dianne salerni author
dianne salerni author

Earlier this week, I was in Miami for a partly-expected but still surprising Christmas gift. Last fall, when I heard The Killers would be touring in January, I asked my husband to get us tickets. He did, but in a typical Bob-fashion, instead of buying them for our local Philadelphia show, he bought them for the Miami show and planned a mini-vacation around it.

The concert was AMAZING, but that’s not what I’m writing about today. The day after the show, with Change Your Mind and All the Things That I’ve Done still ringing in my mind, we visited Coral Castle in Homestead, Florida.

You may be familiar with Coral Castle, sometimes known as “America’s Stonehenge,” especially if you watch TV shows about unsolved mysteries. This bizarre rock garden, filled with carved stones weighing thousands of pounds each, was built in the 1930s by a single man using only handmade tools. Edward Leedskalnin, a Latvian immigrant who weighed less than 100 pounds and was only 5 feet tall, excavated these stones and assembled the structures by himself, working only at night and in secret. To this day, no one knows how he did it. (more…)

There’s about a thousand more months left before November and the end of this presidential election, and as awful as it’s been so far, I expect it will get even worse before it’s over. (Not that the nastiness will stop after the election. No matter the winner, a lot of people are going to be very unhappy.)

I thought it might be interesting to put things in historical perspective by highlighting other notoriously vicious presidential campaigns.


For instance, in the election of 1860, Stephen Douglas got personal, saying Abraham Lincoln was a “horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman.”

Meanwhile, Lincoln said of Douglas: “His argument is as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death.”

1860 Election

Melania Trump took a lot of heat last week but not as much as Rachel Jackson in the election of 1828. John Quincy Adams’s campaign not only accused Andrew Jackson of being a despot and uneducated, they also viciously attacked Mrs. Jackson, a divorced woman who had previously been in an abusive marriage. Adams’s supporters called her a “dirty black wench”, a “convicted adulteress” and accused her of “open and notorious lewdness.”

RACHEL DONELSON JACKSON (1767-1828). Miniature by Louise C. Strobel.

(1767-1828). Miniature by Louise C. Strobel.

I don’t know how low the Trump-Clinton election season will go. Pretty low, I expect. But I wonder if it will top the election of 1800—the only occasion when a vice-president ran against the president he was currently serving with—Thomas Jefferson vs John Adams.

An Election Poster for Adams

An Election Poster for Adams

Thomas Jefferson said that John Adams had a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

Adams’ supporters countered with dire predictions of a Jeffersonian presidency: “Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames… female chastity violated… children writhing on the pike? GREAT GOD OF COMPASSION AND JUSTICE, SHIELD MY COUNTRY FROM DESTRUCTION.”


Dogs and cats living together

Phew. It’s a good thing Jefferson didn’t get elected, huh? Oh … wait …

Blue Birds cover high resI’m very happy to have Caroline Starr Rose here today. Caroline is the author of the critically acclaimed May B. a novel in verse about an 11-year-old hired-out girl who is stranded alone in a homestead on the Kansas prairie during a brutal winter in the 1870’s. Last week, Caroline celebrated the release of her second novel — also in verse — titled Blue Birds, about the lost colony of Roanoke.

From AmazonIt’s 1587 and twelve-year-old Alis has made the long journey with her parents from England to help settle the New World, the land christened Virginia in honor of the Queen. And Alis couldn’t be happier. While the streets of London were crowded and dirty, this new land, with its trees and birds and sky, calls to Alis. Here she feels free. But the land, the island Roanoke, is also inhabited by the Roanoke tribe and tensions between them and the English are running high, soon turning deadly.
Amid the strife, Alis meets and befriends Kimi, a Roanoke girl about her age. Though the two don’t even speak the same language, these girls form a special bond as close as sisters, willing to risk everything for the other. Finally, Alis must make an impossible choice when her family resolves to leave the island and bloodshed behind.
1. Caroline, I loved your first book, May B., which depicted the experience of a girl who could have been any girl on the 19th century frontier facing the challenges of that era.  In Blue Birds you take on an earlier time period and one of the most famous unsolved American mysteries of all time. Was the research any different for this topic?

