More Than Grit

Jul 2, 2024 | Book Reviews

Have you ever heard a grandparent’s or older person’s story and thought it should be written as a memoir or a novel? I have. And so has Gretchen Carlson, author of More Than Grit. It’s based on an event in her grandmother’s life—one her grandma kept secret for decades. 

The blurb and the fact that the novel is based on a true story intrigued me. It’s a coming-of-age novel set in rural Kansas during the Depression era, told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old farm girl.  

In a previous post, I featured author Rebecca Duvall Scott. When Dignity Came to Harlan is the story of her great-grandmother’s coming of age, cloaked in historical fiction. It takes place primarily in Kentucky in the early 1900s.

Like Rebecca, Gretchen Carlson brings her own ancestor’s experiences to life through fiction, for readers beyond family. More Than Grit is a lovely tribute to her grandmother.

Published July 2022

Blurb

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My Thoughts

Twelve-year-old Sissy Grumme surely takes this wisdom to heart. Yet by the story’s end, I think she would add at least one more thing to this definition of happiness.

Through bullheaded determination, Sissy strives to achieve by gaining the means to help her poor farm family in Kansas in 1939. Her creative effort is obvious in her resourcefulness. Yet it’s not enough.

Living on a Kansas farm, instead of hiding behind her scars, Sissy plunges forward to help her parents who barely admit they’re having financial struggles. She strikes a deal with scary Old Man Morton—farm work and cleaning his chicken shed in exchange for eggs. She then sells those eggs to her Sunday school teacher Mrs. Sewall for two cents each. Sissy wants to save up five dollars so her parents can make the deposit to the electrical company by December for electricity.

In 1939, war is looming. Between FDR’s fireside chats, the battery-powered radio plays “Over the Rainbow” from MGM’s The Wizard of Oz movie, released in August that year. 

But any chance at having electricity or prosperity seems “over the rainbow.” Even with Mrs. Sewall’s egg purchases, Sissy faces obstacles: a bully, bad weather, prejudice, wild animals, a scary neighbor, her best friend’s troubles—and Sissy’s stubborn insistence to do everything in secret. Mostly. 

These characters are real and three-dimensional. Not just Sissy, her family, Mrs. Sewall, Lizzie, and Old Man Morton, but Dewey Dog and the geese, Hector and Gertie.

I love that each chapter is prefaced by a quote of FDR or Winston Churchill. In Chapter 22, FDR says, “Great power involves greater responsibility.” Obviously, Spiderman was not the first person to say this. 

But more importantly, Sissy learns how responsibility can increase power. Far from predictable, this story culminates beautifully to its climax and resolution, beyond a “rainbow” Sissy couldn’t have imagined.

Though touted as a middle grade novel, this well-told story can be enjoyed by any adult who likes historical fiction. It captured me from page one and kept my interest all the way through.

Woven through are themes of family, friendship, courage, determination, hard work, resiliency, community, and faith. It delves into tough topics like PTSD, racism, bullies, abuse, poverty, and war, while still being appropriate for upper elementary and middle schoolers, in the classroom or at home. If this book had been written when my kids were younger, I would definitely have read it to them. 

Like Sissy, readers will learn there are things more important than grit.

Join me for some Q & A with author Gretchen Carlson.

Author Gretchen Carlson

Questions about More Than Grit:

Born in 1900, my grandmother didn’t tell me how her farm family got electricity in rural Kansas until she was in her 80’s. I was stunned by the beautiful story of God meeting their need through deep friendships within the church. 

Initially, the story was kept secret, and as decades passed it was nearly forgotten. Growing up, I spent most summer or Christmas vacations on my grandparents’ farm and heard stories of the Great Depression. More Than Grit comes from that collection of memories.

The true incident that the book is based on occurred mid-December in 1939, so the book begins that fall. I was meticulous with dates, prices, and farm life in rural Kansas during that time as well as the historical and political events that unfolded in Europe as Hitler invaded Poland. 

Many scenes were inspired by family stories, such as mystery soup, gypsies, and one-room schools. However, several characters were fictional.

I chose twelve-year-old Siss because middle graders and teens want to read about youth their age, and that was my target audience. However, I’ve been delighted that the book has been embraced by all ages and is popular for adult book groups. 

