Mountain Passes: The Cumberland Gap

When I was in third grade, my mother gave me a book whose stories told about mountain passes in history. As a result I became fascinated by mountain passes. Once I started to drive and travel across the US, I encountered mountain passes in person and became even more interested in their location and  importance.

Years ago I wrote the manuscript of a nonfiction picture book on twelve important mountain passes in US history. For each mountain pass I wrote a poem, boxed statistics, and prose. The manuscript was almost published, but ultimately wasn’t, because to produce it the way the editor envisioned it would have cost too much. I then rewrote the information as a nonfiction Middle Grades book, but there was no interest in the subject among the publishers I queried.

5543-004-252355F0All the information I collected on mountain passes is still in storage. But this is the era of the blog, and my blog is titled “Much to Write About,” and so I’m going to write briefly about mountain passes. Not all at once, but off and on.

The first important mountain pass in US history (the land wasn’t the United States yet) was the Cumberland Gap, which was formed in the Appalachian Mountains by wind erosion over hundreds of thousands of years. For tens of thousands of years the pass was traversed by animals, and for thousands of years by Indian tribes such as the Lenape, Cherokee, Miami, and Shawnee, as they crossed from one side of the mountains to the other to engage in trade and also warfare.

The pass, or rumors of it, was known to English colonists as early as the 1670s. But it wasn’t until 1750 that Thomas Walker (physician and explorer, and the man appointed guardian of young Thomas Jefferson after the death of Peter Jefferson) mapped the location of the Cumberland Gap.

Cumberland Gap
Mountain Range: Appalachian Mountains
Elevation: 1,601 feet above sea level
Grade: about 4%
Location: Near the point where the states of
Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee meet.

As soon as the Gap’s location was made known, a few hardy men and women began to walk westward into the land of Indian tribes, taking the barest of possessions with them:  a knife, a gun, and the clothes on their back. Everything else they needed, they found or built on the other side of the mountains, or traded for with the Indian tribes.

Cumberland_GapMost people, though, wanted to take some possessions with them. Bedding, perhaps, and cooking utensils. So in 1775 the Transylvania Land Company hired Daniel Boone to hack a road through the Cumberland Gap. Boone and his crew of thirty men cleared away brush, axed small trees, and hauled away fallen logs, blazing the steep, rough, and narrow Wilderness Road.  The cleared path allowed people to cross on horseback. Twenty years later, the Wilderness Road was widened so that wagons could pass through.

More than 300,000 people poured through the Gap (into Indian lands) and claimed the land as their own. In 1792 Kentucky became the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains.Today the Cumberland Gap and area surrounding it are part of Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, visited by more than one million people each year.

Cumberland Gap

Nature’s wall blocked
their reach,
but not for long.

Carts, cattle, people —
through the breach
and gone.

________________

To cross a mountain pass is to enter another world. To read a book is to enter another world, too. Jack and Larry, one of Barbara Gregorich’s many books, opens into the world of 1910-1920 major league baseball.

How Many Unpublished Works?

Recently I was a guest lecturer at a college class in writing fiction. Toward the end of the class, after all the students had asked questions, the instructor who invited me (she’s a writer as well as a teacher) asked a question nobody had ever asked me before. Yet it’s one I think about several times a year. The question was: You have published approximately 200 books. How many unpublished books do you have in your files?

Published and unpublished manuscripts

Published and unpublished manuscripts

To answer the question, I had to think quickly and calculate just as quickly. I write adult fiction and nonfiction, middle grades fiction and nonfiction, picture books, beginning readers, early readers. And poetry. How many of these various manuscripts are in my files, still unpublished? I answered that there may be as many as 25. And then I took the question a step further by saying that of the 25, I hope and expect that 7 or 8 will be published.

Now that I’m home in my office, let me walk to my file cabinet and examine my unpublished manuscripts, just to see how accurate my reply was. Here’s what I have:

        2 adult novels — one mystery, one thriller
        1 adult nonfiction — anthology
        1 YA novel — it’s a work in progress
        2 Middle Grades nonfiction
        3 Middle Grades fiction
        7 Early Readers
        2 Picture Books, poetry
        6 Picture Books, prose

That’s a total of 24 unpublished manuscripts: very, very close to my estimate of 25.

When I look at them now and evaluate them, and know which ones I can and will rewrite, my guess is that 7 of these can and will be published. Sooner or later. That, too, is close to my original guess.

This doesn’t mean that I rule out the possibility of publication for the other manuscripts. The manuscripts I no longer think worthy of continued rewriting are long gone from my files.

The ones I keep around still speak to me in one way or another — it’s up to me to find the heart of the story in each of them and, with luck, publish them for the world to read.

The Line Between

Line BetweenMy father was born in Croatia (which a few years later became part of Yugoslavia) after his father left for the United States. Almost fourteen full years went by before my father saw his father. And yet, our family album contained this photo of my grandfather, my infant father, and my grandmother, standing side by side.

Don’t believe everything you see. My father explained to me that two different photographs were taken, one in Croatia, one in the US, and then they were composited into one photo, so that both my grandfather in this country and my grandmother and father in another country could each have a family portrait. My father told me that many immigrants had such photos made. Apparently there was a desire for such photos, and up sprang the clever services that provided them.

The line separating my grandfather “here” from my grandmother and father “there” was more formidable than the invisible line in the photo. The wide line of the Atlantic Ocean separated them. To cross that line, money had to be paid as passenger fare on one of the Cunard Lines immigrant ships. After fourteen years of digging ditches in Pennsylvania and working in a foundry in Ohio, my grandfather, Marko Grguric, earned enough money to pay for passage for his wife and son. Thus my grandmother and grandfather were finally reunited, and my father got to meet his father.

SS Berengaria, Cunard Line immigrant ship that my grandmother and father emigrated on

SS Berengaria, Cunard Line immigrant ship that my grandmother and father emigrated on

More than once my father shared with me the story of his childhood in a small village in the mountains of northern Croatia. He was a child who yearned for his father and later, as a young boy, he craved to leave the place where he was always hungry.

I wrote a picture book telling the story of my father’s childhood, and I titled the manuscript The Line Between. For years I tried to sell this manuscript to editors at various publishing houses. The rejection letters I received contained a mixed bag of comments, ranging from “compelling” and “well written” to “immigration stories are tough to sell” to “too quiet.” There were also outright “not for us” responses and no responses at all.

Just as in my father’s childhood, so in publishing there is a formidable line. In publishing, that line separates what editors deem right for the company they work for and what they deem not right — the “not” including a wide array of manuscripts ranging from poorly written to poorly told, to stories that are well written and well told but won’t earn a profit. For most editors who rejected it, The Line Between was a well written story that was “quiet” and therefore would not, in their opinion, sell.

All writers I know of have unpublished manuscripts stored somewhere: file cabinet, box in the basement, or computer. I am no exception, and The Line Between is not the only unpublished manuscript on my computer.

Like many writers, I don’t give up on a story I believe in. A Confederacy of Dunces took sixteen years before an editor bought it. Louis L’Amour collected 200 rejects before selling his first book. And so I continue to submit The Line Between to picture book editors.

I just hope that selling the story to an editor doesn’t take fourteen years.