Thank you so much. The research process was very different. For May B., I was only responsible for being familiar with an era. With Blue Birds, I had to learn about an era, an event with spare records, and two Native American tribes that no longer exist. This is the first time I’ve included real people from history in something I’ve written. While they only had minor roles, it felt like a big responsibility.

caroline starr rose2. Tell us about the two protagonists in Blue Birds.

Alis is from London but has learned to love nature through her uncle’s stories. Coming to Virginia is so satisfying for her. She really embraces her new surroundings.

Kimi has suffered loss at the hands of the British. Seeing them again angers her, but she can’t deny that she’s also kind of fascinated. Like Alis, she has an uncle who means a lot to her, but his new position as Roanoke weroance (leader) has complicated their relationship.

Both girls are lonely. Both are curious. It’s the perfect storm for what’s to come.

3. Compare these two girls to May B. How are they similar, and how are they different?

All three are incredibly strong and brave (though I’d argue May doesn’t know these qualities in herself at first). All takes risks. All make me extra proud to be their book mama. 🙂

I would say May Betterly is more withdrawn than the other girls. I’ve never actually realized this until this moment, but outside of her brother, May doesn’t really have any close friends. Poor girl. Makes me want to give her a hug.

Alis is the most outgoing of the three. Kimi is gutsy but guarded. Both Alis and Kimi are willing to deceive the adults in their lives in order to do what they believe to be right.

May B4. Writing a novel in verse is way beyond my experience, although I’ve been moved to tears reading some (including May B.). Can you describe how you approach a story, knowing verse will be your structure? (ie: When I plan a book, I plan events, scenes, dialogue, etc. Is it the same or different for you?)

I go in knowing my setting well and my protagonist semi-well. As far as plotting goes, I have a sense of some key turning points and usually the ending (though I’m not quite sure how to get there). From there, the writing is painfully slow. (A fantastic day would be 750 words. I rarely keep count of such things, because it’s kind of discouraging). What I love, though, is how organic it is. I see a quilt as a metaphor for a verse novel. Each poem is a square. As I move from poem to poem, I trust a pattern is emerging in the overall story.

5. What’s next for you?

My first picture book, Over in the Wetlands, comes out this summer. It’s the story of the animals of the Louisiana coast as they prepare for and withstand a hurricane. I have two pieces in Been There, Done That, an anthology that publishes this fall and shows young readers how authors take ideas from real life and turn them into stories. I’m also working on a historical novel about the Klondike gold rush, which will come out summer 2016.

Thank you, Dianne, for hosting me today!


I’m delighted to see Caroline’s book finally out. The mystery of Roanoke was one of my favorite topics to teach in American history.

Two news articles caught my interest last week. The first was about the discovery of a pair of lost cities in the Honduras jungle. The other was about ISIS bulldozing and smashing artifacts in the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud.

  • One case of obsessed extremists deliberately attempting to erase a country’s history and cultural past.
  • One case that proves how easy it is for a country’s history and culture to disappear.


El Dorado MapIn the year 1541, Spanish explorer Francisco Orellana undertook a journey down the Amazon River with a Dominican friar named Gaspar de Carvajal. Carvajal chronicled their expedition, reporting numerous advanced civilizations in the jungle all along the river. The banks of the Amazon were “thickly populated,” according to Carvajal. There were wide roads and marketplaces where one could buy bread, wine with a taste like beer, all manner of fruits and vegetables, and plates made of the finest porcelain he had ever seen. The friar wrote that the cities “glistened in white” against a backdrop of terraced farmland.

By the Victorian age of exploration, Carvajal’s account was written off as a fanciful fabrication. There were no cities in the Amazonian jungle and never had been. In fact, the jungle environment was incapable of sustaining any kind of population and certainly could never be farmed. History was re-written to discount any Amazonian civilizations. Female warriors (who supposedly put an arrow in Carvajal) and the Lost City of Z (or El Dorado, if you prefer) were reduced to legends and myths.

Then, in 2010, satellite technology discovered earthworks in the Amazon basin near the Brazil/Bolivian border. And now ruins of two ancient cities have been found by archeaologists in Honduras. (The latter would not have been along the path explored by Orellana and Carvajal, but it does support their claim that jungle-based cities existed.)

