When I read Devil in the White City years ago, I was fascinated by the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Not just the World’s Fair and all its creativity, but the juxtaposition of evil running rampant at the same time.
Four years later came the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, the state’s historic centennial celebration. When I realized that the setting of Count the Night by Stars by Michelle Shocklee encompassed the Centennial Expo, I was immediately intrigued. Her novel exposes some of its problems: forced prostitution and the treatment of Italian immigrants.
The split-time story takes place in 1897 at the expo and in 1961 at Nashville’s Maxwell House Hotel, home of the original Maxwell House Coffee. Legend has it that President Theodore Roosevelt once declared the coffee to be “good to the last drop,” which later became the company’s slogan.
Whether the president actually coined that phrase or not, Library Journal has declared that “Shocklee’s novel is like the coffee at the Maxwell House: good to the last drop.”
- Culinary Lore: Maxwell House Coffee and Teddy Roosevelt
- Brief history and picture (circa 1950-1961) of the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville Public Library’s Digital Collections
- The hotel burned down on Christmas night, 1961, and was rebuilt as the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel.
Count the Nights by Stars won the 2023 Christianity Today Book Award for fiction.
A year ago, Michelle was my guest for Under the Tulip Tree, which was a 2021 Christy Award finalist and a Selah Award finalist.
Count your nights by stars, not shadows. Count your life with smiles, not tears.
1961. After a longtime resident at Nashville’s historic Maxwell House Hotel suffers a debilitating stroke, Audrey Whitfield is tasked with cleaning out the reclusive woman’s room. There, she discovers an elaborate scrapbook filled with memorabilia from the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Love notes on the backs of unmailed postcards inside capture Audrey’s imagination with hints of a forbidden romance . . . and troubling revelations about the disappearance of young women at the exposition. Audrey enlists the help of a handsome hotel guest as she tracks down clues and information about the mysterious “Peaches” and her regrets over one fateful day, nearly sixty-five years earlier.
1897. Outspoken and forward-thinking Priscilla Nichols isn’t willing to settle for just any man. She’s still holding out hope for love when she meets Luca Moretti on the eve of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Charmed by the Italian immigrant’s boldness, Priscilla spends time exploring the wonderous sights of the expo with Luca—until a darkness overshadows the months long event. Haunted by a terrible truth, Priscilla and Luca are sent down separate paths as the night’s stars fade into dawn.
If you ever want to know what it’s like to be at a world’s fair, read this book. You’ll feel like you’re strolling through the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition—all the sights and sounds, all the period details.
This story makes me want to visit Nashville’s historic Maxwell House Hotel. It even makes me wish I liked coffee! Well, it’s too late to visit the old hotel, which burned decades ago, but the two storylines in this split-time novel blended like coffee with cream and sugar. That’s as close as I’ll get to drinking it. I’m a tea drinker.
In 1961, Audrey Whitfield lives with her dad and brother Emmet in the Maxwell House Hotel her dad manages. The family still grieves the loss of her mother from the previous year. Audrey is home from college and helps at the hotel. Emmet has developmental disabilities.
After a hotel resident, Priscilla Nichols, suffers a stroke and moves out, Audrey becomes intrigued by the woman’s scrapbook and tries to learn everything she can about it. The scrapbook contains remnants of the 1897 World’s Fair in Nashville, including news articles and postcards written to Luca from Peaches but never mailed. The notes carry a hint of romance. Jason, a hotel guest, helps Audrey explore. He’s studying to be a civil rights attorney.
Back in 1897, Priscilla, the only child of elitist parents, is fighting their expectations. She wants to step out as her own person and escape her overbearing mother. When the family comes to the fair for an extended visit, Priscilla sneaks away several times to avoid her parents as well as her rigid, domineering boyfriend Kenton. She embraces her own experiences. Over time, she views rich privilege as power and abuse, and wants nothing to do with it.
Meanwhile, Luca Moretti has been hired as the family’s carriage driver. He’s very protective of his sister Gia, who assists the hotel guests. They’re both working class Italian immigrants trying to make their way. Some of Priscilla’s favorite times at the fair revolve around Luca, until they are caught in a web of evil, trying to track down the victims.
“That is our mission, dear. To see people for who they are beneath the pain.
Beneath the sin. To see them as God sees them: a beautiful creation,
with plans and purposes only he knows.”
This quote calls attention not only to the expo’s human trafficking victims but to the marginalized disabled, such as Audrey’s brother in 1961. It also applies to Jason’s goals as an attorney, wanting to help the oppressed during the civil rights movement.
Though the story involves prostitution and human trafficking, it is handled well with no inappropriate scenes to worry about. And there are plenty of people trying to help improve the plight of vulnerable young girls. Especially poignant is the meaning of the title.
Join me for some Q & A with author Michelle Shocklee.
