In Michigan during World War II, my grandfather and his brother had to cease selling automobiles at the car dealership they’d built from the ground up since 1926. All consumer cars, trucks, and parts production halted from February 1942 to October 1945.
Even customers who’d ordered cars previously couldn’t receive them when the government Office of Production Management froze all consumer vehicle sales on January 1, 1942. Instead, General Motors—including Chevrolet, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Ford—started building military trucks, tanks, airplanes, Jeeps, torpedoes, and bullets.
In fact, the U.S. automobile industry produced twenty percent of the country’s materials manufactured for World War II. This included aircraft bombers, airplane engines, military gliders, machine guns, firetrucks, and armored cars. General Motors became the largest military contractor in the world.
Meanwhile, since every automobile owner was driving around a used car that couldn’t be replaced, Grandpa and Great-uncle Jerry were as busy as ever servicing these cars. The dealership also had a city contract to service about twenty buses. Though the service department employing seventy men boomed, twenty salesmen and ten office personnel had to be let go. They needed other employment—some possibly with General Motors or the automobile plants-turned-munitions factories.
In Almost Home by Valerie Fraser Luesse, such unemployed folks are flocking to a newly constructed munitions plant in Alabama. But the story is less about work than it is about the boardinghouse where they live. It’s a place where they are welcomed with open arms and meet others in similar predicaments. (See the Q & A below for the author’s boardinghouse connection.)
My first introduction to Valerie was her articles in Southern Living magazine. Yes, I’m a Midwest gal, but I love certain parts of the south. With my novel’s setting in western North Carolina, I enjoy reading about southern habits, habitats, and hankerings.
But Valerie is more than a writer of magazine articles. She also shines as a novelist.
The things that tear us apart can also bring us together.
With America’s entrance into World War II, the town of Blackberry Springs, Alabama, has exploded virtually overnight. Workers from all over are coming south for jobs in Uncle Sam’s munitions plants—and they’re bringing their pasts with them, right into Dolly Chandler’s grand but fading family home turned boardinghouse.
A struggling young couple from the Midwest, unemployed professors from Chicago, a widower from Mississippi, and a shattered young veteran struggling to heal from the war are all hoping Dolly’s house will help them find their way back to the lives they left behind. But the house has a past of its own.
When tragedy strikes, Dolly’s only hope will be the circle of friends under her roof and their ability to discover the truth about what happened to a young bride who lived there a century before.
Regarding World War II stories, I prefer ones that take place on American soil and learning how the war impacted them from afar as they sent off loved ones, lived with rationing and/or ethnocentrism, dealt with German POW camps, and, in some cases, had to find different work.
This story’s setting is a boardinghouse in rural Blackberry Springs, Alabama in 1944. People show up from different states to work at the local munitions plant.
Dolly Chandler and her husband Si run the boardinghouse which exudes southern charm and hospitality as she cares for each boarder. She and Si open their generational family home because they need money to pay the taxes, but now she also has the opportunity to offer respite. Out come the sweet tea and biscuits and gravy. Across the street, Si runs a roller rink and is building a pond for people to swim in.
Everyone arrives with his own down-and-out story. Anne and Jesse Williams left their floundering Illinois farm, but bring their marriage problems. Feeling like a failure, Jesse works at the munitions factory.
Then there’s Evelyn and Harry Hastings, professors from Chicago; Joe Dolphus from Mississippi; and the rude, obnoxious Clanahans from Reno. Joining them later is Reed Ingram, a young, injured war veteran with PTSD.
Daisy Dupree boards at a little house nearby, grieving the recent loss of her husband at war. She came north from Louisiana after he died. She wears overalls, loves to draw, and becomes friends with Anna. She’s hilarious and tells it like it is.
“Men can’t decipher hints and moods,
so you gotta put what you’re feelin’ in a cast-iron skillet
and hit ‘em over the head with it.” —Daisy to Anna, p 66
Daisy befriends Anna and Reed. Lillian, the blind neighbor, has many front porch chats with Anna. The story is told primarily through the perspectives of Dolly, Anna, and Reed.
