Cindy Rinaman Marsch Interviews Rosette of Rosette: A Novel of Pioneer Michigan
Rosette Cordelia Ramsdell Churchill really lived and wrote a journal in 1856-58 that forms the core of Rosette: A Novel of Pioneer Michigan. Beyond the journal we have only a few official details of her life—birth and marriage and death records, a city directory, and a mysterious photo of her son’s tombstone. Her journal recounts two years of homesteading, history hints at the next six decades, and the novel explores the truth. The imagined interview below explores some points from the novel and from the real woman’s life. As with most people, things are complicated with Rosette . . .
CRM: Mrs. Churchill, I know you were a pioneer child in Michigan, but where did your parents come from?
RCRC: I am the eldest child of Jacob Ramsdell of Massachusetts, who taught school in Ontario County, New York and married my mother Sally Richardson there. I was born in New York in 1830, then my brother Solomon, and my parents joined the westward move to Michigan. My sister Diana was the first white child born in Kalamazoo County, in 1836, where my father served in local government and laid out the streets of the new town. And in 1845 we moved to Orange Township in Ionia County, and Father built the first log cabin in that area.
CRM: What influences from your family do you see in your life and your choices?
RCRC: Oh, Father was a principled man—taught school everywhere he went, specializing in mathematics. And he was a businessman. Although we farmed, of course, he was always looking to the business he could make of it. When most families produced, say, 200 pounds of maple sugar in a season—and my husband Otis managed that his first year, by the way—Father and Mother together yielded 700 pounds in 1857! Mother was right at his side in all this enterprise. Though she wasn’t particularly bookish, she always strove for the finer things, and worked to get them. I was not afraid of work, but I was less keen for the kitchen and looked more to the needle and to keeping school. I did that for a decade before I married.
CRM: You mention your husband Otis—Mr. Churchill. How did you feel when you first saw him? What drew you to him?
RCRC: When I first saw him I was surprised—I was returning home after a few days away at a teachers’ conference, and he was standing right in my parents’ doorway as if he were the owner! He had been working for Father a few days and welcomed me into the house in such a way that I was immediately shy of him. I kept thinking of flames—he was strong and dangerous, but powerful in the good work he could do. He saw my father’s success with the farm and wanted that for himself. So, having heard of me and knowing I was nearly a spinster, he set his sights on me before I even arrived at the doorstep. I had had other suitors before—one pitiable one in Kalamazoo when I went back there to teach—but Otis did not really even press a suit—he assumed it.
CRM: Do you believe women are the weaker sex? That Mr. Churchill could just have his way once he’d set his sights on you, as you say?
RCRC: Well, I think I was weakened at the time, discouraged at my prospects after the young fellow in Kalamazoo, and knowing my mother was wringing her hands over me as I got older by the day. My circumstances overtook my own sense of myself, and I went along as Otis swept me up into his plans. So yes, I was weak then. But I grew stronger over the years . . .
CRM: You’ve said that you associated Mr. Churchill with flames and power—that that was your first impression. What about you? When you walk into a room, what do you expect people to notice about you?
RCRC: Well, now that I am an old lady, I have different aims than I did then. Both then and now, though, I expect people will notice—I mean them to—that I am strong and straight, neatly dressed in clothing I have sewn myself to the exacting of a fine dressmaker. I want to give an impression of dignity and quietness, though I usually have something to say! In those days, those brief days of our courtship, I wanted Otis and others to respect me as a teacher but also to appreciate me as a woman. I wanted to be desired. I suppose that is one reason I was drawn to Otis—he certainly desired me. Though to what end, finally?
CRM: Your words from 1888, when you edited the wedding-day entry of your journal of thirty years earlier, suggest you were done wrong. But your actions leading up to that day suggest that you did wrong. What is the worst thing you ever did, and why?
RCRC: I believe you’re suggesting that my legal circumstances in 1888 tell of my having done a terrible thing, in leaving Michigan for Dakota Territory, but the letter of the law does not always determine or describe justice. Even in lives we consider not to be successful, can we point to a single event, a single action that caused the disaster or began the downfall? I think it is more, perhaps, that the decisions of each day, each hour, each dinnertime and bedtime, begin to accumulate like soot and grease in a stove pipe. Little by little, year after year, they build up until they’ve clogged the pipe. And one day an errant spark, or just the day’s burning that brings the temperature up too far, can make it all explode. Or perhaps the stove pipe just quits venting the smoke, and the house itself is smoked over and dingy, and the people begin to grow ill. There are many ways things can go wrong, you see.
CRM: So as not to end on a gloomy note, tell us what you are most proud of in your life.
RCRC: Oh, that is simple—that I kept a good house with good food on the table, and helped my husband make a successful farm, and gave birth to nine children with relative ease. Only one died right away, and three others too young. My children were always well dressed in clothes I made myself, and I trained my girls to take over the household from a young age. So they did not suffer much when I left, I think.
CRM: Thank you, Mrs. Ramsdell, for sharing some details of your life as a pioneer—first in Michigan and then in Dakota Territory. I would like to end by sharing something you wrote in 1894 to the Women’s Department of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen’s Magazine: “And why should women vote? Because it would be only an act of justice, after all. She is just as much human as a man is, and it is being demonstrated daily that she is not inferior to him, only as regards physical strength, and I think she has as much right to vote as to go to church or eat her dinner.” (Google Books 870)
RCRC: And to think I was much more exercised on the topic of the bloomer dress when I was first moved to write that letter! But one thing led to another, and while I had opportunity I thought I would add those thoughts. I do not know whether Father would approve of women voting, but I think he would approve of my reasoning.
Rosette: A Novel of Pioneer Michigan begins in 1888 as Rosette edits the wedding-day page of her 1850s journal, then drops back to September 1856, a chapter for each month until March 1857, alternately narrated by Rosette, her husband Otis, her brother Solomon, and her mother Sally. Then the story resumes with chapters set in 1866, in the aftermath of the Civil War, 1910, and 1913. The novel explores how we both choose and suffer our destiny, and how hopes that have come to naught can sometimes rise from the wreckage.
Rosette: A Novel of Pioneer Michigan, can be previewed and purchased on Kindle or in illustrated paperback on Amazon, via www.rosettebook.com . The website also includes excerpts from Rosette Ramsdell Churchill’s journal, with historical notes. Cover art and inside illustrations by Betsy Marsch.
Today is the last day to get your copy of Rosette for the discounted price of $1.99! Just click on the Amazon link to place your order. Amazon
Cindy Rinaman Marsch was born in Jacksonville, Florida at the end of the Baby Boom, the oldest of seven siblings in blended families. In 1986 she married Glenn Marsch, a professor of physics. The Marsches have four grown children and keep a garden and hobby winery in Western Pennsylvania.
For the last thirty-odd years Marsch has taught writing in colleges and through Writing Assessment Services. She homeschooled her four children and now has time to write as she has always desired. Her debut novel offers an episode of history with imaginative speculation. Also planned are a companion novel, Solomon, and a transcription of Rosette’s actual journal of 1856-58.
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