Sunset Valley, Montana 1926
An excerpt of Eileen Joyce Donovan's forthcoming second novel, published at 73, "A Lady Newspaperman's Dilemma." With an introduction from the author.
An introduction from author Eileen Joyce Donovan:
People ask me about my path to publishing later in life, whether it was something I always wanted to do, and the truth is, it hadn’t occurred to me to write books until I was older and no longer working, and had the time to be creative. I published my first book at around 69, after I retired from a varied career in which I worked as an advertising account executive, taught college classes, owned two pubs, and more. On Tuesday, September 6th, at 73, I’ll publish my second book, A Lady Newspaperman’s Dilemma, an excerpt of which you’ll find below.
Publishing books is challenging. It involves lots of submissions and rejections, some requests followed by rejections, until finally someone decides to take a chance and offers you a contract. The contract for A Lady Newspaperman’s Dilemma was the grand prize in a competition held by When Words Count. That was a lucky break for me. It meant I didn't spend a year going through the submit/reject cycle. However, I'm still without an agent, so any hopes of publishing with one of the Big Five publishers (probably soon the Big Four if you’ve been following the Department of Justice’s trial around the proposed Penguin Random House/Simon and Schuster merger) soon, is likely only a dream.
My books aren’t autobiographical. I’ve gotten my ideas for them from things I’ve read or seen.
My award winning debut novel, Promises, started with an idea that burrowed into my brain and wouldn't let go after I’d watched a documentary on PBS about children being shipped from England to the British colonies to rid the streets of London of poor indigent, sometimes orphaned, children. The abuse those children suffered was abominable, and most of the emigration was sponsored by religious groups. During WWII the British government sponsored a similar plan to keep the children safe from the German Blitz. Sometimes it seemed they would have been safer staying home than suffering in strange lands overseas.
The new book, A Lady Newspaperman’s Dilemma, is based on an event that took place in Miles City, Montana, in 1940. I was inspired by a newspaper clipping sent by a friend about how Miles City was the only US city ever bombed by the US Army. That intrigued me and sent me down a rabbit hole I would not emerge from for a year. Only when I had researched every possible nuance of that event did I feel I could begin to tell the story.
The town was flooding out due to an ice jamb on the Yellowstone River, an event I describe in the book. However, I decided to set the novel in 1926 to separate it from the glut of WWII novels, and to make the protagonist Alex's struggle to be accepted as a woman in the newspaper business more believable. In the 1940s there were probably a number of women reporters, since so many men had been sent to war. That would not have been the case in 1926, when women were not offered entry in a lot of professions, journalism being one of them. Since I changed the time period, I also felt I had to fictionalize the name of the town. Thus “Sunset Valley, Montana” was invented.
I have no experience as a reporter myself. Nor, obviously, did I live in the 1920s. So I had to do lots and lots of research.
In March of 2023, my third book, The Campbell Sisters, will be released by DX Varos Publishing. It's a historical romance set in New York City in the 1950s.
Below is an excerpt from the first chapter of A Lady Newspaperman’s Dilemma. I hope you enjoy it! – Eileen Joyce Donovan
Sunset Valley, Montana 1926
As he opened the door, the bus driver called out, “Sunset Valley. There’ll be an hour layover here, so take care of your personal needs and get something to eat. We’ll go straight on to Billings from here. No stops.”
I checked the seams on my stockings, adjusted my cloche hat, and stepped out onto the wooden sidewalk. The Sunset Hotel was directly in front of me. A giant boot spur jutted out from its marquee. Three different saloons took up most of the rest of the block. Although now they were all shuttered and dark, thanks to the prohibition amendment passed six years ago. As I looked around, I realized Sunset Valley was a lot bigger than I’d imagined. I’d thought it would be a small town where I could get my feet wet. But it was a real city.
What have I done? This may be the worst decision I’ve ever made.
“Looks like you plan on staying here for a while,” the bus driver said, eyeing my valise.
“Yep. I start my job as a reporter for the local paper tomorrow.” I held my purse in front of me like a shield. Ever since I was a little girl, I had wanted to be a journalist. My home town weekly paper fascinated me, but I knew there were bigger fish to fry, so I spent the past four years in college training for this opportunity. I hoped this would be a stepping stone that would launch me into a career with a major metropolitan newspaper.
The 65-mile bus ride from home left me stiff and achy. No matter what the ads said, this bus was not a luxurious way to travel. But it was about the only way I could get here. I certainly didn’t have the money to buy a car.
Am I really ready for this? Maybe I should just take the next bus back home.
“You’ll do fine, honey,” the bus driver said, winking. “Don’t you let these cowboys scare you. They just like to sound tough. They’re all pussycats under their ten-gallon hats.”
I retrieved my valise from the street and walked to the hotel, head held high, ready to conquer anyone or anything that tried to prevent my career from blossoming. But my bravado belied the rollercoaster ride my stomach was on.
Maybe Mom was right. I’ll probably never make it here. I’ll fall flat on my face and have to go back home disgraced. Then I’ll have to listen to her endless tales of people trying to reach above their station in life and where it got them.
When I decided to accept the job offer and move here, I had faced a barrage of questions from everyone back home. It seemed no one could understand why I would want to leave “our nice little town” or work as a reporter. Everyone thought I should be content to get married and produce grandchildren for my parents to spoil. Mutterings about what a waste of time and money it was for my parents to have sent me to college were rampant. And now that I was here, I began to have my own doubts.
Stop it, Alex. Now’s the time to prove all of them wrong, Mom included.
