by Joan Koster
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.
Half an hour later, Anna gave her signature bow and released the shivers she’d stoppered inside. They’d survived another day.
“You shortened the speech,” Julia said, hastening to her with her shawl and coat.
“Bah. Their minuscule brains couldn’t handle more.” Julia helped her into her coat. Anna buttoned it up. “I am getting tired of facing down these Copperhead snakes at every speech.” She glanced at Julia. The girl’s lips were blue with cold. “Let’s find you a nice warm fire.”
“There should be one at the hotel.” Julia tugged on her cape and draped Anna’s shawl over her shoulders.
Anna looped arms with her, and together they walked out of the church. On the threshold, they halted under the sheltering overhang. Rain still poured down. From the mountain of coal waste shadowing the town, a froth of gray black culm ran down the road and gathered around the step. Anna clamped her teeth together and slowly lifted her skirts.
“Wait.” A hand brushed her sleeve.
“Yes?” She turned and discovered a man shorter than herself peering up at her. Wrapped in a plaid cloth, he stood round-shouldered, his face a patchwork of leathery skin, gray eyes, and grizzled beard.
“Dear lady, I’d come to curse you, I did. I firmly believe a woman’s place is in the home. Well, but now I’ve aheard you, and I think surely God has sent you, an angel out of heaven, to fight for justice.”
He paused, his tongue sweeping over his lips, as if testing to see if the words were really his. “Ain’t an educated man. Ain’t seen the world. Spent my days in the dark well of the mine where thinking too hard puts you on the blacklist. But believe me; I never heard anyone speak like you did today. You’re not like those politicians. Heard you punch out at evil and wrong. Heard you agree that allowing the rich to pay their way out of the draft is unfair.”
He looked away, not at the town, but at the sky. “You should understand why we’re angry. The miners here, when they’re drafted, their little boys and their old, bent fathers must go into the mine to keep food on the table. But today, you’ve made me see a broader view—why we must win this war.”
He scowled. “But miss, I envy the slave and the soldier lucky to have your voice speaking out for them. So, I made a prayer back there to God.” He pointed back inside the church. “Someday … someday soon, when the war be done and over, you come back here and use that voice from the angels to fight for a better life for us miners. Will you please?”
“Justice is my mission. Worker’s rights, people’s rights, my cause.” Anna put a hand on either side of his head, bent over, and bestowed a kiss on his pate. She straightened up. “When I return, I will visit your—”
Wood splintered behind her.
Anna spun around and slapped at her hair.
A look of horror flashed across the miner’s face. “Down.” He dropped to the ground and crawled back into the church.
“Get down,” Julia echoed and thrust Anna onto the muddy steps, covering her body with hers. “Someone shot at you.”
“No. Let me up.” Anna rolled out from under Julia’s weight and staggered to her feet. “I will not cower.”
Another shot passed over her head and struck the frame of the church door. Chips of molding flew up like startled birds. The noise reverberated off the clapboard houses that tipped up and down the street and echoed through the hills.
Her body went numb with the sound then rebounded like a soldier under fire, full of heat, primed to kill or to run. Anna squinted into the rain, searching for her attacker, aware that she and Julia stood exposed. She called out, her voice sharper than any saber, “Cowards! Hiding behind a gun. Come out and face me.” She spread her arms out wide and descended the steps. If they thought she would turn and flee, she’d never be allowed on the platform again. No one worshipped a victim. “Are you afraid of me? A girl?”