I’m guessing you know what it’s like to lose sleep when you can’t stop reading and you need to know what happens next to your hero or heroine. You can’t possibly wait till the next day to find out.
Imagine waiting six weeks! When I first got the Kindle version of The Pink Bonnet, I didn’t realize it was a sample, so of course it abruptly ended in a spot where I wanted to keep on reading.
I went to Amazon to purchase the entire Kindle book, but Amazon wouldn’t allow it. The button didn’t work, even though it worked fine when I purchased other things. I figured it was a fluke, so daily, then weekly, I returned to Amazon to purchase it, to no avail.
After six weeks, I finally called Kindle support. (I have an aversion to calling any phone support due to previous wasted hours and frustrations that cause my blood to boil). Apparently, my account wasn’t set up for one-click Kindle orders. I never knew that was something I had to set up on my end. So I finally got the ebook, started over, and completed the book in short order. Whew!
So don’t make the same mistake I made and download a mere sample. If you get The Pink Bonnet, you’ll want to read the entire thing.
Last time I shared the eighth book of the True Colors Crime series: The Red Ribbon by Pepper Basham. Check out that post here. Today I’m introducing Liz Tolsma, the author of four books in this series:
#2) The Pink Bonnet — What happens to the children who are taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in 1932?
#6) The Green Dress — Mysterious illnesses and deaths plague one particular family in 1882 Boston.
#9) The Gold Digger — The suspicious activities of a Norwegian immigrant’s sister raises eyebrows on an Indiana farm in 1907.
#11) The Silver Shadow — In 1900, seven years after Denver’s silver crash, two women are attacked by an unknown assailant who may have more mayhem up his sleeve.
The twelve-book True Colors series is based on historical crimes in America, presented as historical fiction and romantic suspense. Each book is written by one of eight authors.
Though Liz Tolsma has written four of the twelve, this undertaking was originally a diversion from her usual stint: World War II. I first featured her on my Journey to Imagination blog in April, 2018, after the release of Melody of the Soul. Now she has at least six WW II books to her credit, plus an Amish “Love Inspired” tale and another story set in San Antonio for the “Doors to the Past” series—among others.
The common denominator? Historical fiction and romance!
Join me later for a review of A Picture of Hope, her most recent World War II novel.
As I’ve said, I don’t usually read romantic suspense. Nor did I relish the idea of plunging into the grief and trauma of a mother looking for her missing three-year-old daughter, and worrying about dozens of other missing children. But I got the book and, well, you already know how that went.
About the Book
Widowed in Memphis during 1932, Cecile Dowd is struggling to provide for her three-year-old daughter. Unwittingly trusting a neighbor puts little Millie Mae into the clutches of Georgia Tann, corrupt Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society director suspected of the disappearance of hundreds of children. With the help of a sympathetic lawyer, the search for Millie uncovers a deep level of corruption that threatens their very lives.
How far will a mother go to find out what happened to her child?
Sad to say, the terrors inflicted on children as war orphans, refugees, immigrants, or victims of sexual abuse are just as alive today as they were throughout history. And just as abominably, some of these atrocities happen in the United States, including human trafficking and immigrant children being separated from their parents at the borders.
I’d like to think these horrific situations are limited to Hollywood movies about alien plots that take over the world. I’d like to believe we’ve left such atrocities behind decades ago, in wartime Germany where weak people were experimented on.
But alas, while war brewed and escalated in Europe, pure deviltry was thriving in the heart of the USA, at the hands of Georgia Tann, director of the Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society (1924-1950).
I’d never heard of this woman or the TCHS until I read The Pink Bonnet by Liz Tolsma. While Georgia Tann ran the home, she was responsible for abducting and selling over 5000 children. About 500 of them died under her care after physical abuse or neglect.
The atrocities that occurred under her jurisdiction are scarier and more repulsive than any fictional tragedies. Considering her greed, control, manipulation, and heartlessness, she rates up there with a mob boss. Besides having the support of co-conspirators—the mayor and a judge—she paid off Memphis police officers, doctors, social workers, and lawyers to continue her “work” unabated.