Sissy would say I’m too much like her. We strive, depending upon our own grit, and we need to be reminded to trust God, no matter the situation.

I knew how the book would end, so I sketched an outline of events that led to the ending. To enhance scenes, I researched and added historical references such as The Wizard of Oz and the national debate over the date of Thanksgiving. I had decided upon the main characters before I began writing, but they continued to deepen.

Through historical websites and archives I enjoyed listening to snippets of radio broadcasts with President Franklin D Roosevelt. However, sometimes I found information in strange places. 

I was thumbing through a tattered magazine at a car repair shop when I noticed an article about occupational therapists who use knitting for post-traumatic stress disorders. I continued to research this and found it began at the end of World War I. One of my favorite scenes is when Sissy finds Old Man knitting.

For grins and giggles, click here for a three-minute television interview about More Than Grit.

Questions about Writing

It’s painful to shorten the long list of authors and writers who have influenced me. I began my manuscript at a writer’s workshop hosted by author Leslie Leyland Fields. Authors Amanda Cabot, Leslie Sartor, Candee Fick, Laurie Germaine, and Kristen Gwen have critiqued and given invaluable insight on the craft of writing. 

Two books which helped me most are: Writing Irresistible Kidlit, by Mary Kole and Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell.  

I like to write in the morning after I’ve read Scripture and taken a long, brisk walk. Sometimes plot points become clearer while I walk. My first manuscript took two years of intermittent writing, then I put it on a shelf and dabbled with edits and revisions for a seven-year period. I don’t advise ignoring or dragging any project that long.

I’ve been surprised that my readers are from middle graders to retired adults.  A seventy-two-year-old woman recently left an Amazon review that she was the daughter of a sharecropper, and this book meant a lot to her because it brought back memories of her parents’ stories. 

However, because I’m concerned about some of the content in recent middle grade novels, I’m determined to try to write books that teachers and homeschool groups will use.

I’m writing the final chapters of my next book, I Be Brave. Although it is a sequel to More Than Grit, it reflects a personal story as Sissy wrestles with grief and forgiveness. She blames herself for the death of her young brother. She also discovers a boy with special needs who was abandoned by his family on a dirt road. Sometimes families are messy, but we all long for a home where we are loved.

I’m still learning! What has helped me most is sharing manuscripts with other writers and authors. Don’t write in a vacuum.

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If you like historical fiction and characters with grit, you might enjoy my novel, A Hundred Magical Reasons. This story spotlights L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, his friendship with a young girl, and his impact through the decades. Set in Holland, Michigan, this pre-published dual timeline novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Read more and watch the book trailer here. The story recently won the Scrivenings Press novel contest and will be published in January!

If you like coming-of-age tales or small town/rural stories about family dynamics and 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.

  • Winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award
  • Semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest

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Gretchen Carlson Bio

As a girl, Gretchen A Carlson spent vacations in rural Kansas exploring her grandparents’ farm, complete with an out-house, big barn, and built-in adventures. Her grandmother waited for decades to share the family secret of how they got electricity, and it was this story that inspired Gretchen’s debut historical fiction novel about broken lives and forgiveness. Her readers range from ten to ninety-one years of age because who doesn’t love to root for the underdog and be encouraged of God’s grace? More than Grit won a First Impressions and a young adult Genesis award through American Christian Fiction Writers. A sequel, I Be Brave, is in the works. Gretchen lives with her husband of forty-six years near Indianapolis, blessed by family and six grandchildren, and she’s thankful for God’s people—the church. As a pastor’s wife, the front door of her home—like her heart—is always open. She responds to every reader. Check out her website gretchen-carlson.com. Contact Gretchen at gretchencarlsonwriter@gmail.com.

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Join me next time for a visit with author Cindy Sproles.

Meanwhile, have you read More Than Grit? Do you have any family/grandparent stories that would make a good novel? Answer in the comments below.

Ever reading,

Laura

Coming soon: A Hundred Magical Reasons, a novel

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17 Comments

  1. Anita Klumpers

    What a great story—made all the better because it’s so connected to real events and people.
    And it is a fascinating time in history. Heartbreak and hope and fear and faith.
    Glad to hear Gretchen was meticulous with research and facts.
    Anachronisms drive me crazy!

