I am thrilled to get the Little Bird Flies blog tour started with this Q and A with the wonderful book’s lovely author, Karen McCombie.
Tanya: Karen, I loved your book, Little Bird Flies, and especially its setting of the island of Tornish. You are from Scotland, a land you love. I know Tornish is an imaginary island, but please tell us something about the real Scottish islands whose history you have entwined in your book.
Karen: The setting is partly an amalgam of snap-shot, childhood memories I have of the Scottish countryside… the mountains and hills, the forests and lochs, the colours; those muted shades of ochre, brown, green and mauve. But it was a visit some years ago to the island of Ulva that sharpened into a vivid image that became the fictional setting of Tornish. Our friends had moved there, and after being ferried to the island on a tiny boat, they gave us a tour, which included showing us ‘Starvation Point’… a terrace of houses with a sad history. The Highland Clearances aren’t well known outside of Scotland, but it was a period when more than half-a-million tenant farmers and their communities were evicted from the Highlands and Islands of the north and west by landowners who valued the land more than the people on it. But sometimes people were too old or ill to go anywhere, to try and start a new life. On Ulva, these people were housed in this small row of cottages and left to fend for themselves. You can imagine how that worked out.
Although the story of Starvation Point itself isn’t included (beyond a small mention) in my novel, it certainly informed the story it became.
Tanya: I know you are a big fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s semi-autobiographical Little House on the Prairie book series. This series is set at about the same time as Little Bird – 1860s – and also shows small-holders in tight-knit rural communities and their struggles. How did this influence your desire to tell Scotland’s story in your book?
Karen: For years and years, I’d been thinking about writing some kind of love letter to Scotland. And for years and years, I’ve loved and re-read my favourite childhood series, ‘Little House on the Prairie’, and had my husband badger me endlessly to write something along those lines, since I was so passionate about it. Every now and then I’d wonder how I might bring one or other of those projects to life… then one day I had the lightbulb moment, and realised I could combine the two, following my little Scottish heroine’s adventures on her island home, and her yearning to travel to America, the destination of many Scottish emigres of the time.
Tanya: Like Little House, Little Bird Flies shows how communities living simple and relatively hand-to-mouth existences can be over-whelmed and pushed out by wealthier people with new ideas. Why does this history interest you?
Karen: When I was young, my family regularly visited the many castles of Scotland, as well as famous sites like the battlefield of Culloden. Because of these visits, I fell in love with history hard. But I was always most keen to know about the lives of ordinary people. Yes, the luxury of the grander rooms of the castles was interesting, but I wanted to know about the nursemaid, the cook, where the servants worked, ate and slept. At the battleground, I wasn’t so interested in the whys and wherefores, or Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Duke of Cumberland. I keep thinking of the ordinary men – young and old – who’d been ordered from their farms to fight, who’d left behind mothers, wives, children. Were they pleased to go and do their duty? Or terrified? Did they worry how on earth their families back home would survive without them?
And ordinary people’s voices are not the ones that tend to be recorded for posterity, so I suppose I felt that I was giving a voice to one ‘ordinary’ girl in what was an anything but ordinary life.
Tanya: Can you give us a little insight into what life holds for Little Bird once she gets to America and how her life compares with that of the Ingalls family as they cross America seeking a better life?
Karen: You know something strange? I had a very definite plan in mind for Bridie and her family once they got to America, but when I sat down to write ‘Little Bird Lands’, my research took me in a totally different (physical) direction. It was as if Bridie had a plan of her own, and I was just helping her get there!
Thank you so much, Karen, for taking the time to appear on my blog today.
I believe that Little Bird Flies is an important and beautifully written book that everyone should read. Fortunately, publisher Nosy Crow agree with me and have let me offer a copy in a give-away. To be in with a chance of winning, please comment on this blog or retweet my tweet at @TanyaEfthymiou. I will choose a winner at random at the end of the blog tour – 19th January.
Little Bird Flies – Written by Karen McCombie. Published 10 January 2019 by Nosy Crow. Illustrations by Jasu Hu and with map by Hannah Horn.