The historical fiction novel has its roots in the legend of the murder of Gustavus | News, Sports, Jobs
KINSMAN — Rebecca Nieminen’s debut novel, “The Dance of the White Stag,” spanned two decades or nearly two centuries, depending on how you look at it.
Nieminen, of Kinsman, said the idea for her historical fiction novel came about when she was working on a haunted Halloween series as a young reporter at the Vindicator in Youngstown. She came across the story of 16-year-old Frances Maria Buell de Gustavus, who in 1832 was murdered by her stepfather after rejecting his sexual advances.
“The story details read like an episode of a true crime show,” Nieminen said.
Legend has it that Frances Maria Buell, who passed by Maria, ran away from home and took refuge with a neighbour. Her stepfather said if she came home to collect her things he would leave her alone – but when she returned he was waiting in the front yard with a butcher knife. The stabbings took place in broad daylight in front of witnesses, Nieminen said.
The story struck Nieminen, who had been a history buff since she was a teenager herself and already knew information about northeast Ohio at that time.
“It really intrigued me, not just as a ghost story, but more just feeling a lot of empathy for the girl and what she had to go through,” Nieminen said.
Nieminen emphasized that her novel is not a retelling of historical history, although there are elements she wanted to retain.
She began with the question, “What would it have been like in 1832, to be 16 and your stepfather trying to mug you?” I mean, in modern society, we have problems talking about sexual abuse and there’s a whole cloud of silence.
One hundred and ninety years ago, when the subject was even more taboo, it must have been “suffocating and unbearable” for a young girl, she says.
From this question, Nieminen took his fictional protagonist, 16-year-old Limery Clark, in a different direction from the real Frances Maria Buell.
“19-year-old Aaron Harper is instantly smitten the first time he meets 16-year-old Limery Clark,” reads the synopsis for “The Dance of the White Stag.” “But Aaron, who comes from a beautiful and honest family, does not understand the shameful weight of Limery’s difficult upbringing or the terrible urgency of his current situation. She became the object of her stepfather’s sexual desires.
Nieminen said that in creating the story, which is set in the 1820s, she wanted to explore women’s issues of the time. She examines the differences between healthy and unhealthy marriages, strong and weak characters, and how religion can be used for good or ill.
She said some of the women’s issues highlighted in “The Dance of the White Stag” still resonate today.
“I think there’s definitely an overlap with today’s issues and the ways things have gotten better and the ways things still need to get better,” Nieminen said.
RESEARCH AND REWRITE
Transforming “The Dance of the White Stag” from idea to manuscript was an undertaking that took a lot of research and about two decades.
A 2013 version of the manuscript was among the top 10 contenders for the Eludia Prize, an award given by the nonprofit Poets & Writers which publishes a first fiction book by a winning woman over 40.
Although Nieminen didn’t end up winning, she said she “keeps good company” among the other women on the list.
When Nieminen’s son, Ethan Sloan, turned 17 in June, his birthday request was that Nieminen self-publish “The Dance of the White Deer.”
“I guess I kind of had it in my head that if you don’t go the traditional route and you don’t get a publisher to accept you, what you produce isn’t enough – which isn’t is not true,” Nieminen said.
Nieminen also turned 50 this year and thought, “If you don’t get off the horse and do this, you’ll never get there.” With Sloan’s help, Nieminen released the book through online retailer Amazon on August 1. It is available in paperback and on Kindle.
“Putting it out felt surprisingly vulnerable, because even though it’s a work of fiction, it’s something that went out of my mind and out of my heart and out of my soul,” Nieminen said. .
Nieminen, a professional photographer, designed the book cover herself, using a photo she took of a deer and a photo she found on eBay of a young girl. The girl is not Maria Buell – in fact Nieminen doesn’t know who she is, but she thinks the photo was probably taken in the 1870s. Nieminen has altered the girl’s clothes to match the earlier period in which his story takes place.
The title pays homage to an albino deer that literally and figuratively runs through the novel, Nieminen said. The deer is rightly meant to represent purity and goodness – and spends much of the story being hunted.
HISTORY OF VISITS
Nieminen visited Maria’s grave at East Gustavus Cemetery, where a replica headstone tells the story of her disappearance. The original headstone was removed and placed in Gustavus City Hall after repeated acts of vandalism, Nieminen said.
The story goes that Maria’s stepfather, Ira Gardner, was tried in Warren, convicted, and hanged in a show that drew a crowd of people from all over Ohio.
Gardner was later buried in a field in Williamsfield because the townspeople wouldn’t let his brother bury him in Kinsman. No one knows the exact location of his grave.
According to legend, Buell had a boyfriend who remembered her by planting an oak tree near her grave, although the tree was long gone. Nieminen’s research shows that after Buell’s death, the young man married and moved to Indiana.
As for Nieminen, she intends to continue writing. “The Dance of the White Stag” already has a sequel in the works, as an early version of the story was so long it had to be split in two.
She hopes to write more historical fiction stories, as well as some set in modern times.
She encourages other writers to consider self-publishing, as it provides the opportunity for full control and spreads the work to the world.