She mastered her unscrupulous methods to prey on poor families or unwed mothers without resources. She snatched newborn babies (feigning the babe’s death) and lured children from playgrounds to raffle them off, advertise them in newspapers, or sell to wealthy parents (even celebrities) or farm families that needed workers.
A further travesty: Neither Georgia Tann nor any of her co-conspirators were ever charged or prosecuted. She died from cancer in 1950 before that could happen.
- Insiders.com—Survivors speak out
- HistoryDaily.org—Georgia Tann
- LA Times—1990–A mother finds her stolen child
In reading The Pink Bonnet, I was immediately gripped by Cecile Dowd’s plight in trying to recover her daughter.
Though Cecile, a single mother, struggles to make ends meet, she dearly loves her three-year-old daughter. One day, when she leaves Millie Mae in the care of a neighbor, Cecile returns home to learn that the neighbor—who considered Cecile an unfit mother—had turned Millie Mae over to Georgia Tann for “safekeeping.”
When Cecile discovers that Georgia Tann placed Millie in a “good home,” Cecile will stop at nothing to find her. Her roiling anguish and grief reflect the desperation of a mother driven to find her child.
Author Liz Tolsma is an adoptive mother herself, so no doubt her own experience bears on the range of emotions here.
More complex is lawyer Percy Vance’s situation. He finds himself stuck between his employment to Georgia Tann and his empathy for Cecile and her daughter.
Admittedly, I was irritated with Cecile several times when her stubbornness won over common sense. Desperation ruled, and her decisions to not cooperate with level-headed Percy plunges her into worse trouble.
But it made me wonder—if I were in a similar situation, would I be patient and wait for authorities to do their job? In this case, not even the authorities could be trusted. Georgia Tann had her hooks into too many Memphis citizens who financially benefitted from her schemes and would lose much by defying her and unearthing her secrets.
I was rooting for Cecile to find her daughter, but what would happen if she did? Could she get her back? Would Cecile be in big trouble, becoming the target for Georgia Tann’s disdain and attacks?
Multiply Cecile’s situation by a hundred kidnapped children waiting to be sold to unsuspecting families.
As Cecile and Percy pursue leads, they find other adoptive families, some who sincerely love their adopted child. Was Millie put into a loving home? Or into an abusive one where she’d be worked hard? Either way, how would they take Millie Mae back?
See why you can’t stop reading?
Join me for some Q & A with Liz Tolsma
Questions about The Pink Bonnet
What was some of the information you learned about Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society when researching for this story? Was the information primarily in old newspapers?
Liz: I knew nothing about Georgie Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society before I started working on my proposal for the book. The idea to use this as the inspiration for my true crime book came from Becky Germany at Barbour Publishing. She put the series together, and for the first six books or so, the ideas were hers. But I found it to be fascinating, especially coming from the prospective of an adoptive parent. So I learned about Georgia Tann’s past, some of what might have driven her to do what she did, and how the home was operated. I was devastated to learn that she cruised Memphis in her black Cadillac and snatched children off the street. She also took children from their mothers soon after birth, when the mothers were still groggy from delivery and did not understand they were signing away the rights to their children.
My primary information came from a book called The Baby Thief: The True Story of the Woman Who Sold Over Five Thousand Neglected, Abused and Stolen Babies in the 1950s. The title is a little misleading, because Georgia operated from the 1920s until right around 1950 when she passed away. But it was a great source of information. I also got a lot of information from old newspapers I read online, including images of the actual ads Georgia placed in newspapers, searching for couples to adopt these children. There has been a great deal written about her, so information wasn’t difficult to come by.
What are the challenges of retelling the true story of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in a fictionalized tale? What parameters did you have imposed on you? How much freedom did you have?
Liz: It was challenging to retell a true story in a fictionalized way, but it’s something I love to do. I wanted to be as true to history as possible, so the setting, including many of the buildings and places I talk about, are true. I drew Georgia to be as true to life as I could possibly recreate her from what I read. But I didn’t have many parameters imposed on me. As long as it dealt with the true crime, I could fictionalize it as much as I wanted. My publisher didn’t limit me in what I could keep, what I could change, and how many fictional characters I could introduce. I appreciated that freedom as it made the book that much easier to write.