    What an interesting question—would any grandparent/parent stories make a good novel?
    Maybe episodes or springboards…oh! I did use a real family legend in my first book! But gave it
    the happy ending it didn’t have in reality.

    Wishing Gretchen, and Laura congratulations and great success!

    Reply
    • Laura DeNooyer

      Anachronisms drive me crazy too! Fortunately, I didn’t see any in More Than Grit.
      Is the family legend you used from your own family or someone else’s?

      Reply
    • Gretchen Carlson

      Anita, what’s the the title of your first book? I love the idea of weaving family legends (besides factual history) into novels.

      Reply
  2. Ruth Schmeckpeper

    I haven’t read More Than Grit, but it sounds amazing.
    Yes, I have some grandparent stories I’d love to write about. My husband’s grandfather worked for the railroad and wasn’t home a lot. One day he didn’t come home. The family assumed he’d died. Years later they found he had another family! I also think about my grandmother in Germany getting a letter from my grandfather who’d come to America and purchased a farm in Northern Minnesota. He asked her to marry him. They hadn’t seen each other since she was in 16. Now at 21 she said goodbye to her family and traveled to America. I can’t imagine her emotions as she said goodbye to her family or the difficulty of traveling in a foreign country to find Grandpa.

    Reply
    • Laura DeNooyer

      Wow, Ruth, those would both be fascinating stories to develop in a novel–the first one heartbreaking and shocking, and the second one bittersweet while saying goodbye to one life in exchange for another and a chance at love.

      Reply
    • Gretchen Carlson

      Ruth, I agree with Laura. Those stories are amazing. If you don’t develop them into a novel, please be sure to write them down in a “memory book” for future generations. Thank you for sharing!

      Reply
  3. marilyn leach

    Thank you, Laura and Gretchen. Yes, family stories can stir the heart, especially when they’re written by as capable an author as Gretchen is. Thanks for the Q and A

    Reply
    • Laura DeNooyer

      I agree–and Gretchen is definitely a capable author! Thanks for stopping by, Marilyn.

      Reply
  4. Mary Larson

    This sounds like a beautiful book! The roots and the inspiration for the story make it that much more interesting. Knowing there is a sequel coming encourages me to read this book! A person can fully invest themselves in the story knowing there will be more to come.

    Reply
    • Laura DeNooyer

      That’s always the benefit of having a sequel, especially if you love the characters in the first one.

      Reply
  5. Nancy Radosevich

    I haven’t read More Than Grit, but what a wonderful idea to expand on a grandparent’s true story. One of my regrets is not writing down the stories my grandparents told – and not asking more questions. When I was middle-school age I read some books aimed at an adult audience, and now that I’m much much older, I also enjoy books written for older kids and YA. I don’t think I’ve ever read one including geese as characters, but here we go!

    Reply
    • Laura DeNooyer

      You’re not the only one with regrets for not asking grandparents more questions. Unfortunately, by the time youngsters are finally interested in learning more, the grandparents are often gone. I wish more young folks would show an interest earlier.

      Reply
    • Gretchen Carlson

      Nancy, sadly most of us didn’t ask enough our grandparents enough questions. There is so much I wish I knew about their lives. It sounds as though you might read More Than Grit, and if you do, my email is on the last page of the book. Feel free to write me. I thoroughly enjoy feedback from readers.

      Reply
  6. Laura D

    Thankfully, members of my mother’s and father’s families were interested in genealogy and took time to collect pictures and stories from their European home countries. This blog post and this novel inspire me to review them again and find some story ideas. I agree with one of the suggestions that if they don’t make it into a novel, they would make a great gift to pass along to the next generations.
    I’d like to read More Than Grit to discover how Sissy’s secret quest gets discovered and how the family finally gets electricity.

    Reply
    • Laura DeNooyer

      Yes, a collection of family stories would be a great gift! I hope you get the chance to read the book but also to explore some of your family genealogy and pictures.

      Reply
    • Gretchen Carlson

      I’m thrilled you’re considering ways to pass on family stories! For Christmas gifts, a friend used Shutterfly and created books of family recipes. She combined photos of recipe cards along with family pictures. It wasn’t fancy, but the books were delightful and meaningful gifts that will be treasured.

      Reply
      • Laura DeNooyer

        I made a recipe scrapbook for my daughter with family recipes and anecdotes related to food and meals over the years. Lots of good memories!

        Reply

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