Two Men From Illinois

Men of Illinois portrait
Who is a 19th century frontiersman who rose from obscurity to hold a place in early Illinois politics and whose family home currently stands as a historic landmark? If you were to ask any average Illinois grade school child, you would most certainly receive the answer, Abraham Lincoln. Yet for those who live in and around Edwardsville, Illinois, the answer could equally be our very own Colonel Benjamin Stephenson (whose life and times are recounted in my book series: The Stephenson House Chronicles).

Uncanny you say? Coincidental? Quite possibly they are. Lincoln lore also indicates an uncanny and chilling comparison between the 16th President’s life and John F. Kennedy. But we found some equally uncanny similarities between these two Illinois men that perhaps offers insight into a state that nurtured not only the most famous and highly revered president in American history, but also an obscure statesman and original signer of the Illinois Constitution, whom Lincoln would have known and revered, even before he left his legacy and moniker on our state as “the Land of Lincoln”.

Perhaps it could be said that without Ben Stephenson there may not have been an Abraham Lincoln. It was in 1809 when Ben passed through Kentucky, while Lincoln was still a wee babe, and then crossed the Ohio River into a newly opened territory and laid the foundations for statehood. Years later, Lincoln’s family followed the same path, venturing further north to New Salem settlement, where he would have been very much aware of the “Stephenson” name and the man who laid the foundation for his future legacy.

In honor of Lincoln’s birthday, here are sixteen fun facts linking two famous men from Illinois:

1. Named after an Old Testament Biblical patriarch with three syllables shortened to a one syllable nickname
2. A self-educated, self-made man who ran a short-lived small business that went bankrupt
3. Lived in Kentucky before moving to Illinois
4. Served in an Illinois militia during wartime but probably never saw any action
5. Played a role in early Illinois politics as congressional representative
6. Known for his fine art of diplomacy and easy-going, persuasive manner
7. Married a daughter from a prominent slave holding family and fathered four children
8. Married under suspicious circumstances possibly as a matter of convenience
9. Associated with the Ninian Edwards family (first governor of Illinois)
10. Died in his fifties, suddenly and tragically at the height of his career
11. His death was lamented to the height of martyrdom during a tumultuous time
12. Left a young family behind and a widow who never remarried
13. Controversy and scandal followed his family in the wake of his death
14. Buried in Illinois but grave marker is not in original location
15. Namesake to state counties (Lincoln County, MO; Stephenson County, IL)
16. His stately family home still stands today as a historic landmark in Illinois

(Reprinted from The Volunteer, a newsletter publication of the 1820 Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House)

For further reading on the life and times of Benjamin Stephenson, check out these links below:

The Stephenson House Chronicles by D.L. Andersen

  1. Across Unstill Waters
  2. Ben’s Christmas Treasury
  3. Papa’s Portrait


Worst Holiday Classic Films: Are They Really?