What was the inspiration for your fictional characters Cecile Dowd, Percy the lawyer, and others? Did you consider other protagonists or connections to the events before settling on Cecile and Percy as main characters?
Liz: Because Cecile was going to have her child snatched by Georgia, I knew she had to be a strong woman who would refuse to give up on her child. She had to be a fighter. I drew her pretty much from my imagination, giving her qualities that would help her in locating her daughter. Since this is a romantic suspense, I needed a hero who be the perfect foil for my heroine. Someone unlikely for her to fall in love with and with something that would be an obstacle to their love. That’s how he came to be Georgia’s lawyer. He underwent a great deal of growth and change throughout the novel. J.D.’s character is somewhat based on me because he’s an adoptive parent. I had a different ending to the story based on how I might be tempted to act if I were in J.D.’s situation. I did change it to bring a more satisfying ending. That’s all I can say without spoilers!
How do you plot out a story that integrates fact and fiction, especially if you’re trying to be faithful to the facts you know, yet have to fill in the gaps with your imagination?
Liz: Haha! That’s pretty funny. I’m not a plotter at all. When I sit down to write, I know my characters, I know the beginning and the ending, but the middle is very unclear to me. I kind of just let my imagination go. Since the story isn’t based on any actual child or family impacted by Georgia Tann, I had a great deal more flexibility with what I wrote. My biggest challenges to keeping this factual were making sure I kept Georgia in character, keeping true to the times, and making sure the actual places I was using were accurate.
Since this story was based on a true situation, how did writing it compare to anything you’ve written before? Do you usually have more leeway with historical context or not? (I’m guessing not, since you write World War II novels and have to work within the confines of actual events.) Do you prefer having more or less information to work with? Do you prefer having more free reign in order to fill in the gaps with your imagination?
Liz: In terms of turning fact into fiction, it’s my favorite way to write. Almost all of my books are based on true stories in some way or another. I’ve never had a publisher or an editor leaning over my shoulder, telling me how true to fact I have to be, and maybe that’s because I always try to keep my books as accurate as possible. In my WWII novel Daisies Are Forever, the hero was supposed to be American, not British. But the location where the heroine came from was closest to a British POW camp, not an American one. I changed the story to reflect that. The more information I can have, the better. To me, it’s difficult to write when I don’t have the details at hand that I need. In When the Heart Sings, I just couldn’t find information on Polish labor camps no matter how hard I tried. I learned that the Soviets destroyed most of that information when they took control of Poland and that WWII was not taught in Polish schools. That really frustrated me.
This story is part of a crime series called True Colors. Were you assigned the color and/or title or just the event to write about? Can you explain how the title came about (without any spoilers)?
Liz: For the first two books that I wrote for this series, I was assigned the events I was to write about based on proposals I had written for those stories. Both The Pink Bonnet and The Green Dress originally had different titles. The publisher wanted to use pink, so we went round and round with the object in the title. For a while, it was The Pink Cradle. That didn’t work well since the child was too old to be in a cradle. Then someone suggested bonnet, and I knew I could work that into the story, so that’s how we landed on that.
How do the other 3 titles and crimes you wrote in this series compare to The Pink Bonnet? They are set in Boston (1886), Indiana (1907), and Denver (1900). Did you enjoy researching or writing one over the others? Do you prefer learning and writing about a particular place or era?
Liz: Out of all four books that I wrote for the series, I enjoyed writing the one set in Indiana that best. The Gold Digger just flowed from my fingers. Since it’s close to Wisconsin and I have a cousin who lives near where the book takes place, I was able to go there and research it weeks before Covid hit. I LOVED combing through the artifacts and newspapers and first-hand accounts I found at the historical society there. The one set in Boston, The Green Dress, had a fair bit of information but not nearly enough for me. There were newspaper articles but no books written about this crime. I ended up having to sift through over 400 pages of trial transcripts. That’s where I got most of my information for that book. By the way they answered the questions and what was said about some of the characters in actual testimony, I was able to drew the true-life people.
