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Interview with Catherine Ulrich Brakefield

Swamps and snakes and leeches, oh my! Catherine Ulrich Brakefield’s new book, Swept into Destiny, pulls her readers right into swampy, infested waters from the first chapter. Her opening scene sets the stage for a tale of Irish immigrants who come to America shortly before the Civil War to “do the work that slaves were too valuable to do.”

Drawing on stories told by her mother and grandmother, and aided by her extensive research, Brakefield lays out the plight of Irish immigrants who flocked to America following Ireland’s great potato famine of the late 1840s and 1850s. Her story soon sets up an implausible relationship between a strapping young Irishman and the beautiful daughter of the landowner (and slave owner). As gloomy tidings of war unfold, the young lovers, Maggie and Ben, are pulled in opposite directions, and the very fabric of America, itself, is stretched to the breaking point.

I recently talked with Catherine about her new book and her love for history.

Your descriptions of working conditions for both the slaves and the Irishmen are very detailed, especially the scene where a swamp is being cleared out by hand. How did you manage to create such realism?
I have lived in the country and had my own swamp experiences. My dog, Dixie had her 12 pups at the swamp behind my house. I almost lost my boot in quick mire trying to save her. We finally got our swamp dredged out by heavy machinery, and I could just imagine how hard it would be to do by hand.

My mother had told me stories about Irish immigrants who dredged out swamps; some lost their lives because of the poisonous snakes. Irish immigrants also labored to erect huge rock walls in Kentucky, and to lay track for the railroad.

In Ireland, they were ruled by Great Britain for many centuries. They worked tiny plots of land, paying stiff rents to British landlords and lived in primitive mud and stone huts. After migrating to America, they took any job open to them. Their lives were so harsh that sixty percent of children born to Irish immigrants in Boston died before the age of six. Adult immigrants lived an average of six years after their arrival in the United States.

How did you develop such an affinity for the Irish people?
I went to Gettysburg, Penn. on a sightseeing tour with my father’s old WWII infantry unit. There I saw a 19.5-foot Celtic cross designed with a harp flanked by eagles. I learned the cross was built by Irish immigrants who fought in the Civil War. A former Confederate soldier who fought at Gettysburg sculpted the cross.

The Irish lost huge amounts of soldiers in the war because they usually were the first brigades into battle. The fact that they built a cross as a memorial spoke to me. I wanted to embody that same kind of heart in my hero, Ben McConnell. He said, “I love my new country and I shall die for her! For how can we lose, we have our celestial home waiting for us in heaven.”

In your story, Maggie taught the children of the slaves to read. Was it really as dangerous for her to do that as you depicted?
Yes, extremely. But my goal was not to divide people into their different geographic, ethnic, and social platforms by including that story element. I wanted readers to see that although Maggie and Ben faced danger because they helped the children of slaves, with Jesus, they could accomplish much.

What else do you want your readers to gain from your story?
After reading Swept into Destiny, it is my prayer people will come away feeling uplifted and edified by the faith of the Irish. When Ben was slapped in the face with prejudice or hate, or “No Irish need apply” verbiage, he responded, “We’ll show you through our attitude and work ethics that we shall persevere and win in the end.”

It was so interesting to see Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Robert E. Lee interacting with your characters. Where did the idea for that come from?
I love history. I have written two historical picture books to read like stories, told by different generations of people who lived in the same community. This type of research enabled me to feel Lincoln, Grant, and Lee were just ordinary people like you and me.

Did Lincoln actually take court cases like the one in your story?
Yes. The Dred Scott issue I wrote about really happened. In Kentucky and Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln was beloved because of his dedication to the oppressed and downtrodden.

Mrs. Gatlan, Maggie’s mother is a real woman of faith. What was your inspiration for her?
My grandmother. She taught me how to be a survivor and persevere through the trials of life. She said, “There’s nothin’ life can’t dish out, that Jesus can’t make into a feast.”

What message do you hope readers take away from this book?
I don’t believe that in heaven God will segregate us into ethnic groups. We can’t determine what nationality, eye color, physical features, not even the mental capacity we will be born with. But we alone determine what we do with what we are given.

Maggie was right in saying that we are all slaves. Slaves to ourselves and our sins, and without the blood of Christ to wash them away, our destiny on earth is hopeless. But, in Galatians 4:7 we read, “Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then heir of God through Christ.”

Some of the themes in the book could be taken from current headlines: racism, bigotry, war, immigration, faith, division, unity, and national pride. Was that planned, or coincidental?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Only God knows the future of America. If our children never learn the truth about our Christian nation, we are destined to repeat history.

What has your writing journey looked like?
I’ve written short stories for Revell, Guidepost, and Bethany House. My first book contract was for Wilted Dandelions. I love working with my wonderful agent, Cyle Young of Hartline, and am looking forward to completing this four-book contract for the Destiny series with CrossRiver Media Group.

What is your writing routine?
I get up a 6:00 a.m., grab some coffee, feed dogs, cats, horses, and chickens, and then I write. I stop for a quick lunch and write until 4:00 when I babysit my granddaughter.

What is the funniest thing that has happened to you as an author?
Would you believe I forgot my books for a book signing?

What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
I love swimming, horseback riding, sightseeing, and spending time with my family, which is the most important.

What books are on your nightstand right now?
I have just finished Francine Rivers' The Last Sin Eater, which was superb. I’m rereading Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham.

What are your plans for the next book in the Destiny series?
Into Destiny Whirlwind will begin just before the Spanish-American War. It will include boisterous President Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. The release date is May 2018.

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Teresa Haugh, a graduate of the University of Montevallo, is a recently retired public affairs specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. She and her husband enjoy life in Alaska, the Last Frontier. She takes pleasure in talking with other authors about their writing journeys, and is completing her first full-length novel.





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