I knew once I was actually working at the paper everything would work out. I just had to get through tonight. I looked up at the Sunset Hotel, which would be my home for now, and the nondescript building told me this was a no-nonsense town. Windows for the Met Cafe, the Golden Spur Bar, its shades drawn and a barbershop interrupted the sterile, white stucco exterior. The second story accents of burgundy red bricks added some interest, but not much.
I walked into the hotel lobby which had armchairs scattered about, doilies covering the threadbare arms and head rests. The tin ceiling and hanging lights looked like they had been there since the 1800’s. Carpets were so worn the pattern had disappeared into the beige canvas backing. And there was a pervasive musty smell, like an attic room that hadn’t been aired out in years. At one time, the hotel must have been elegant. Now it was just old, faded, and worn-out. An elderly clerk stood behind the battered wooden check-in desk at the back of the lobby. On the left was an entrance to the Met Cafe.
Great, a convenient place to get breakfast, and maybe even dinner.
On the right, the lobby door to the Golden Spur was closed with a padlock through the handles. A quick glance into the cafe showed it was crowded. I licked my lips already tasting an ice-cold lemonade. I checked in, and asked the clerk if he would watch my suitcase. I knew if I went up to my room and kicked my high heels off, I’d never get them back on. And I really wanted that lemonade.
Ah well, the price we women pay to look our best.
“Where you headed, miss?”
“Thought I’d have a lemonade after that long bus ride. I’m awfully thirsty.”
He looked at my bright red suit and tan cloche, and shook his head. “City girl, are you? And traveling alone? Don’t know what the world’s coming to. Why in my day—”
“I’m definitely not a city girl. My hometown is even smaller than Sunset Valley. And I think you should dress your best when you travel. You never know what interesting people you might meet, especially when you’re on your own.”
“Maybe so, but you be careful in that cafe. Don’t pay any attention to those cowboys in there. They don’t have anything to occupy their time, what with it being mud season and all, so they can get a little antsy. And they don’t always like strangers.”
“I’ll keep my head down.”
“You do that.”
While his concern was appreciated, I wasn’t worried. I had grown up in my dad’s saloon and had probably seen more brawls before I was twelve than the clerk had in his whole life.
When I entered, everyone stopped talking. The smell of burnt coffee assaulted me, and the familiar look of the place brought tears to my eyes. It was so much like Mae’s Café on Main Street that loneliness and a homesick feeling overwhelmed me. Peering through the cigarette haze, I spotted an empty stool at the far end of a counter that stretched the entire length of the room. I headed for it like it was an oasis in the desert. I seated myself, and signaled for the man behind the counter.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
“A cold lemonade, please.”
“Why don’t you go sit at a table and I’ll bring it over to you?”
“I’d rather have it right here.”
“Well… the thing is… ladies don’t usually sit at the counter.”
“Then there’s no problem. I’m not a lady, I’m a newspaperman.” A little shiver went down my spine.
This is it. I’ll either get thrown out with my tail between my legs or not.
He stared at me for a minute and then laughed. “Well then, I guess you’re fine.” He poured my drink and landed it in front of me. “Where you from?”
“Jericho Flats.” He looked at me with a blank face. “It’s a little north east of here.”
“Oh. No wonder it didn’t sound familiar.”
I took a long swig of the lemonade. It was ice cold and just what I wanted.
“Just passing through?” he asked, wiping down the area around my glass.
“Nope. I’m going to be a reporter for the Sunset Valley Daily Star.”
“You don’t say. Guess we’ll be seeing a lot of you around here.”
“Hey, boys,” he called to the men seated at the bar. “This gal’s going to work for the paper.” Turning to me, he asked, “What’d you say your name was?”
“I didn’t, but it’s Alex. Alex Lawson.”
“Name’s Alex Lawson, boys. Make her feel welcome.”
There was lots of grumbling and growling about a woman reporter. A few ranchers shook their heads, finished their coffees, and left, but my hosts had decided my fate and that was that. Obviously, his word stood as law in this room. He was a big guy and in good shape, so I was sure no one challenged his decisions.
I raised my near empty glass to them. “Gentlemen.”
Gee, guess I was really thirsty.
“You’re welcome here anytime, Alex. I’m Pete. I own this place.”
We shook hands and I knew I had made my first friend—and contact—in Sunset Valley. Pete wiped down the counter again and looked at me.
“You know, for a young lady, you’re real comfortable sitting here on a stool. How’s that happen?”
“Back home, my dad owned the only saloon in town and I practically grew up there.”
“That explains it then. Ready for another?” he asked and pointed to my empty glass.
While I drank my lemonade, I took a full inventory of the room. It had the same tin ceiling as the hotel. The wooden counter was scarred from years of use; the edge worn down to raw wood from hundreds of belt buckles rubbing against it. My fingers traced the scratches, nicks, notches, and initials carved there and I wondered what ancient stories they held. Ceiling lights bounced off the brass cash register, which sat in the middle of a back shelf stocked with enough sweets and deserts to provide a dentist with a lifetime of filling cavities. Mottled mirrors behind the colorful syrup bottles swallowed the light and distorted my reflection. The black and white tile floor was worn, but clean. Booths lined the opposite wall, stuffed heads of every beast that roamed Montana, or thereabouts, mounted over them: buffalo, moose, deer, elk, and even some prize bulls. Just like home. Then I noticed the men passing a flask under the counter and surreptitiously tipping it into their coffee cups. Now I knew why Pete had suggested I sit at a table. These days you couldn’t be too careful where strangers were concerned.
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Thanks for sharing your work and your story, Eileen! There are few things in life more motivating to me than hearing people talk about emerging into their creativity later in life. I'll make sure my library has ordered a copy of this latest book!
Thoroughly interested in this story--just preordered my copy. Thanks for the recommendation!