Questions about Liz’s writing
Do you have a favorite book of the ones you’ve written? Which one and why?
Liz: That’s like asking me which is my favorite child! I suppose it might have to be Snow on the Tulips, my first full-length novel. That is based on a family story during WWII in the Netherlands, so it was fun to write my heritage. The same thing with The Melody of the Soul. My mother’s family is from Slovakia, so getting to explore that part of my ethnicity was lots of fun.
Do you have a favorite protagonist from your novels? If so, who and why?
Liz: I think it would have to be Cornelia DeVries from Snow on the Tulips. She is the character who is the most like me. They say to write what you know, so I wrote myself into that story.
What are a few of your favorite novels by other authors, particularly ones that influenced you as a writer?
Liz: I just read The Curator’s Daughter by Melanie Dobson. One of my all-time favorite books. It took my breath away. It was a great tutorial on how to write time-slip really well. I just wrote my first time-slip, and she was patient enough to even answer the emails I sent her asking questions.
Are you an outliner or a pantser? Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Liz: I’m a pure pantser. I first create my characters and spend some time getting to know them. Then I’ll throw them into a situation, sit back, and watch what happens. Sometimes my first draft is a real mess, but I always manage to get to the end somehow. To write a full-length novel takes me a minimum of six months. That’s what my publisher has been asking of me lately. Of course, the more time I have, the better, but that’s not always a luxury authors have. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining. I love having another book to look forward to writing.
NOTE: Learn more about Pantsers and Outliners during a previous chat with Liz, 2018.
You’ve written historical novels with a variety of settings. Do you have a preference for certain places and time periods? Do you like returning to similar settings or do you prefer to tackle new ones?
Liz: I really love writing about WWII overseas. I’ve done five now in Europe and one in the Pacific theater. I’d love to do more in the Pacific. There are so many stories to tell, and time is running out to talk to the people who lived these events. It’s crucial that my generation and that of my children and grandchildren learn the true price of freedom and how to have hope in the midst of the darkest times. One place I’d like to write about is Korea. My oldest daughter was born in Korea, and her DNA results show that she’s 10% Japanese. That’s indicative of having a great-grandparent who is Japanese, which would be about the right time for WWII. Korea was occupied by the Japanese during the war. The writer in me wonders if there’s a forbidden love story in there somewhere . (I do have my daughter’s permission to share this information.)
What’s the most important advice you like sharing with aspiring writers, particularly novelists?
Liz: Write. Just sit down and do it. Don’t question yourself. Don’t stop. Get words on the page. Finish. Then you’ll have a starting point and something to work with. From there, you never know what will happen. But you’ll never get published if you don’t discipline yourself to write on a regular basis.
Back to Laura . . . On a Similar Note
If you like southern fiction, check out my recently relaunched novel All That Is Hidden.
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If you enjoy The Pink Bonnet, you might want to try Before We Were Yours (Ballantine Books, June 2017) by Lisa Wingate, a dual timeline story (1939 and present day) about a fictional family directly impacted by Georgia Tann’s cruelty.
- Orphans who reached out to author Lisa Wingate after she published her 2017 novel Before We Were Yours
- Author Lisa Wingate interview about the TCHS orphans
Don’t forget the rest of the True Colors series on Amazon.
Liz Tolsma bio
Liz Tolsma is a popular speaker and an editor and the owner of the Write Direction Editing. An almost-native Wisconsinite, she resides in a quiet corner of the state with her husband and is the mother of three. Her son proudly serves as a U.S. Marine. They adopted all of their children internationally, and one has special needs. When she gets a few spare minutes, she enjoys reading, relaxing on the front porch, walking, working in her large perennial garden, and camping with her family. Visit her website at www.liztolsma.com and follow her on Facebook, Twitter (@LizTolsma), Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest. She is also the host of the Christian Historical Fiction Talk podcast.
Join me next time as we examine fiction by Cynthia Ruchti.
Meanwhile, feel free to comment below. Have you read The Pink Bonnet. What novels (or non-fiction) have you read that deal with lesser known evils in history?