With so many displaced people, the boardinghouse folks become found family, with plenty of wisdom to go around.
“What-ifs are big sticks with which we smite ourselves . . .
all we can do is the best we can do, and all we can see is what’s in front of us.
So there’s no point in looking back and judging ourselves
based on things we know now but didn’t know then.” — Anna, p 54
Another layer to this story is a century-old legend about people who owned the house in 1844, before Dolly’s family resided there. Anna, Daisy, and Dolly discover old journals that affirm the legend. It’s about a pirate, Andrew Sinclair, and his bride, Catherine, who supposedly disappeared shortly after their wedding, along with a pirate treasure. Anna is determined to discover the truth about what happened.
As the story proceeds, elements of danger creep in, but overall, this is a heart-warming story with people you can’t help but love. The dialog contains some dialect, but it’s not too troublesome.
“It’s strange how we get attached to places like they were people.
I guess they take on part o’ us, and we take on part o’ them,
and before you know it, ain’t neither one of us quite whole without the other.
That’s how come Little Mama’s house has always been so dear to me.
I just breathe a little different in these big ol’ rooms.” — Dolly, p 276
“I think it’s a good thing that we can’t see what’s comin’.
If we could, it’d scare us so bad we might run from it,
and then we’d never get to see how good it could be.” — Daisy, p 304
Join me for some Q & A with author Valerie Fraser Luesse.
Questions about Almost Home
What was your inspiration for writing Almost Home? What’s your personal connection to the setting and situation?
It’s a very personal book for me because the setting is based on family stories. A number of families in our rural Alabama community—including my great-uncle and aunt—turned their homes into boarding houses during World War II because there wasn’t enough housing to accommodate all the workers moving South to work in the munitions plants that sprang up down here. I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of complete strangers from all over the country being brought together under one roof during wartime.
My Great Uncle Adam had inherited my grandmother’s family home, which was a big two-story, and he was also an entrepreneur who opened a manmade swimming lake and adjacent roller rink right across the road from that house. For years, the lake was a major gathering spot for locals, as well as teenagers from neighboring counties. I have childhood memories of going there, although it was past its heyday by the time I came along. The house and the lake are key to the setting of Almost Home.
What historical parameters were imposed on you? Where did you have to fill in the gaps with your imagination?
The rural South was very poor going into the second World War. Nobody had any money. So all the military factories that opened down here were a welcome source of jobs and income. I’ve heard one of my uncles talk about feeling rich when he got a job digging ditches for 50 cents a day.
In an odd way, the war brought both prosperity and deprivation because on the one hand were all the new jobs, but on the other came all the civilian rationing necessary to keep the military supplied. That sense of “we’re doing without, but we’re all in this together” was a major historical thread in Almost Home.
I also had to consider the limited means of communication back then. You couldn’t text anybody in the 1940s, of course! Or Google anything. But I’m old enough to remember life before cell phones and WiFi, so with minor adjustments, I could rely on my own memory for those aspects of the story.
I let my imagination run wild with the pirate’s tale that Daisy and Anna uncover. I had a lot of fun with that. The underground river was inspired by a story I loved as a child, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” It was about a group of sister-princesses who traveled a secret river to dance in an underground ballroom.
That idea of hidden water also played into my first book, Missing Isaac—though in a very different way. The part of Alabama where I grew up has water beneath the limestone that lies under some of the cotton fields. Over time, the water can wear away the rock, creating what’s essentially a trap door in the fields—nothing but unstable earth between the farm equipment and the water down below.
How did you develop your point-of-view characters—Dolly, Anna, and Daisy? Why and how did you decide which characters to tell the story through? What would each of them have to say about you?