Jack Frost–IHSnSWJw

When it comes to holiday films and specials, I am an unabashed Christmas movie junkie. I have my favorites from childhood, some classics that return every year and then others I recall with a sentimental nostalgia, those I fished out of some dusty $5 discount bin or sought out in some obscure second-hand video shop to have at the ready for holiday viewing. I relish this time of year when I get to snuggle in and escape the holiday madness with a little cheesy fictional world. So, looking over this list of “50 of the Worst Holiday Films of All Time” I strangely find myself fondly remembering some Christmas pasts when my life (and the world) seemed a bit simpler. Some of these I saw in theaters with my own children and a few I recall seeing in my youth and at the time they really didn’t seem so bad. Perhaps it was on a later viewing that the glaring flaws surfaced, but still, are they really all so bad? And if these truly are the “worst 50” of all time, what about all those forgotten ones prior to the 1990s?
Truth is, there have always been cheesy holiday classics that do not stand the test of time well (anyone recall Santa Conquers the Martians circa 1964? No? Well.. you haven’t missed much. Pity that one didn’t make the list) That’s why the truly good ones prevail and the rest are best left going quietly into the Silent Night, or at best, dusted off for a viewing from time to time, perhaps to recall that time you first saw it with your “auld acquaintances” of yore. Isn’t that also what makes the holidays “the most wonderful time of the year?” But still, a few on this list according to Martha Sorren’s article in The Business Insider, did offer a pleasant holiday diversion from the tried and true classics year after year and apparently made someone a bit of income for holiday shopping. As one writer friend proclaimed on seeing this list: “I think I should pursue a third career writing cheesy holiday movies. Clearly anyone can.” I don’t know about writing cheesy holiday scripts but there is definitely room for some new classics to be made, be they retellings of old stories or originals. And don’t just blame the screenwriter. There’s the director to blame as well. It takes more than script writing to make a good and lasting film, be it a holiday classic or otherwise.
And who’s to say the concept doesn’t have merit? There are a few that could have worked. A kid lost in NY and wreaking havoc at holiday time or a desperate dad on a quest for a sold-out gift his kid wants for Christmas (anyone remember that Cabbage Patch craze? It does happen!) True, some of these are just cringe worthy (a dead dad returning as jack Frost? Um.. no) But then, how dumb do some of the enduring holiday classic premises sound (i.e. a green grumpy monster steals Christmas from a town of weirdos) Most ideas are not essentially bad, just the execution in writing and design. This list of 50 “worst” provide a range of suitable prompts for a creative challenge to reinvent them into something new and improved for next year.
Some on the list are tried and true classic stories that just were badly done (i.e. the 2001 Christmas Carol cartoon) As if we really need another from the many stellar versions out there? Perhaps that’s when the producer or art director might be to blame. But once they’re in for a penny they’re in for a pound, perhaps, and bear in mind all these did make money and helped people put Christmas presents under their trees or a roast beast on the holiday table. Hallmark specials really aren’t worth serving up on the list as they are meant for a specific target audience that does like this sort of formulaic tinsel, leaving the author of this article sounding more like the Grinch than a savvy critic.
And then, sometimes a flop can come back as a classic embraced later by a whole new audience. Perhaps a few of those could have made the list some years back but now are well received and Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without them. A Christmas Story didn’t fare well in theaters in 1982 and nearly disappeared into oblivion until it made a comeback on TV and is now a stage play and musical. Even the classic Nutcracker Suite was a total flop and an embarrassment to the great composer, Peter Illych Tchaikovsky, back in 1890s Russia, but today the ballet music is heard everywhere at holiday time, conjuring visions of sugarplums fairies dancing in our heads. Who’s to say that a few of these won’t make an ironic comeback? So be careful who you diss today and be nice or you might just end up on someone’s naughty list tomorrow. In the meantime, take a moment this season to review and reflect on your favorites, perhaps with a cup of your favorite winter beverage and maybe take in a few of the “worst ever” to decide for yourself. You might even be inspired to pen a classic of your own, in the making that just might charm future generations.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

