Today at My Place - Eleanor Sullivan

As proper winter seems to elude us, mild rainy or chilly sunny days without any hint of snow (boo!), we are happily continuing with our successful My Place series. Today I'm delighted to welcome award-winning author Eleanor Sullivan to My Place. She tells us about a fascinating historic settlement in Ohio, founded by one of her ancestors. I'm intrigued!

Without further ado, let's hear it from Eleanor:

I never knew my distant grandfather. He died in 1853. But I grew up hearing family tales about  how he led a beleaguered band of religious dissenters safely out of Germany to establish a village in the Ohio wilderness. So, after writing several award-winning books for nurses and a series of three contemporary mysteries featuring a nurse, I turned my attention to uncovering the beliefs and practices of this unusual group of believers. 

Cover Her Body, A Singular Village Mystery is the first book in a series of fictitious mysteries that I’ve set amidst the lives of these unique people. The stories feature a midwife and her cabinet-maker husband. The second book in the series, Graven Images, will be released in 2013.

I am a member of Mystery Writers of America and a member and former national board member of Sisters in Crime and various online groups. In addition, I host a weekly blog to explore interesting facts I’ve learned about the 19th century in America.

My Place:
Welcome to historic Zoar, Ohio, established in 1817 and named Zoar for the place where Lot had found sanctuary much as these settlers had in America. Their leader, Joseph Bimeler, was my great, great, great, great grandfather. His cabin still stands today. 

Bimeler Cabin
Historic Zoar remains today much as it did in the 1800s. Restored homes and buildings stand open, filled with antiques from the early days to depict the lives and work of the settlers as it was then. Reenacters demonstrate skills, such as bread baking, tin work, blacksmithing, weaving, and gardening as well as giving tours of the town. 

Anchoring the town today, as it did in yesteryear, is the Zoar Garden. A giant Norway spruce centers the acre plot, representing Christ, surrounded by twelve junipers, His disciples. Twelve paths led to the center, reminders to stay on the path of righteousness; intersecting cross paths represent temptations that await if one strays off the correct path. 

But all was not perfect in Zoar, this so-called Garden of Eden. According to historic records, Bimeler ruled with a iron hand, even keeping the title to all the town’s property in his own name until he was on his deathbed. Life meets fiction when he becomes a realistic adversary for my midwife protagonist.


In a strict, religious society in 1830s rural Ohio, a 16-year-old girl is murdered because she’s pregnant, but the only person who suspects it wasn’t an accident is Adelaide, a young, married midwife, who worries that the remedy she gave the girl for a “woman’s ailment” caused her death. Adelaide’s husband, Benjamin, fearful that they’ll be banned from the prosperous community, forbids her from questioning the girl’s death. But a mistake she made years ago cost the life of a mother and her unborn babe, and Adelaide vowed to never let another mother die.

Pressure mounts when Adelaide is accused of harming the girl, but the allegation only fuels her determination to find the killer, even though she begins to suspect that her husband might be involved in the girl’s death. And the more she investigates, not only does she start to question her own faith and beliefs, but she finds herself attracted to an unlikely man in the community, a man who has vowed to remain celibate. Then her questions alert the outside authorities and now this isolated community is invaded by the very society they had shunned.


