ellen mcbee

She's always up to something…

Traveling With Difficulty

Those of you who’ve known me for a while know that I’ve sometimes had a difficult relationship with my mom.

To be fair: she sometimes had a difficult relationship with me.

It doesn’t really matter why. But the gist of it is that when I was young, I didn’t understand that relationships are something you work at. Even the ones with your family. I was expecting to be understood and liked and given unconditional support when I was making choices that my mom didn’t understand.

For her part: my mom can be uncompromising. She likes to rewrite my life and tell me all about what I did and what it meant when she doesn’t actually know those things. She does not understand the concept that some things are none of her business, or that she shouldn’t tell everyone in the world every single thing that she knows. She just doesn’t understand the concept of TMI.

And does she get on my nerves? You bet. Like the time she walked up to some innocent bystanders at the Holocaust Memorial in Portland and told them that she was shocked, SHOCKED, that there was no mention of Denmark’s rescuing of their Jews.

(That would be because it’s a memorial. For the people who died. Not for the people who didn’t die.)

Do I get on her nerves? I must. I talk fast and change directions rapidly. I complain about things that I’m not willing to do anything about. And I’m sometimes consciously, emphatically different just for the sake of being different.

But there are a couple of things my mom and I get right.

Mom and I never take each other for granted. I suppose that’s the gift of grace you get with a difficult relationship–and the realization you come to when you’ve seen family members go years without talking to each other rather than apologize or accept the idea that stuff isn’t as important as people. I might snap at Mom because she talks to me before I’ve been awake for half an hour. She might get annoyed at me because I have once again forgotten to bring any money when we’ve gone somewhere.

(I’m kind of noted for that, these days. All those years of being the lady who remembered the diapers, change of clothes, snacks, drinks, and the Big Bag of Good Things To Do. I couldn’t be responsible for everything.)

But after we snap at each other, after we disagree or she thinks I’m lecturing her (I am) and I think she’s rewriting history (she is), we apologize. We make it up to each other. Sometimes we explain ourselves. And after that, we’re friendly again.

She tells me that she never imagined that I would one day be the kid she got along with the best. And I overlook the implied insult and take it in the spirit she means it in.

In a few months, I’m taking her on a trip she’s wanted to go on her entire life. She wants to see the place in Norway that her grandmother was from. And she wants to see Scotland because, well, why not?

I’m not just taking her because she wants to go. I want to go too. I always thought I’d travel more than I have in my life, and of course, I still can. But I’m not the adventurer I was when I was young. I’ve never been to Europe without my husband. I haven’t visited South America. Or Hawaii.

And mom? Well, not getting any younger or healthier. She has a couple of long-term conditions and she’s survived cancer. Twice.

And I make no predictions about this, but someday one of us is going to have to learn to live without the other. One day one of us will reach for the phone for one of those ten minute conversations we have about nothing and the other won’t be there. But you know what we will have?


Whatever else I bring back from this trip, food or clothes or a million pictures of sunset over Dafjord, the most important thing will be memories. Like of me learning to drive on the left and my mom yelling, “Keep to the left! Keep to the left!” Or of us standing and looking down at the ocean. Or meals, or great places to drink beer, or just hanging out and watching it rain.

What? I hear they do that a lot in Scotland.

I hope that we’ll have a great time. I hope that every day of the trip is an adventure, and that we have nice weather and don’t hit any livestock or have to visit a chemist. But if we do? My mom will be there with me to help me learn the ropes. Just like she was when I had kids, or when I was graduating from college, or when I was learning to drive standard. She might not know any more than I will, but she’ll be supportive when I’m figuring it out.

And maybe that’s all you need.

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Norwegian Immigrants

Recently, the Occupier of the White House has been quoted as saying…well, that other countries aren’t as nice as Norway. He thinks we should get some clean, polite white people who speak English to immigrate instead of those pesky, poor, black and brown people we seem to attract.

I know! Let’s have a story!

It’s 1902, and 20 year old Klara Jermina Elsina Sorensen is emigrating, to Sioux Rapids, Iowa. She will travel with her 19 year old brother Arthur and her 17 year old sister Hilda.

The ticket for all three cost $168. Where did it come from?

