Mary Lee Settle
1918 - 2005
Click the red triangle to hear Mary Lee's voice.
"Recorded history is wrong. It's wrong because the voiceless
have no voice in it. It becomes official history. I thought in terms of writing good, honest history ... I simply tried to put a human face on American history."
A glimpse of Mary Lee Settle
"Mary Lee Settle must always be taken seriously, which can be said of lamentably
few American novelists," a Washington Post reviewer wrote. "Her tough intelligence
is a formidable presence." Anyone who wants to write historical fiction will learn a lot from Mary Lee.
Mary Lee Settle was a rebel and a skeptic. She grew up in Kanawha County and published 18 novels and nonfiction books before she died at age 83. All her life,
she rebeled against her upper middle-class upbringing. She dropped out of
Sweetbrier College to join the Navy and World War II. Later, she wrote about English revolutionaries, Civil War families, striking miners, and other brave
people fighting impossible odds.
Anyone who wants to get to know Mary Lee may want to start with Addie, a biography of her grandmother Addie who divorced a drunken, abusive man and married Mary Lee's wealthy grandfather, to the dismay of his family. A few lines from Addie: "There I was, a-settin' in that tree, no more than 18 years old, and already married three years to that devil. And I looked down through the branches, and there was Chris Morris, mean, drunk and down there looking for me."
Mary Lee Settle won the prestigous National Book Award for Blood Tie,
but she considered her "Beulah Quintet" her master work. The five books
of the Beulah Quintet (see below) take the reader from 17th-century
English rebels through the Vietnam War, mostly set in Kanawha County,
Writing sample from Oh Beulah Land
Mary Lee aimed to trace the history of people who immigrated to what is now West Virginia in her Beulah Quintet. In this passage from the second book in the series, Hannah Bridewell - based on an actual historical figure - who has been captured by native Americans, escapes and thrashes through the Kanawha Valley underbrush, trying to get away. A great storm comes up, and she is drenched and battered by rain and wind. Dark falls. Frantic, she looks for shelter. She accidentally crawls into a cougar den.
Hear Mary Lee read this passage.
"She managed to get uphill to a huge tree trunk and was pinned against it, hurt and howling to be let loose by the lashing wind, not knowing in the wild, whooping air if she made any sound at all. How long it lasted, she did not know. She was aware and was left exhausted by it, when at last it calmed to a steady rain, leaving the mountainside a watershed littered with treacherous dead branches.
Long after dark, she found a rock ledge that had protected the leaves below from the rain and crawled under it, exhausted. She woke, hearing the rain in the pitch darkness of night, hearing more heavy breathing by her leaf bed, which she had banked high in the luxury of finding such a good place to rest.
The smell that permeated the cave was not the fetid smell of bear, but the musty smell of a great cat. She saw no eyes shining and realized that the beast had not yet found her. Then, almost at once, she knew that the breathing was beyond breathing, had slipped over to being the satisfied purr of a cat in dry comfort and that, as long as the sound went on, she was safe.
The presence of the animal was taking the chill off the rain-laden air. And, stiff with fright as she was, she began to drowse. Her body was battered too much by the long storm and the falling on the wet slopes to let her stay completely awake. But she woke frozen when she felt movement, felt the great, living, damp, soft pelt beside her and knew that, whatever beast it was, tired to death too, had crept close to her for her poor, pathetic warmth and still purred, drifting to sleep, meaning no harm.
In the first glimmer of dawn, she saw it pause at the cave's mouth, look back once at her with eyes as grey as stones and pick its way gently into the morning on light buff feet, disappearing even as she became conscious. It was a huge, tawny cat that faded into the dawn like part of a dream."
Here's an activity that goes with this passage:
Mary Lee uses every sense but taste in this passage to help her readers experience this situation. Take this passage apart, sentence by sentence. List each example of sensory language, telling us what senses those words awake. List the actual words. Which were most effective for you? Can you think of a place where she could have included taste?
If you want to practice, think of an intense episode in your life. Write five paragraphs that legitimately appeal to the reader's senses in ways that make them feel your scene more vividly.
~ Go to the Activities page for more ways to learn from these writers. ~
Five ways to get the most out of this web site:
1. Listen to the entire program. Anyone interested in
historical fiction will want to do this.
Enjoy Mary Lee's extraordinary voice, stories, readings, advice.
Read it as you listen. Mark passages you want to remember.
It makes it easy to find passages you want.
4. Using the script and/or table of contents, identify short tracks you can play in classroom sessions or presentations.
It's easy! Click here for instructions.
5. Try some activities that will help you develop your own storytelling / historical writing skills.