03 May 1833, Zoar, Ohio

  Ropes creaked as Adelaide slid off the bed and waited, clutching herself in the cold.  In the cradle next to the bed, her infant puckered her lips and let out a sigh before sinking back into sleep.  Benjamin’s side of the bed remained empty.  Had he even returned during the night?  
  Adelaide grabbed her dress from the hook on the wall, pulled it over her head, and moved on stocking feet through the cabin, her hem whispering across the wood plank floor.  With a glance up the stairs where her sister slept, she bent to button her shoes, then snatched her shawl off a peg and slipped outside.  
  The air hung heavy with moisture from last night’s storm.  Apple blossoms littered the ground by the door, their scent cloying.  Nothing stirred.  Good.  If she hurried she might have just enough time to herself before the workday began.  
  A fleeting sensation of guilt washed over her.  No good Separatist would sneak out for an unsanctioned outing.
  With a shrug, she looped her shawl across her chest, grasped her skirts, and plunged down the hill, her feet moving silently over the rough cinders.  She hurried past Benjamin’s cabinet shop and the blacksmith shop next to it, around the springhouse and the dairy, continuing on the path into the woods.  She didn’t need the moonlight nor a lantern to guide her way.  The sound of rushing water hidden below the hill drew her to a favored spot.  
  She skidded to a stop.
  The willow tree—her tree—lay sprawled in the water, its branches flailing about in the raging water. She sank onto a boulder to the side, and shut her eyes against the image.  No longer would the tree shield her from the prying eyes of her community.  Only naked spikes of its stump remained.     
  A cock crowed in the distance.  
  The river roared downstream and splattered foam on the boulder.  Adelaide tucked her skirt around her ankles, hugged her knees to her chest, and rocked back and forth.  The quarrel she’d had with Benjamin the night before lingered in her mouth like the taste of an unripe persimmon.  
  Her eyes wandered over the surface of the water, pausing on a white object bobbing in the darkness.  Blue fabric trailed in the current.  Her mind worked to make sense of the sight until horror plunged through her, tightening her throat.  
  It was a hand.  A girl’s hand.
  A wave splashed over the body and twisted it loose to bob beneath the water and spring up again.  Only a strand of tangled hair tethered to a branch kept her from plummeting downstream.  If she left to get someone, the girl might be gone.  She couldn’t let the river take her.  
  Adelaide hiked up her skirts and plunged into the water, the cold sucking her breath.  She struggled for a few steps, but her shoes filled with water, and she tumbled forward.  The panic she’d felt all those years ago when the boys had tossed her into the river came back with a rush.  She flailed about, gulping dirt-choked water, her arms splashing uselessly.  
  At last her feet touched bottom.  She pushed against it, sprang to the surface, and grabbed onto the body, its buoyancy keeping them both afloat.  She spit out muddy water and jerked the girl’s hair loose from its tangle.  Her churning legs steered them forward until the girl’s head bumped into the bank.
  She slipped off the corpse and stood in the waist-high water, shivering as a gust of wind rose from the river.  Her sodden clothing clung to her small frame, the wet-wool smell of her shawl tangled around her neck choking her.  Adelaide bent down and turned the body toward her.  
  Johanna. She stared at the open eyes of her friends’ beloved daughter as water washed over the girl’s face.  Her knees buckled as a vision of her own precious baby rose in her mind.  She clutched Johanna to her breast and rocked back and forth, the chill forgotten.  Whatever would Helga do when she learned of another daughter’s death?
  The wind picked up, and a wave splattered them.  Joanna’s lifeless arms flapped about, slapping her with icy hands.  She’s so cold, poor child.  I have to get her out.  She groaned as she lifted the water-logged body farther up onto the bank.  A whoosh of air escaped from Johanna’s lips.  
  Air?  No water?  
  She tugged again.  Only a dribble escaped the girl’s lips.  Puzzled, she rolled Johanna over gently.  The skin on the girl’s colorless face seemed as if it had been molded out of paraffin.  Adelaide reached over and closed her eyes.  
  A voice from above cut through her.  “Was machst Du?”

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  1. Welcome to My Place, Eleanor. I'm utterly intrigued by this story. It goes straight on my tbr list! Are there any documents in your family's possession, or where do you do your research about this group?

    Fabulous post. :-)

  2. I have copies of the LDS records for the family back to the 1540s in Germany plus an Ohio State dissertation on the history of the Separatists, including their life in Germany and the long-time historian of Zoar vets all my work. I'm very fortunate to have these sources. Still historical fiction is much more difficult than contemporary. Enjoy the series!

  3. That's really fascinating. You have a gold mine of details there. I bet you love your research. I agree with you that historical fiction is trickier - you have to really watch what you write, and how you write it.


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