Klara’s father was Elias Sorensen. And his sister Petrika had already emigrated to America with her husband. They had four kids and were doing well, so they invited others in the family to join them. Petrika was 15 years older than Elias and had left for America when he was still quite young, but she and her husband and other family members gathered money to bring Elias’ family to Iowa.

Chain migration.

Once the tickets arrived, they sailed from Tromso to Trondheim. Trondheim was the largest city they had visited; they were met by agents for the shipping company. Their baptismal certificates would be checked before they signed the emigrant book at the police station. Arthur, who was too young for military service, presented a document from the local commissioner.

From Trondheim it was four days to Hull, in England, where they waited in a warehouse until the next train arrived to take them to Liverpool. The food would have been plain, but ample. I can’t tell if they were allowed to leave the warehouse. The local authorities in Hull were eager to move them on as fast as possible.

In Liverpool, they might have waited several more days to board the ship for Philadelphia. During their wait, they would stay in boarding houses (paid for by the shipping company) and answer questions for going to America. Questions like, “Are you a polygamist?”

Subtle, huh?

At the time, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Mormons, were controversial. In particular, their embrace of the practice of polygamy, which had kept Utah from becoming a state for many years. I’ll include a link below, but to get to the point, the church did not disavow polygamy until 1904.

Meanwhile, there had been few immigrants from Scandinavia until the mid-nineteenth century. When the first Mormon missionaries went into the world, they made large numbers of converts in Scandinavia. These folks wanted to go to Salt Lake City. It wasn’t really a religious test, except that it was. Plural marriage was why the U.S. Government and much of nineteenth century America didn’t care for Mormonism; they thought it was destroying the social fabric, ruining family values, inviting anarchy. Think gay marriage, only with more hoopskirts.

They swore they were not polygamists. They were Lutherans. They didn’t care much about religion, because in Scandinavia as in most of the world by then free practice of religion was widespread. Especially if you belonged to the dominant religion. So, they got on the ship and sailed third class to Philadelphia.

This would have been in slightly better conditions than the old “steerage” class for earlier immigrants. It involved communal living space, limited sanitary facilities, and shelves to sleep on. And seasickness. Lots and lots of seasickness. And when they arrived, they were in Philadelphia. They didn’t see the Statue of Liberty.

They saw something even better. Though, not from the ship.

Independence Hall. The place where America was born, one sweltering summer in 1776. And then another one in 1787.

I’ve written about this before. Independence Hall is practically a religious experience for me. I’m no doubt projecting this onto my great-grandmother; they were probably just looking for a bath by the time they got to Philadelphia. They were met by cousins, older men they’d never met before. And a few days later, after a medical exam, they got on another train to Sioux Rapids, Iowa.

Now, why would a person go through all that? We think of the immigrant experience as people looking for freedom: of speech, of assembly, of carrying loaded weapons. I’m sure all that sounded good, but they had a much more immediate reason.

The place they were from was a tiny village called Dafjord, Norway. A place now mostly known for gorgeous pictures of the Northern Lights. Reindeer. Re-enactors of traditional Sami culture. In other words, tourism. Even today it’s a pain in the neck to get there. By all accounts, they were a farming family. They might have had sheep or goats as well as growing food. But it’s about 250 miles above the Arctic Circle, where the growing season was short. And in a place without industry other than fishing, it’s not hard to understand that what they were really looking for was economic opportunity.

I have been told there’s a letter from their father, which arrived in Iowa shortly after they did. I haven’t seen it and anyway it’s in Norwegian. He detailed the hardships of the rest of the family; that the crops had failed and it was coming on cold weather. In April 1903, at the age of 54, he died.

The three siblings went to work at once. They paid back the $168 to their cousins, and then they started saving to bring their mother and the remaining siblings to America.

Things went along fine until 1917, which is when America entered World War I. Back in Norway, this might not have had much impact on them. But in their new country? Nativism had one of its periodic surges. And this time, it was directed at the political beliefs of recent immigrants. Many people thought that Scandinavians were Socialists.

Klara’s marriage had already been planned by her mother, who had brought a man from the old country to marry her. Instead, she married a native-born citizen. The children weren’t taught to speak Norwegian, because they had to assimilate. All that many of them knew about life in Norway was that Mama couldn’t pronounce the letter J.