Dolly was inspired by some of the women in my mother’s family, mostly her oldest sister, Aunt Vivian. My aunt was one of those amazing women who loved nurturing other people—always baking a pound cake for a neighbor or cooking lunch for a sick church member. She would find that special thing that made each of us kids happy and surprise us with it all the time. Dolly is like that. She finds her greatest joy in making other people happy. She’s the “Mama” of my story, the hub that everybody else spins around.
The friendship between Anna and Daisy is based on my own friendship with Melissa Caine, who was my roommate at Auburn. Missey was that one special friend who could make sense of all my jumbled pieces—always on my side but never afraid to tell me when I had run off the tracks. I lost her to leukemia when we were both 32.
The story of Anna and Daisy was my way of honoring that friendship. Missey was a lot savvier than I was in college. And she had a wonderful dry wit and shoot-from-the-hip way of getting to the heart of a thing. I was more of a handwringer. She was an artist like Daisy, whose “get on with it, girl!” nudges for Anna are very much born out of Missey’s efforts to help me stop wandering around in my own head and be about it, whatever “it” might be.
Do your characters hijack the story or do you have full rein? Which characters would you be least likely and most likely to get along with?
Reins? What reins?! No, I do not have complete control of my characters—ever—and I like it that way. They often take the lead and start doing or saying things I didn’t plan on. For example, I didn’t realize how wounded Daisy was until I let her take hold of her own story and move it where it needed to go.
As for my compatibility with the characters, I would probably get along best with Daisy and Dolly because they would be the most likely to tolerate me! I’m too much like Anna. We’d drive each other to distraction and never come to a decision about anything. She and I both need a Daisy to tell us what’s what. But I do admire Anna’s compassion and devotion. P.S. I have a crush on Reed.
How do you want this story to resonate with your readers?
In one way or another, I think all my books speak to the idea of community. Even though we know the characters in Almost Home are part of the larger community of Blackberry Springs, the relationships that matter most in the book develop in and around Dolly’s house. That old place shelters a community of strangers who become a family as they grow to care about each other and get involved in each other’s lives. A sense of belonging and responsibility to other people is something we very much need as human beings. I hope readers are drawn to that theme in Almost Home.
What unusual thing did you do or discover while researching for this story?
I learned a lot about Alabama during the war, particularly how some quiet little towns boomed overnight, changing the social fabric dramatically.
Questions about writing
What books have been most influential for you as an author?
Eudora Welty’s short stories, as well as The Optimist’s Daughter; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury . . . and Heidi! My poor mother had to read that Johanna Spyri story to me over and over when I was little. I so wanted to sleep in a hay loft and live on a mountaintop like Heidi.
As a long-time journalist for Southern Living, what first led you to novel writing?
It’s something I had always dreamed of doing, but I was finally pushed into action by the recession of 2008 or 2009—can’t remember the exact year. It was a stressful time with lots of layoffs and uncertainty, and I just needed something to take my mind off it. So I dusted off a short story I had written in college and started reworking it. I immediately felt better. Every morning, I’d get up before daylight and dive into this fictional world that took me far away from day-to-day stresses.
The writing process was such a joy because I had no expectations. I didn’t have any editors or critics. I didn’t even know if I’d ever let anybody read it. I could do whatever I wanted without worrying whether it would ever be published or whether it fit into this genre or that. I didn’t have an outline or a plan or anything. I had no idea what was going to happen from one page to the next. I just wrote for the joy of storytelling, which was a great way to get started, now that I look back on it.
Once I was ready for constructive feedback, I was very blessed to know lots of Southern Living writers and editors, who helped me so much. And as it turns out, all the travel writing I did at the magazine was great training for creating a sense of place in my fiction.
Where do your story ideas usually originate from—character, plot, setting, theme, or a combination? Share examples of how one of your stories grew from an initial idea.
