hope, and every other client I’ve had (see http://www.seavercreative.com).

Vivien, Leeanne and WAR at launchVivien Jennings of Rainy Day Books with William Reed and me, November 2014.

Promoting myself professionally is always awkward for me, so I just avoid it. Every client I’ve had has come to me word of mouth, which is good because I wouldn’t have the first inclination to get out there and find them. But if I did, it would probably be wise to post something like a client testimonial, so here goes:

Leeanne is, to me, much like a sculptor. Underneath the rough layers of my long-winded prose was a much better writer. Leeanne carefully and gently chipped away at that outer layer to reveal the story-teller below. My writing became crisper, clearer, and more purposeful. And I never felt berated, belittled or embarrassed. Try as I might, I could never find fault with her criticism and her suggestions were always on the mark, which is maddening, of course. Every time I sat upon my high horse Leeanne exposed the puny pony I was atop. In a very nice way. It is a rarity to find someone who can both find fault and suggest remedies. We all know the critic who offers nothing better. Leeanne supplies thoughtful criticism and insightful suggestions.

She took care with my work. She honored the time and energy I had spent, and she never diminished the pride I had in my writing. But she showed me where it could be better. That is a powerful talent.

~ David Bland, Author
Smudge: The Narrative Economics of Indian Country
Washington DC, 10 July 2018

What’s in a Name

dancing shoesCurrently editing my client’s book about 30 years in Indian Country (after 30 years growing close as family to a tribe, you get to say Indian Country, I’m told). Loved this story:
When I first met Dani Not Help Him, I asked about her surname: Not Help Him. I assumed that it was a name depicting someone who had somehow been shamed and not deserving of help. I did not understand “Not Help Him,” so I asked Dani to explain the meaning. She told me that the surname is derived from members of one of the warrior societies among the Lakota comprised of men who were destined to be the first line of defense against invaders or other tribes who might raid or battle the Lakota.

A warrior designated as Not Help Him was said to be so brave and so dedicated to the safety of the village that he would lay down his life for the tribe or village and nobody was supposed to help him as he performed his sacred duties to protect the village. She said that some Not Help Him warriors would go so far as to sink a stake into the ground and have another warrior lash their leg to it so that they could not retreat in the face of certain death. You were not to help him, Dani explained, because his death was in furtherance of the protection of his people. Just thinking of this, the dignity, the courage, and the generosity of these warriors brings a lump to my throat, to this day.

*(The man with the drum is a Nottawaseppi (the people who can hear the river) singer. This tribe has lived for generation upon generation in the Michigamme/Michigan: the place where food grows on water–a reference to wild rice. If I had a picture of a Lakota Not Help Him, I’d use it. My pictures are from Pow Wows in the Michigamme and markets and mountains in New Mexico where I love to walkabout listening with my lenses.)

What an incredible name. I had to see if I could find Dani Not Help Him by GTS (google that shit). I couldn’t, but I did find this obituary with a name even more incredible: http://www.lakotacountrytimes.com/news/2014-04-24/The_Holy_Road/Marie_Theresa_Not_Help_HimFox_Belly.html