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article imageReview: Ohio's swamps are setting for new novel by San Francisco writer Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Oct 9, 2014 in Entertainment
San Francisco - From the view of today's urban landscape its hard to imagine a swamp land once existed in a place like Ohio. Impressive cities like Columbus, Toledo, Cincinnati say little about a rural past.
Yet, San Francisco-based novelist this past August released perhaps her most ambitious work. Set in the pioneer days of Northern Ohio's Great Black Swamp land. Her novel talks about another time in American History, when it was still very young. And, the land was not so developed. The swamp backdrop stretches from Fort Wayne, Indiana and goes through Ohio all the way to Lake Erie. This expansive wetland marsh was an obstacle to settlers coming to Ohio as the United States began to advance westward.
For settlers during the 1800s, The Great Black Swamp was something to be conquered and tamed. In this landscape Conway's story takes place. The story begins with seventeen-year-old Susanna Quiner, watching helplessly from behind a tree as a band of Potawatomi Indians kidnaps her four older sisters. Both of her parents are dead from Swamp Fever and all of the other settlers away in their fields, she decides to pursue them herself.
What follows is a young woman’s quest to save what remains of her family and discover what she is truly made of – and the parallel stories of her sisters’ unanticipated new lives.
“Living in an urban area as I do, I had a great desire to transport myself into a rustic environment without being sentimental about it,” says Conway of Thieving Forest. “The wilderness I describe might kill you. But there are surprises, too, and not all of them are bad.”
When this reporter first met Conway over a decade ago, she had just released 12 Bliss Street, her first novel set in her adopted hometown of San Francisco. Like many people who settle in San Francisco, there is always something about the place they left behind that stays with them. And it seems with Conway that is also true.
Turns out, Conway is originally from Ohio and even tough it looms large as one of the nations leading industrial centers, its pioneer past is not entirely erased. Other writers have featured or mentioned Ohio in their works, such as Mark Twain. The Ohio River is the largest tributary of the Mississippi River made famous in Twain's novels, like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Yet there was something compelling about a long-ago setting that pulled Conway in transporting her from the upscale high-tech circles of San Francisco to the faint echoes of an other era full of wide-open spaces, adventure and danger. Larry Karnes, president of the Historic Perrysburg association noted that much of the swamp had to be drained and filled in before any of the cities and towns could be built. "It took a lot of work and it was one of the major tasks pioneers had to contend with," said Dave Keeberger, who works in the historic association's gift shop.
Unknown to this reporter upon our first meeting, Conway grew up in northern Ohio as one of seven sisters. For Conway her family background takes on new significance in light of Thieving Forest. Yet for the sake of readers she constructed the story with five sisters instead of seven. "The story is entirely made up," she said. Conway noted that her siblings were eager to read the book to find out which sister closely resembled them.
Research was a challenge but she found the historical aspects of the land back in the 1800's fascinating. And, that has been one of the enjoyable aspects of writing the novel. Yet, unlike her first novel, Thieving Forest is her first steps into independent or self-publishing which she described as " was a baptism by fire."
Novelist Martha Conway completed her second novel   Thieving Forest   released this past August and ...
Novelist Martha Conway completed her second novel, "Thieving Forest," released this past August and is now working on a third.
Courtesy of novelist Martha Conway
Regardless of the hurdles and obstacles she was inspired to write the story, especially since it was about an area where she grew up. "I did not know there was a swamp land until I started the research and then I was hooked," she said. The family-life of all sisters is familiar territory as well.
Following five sisters as they contend with starvation, slavery, betrayal and love in 1806 on the edge of The Great Black Swamp, Conway describes sisterly bonds as “having not changed much in 200 years… we laugh in the midst of fighting, sometimes have a hard time accepting each others’ choices, but we will fight to the end to protect one another.” Naturally, this is much like her own life growing up with her sisters.
"I am from northern Ohio, but from the northeast (Cleveland) rather than the northwest (Toledo)," she said. Inspired and informed by her intimate understanding of the complex dynamics of sisterhood, Conway said she made efforts to do close research of Ohio’s volatile and surprising history, and a desire to write an adventure story of her own featuring a female lead. Even though Conway said she turned away from writing about bored office workers, like the main character in 12 Bliss Street, her first novel gained notice with a nomination for an Edgar Award. The Edgar Awards are the literary world's nod for achievements in mystery story writing. Thieving Forest showcases Conway as a force to be reckoned within the realm of historical fiction.
And so far, reviews in literary circles have been praising. On Tuesday November 11, Conway will be reading excerpts from Thieving Forest at The Booksmith at 1644 Haight Street in San Francisco. Beginning at 7:15 PM, refreshments will be served after the reading. For more information about "Thieving Forest" visit the author's website.
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