They were poor. They came to America through the help of relatives. They were regarded with suspicion for religious and political beliefs, based solely on where they were from. But within a few generations, they looked just like everybody else.

Not because they were deserving. Because they were white.

The meaning of the immigrant experience isn’t, “I got mine, too bad for you.” It’s, “My family came for something better. And there’s a place at our table for you, too.” In a country of immigrants, we have to do better; we have to be the people our grandparents dreamed we would be. Healthy, strong, and…

Welcoming to the stranger.

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Why We Separate Church and State

Source: Why We Separate Church and State

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Talentless Hack



See, I can do the writing part. It’s the editing part.

Which is why I feel like a talentless hack today.

I knew that the narrative line fell apart in the third act. But I didn’t realize that this started toward the end of the second act. In specific, my scenes are getting very short and…well, it reads like a first draft. When I’m probably on Draft #3,427.

I wish I wasn’t still getting the “outline” right.

Ah, well. I just need to keep pushing on. That’s what people do, right? Or at least the people who are wrestling a first draft and making it something else.

I still would just like to be finished with This. Damn. Project.


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Hashtag Happy!

I went to a presentation a few weeks ago by the talented and knowledgeable Susan Spann, who writes mysteries in which her lead detective is a sixteenth-century ninja. And you can read all about her here: http://www.susanspann.com/

Anyway, she was presenting about social media. And I know, I’m not very active here sometimes; some days there’s just too much to do and not enough space. But I’ve decided to start using more hashtags in my social media postings.

I’ve only done one so far, on my writer’s page on Facebook. And I have learned that people like pictures! And they like hashtags!

So I’ve been trying to choose my three “areas” for things I post about. Two were easy; writing life, interesting WWII stories with an emphasis on women’s stories especially if they involve combat, and…


You know, when people post some passive-aggressive meme that is aimed at some particular Facebook Frenemy but don’t actually have the balls to take that person on directly?

I thought it would be fun to collect them and use them to entertain people. To be content that I provide.

So, watch this space! In blogging I suppose you just use tags. But look out for #writinglife #vaguebook and #scouts in the rest of my accounts!

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My Year In Review

I debated whether to put this up, but the blog is about the writing life. I had a bunch of steps forward. And some back, it’s true.

High points:

  1. Drafted the Polish Boy Scouts project.
  2. Got 23 pages of it ready for a critique group.
  3. Beta readers. I love them!
  4. Big edits on What You Stand For. And yet another new opening. But I’m overall pleased with the progress and I think I’ll be done after this batch of Beta reads.
  5. Draft and outline of What You Settle For.


Low points:

  1. I wanted to have What You Reach for drafted, and I don’t.
  2. I’m not reading enough. Not enough research, not enough fiction, not enough “help me I don’t know how to write a book” books.
  3. One definition of stalking includes using the internet to get information about someone you used to have a relationship with, but don’t any longer. So, awesome. I have a stalker. But it’s my name and my life and I’m sorry this person didn’t think of that when it mattered. I’m not going to run away, change my online name and all the things I’ve worked hard on, because I am not the coward.
  4. I’m not blogging enough either.


So, resolutions? I don’t really have any. Other than being sick for the past few days, I’ve been working and doing all the stuff I’m supposed to do. I rearranged my kitchen again and have found a use for the narrow cabinets I got.

Here’s hoping for a fabulous year for all of us!

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Here’s to All the Beta Readers!

I love Beta readers. Love, love, love them.

I’ve scrambled to get the book posted today. Now it’s up and ready to be read, critiqued, loved, hated. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that three people have agreed to read it and give me their honest opinions and feedback on what’s working, what doesn’t, and how the whole thing fits together.

So, I’m happy!

And I get to read their books too! It’s exciting to help people this way!

I’ve considered hiring myself out as a developmental editor. So many of the ideas I have for books I critique are for things that could happen or how to fit it into a plot structure.

Hope everyone is having a great week! It’s the longest night of the year and I feel obligated to sit up all night and celebrate it. But then, I was always a night person.

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Saving to Read

It’s been a stressful month! It’s still a challenge, handling all the young people and animals and all the fun, exciting activities!

