Monday, May 2, 2016

Karen Halvorsen Schreck's "Broken Ground"

Karen Halvorsen Schreck is the author of the historical novel Sing For Me, which was praised in a Publishers Weekly starred review. She received her doctorate in English and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and now teaches writing and literature.

Here she dreamcasts an adaptation of her new novel, Broken Ground:
I did have specific people in mind as I developed Ruth Warren and Thomas Everly, the main characters of Broken Ground. As never before in my writing, in fact, I turned to particular photographs of these people for inspiration.

Set in the 1930s, Broken Ground is the story of a young oilrig widow who tries to escape her grief and the Texas Dust Bowl by heading west to attend college. There she becomes immersed in the lives of Mexican migrant workers in a camp near Los Angeles, and learns of the long-term repatriation program of that era—the massive, forced deportation without due process of people of Mexican heritage, many of them U.S. citizens. Ultimately, Ruth and her friend, WPA worker Thomas Everly, must decide what stand they will take in the face of this injustice.

My inspiration for Ruth came to me from an author photograph on the back of the book, Whose Names Are Unknown, originally slated for release by Random House in 1939, but only published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2004. Sanora Babb is the book’s author, and her strong features and (from what I’ve read) even stronger character evoke Ruth for me. Babb has an open, attractive face that feels completely of her time. She is not a tall woman, nor thin, by no means cover-model-perfect or movie-actress-beautiful. She appears hale and hearty; her firm jaw and the set to her mouth communicate strength and determination. No matter who holds the camera, Babb appears completely present—wise, kind, unassuming, and observant. With her bright, alert, intelligent eyes, she has the gaze of the best journalists. And she was one.

Babb’s lyrical, intimate novel, based on her field notes from her work with the Farm Security Administration and her own early experience as a child of the High Plains, addresses the same subject matter as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. But in tone and style the books stand in sharp contrast. Sadly, when Steinbeck’s novel was received with great acclaim, it was decided readership potential for the subject matter was tapped out. Here’s the thing: Babb’s supervisor at the FSA loaned her notes to Steinbeck while he was working on TGOW. Her work most likely fueled his. So I drew upon Sanora Babb as my inspiration for Ruth, not only because she perfectly fit the part, but also because I wanted to celebrate Babb’s life and her work.

As for Thomas Everly: his character has a physical challenge that I needed to wrap my imagination around. In order to do that, I couldn’t take anything for granted when it came to his characterization. I had to clearly, consistently know his height and heft, the momentum behind his movements, his agility. So whom did I ultimately choose to represent my soulful, compassionate main man? Well . . .Gary Cooper. Typical, you may say. But I’d never seen any movies featuring Cooper (gasp!), so he was a completely new face for me, who also emanated the ethos of the particular era in which Broken Ground is set. The first photo of him that grabbed me was pinned on a Pinterest board: “Whiskey Soaked Coolness.” But other images reveal quiet composure—still waters, deep depths. Thomas doesn’t have Cooper’s beautiful, blue eyes. But he does have his broad brow. I always imagined Thomas as a kind of lion, coiled power belied by stillness, and I see this in Cooper’s photographs too.
Visit Karen Halvorsen Schreck's website.

--Marshal Zeringue