When I was a kid, my house had a library. Okay, it was really just an unused dining room filled from floor to ceiling with bookshelves, but to an introspective, socially awkward girl like myself, it was a refuge. There, I learned about the world through the encyclopedias that ran along the bottom shelves. I was exposed to history through the hundreds of World War II books Dad had, as well as stacks of Life magazines from the 40s and beyond. The library was where I discovered smut and would sneak through pages of Clan of the Cave Bear when Mom and Dad weren’t home, my mind sucking up words like “throbbing” and “turgid.” And there, in the Romance section (aka Mom’s books), I was introduced to the book that I realize now has had a huge influence on my life as a lover of the written word. When I was 12 years old, I read Ashes in the Wind by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss for the first time.
I remember curling up on my bed with this book (the photo above is the cover I remember, although there are multiple versions thanks to the many reprints), tears streaking down my face. It was so clear to my younger self that handsome Union Army Major Cole Latimer was clearly in love with Alaina MacGaren, accused Confederate spy, and she obviously felt the same way about him although she was unable to acknowledge it. And then he left her in New Orleans to take his new wife to his ancestral home in Minnesota and the pain that sliced through me was intense. I was brokenhearted. In fact, I can’t even explain it, but this passage has stayed with me for nearly two decades:
Long into the night, Mrs. Hawthorne lay awake, listening to the racking, bitter sobs that drifted from Alaina’s room. Her own heart ached for the girl – and for the major. It seemed the two were caught in something that could not easily be cooled – and she doubted that distance would have any effect on the burning fires of their emotions.
I was thinking about this book yesterday and decided to re-read it because it’s been years, decades even, since I’ve taken the journey through those pages. I don’t have that original copy anymore, of course. It’s somewhere in Mom and Dad’s house. And since I don’t buy printed books anymore anyway, I snagged it for Kindle, settled in last night after work and ended up barely sleeping because I couldn’t put it down.
As I was reading it this morning, tears tracking down my cheeks unabated, it hit me hard. You see, this book is IT. It is the reason that I am addicted to writing and reading angst in fiction today. It’s why I love stories of unrequited love and of lovers separated by seemingly insurmountable odds. It’s why I crave stories full of longing and separation, desperation and unquenched desire. So yeah, the second half of the book drags a bit and there’s lots of soapy plot points that don’t hold my attention, but the first half of the book, when Cole and Alaina are in denial of their attraction and are pushing against it with everything they have – it’s beautiful. It’s breathtaking. It’s the exact reason I was so moved as a kid that I picked up a pen for the first time to try and tell a story of my own creation, and I’ve lived with stories inside my head ever since. Ashes in the Wind is the origination, the core, the focal point – it’s the epicenter of who I am as a writer. The realization slammed into me this morning and it filled me with determination. I just have to harness the words I’m carrying around, silence the distracting static, and get to work so that I can create my own story full of gut-wrenching, soul-sucking, beautiful, glorious, romantic angst.