Cover Image by Betsy Marsch
Rosette: A Novel of Pioneer Michigan
Interview with Author Cindy Rinaman Marsch
I’ve always loved historical fiction, especially from the pioneer days. So, to say that this new book by Cindy Rinaman Marsch piqued my interest is an understatement. Cindy was gracious enough to grant an interview to The SS HomeAcre. Her insight into the real life of a pioneer woman named Rosette Cordelia Ramsdell is is fascinating and I’m sure it will delight my readers. This detailed look at pioneer life is beautifully illustrated by the author’s daughter, a talented young artist named Betsy Marsch.
I hope you’ll stop by and visit Cindy’s website, where you can sign up for her Readers List and read passages from the novel. Check out the great reviews, and you can even purchase her book in print or on Kindle.
Please note that I am not receiving any goods or funds in exchange for sharing this information with you.
Planting potatoes in spring illustration by Betsy Marsch
SSHA: The story of Rosette is very intriguing. What inspired you to write this book?
Cindy: “In about 2005 my mother gave me an old journal she’d found in a junk store in Florida, and she said, “You need to write this story.” I read it and agreed! Rosette Cordelia Ramsdell started this 14th journal of her life in September 1856. In the next nineteen months she married Otis Churchill, had a baby, and established her first family home in a shanty a half mile from her folks. She recorded everyday things, certainly, but often unexpected things–like her dreams, and a lot of visiting back and forth among households. It’s just as intriguing what she leaves out–we don’t know she’s engaged until she records her wedding day, and we don’t know she’s pregnant until she records the birth of the baby!”
Scene from the Ionia Museum in Michigan. You can read more about the settlement of Ionia on their website.
SSHA: Did you find interesting ties to historical events taking place during that time period?
Cindy: “Yes, even in the first weeks she tells of political meetings going on in her area–her father speaks at a Republican meeting in support of John C. Fremont for President. Interestingly, though she doesn’t mention it, Abraham Lincoln gave his only speech ever in Michigan in Kalamazoo just a couple of weeks before the journal opens, and the lawyer who invited him just happens to be the original owner of Rosette’s father’s farm. The family had moved to Ionia County, Michigan (between Lansing and Grand Rapids) from Kalamazoo in the 1840s–I took artistic license to place Rosette’s father at that speech, and it plays just a bit into the story. One county near them was 90% abolitionist, so that was a natural political stance for the family to take in the novel.
“It’s also interesting to see what life is like before the arrival of the railroad. Local politics resulted in the railroad passing further north, and Rosette’s family’s farms were in a way cut off from that economic development in later years. That has an impact on the real family history that is also touched on a bit in the novel.”
Open-work basket and quilt blocks illustration by Betsy Marsch
SSHA: How did you research for the book? Where did you find information to flesh out Rosette’s story?
Cindy: “I dipped into Ancestry.com and got a LOT of help from FindAGrave.com. I Googled family names and dates, and that led me to a man (deceased) who’d written a family line history from another branch of the family–his family generously sent me a copy of the beautiful hardback. A genealogist friend got some legal records for me, including Rosette’s brother’s Civil War veteran pension files, and she found one intriguing document that verifies something I’d suspected after reading the scant census records and local court registries. This mystery is somewhat revealed in the opening chapter of the novel, set in 1888.”
SSHA: As a ‘modern homesteader,’ I’m very interested in the lives of pioneer families. How was Rosette’s life similar, and how did it differ, from the life of a modern homesteader?
Cindy: “My own family lives in a 1902 farmhouse in Western Pennsylvania, and though my husband is the gardener and vintner, I get to deal with the harvests, and I’ve enjoyed drying and freezing and a bit of canning. I’ve learned a lot of homesteading kinds of things as my husband and children produced maple syrup several years from trees near our home, so I felt a lot of kinship with Rosette’s family’s maple sugar enterprise. I fully appreciated her parents’ yield of over seven hundred pounds of maple sugar one year! That represents almost two tons of sap to start with!
“And oh so much wood they used! For cooking, producing heat, building, making sugar, smoking meat, selling. Rosette’s husband Otis is chopping most of the time (I guess he was good at it!) to create roads, clear fields, and supply what others could not supply for themselves. I understand the nearby town of Lowell, which became a boomtown when the railroad went through after the time of the journal, exhausted its local forests in just ten years.
“I expect Rosette would have appreciated our modern conveniences and perhaps might have scorned our modern-day efforts to recreate a bit of her life. Though she appreciated the good things of her time, she strikes me as one who would be keen to take up every possible convenience of life. I get the feeling from her journal as she sets up housekeeping that she’d spent most of her time sewing and teaching school–her husband has to teach her how to make soap properly, for example, and she’s inordinately proud of her first loaf of bread made in her new wood stove.”
SSHA: I’m interested in the foods and supplies that pioneers purchased and grew or foraged for. Did your research provide insight into how much of their needs were supplied from their homestead versus purchased from the store? Did Rosette’s family suffer from hunger during the winter? What crops did they grow?
Cindy: “As much as a modern homesteader might try to rely on the land and the seasons, I think we cannot begin to appreciate Rosette’s taste for the green things when they first started to sprout in the spring, especially since she was pregnant the spring recorded in the journal. I found myself feeling anxious for their harvests, and really closed in in that shanty all winter with baby diapers and just one window.
“She records some shopping lists, and very few of the purchases are food. One list includes “factory cloth” at 11 cents per yard, towelling (for diapers?) at 18 cents, dishes, bread bowl, work tub and board, thread, nails, tea, saleratus (like baking powder/soda), and starch. They did a lot of trading/bartering/buying/borrowing with the neighbors, though the journal does not always reveal which is which. When Rosette is in late pregnancy (and early days as a housewife), when others’ harvests have begun to come in, area ladies bring her all manner of baked goods, dairy and meat products, fresh vegetables, fruits, and even flowers.
“Rosette records Otis “setting out” in early May “66 currants, five of which are white, 9 plums, 3 cherries & 4 horse-raddish roots.”
“She helps him plant potatoes in mid-May, and they grow corn, wheat, and millet as well. I do not have any indication that they were ever hungry–Rosette’s family seems to have been well-to-do, as she owned a lapel-pinned watch years before they were popular, and her father seems an important man in local government affairs. A later biography of her brother (for Kent County, Grand Rapids area) mentions the prosperity and fine reputation of both her brother and her father, “a mathematician” who helped lay out the streets of Kalamazoo.”
SSHA: Do you feel an afinity, or kinship to Rosette?
Cindy: “She’s actually not a very winsome character, and that makes the tenderness I do feel for her even more poignant. She’s cool and efficient in her writing, focused on her own feelings and a little surprised when others are kind to her.
“That complexity helped make her story intriguing and ambiguous.”
SSHA: If you could chat with Rosette over tea, what would be the most pressing question you’d like to ask her?
Cindy: “She actually died just over 100 years ago, and that century fast-forward makes her feel close in some ways. I’d ask the 80-something Rosette, What exactly happened in your marriage? How did things change over the years, and if you were looking back at the Rosette of 1856-58–courting, newlywed, a new mother–what would you say about her, and what would you say to her?”
I think that many of us would love to go back and talk with a pioneer woman! Thanks so much to Cindy for taking time to chat with me about her new book! I hope that my readers have enjoyed hearing firsthand from the author.
The author, Cindy Rinaman Marsch
For more information about Rosette: A Novel of Pioneer Michigan, or the author, Cindy Rinaman Marsch, please visit her website.