What does it take to erase history? Religious extremists with bulldozers and sledgehammers? Conquistadors? Aggressive jungle plant growth? The sacking of an ancient library? How about ordering specially-written revisionist history texts for school children?

What have we irretrievably lost? What might we lose in the future? They say anything you put on the internet will be around forever, but that pre-supposes access to (and the existence of) technology that can read electronic information. You might laugh at the idea that the human race could lose the technology we have. But there are blocks of stone in the ruins of ancient cities high in the Andes mountains that were carved with laser-like precision, structures that look like runways, and earthworks shaped like pictures that can only be viewed from the air.

Consider ISIS.

What if people like that have already re-written earth’s history? What if it can happen again?




Pullman Strike of 1894

This is a re-post from 2011. I think it’s worth repeating …

The end of summer, cook-outs, and retail sales – that’s what Labor Day means to us.  Although most Americans make a point of enjoying this September holiday, very few of them know it began over a century ago with a violent fight for the rights of laborers and a President’s campaign for re-election.

The first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882 in New York City as a workingman’s holiday and a way to smooth over relations between industry and the laboring class who were at that time unionizing to fight for decent wages and working conditions.  The idea caught on and spread to other cities, even becoming a state holiday in several states across the U.S.  However, it didn’t become a national holiday until 1894, following the Pullman Strike.

George Pullman was the inventor of the Pullman car (a luxury sleeper car) and the vestibuled train (where cars were joined together so passengers could pass from one to the other without stepping outside).  Pullman built a company town outside Chicago, where he “shielded” his workers from labor unrest by insulating them from the outside world. Independent newspapers, public speeches, and town meetings were prohibited; homes were routinely inspected for cleanliness. Every aspect of the workers’ lives was directed by the company. An editorial in Harpers Weekly remarked that the power of Otto Von Bismarck, unifier of Germany, was “utterly insignificant when compared to the ruling authority of the Pullman Palace Car Company.”

When an economic depression in 1894 led to decreased revenues, Pullman slashed his workers’ wages, but continued to dock the same amount for rent from their paychecks.  Prices in his company run stores remained the same. The workers elected a delegation to protest, but Pullman refused to speak to them.  With no other recourse, employees organized a strike, and when the American Railway Union threw their support behind the strikers, their actions crippled railroad transportation across the entire country.

President Cleveland declared the strike illegal under the grounds that it interfered with delivery of U.S. Mail and sent 12,000 U.S. Army troops to break it up.  The resulting violence (13 deaths and over 50 wounded) caused a wave of disapproval for Cleveland, who was accused by Illinois Governor Altgeld of putting the U.S. government to work for wealthy industrialists.

Since Cleveland was seeking re-election, he scrambled to redeem his reputation among the laboring class by moving legislation for a National Labor Day Holiday through Congress that same year.  Nevertheless, Cleveland was not re-elected.

As for Pullman, he remained so unpopular that when he died in 1897, he was buried in a lead-lined coffin inside a vault reinforced with concrete and steel to prevent desecration of his body.

I don’t like to get too preachy on this blog, but I think every American should know their history.

Enjoy your upcoming Labor Day, everyone, but KNOW why we have one.

One of my Facebook friends posted an article about the Bender Family on my timeline this weekend, asking if I’d ever heard of their story before. I’m sure she thought of me because of the connection to Spiritualism. (She read my book We Hear the Dead about the Fox sisters.)

I had not heard this story before, and it is chilling and gruesome.

Because I’m hurting for post topics this week — drowning in student work to grade — preparing for parent-teacher conferences — and trying to make a little progress on my WIP, I’m going to link to the article for your morbid amusement instead of writing a real post.

At first, I was confused by the reference to Laura Ingalls Wilder at the beginning, because these people have nothing to do with the Ingalls family.  But then I got it.

This is a twisted version of Little House on the Prairie, with an evil Ma and Pa, and a little house where visitors were welcomed … killed … and buried.

From Mental Floss: The Bloody Benders, America’s First Serial Killers.


Thank you, Katrina Dix!