ETWG First Chapter Book Awards: First Place Historical Fiction
July 14, 2016
Legacy of Hunger by Christy Nicholas is the First Place Winner in the Historical Fiction Category of Published Books in the East Texas Writers Guild First Chapter Book Awards.
Ireland is no promised land in 1846. It is wracked by a crippling potato blight, and people are dying. But Valentia McDowell doesn’t know that.
From her father’s prosperous farm in Ohio, young Valentia is haunted by tales of an abandoned family and a lost heirloom. She travels to her grandmother’s homeland with her brother, Conor, and two servants, to find both. Her delight in the exciting journey on one of the first steam ships to cross the Atlantic is shattered by a horrible tragedy.
What she encounters upon her arrival in Ireland is both more and less than she had hoped. Valentia finds both enemies and allies, amid horrors and delights, and a small bit of magic. She finds a richer heritage than she had ever imagined, but it comes with a price.
When she finally reaches her goal, a terrible price is demanded. She must pay or forfeit, and both decisions have strong consequences for her and her friends.
The Award-Winning First Chapter
Grandmamma’s brooch haunted Valentia’s dreams.
Even as she relaxed at afternoon tea with her mother, the lace doily reminded her of the delicate intertwining design of the brooch. That, in turn, reminded her of the task she had resolved her mind upon.
She was tired of always settling for the smallest bits of whatever was good in life. Perhaps it was time to take larger chunks.
Valentia’s corset pinched as she leaned towards the tea tray, reaching for a large cake on the upper tier.
“Control yourself, Valentia, or you’ll end up looking like one of those Pittsburgh steel workers.” Majesta McDowell was always aware of the proprieties. From the servant’s area, one of the maids sniggered.
With an unladylike grimace at her mother, Valentia reached for a much smaller piece when she heard shouts. This wasn’t the normal sound of a foreman yelling at his workers.
This was panic.
Several other patrons stood to look out the plate glass window of the café. Though she was tall for a woman, all Valentia could see were the backs of strangers, and an occasional glimpse of someone running in the street.
Then there came a sharp crack, followed by a muffled explosion. Clouds of dust billowed, and Valentia fought her rising dread.
People in the café jammed the door, trying to escape.
Valentia, her mother, and their maids, Sarah and Maggie, pushed out of the stifling building. Panicked voices screamed amid crashes, all from a street not far away, in the direction of the Monongahela House Hotel.
Which was where they had been staying.
Her mind raced in panic, her stomach was a solid knot. Trying to make sense of the chaos, she looked the maids and her mother. She was transfixed, staring at the looming threat.
A threatening column of black, oily smoke billowed from the riverside, a searing blanket of menace. The smell of burning wood filled the air.
A church bell tolled. She must quell her terror and take charge.
“Mother, this way!” Valentia tugged on her mother’s arm to break the spell she was under, and pulled her away from the hotel.
Majesta McDowell didn’t have long legs, nor did either of their maids. Still, they made decent time down the cobblestoned street. Faster runners jostled and shoved past the cluster of women in their panicked flight.
Fleeing from the smoke and commotion, the heel of Valentia’s fashionable boot hit a cobblestone at an odd angle as they ran away from the turmoil. She suffered a sharp pain in her ankle.
Valentia caromed into a young man who was unloading kegs in front of a pub. She tripped over the dolly, and tumbled to the ground. Her knees and hands were scraped, but she still got up and ran again. Belatedly, she made sure her flock was still following.
Where to go? Where were her father and brother supposed to be this morning? Down at the docks. The men would be able to get to safety by jumping in the water, if nothing else. The women were too far from the rivers to use that option.
Panting, they halted many blocks away. Shoving her fear down, Valentia glanced up. The plume of smoke was farther away, much less threatening. They could continue at a less frantic pace. People here hadn’t even noticed the fire yet. She had absolutely no idea of where they were.
“Mother, if we can find a river it might be the safest place to wait. How can we find father and Conor?”
Majesta was panting. Valentia realized with chagrin she had set a brutal pace.
“I don’t believe we can… unless we go back… to the hotel. Blast! They will… have to assume we’ve made it… to safety.”
They passed a post office and brought the postman outside, pointing to the widening column of smoke. The alarm was growing around them again, the panic spreading. The postman rushed back into the shop, coming out with a whistle. He blew it at set intervals, with what must be a pre-arranged signal.
A carriage came barreling down the narrow street, and Valentia yanked Maggie up against the shop.
Her mother’s maid, Sarah, wasn’t quick enough. A blow knocked her to the cobblestones. She lay in perfect stillness.
With a scream, her mother moved to Sarah’s side, and pulled her out of the busy street by the shoulders. Valentia grabbed the woman’s feet, and they moved her to the wide sidewalk. The postman knelt by them and checked her breathing while Majesta let out a few sobs.
“She’s breathing, mistress. I’ll go fetch a doctor. You just wait here, eh?”
Valentia nodded, trying to clean the worst of the dirty smudges from the maid’s face.
“Wake up, Sarah. Wake up!” Majesta shook her shoulders.
The noise of the crowd faded. Details of the carriage that hit Sarah intruded on Valentia’s memory. It was a fire carriage, painted red and gold with a long, dirty hose. The vehicle must have been rushing towards the fire.
When the doctor arrived, he gave her a cursory examination. He checked her pulse and her eyes, and stood.
“She’s not too bad. When she wakes up, keep her awake and warm, with plenty of tea. I must go, others need me.” He picked up his bag and strode away.
“Doctor, wait! Did you hear what happened?”
Pushing his spectacles up on his face, he nodded down the street, “Fire at the hotel. It should be under control by now.”
As he disappeared in the gloom, the yellow smoke reached farther through the byzantine streets of the city. The buildings were shrouded in a dim and sulky twilight.
I’ve got to find a place to stay. Valentia searched up and down the street and found a hotel nearby. With some difficulty, the three women carried Sarah into the run-down foyer and secured a room. They still didn’t know where Conor and her father had gotten to.
“Mother, you must stay with Sarah. Maggie and I will go search for the men. Truly, the doctor said not to leave her. She might have a concussion.”
“I don’t like the idea of you wandering about on your own.” There were streaks down her cheeks from forgotten tears. Valentia was certain she’d never witnessed her mother crying before. Majesta had known Sarah all her life; Sarah’s mother, Niamh, had been Grandmamma’s maid. Status argued against being close friends with servants, but her mother had obviously broken this rule.
“We’ll be fine, mother. It’s not like I’ve not been out alone before. I’m no longer a child.”
“Still… perhaps we should wait—“
“Wait for what? Father has no idea where we are, or how to find us. I must go find him.”
Her mother didn’t answer, looking back down at Sarah.