I’m considering exploring mental illness in my next book. Those of you who know me in person know that I’ve had to deal with narcissists in my life. I’m thinking about adding this as a theme, especially as undiagnosed. And are addicts generally narcissists? It certainly seems to be true that if there’s an addict in a house, the entire family’s life revolves around the addiction.

Here are a few articles I’m hoping to get around to reading.






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Still pushing on the draft…

Well, it’s going OK. Like many people I got behind on my word count due to the election and the stress that brought. And it brought up a lot of questions.

It’s a good thing I’m only in the first draft. I think putting parallels between then and now in the book would be overwhelming.

Like many of us, I’m taking comfort in how close the election really was. And I’ve been thinking about the Electoral College, as many of us have. It had two purposes: 1) to make sure the slave states’ interests were considered in choosing a president and 2) to make sure that an unqualified person wasn’t elected. We don’t have slaves in America anymore, and we’ve elected an unqualified person that the Electors are going to vote into office. So why do we have it if it doesn’t serve any purpose?

But I digress.

Friends’ posts the past several days have brought up some questions I’m not sure I know the answers to. So I’m going to put them here for the moment so that I can remember that I want to know what they are.

  1. What is fascism? How does it differ from other totalitarian movements? Does it have to be totalitarian?
  2. What is a state? Do nations have to have borders? What makes people part of one country and not another?
  3. Is nonlinear time going to work for this story? Everyone knows how World War II ends, but if I have fictional characters don’t I have to tell it in sequence?

All right; I’m about a thousand words behind. The current goal is to write a little extra every day, so I’m hoping to get caught up by the weekend. I’m not having any trouble thinking of things to write (I have a list of 11 main events on my bulletin board) and each girl seems to have a distinct voice. I’ve had a couple of historical characters stop by and it doesn’t feel shoe-horned to me. I will say that it feels a bit weird to say things like “the Scouts’ guns were kept in the basement” and things like that. I might just start referring to them as the Harcerki instead.

Okay, everybody…back to work!

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As I Go To Bed on Election Night

I’m okay.

I’m disappointed, but I’m okay.

It looks like Heydrich is going to have all the votes he needs, and the Congress. The Supreme Court is next. So the tea partiers will finally have that mandate they’ve been pretending to have all along. Also, it will scare the crap out of them.

(For those who don’t know: my theory is that Heydrich is the linchpin in Amazon’s excellent series, The Man in the High Castle. In real life Heydrich was killed in 1943; in the series, he’s alive in 1962. So I think his survival is where the timeline split. And the unreality of this election is such that I feel like our timeline split today).

So, here are my predictions for the next four years:

  1. Heydrich will lose all interest now that he’s won. Mike Pence will be the real president.
  2. Abortion rights will continue to be chipped away, but not gotten rid of entirely. Republican congressmen’s daughters get pregnant, too.
  3. Obamacare is over. But the way it will go–pre-existing conditions won’t be covered; Heydrich really will introduce death panels; gynecologists will be terrified to practice–will piss off a nation.
  4. It will become embarrassingly clear that the administration has no plans and the clothes have no emperor.
  5. There will be some huge scandal, like clemency-for-cash. America will shrug.
  6. I still think there will be major upheavals in both political parties.
  7. I think the alt-left will be founded, from sheer frustration that the truth didn’t set us free. It didn’t do anything except make people even less likely to use logic and reason. We’ll start posting lies that we KNOW are lies, because America will get stupider by the minute. I’m ashamed that Heydrich will sit in the same chair that Ronald Reagan sat it. And I hated Ronald Reagan.
  8. I will still be the same person. I won’t hate people because they’re gay, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, African-American, trans, etc. I will still be writing this book, but with more impetus than ever. Because the deeper I go, the more I can see that Heydrich is the most dangerous of them all.

I’ll be watching you, Heydrich. I will never call you leader of our country. When you come for my neighbors, I’ll speak up right away. And you can start your dumb Twitter war with me any time you like. And when you turn my country over to Putin, I’ll remember that I knew who you were.

Also, I want to point out that it being Heydrich’s turn fits the pattern of American presidential politics. We get eight years, they get eight years. Poor people? Too bad you let your desperation change who you are. Heydrich isn’t going to help you. He’s going to help himself, at your expense. Your kids are still going to get crappy educations and you still aren’t getting your jobs back. So the joke’s on you. Except that it isn’t funny.

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