That Dickinson Girl
by Joan Koster
Publication Date: November 15th, 2022
Series: Forgotten Women
Publisher: Tidal Waters Press
Genre: Historical Biographical Fiction
SHE IS GOING TO BE THE GREATEST ORATOR OF THE CIVIL WAR
Eighteen-year-old Anna Dickinson is nothing like the women around her, and she knows it. Gifted with a powerful voice, a razor-sharp wit, and unbounded energy, the diminutive curlyhead sets out to surpass the men of her day as she rails against slavery and pushes for women’s rights. Only two things can bring her downfall—the entangling love she has for her devoted companion, Julia, and an assassin’s bullet.
Forced to accompany the fiery young orator on her speaking tour of New England, Julia Pennington fights her growing attraction to the ever more popular celebrity. When a traitor sets out to assassinate Anna, Julia must risk her life to save her.
Loosely based on the life of forgotten orator, feminist, and lesbian, Anna Dickinson, That Dickinson Girl is the story of one woman’s rise to fame and fortune at the expense of love during the political and social turmoil of the American Civil War.
An earlier version of That Dickinson Girl was a finalist in the Mslexia Novel Competition.
Julia Pennington glanced at her sister, shivering in the chilly February dawn. Her washed, thin cotton dress was better suited to the heat of a Philadelphia summer, her coat outgrown years ago. Julia would do anything for her, even wait in the frosty shadows for politicians to spout idiocies. But they risked illness by standing here, and they couldn’t afford that.
She touched Gracie’s arm. “Lincoln’s late, and you’re cold. I say we go.”
Her sister brushed her hand away. “No, I want to hear what he has to say; find out if he will be a President we can trust. Someone who’ll do what’s right for this country.” Gracie rose on her tiptoes and peered over the shoulders of the two carters in front of them, their mud-splashed coats stiff in the cold. “Shouldn’t be much longer—the militia is clearing a space around the platform.”
Julia’s empty stomach grumbled. “We can read his speech in the paper tomorrow.”
“That’s not the same. Newsmen twist the truth of things. I need to hear the words from the President-elect’s own lips.”
“Well, let’s pray he arrives soon. I can’t bear to see you shivering so. Here.” She pulled off her shawl and draped the tattered woolen several times around Gracie’s neck, tucking the fringe inside the coat front in a futile attempt to shield her from the raw wind gusting between the buildings surrounding Independence Square. “Stand close to me. We’ll keep each other warm.”
Julia snuggled her sister’s bone-thin body under her arm and resolved to flirt back the next time Richard Tucker stopped to inspect her loom and leaned in too close, no matter that the idea of marriage turned her stomach. Not all men were like her father.
Cold slithered down her neck and seeped beneath her stays. Overhead, the sky lightened, and the first rays of the sun struck the cupola of Independence Hall. She wrapped her arms tightly around the person whom she loved most in the world and waited as bright fingers of warmth inched closer, chasing away the long indigo shadows of the night and illuminating the wispy exhalations of broken-backed laborers and slump-shouldered clerks, hovering freedmen and posturing merchants, hoop-skirted housewives and nimble-fingered beggars, all come to celebrate the twenty-ninth anniversary of Washington’s birthday and to calculate the worth of their new leader-in-chief.
Finally, sunlight splashed over her, but it did nothing to relieve the cold inside. She nuzzled her chin in Gracie’s hair, soft and fine as cotton sliver, and inhaled the fresh, buttery scent of childhood that clung, despite the years of hard living.
Her sister deserved more than a bleak future working for pennies in the mill, inhaling the lint and dust that had stolen their mother’s breath and laid her in a Potter’s Field. It was time to stop waiting for ghosts to come to their rescue.
Gracie would finish school and go on to medical college, even if it meant Julia must marry a man she could never love. She’d promised her mother to care for her sister, no matter what, and she kept her promises.
She tugged her sister closer and whispered in her ear, “I’ve been thinking. I want you to stay in school. Finish out the year and apply to the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, like Mama wanted.”
Gracie jerked away. “What? That’s impossible. The college charges tuition. And there’s the books. And the carfare. We can’t afford that on what you earn. We barely survive now.” She tucked her hands into her sleeves and tipped up her chin. “I’m nearly sixteen; older than you when you quit school and started working. It’s not the end of the world. You do it. Mama did it.”
“It killed Mama.”
“Mama was already sick when Papa abandoned us. I’m strong and healthy.”
“So am I, but a body can’t do that work forever. The noise is deafening. Fingers get crushed every day. You suck in cotton until every breath is agony. There’s no future in it. Listen, all I am asking is for you to graduate and then apply. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a turn of luck. At worst, with a diploma from Girls’ High, you could teach.”
Gracie looked at her. “Oh, Julia, I can hear your stomach growling. If you get any thinner, you’ll disappear. It’s not worth being hungry.” She held out her hands, the fingertips reddened from the cold, and studied them. “Mama always said I’ve the healing touch, but I can do any work I set my mind to.” She dropped them to her sides. “Not all dreams come true. Not Mama’s. Not Papa’s. So, why mine? Anyway, if someone’s dream ought to come true, it should be yours. You’ve sacrificed too much for my schooling already.”
Julia untied her bonnet ribbons then retied them tighter. “Don’t be ridiculous. I have no dreams.”
“Those were merely lies, then, that you whispered in my ear at night when we were growing up? To help free the slaves? Start a school? Recompense for Papa’s foul deed?”
“I was a child.” Julia pushed away the memory of her father reading to her the adventures of The Swiss Family Robinson and The Three Musketeers. That coddled child had thought the world full of heroes, heroines, and happy endings. She’d never imagined she’d be forced to drop out of school to care for a dying mother and a twelve-year-old sister.
A lump gathered in the back of her throat, bitter and thick with the dregs of the mill. A Black laundress stood in front of her, clad in a stained dress, the cloth threadbare across the shoulders, the hem unraveled. The woman’s hands, cracked and raw, slid up and down her arms in a vain attempt to warm herself.
Julia swallowed hard. She had no right to complain. Life could be much worse. And soon, it would be better.
She turned back to her sister. “The floor manager’s sweet on me. I’m thinking he might propose.”
Gracie popped her head up. “Propose? You have a beau and never told me?” She grabbed Julia’s hands and squeezed. “Finally, my sister in love.”
Julia yanked herself away. “It’s not like that.”
Gracie’s smile disappeared. “Not like what?”
“Like a Southworth romance. Like those sonnets of Browning’s you’re always reading.”
Gracie pursed her lips. “Marriage is forever. There has to be love.”
“Don’t be naïve. Richard Tucker’s an upstanding man with a good income. He’ll take care of us. That’s all that matters.”
“I see.” Gracie moved away and kicked at a clump of frozen grass. “Another sacrifice so I can finish school and become a doctor.”
“A doctor? A noble ambition,” a woman said, filling the yawning space between them like a shadow that the sun had forgotten.
When she is not writing in her studio by the sea, Joan Koster lives with her historian husband and a coon cat named Cleo in an 1860s farmhouse stacked to the ceiling with books. In a life full of adventures, she has scaled mountains, chased sheep, and been abandoned on an island for longer than she wants to remember.
An award-winning author who loves mentoring writers, Joan blends her love of history, and romance into historical novels about women who shouldn’t be forgotten and into romantic thrillers under the pen name, Zara West. She is the author of the award-winning romantic suspense series The Skin Quartet and the top-selling Write for Success series.
Joan blogs at JoanKoster.com, Women Words and Wisdom, American Civil War Voice, Zara West Romance, and Zara West’s Journal and teaches numerous online writing courses.