The history behind His Forgotten Fiancée

Alfred Jacob Miller - Breaking up Camp at Sunrise - Walters 371940142
History can be boring when it deals with economic issues and large, sweeping movements that usually deal with -isms. But history can be fascinating if you look at individual people, the problems they faced and the choices they made.

The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 stated that a white man could own 320 acres of land in Oregon basically just by asking for it. If he were married, he could claim 640 acres, a square mile. The other 320 acres were considered to be his wife’s claim. The wife could not have claimed the land on her own, however, any more than a single woman could. The only way the wife got control of the land was if her husband died. Good fodder for a mystery novel, perhaps, but not a romance.

Where I saw possibilities for a romance novel was in the part of the act that stated that any single man could claim the additional 320 acres, so long as he got married before December of 1851.

Apparently, there were a lot of marriages that year.

I’ve read secondary sources who claim some men married girls who were too young to be wives; these girls stayed with their parents until they were old enough to live with their husbands.

His Forgotten Fiancée

My First Ever Book!

I set my story in the fall of 1851 because I wanted Liza to face pressure to get married. As a young, unmarried woman in the Oregon Territory, she encountered a lot of single men who wanted to marry her. I liked the conflict it set up for Matthew: he did not want to marry a woman he couldn’t remember proposing to, but at the same time it bothered him to think of her marrying someone else. The poor man wasn’t being very logical. But if I’d had every memory of my past stripped from me, I might not be very logical either.

Adventures in cat training

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After much discussion, I have persuaded NotMyCat to come inside to eat, since leaving food outside meant also feeding every other cat in the neighborhood, as well as NotMyWasp and NotMyRaccoon and, on one memorable occasion, NotMySkunk. She doesn’t linger, just comes in to eat and then wants to be let outside again immediately. I’d thought it was safe enough to leave a bowl of cat food on the floor in the kitchen. Until yesterday.

Last winter, mice had found a way to get into the laundry room. Ack! I made sure the dryer vent was closed and for that matter closed the laundry room door so they couldn’t get into the house. I hadn’t seen or heard any sign of them in months, so I had forgotten all about it.

The other afternoon, I came into the laundry room and saw something dark moving along the baseboard. It could have been a fast-moving shadow from the trees outside the window. It was windy; the boughs were going up and down. But I was suspicious.

cropped-img_1194.jpgI lured NotMyCat indoors with food bribes. Then I picked her up and carried her to the laundry room. I talked at great length about her hunting prowess and how much I appreciated what a mighty huntress she was and by the way if she felt like doing some hunting I wouldn’t mind in the least.

When I set her down, she showed no interest in her surroundings. She merely trotted to the door and asked to be let out.

Ten minute later, I heard a muffled meowing at the sliding glass door. Her voice was muffled because she was holding a bird in her mouth. She was standing there expecting praise.

Luckily, the cat’s idea of bird hunting is catch-and-release. I slipped outside before I started to praise her extravagantly, which gave the bird the opportunity to fly away. But I have learned to be much more specific when I ask NotMyCat to do me a favor.

Cat training is not for the faint of heart. In His Forgotten Fiancée the heroine, Liza, is fiercely determined to keep mice from eating all the grain. The hero, Matthew, gets her a kitten and tries to teach the little one to hunt mice. It’s uphill work:

Liza left Pa sharpening the scythe and went to find Matthew. He wasn’t washing up down by the creek or anywhere in sight. She heard the rumble of his deep voice coming from the barn. Curious, she went to investigate.

“Still hungry, even after all that milk? I really do not understand how you expect to get anywhere if you just crouch by that empty dish and cry. Go out there and find some mice! No, don’t look at me with those sad eyes. I am impervious to such maudlin sentiment.” A heavy sigh from inside the barn. “Here, look, I’ll show you. It’s simple. Pretend my hand is a mouse. You’re hungry. I’m right here. What do you do? You pounce. Yes! Just like that. Let your instinct guide you. No, my hand is not, in actual fact, edible.” Another sigh. “Oh, all right. I seem to have saved a bit of salmon from breakfast this morning. I will share it with you.”

Slowly, she peeked in around the door. Matthew was crouched down, lecturing the kitten as seriously as if it were an entire jury. “This is not setting a precedent, do you understand? You need to learn how to hunt.”

His Forgotten Fiancée

Put a bonnet on it

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Actual Oregon Trail prairie bonnet, modeled by a kind docent at the Newell Pioneer Village

The Newell Pioneer Village in Champoeg is a fabulous place to visit if you want to know about how the Oregon Trail pioneers lived. A lot of families donated the clothing the pioneers wore, or the string beds they’d slept in, or old flintlocks, schoolbooks, all kinds of things.

Plus, there are kind, knowledgable docents who can explain the stories behind the artifacts. One lady was nice enough to model a bonnet for me. She said it made her feel like a horse wearing blinders. It cut of all peripheral vision.

Beautiful horse head profile
On the one hand, it’s good to have something to protect you from the sun, especially when you’re out harvesting the crops in the blazing sunlight. They didn’t really have much in the way of sunscreen back then. Plus, being tan was seen as lower class. The fashion was to have skin as pale as possible.

On the other hand, I would hate to feel like a horse wearing blinders.

I liked the idea of using details from daily life in my story, so I made this a point of conflict between Matthew and Liza. He wanted to keep her protected from everything, including the sun, while she wanted to be free and independent.

“Women’s fashions are often ridiculous, but there is some merit in wearing a bonnet. It will protect you from the sunlight.”

“But I’ll be able to better see what I’m doing without it.”

“It’s not proper for a lady to go bare headed.” They had arrived at the wheat field, and he handed her the bonnet again.

She squinting up at the sky, then around at the fields on every side. “Who would I shock? The birds?”

“You are not taking into account the feelings of this innocent, young kitten. They’re very sensitive at that age.” One corner of his mouth twitched up, as if he were trying to restrain a smile.

“I am starting to wonder about this kitten. No matter how often I offer him food, he never seems hungry. Are you still feeding him snacks at odd hours of the day?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said, straight faced.

“I think I should name this kitten here Elijah. The ravens must be bringing him food.”

I think you are trying to change the subject.”

“It is my head, and whether I put a bonnet on it — or not — is my decision.” She draped the bonnet over a stump.

Liza knew she was being stubborn on this issue, but it seemed important to make that point clear. He was trying to look out for her, protect her. That was his instinct with women. But he could not have it both ways. He could not protect her at the same time he was planning to leave her.

– His Forgotten Fiancée