Questions about Count the Nights by Stars
What was your inspiration for writing Count the Nights by Stars? What’s your personal connection to the story?
Michelle: My husband and I moved to the Nashville, Tennessee area in 2017. I’d never been to Tennessee before, and I soaked up the history of this area like a sponge. The following year I wrote my novel Under the Tulip Tree, which is set in Nashville in 1936 and during the days of slavery.
I discovered so many interesting things in my research for that book that I decided I had to write another Nashville-set story. This time it would include the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897 and the famous Maxwell House Hotel.
How and why did you choose the Maxwell House Hotel as a setting?
Michelle: While there are other hotels in Nashville’s history, none are quite as fascinating as the Maxwell House. It was built prior to the Civil War and was used as a hospital and prison for Confederate soldiers once the Union Army took control of Tennessee. After the war it became the place to stay in the city, with movie stars, authors, and several presidents listed in the guestbook.
Then there’s the cool connection to Maxwell House coffee, which was first served in the hotel’s famous dining room before it became available to the public through mass production.
What historical parameters were imposed on you? Where did you have to fill in the gaps with your imagination?
Michelle: As a reader and an author of historical fiction, I feel it’s important to get the facts right. History has already happened, and it’s not our place to change it. But while staying within the parameters of what truly happened years ago is a must, authors need the freedom to create within those parameters.
An example of this in Count the Nights by Stars is my placement of Audrey’s family in the manager’s apartment of the Maxwell House Hotel. While there was an acting manager employed by the hotel in December 1961, I could find no information about him, his family, or if he lived on-site, as many managers did then and still do today. I needed Audrey and her family present at the hotel throughout the story, so I gave them an apartment.
While Priscilla’s character is based on women of that era, she also has a few scenes where facts are stretched and imagination takes over. One example would be the night she and Luca sneak into the exposition after closing. I figured it was possible and plausible, considering the enormity of the expo grounds and lack of modern-day technology, like cameras and alarms. Besides, it just seemed like the perfect place for them to…well, I can’t tell you what happened, but suffice it to say it was the perfect setting in my mind.
How did you develop your heroines Audrey (1961) and Priscilla (1897)? Did they hijack the story or did you have full rein?
Michelle: I knew Audrey’s and Priscilla’s stories before I began writing the book, and I’m pleased to say both ladies fully cooperated with me throughout the process. One of the things I knew Audrey would have to deal with was the jealousy and fears she had regarding her brother Emmett (whose character is inspired by a young man at our church).
Priscilla also had to face her fears as she chose to follow a path not many would choose, especially a single woman in those days. Both ladies had to go deeper into themselves, which is something all of us experience at some point in our lives. They ultimately had to learn to fully trust God.
What would Audrey and Priscilla have to say about you?
Michelle: They’d say, “Michelle’s a nice lady, but boy oh boy, she is not a morning person! She’d trudge upstairs in her pajamas to her office at five o’clock every morning and work on our story for a few hours before she had to go to work at her full-time job. Grumpy doesn’t even begin to describe her mood at five in the morning! But we’re proud of her and hope this book reminds people to truly see one another.”
How did you develop a dual timeline plot with separate storylines that need to meld together? Do you prefer writing dual timeline novels?
Michelle: Count the Nights by Stars is my second dual timeline book, and I must say I really enjoy writing them. Because I love history so much, writing in two different time periods allows me to bring out interesting historical tidbits from both periods and incorporate them into the book without it feeling like an information dump. Connecting the stories, however, is key, and most of that happens through the connections the characters experience with each other.
What unusual or interesting thing did you do or discover while researching for this story?
Michelle: While I was researching forced prostitution for the 1897 story, I made a sad discovery. Even though I knew prostitution existed in Nashville in 1897, I wanted proof that my storyline wasn’t purely fictional.
I looked up newspaper articles from 1897 and was shocked to discover twelve references to young women being kidnapped, sold, or lured into prostitution that year. Twelve! I was sadly reminded that human trafficking is not a new crime. Young women and men are still being victimized today.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you like dual timeline fiction, you might enjoy my novel, Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. This story spotlights L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Set in Holland, Michigan, this pre-published novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
If you like Southern fiction or stories about family secrets, you might enjoy my re-launched novel All That Is Hidden. Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
All That Is Hidden awards:
- Winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award
- Semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest
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Michelle Shocklee Bio
Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels. Her work is included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. As a woman of mixed heritage–her father’s family is Hispanic and her mother’s roots go back to Germany–she celebrates diversity and feels it’s important to see the world through the eyes of one another. Learning from the past and changing the future is why she writes historical fiction. With both her sons grown, she and her husband now make their home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Connect with her at www.MichelleShocklee.com.
Join me next time for a visit with author Cathy Gohlke.
Meanwhile, have you read Count the Nights by Stars or any others by Michelle Shocklee? Do you gravitate to dual timeline stories? Answer in the comments below.
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