That terrible morning 17 years ago has been on my mind all day today. It was a Tuesday, sunny, warm and with a pleasant breeze that hinted at fall, much like today was. I spent the morning at home watching the events unfold and then went to my afternoon teaching job where I taught music at an elementary school. I had no idea what the other teacher and students knew but I was determined to remain calm and proceed with my lesson plans. Earlier that summer I had devised a lesson plan of patriotic music to begin the school year, after learning the previous year that most of our rousing patriotic tunes and American folk songs were rapidly disappearing from kids’ repertoire. So that day I had planned to continue with teaching songs like “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “America the Beautiful”. How could I bring myself to sing those songs now? That was what I pondered as I drove into the parking lot. How could I keep it together without falling into a blubbering fool in front of the kids?
When the first class of 5th graders entered my room, it was more disturbing than the news I had been hearing all morning. These poor kids were terrified and looking to me for answers. Apparently the principal had systematically gone around and pulled teachers out of the classroom to tell them of the happenings but sternly warned them not to tell the kids. Well, little pitchers do have big ears and those kids heard just enough to be scared out of their wits and let their imaginations take over. “We’re at war! Bombs are dropping all over the country!” they cried and pleaded with me to tell them what was going on. One girl feared for her mother who worked downtown in the big city an hour away and was sure she’d never see her again. I did what I could to reassure them that everything was under control. I spent the next few hours doing the same with every class, except for kindergarten who were young enough to be oblivious to it all. Imagine having to recount these kinds of events to children 5 times over! That was my day. So, while everyone else was glued to their TV’s that evening, we took our kids out to a movie. Spy Kids. We were the only ones in the theater that night and I never regretted missing whatever recap after recap the news media spun across the airwaves. After all, the news still hadn’t gotten all the details right until months later, if they ever really did.
I will always remember that day and the kids who were as much my solace as I hope I was for them. We were more than likely the first, and only, Americans that day to be singing songs of patriotism and freedom while everyone else sat shocked into silence, fear and dread. But in a small town school in Southern Illinois, we sang the songs just as I had planned – songs to keep us strong, to remind us of who we are and where we came from – and we continued to sing them and more in the weeks to come as the nation joined their voices along with us. But I’m proud that my classroom was the first that day to boldly sing of the land of the free and home of the brave.

Historical Ficton: What it is and what it is NOT

My genre of choice is historical fiction, always has been all the way back to grade school when I first picked up chapter books around second grade. We didn’t call them “chapter books” per se and there was no YA section, merely a blanket term of juvenile literature or maybe a small shelf dedicated to “older juvenile” or even more progressively called “teen”.  There also were not the plethora of genre distinctions we have today, from fantasy to paranormal to romance and, yes, historical fiction. So, being the avid reader I became, once I realized words could transport me anywhere I wanted, I was the bookish kid who never was seen without her nose stuck in a book. That said, every adult I met insisted on asking, “What’s your favorite kind of book to read?” And that’s where I was stumped. Because I loved old time stories, novels about history and times past when life seemed more interesting and adventurous. For lack of a better genre label, I often said, “mysteries” because that was one go-to genre back then.

It wasn’t until about fourth or fifth grade I latched onto the notion of historical fiction after reading Johnny Tremain. Here was a genre I could get behind and dig my reader claws into. A story set in times ripped from the headlines of early America but with fictional people, just like me, who could have met or interacted with real historical people like Samuel Adams or even participated in the Boston Tea Party. From there I sought out other historical stories and found authors like Elizabeth George Speare, who wrote The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Bronze Bow. I went on to read works like Indian Captive by Lois Lenski, and of course, I read every book in the Little House series several times over. I was addicted but still felt somewhat ashamed of adhering to a genre that was not really known for its own genre label. Instead, I clung to classics, devouring works by Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and Mark Twain, just to get a flavor for life and times of another place. Because these were classics, my teachers and parents encouraged this sort of reading. Because there was little else truly interesting or new happening in juvenile, before YA became a thing, I had little else to choose from before heading into the uncertain waters of the adult stacks.

Now as a historical fiction author, I’m thrilled to see this genre come into its own as a respected place beyond merely Regency Romance or worse, those “bodice rippers” of a generation past. It seems my entire reading life has been headed for this moment when my own historical series, based on early America, can sit along side my beloved favorites on my book shelf. What I’m writing is what I consider the purest definition of historical fiction, based on the same definition my grade school librarian gave when she featured Johnny Tremain at one library hour and started me on that lifelong journey of reading. The story must be set during a historical time period and include real historical people as characters, either primary or secondary. The story can also include fictional characters to flesh out the character list and create a plot driven story. What a historical fiction story is not, is any old story set more than fifty or so years ago, which is what some writers and publishers are going with. So, setting a story somewhere in the mid-20th century America with no context to dates or events, is merely a story set in the past, but not historical fiction. This is the definition I learned in school and will continue to use as a guide when writing my own stories.