I tend to lead with place, followed closely by time, meaning there’s a place I want to take readers and an interesting time to be there. That was certainly true of Almost Home and Under the Bayou Moon, set in a fictional Louisiana bayou town right after World War II. I had traveled all over Acadian Louisiana for Southern Living and wanted to use that incredible experience in a work of fiction, but I wanted to set it during a time when government-enforced cultural restrictions against Cajun people were still in place, so it couldn’t be a modern story.
Missing Isaac was inspired by the rumored disappearance of a man from a small farming town years ago, but I set it during the Civil Right era, not just because that worked better for the story but also because it allowed me to tap into my own childhood memories of Alabama during the 1960s.
What begins as a question—how does a man disappear from a small town where everybody knows everybody—evolves into an exploration of class and race in rural Alabama as two couples are brought together by Isaac Reynolds’s disappearance. These unlikely romances involve a man and a woman, a boy and a girl, who come from different worlds even though they live in the same small town.
The Key to Everything is based on a true story—the fantastic bicycle journey taken by my friend Holly’s dad in the 1940s. But I knew I could tell that story because of my own journeys to Key West, which is the main character’s ultimate destination. Even when the initial idea comes from an event—a disappearance or a bike ride—sense of place has to kick in for me or I can’t tell the story. And I almost always know where a character is from before I know who they are.
Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Coffee. Candle. Cat. Those are the Three C’s of my writing process! I can’t write my name till I’ve had my morning coffee—the first cup usually happens before daylight. Then I go out to my Story Shack, a little writing studio my husband had built for me next to our house. It looks like a tiny coastal cottage, with a porch and everything. I love Seagrove candles—honeysuckle and gardenia during spring and summer, and a fragrance called “Yuletide” during cold weather.
And then there’s Cheeto the Cat, who parades back and forth across my keyboard till I’ve showered him with attention and refreshed his treat bowl. None of my novels would’ve happened without Whisker Lickin’s. The time frame varies, depending on deadlines from my publisher. I spent maybe five years writing and rewriting my first book and about one year on each book since then.
Please share something about a current project or the direction you want to go as an author.
With Letters from My Sister (August 2023), I’m delving back into my own family history for inspiration. My maternal grandmother and her only sister grew up in a houseful of brothers. Though the sisters were nothing alike, they were very close, and I was struck by the playful tone in some of their correspondence, which we found in a cabinet in my grandmother’s bedroom after she was very old.
My grandmother could be a tough critic of humanity and didn’t admire many people, but she had great respect for her sister and for a Black woman named Bama McCoy, who ran their parents’ home. I took those relationships and wrapped them up in a mystery and a love story, set on an Alabama cotton farm at the turn of the twentieth century.
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Write. Rewrite. Repeat. And remember, you’ll never be more in control of anything in your life than a story you haven’t let anyone read. You decide who sees your work. You decide when. So there’s nothing to be afraid of when you’re just getting started.
You can write (and I have written) some of the worst sentences ever put to paper, but those are between you and your cat. You’ll write the good words eventually and share them when you’re ready. Go forth with courage and confidence! And maybe a shredder.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you like small town 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
If you like small town stories in the Midwest, you might enjoy my novel, Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. The story spotlights L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Set in Holland, Michigan, this dual timeline, pre-published novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
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Valerie Fraser Luesse Bio
Valerie Fraser Luesse is the author of Almost Home and the bestselling, Christy Award–winning Missing Isaac. The longtime magazine writer is best known for her feature stories and essays in Southern Living, where she is currently the senior travel editor. Specializing in stories about unique pockets of Southern culture, Luesse has published major pieces on the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Delta, Acadian Louisiana, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Her editorial section on Hurricane Katrina recovery in Mississippi and Louisiana won the 2009 Writer of the Year award from the Southeast Tourism Society. The Alabama native and her husband live in Birmingham. Luesse is a graduate of Auburn University and Baylor University.
Join me next time for a visit with author Susan Meissner.
Meanwhile, have you read Almost Home or any others by Valerie Fraser Luesse? Do you like Southern fiction? Answer in the comments below.
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