You know you’re in the company of a great conversationalist when you find yourself sharing things about yourself only your best friends (and maybe your siblings) know–such as my penchant for musical theatre and the likelihood that I might break into song at any moment. These are only a couple of the things that tumbled out of my mouth as I spoke with Julie Frey, of the Women’s National Book Association, who followed these revelations by deftly leading me into telling, among other things, how I came to be a reader, how I came to be a writer, and how I came to write The Sisters and In Our Midst. If you stick around for the last ten minutes or so, you’ll see me scurry through my dark and pokey hallway to get to a power cord before my computer battery dies, and you’ll be treated to a cameo appearance by my cat Joey.
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I’m deeply honored that The Bookwoman Book Club has selected In Our Midst as its club-read for March, and I’m thrilled that I’ll be closing out Women’s History Month with an online talk, led by Julie Frey of The Women’s National Book Association, on Wednesday, March 31 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Members of the Bookwoman Book Club will be joining in, but everyone is welcome! Hope you can make it. You can register here.
I originally wrote this several years ago as a guest blog. Time for a re-post, not just because it’s Christmas, but because I realize, in rereading it, how much influence my childhood reading of Black Beauty shaped the perspective that made my new novel In Our Midst possible and, for me, necessary.
The Gift of Black Beauty
I was seven, my hands and stomach trembling together as they always did on Christmas mornings—especially when the package laid in my lap was a crisply wrapped rectangle, heavy for its size and thickness, obviously a book. Other packages I tore into like a savage, but books I unwrapped slowly, sliding my fingers under the seam of the wrapping paper, caressing the surface of the still-hidden book as if I could read Braille.
At last I pulled away the paper and saw a magnificent black horse rearing up into the golden light that bathed his vast, unfenced pasture. His coat, so sleek it looked wet, the prominent white star at the center of his forehead, his mane and tail whipped by a wind that touched nothing else—all these details combined to express who this Black Beauty was: a proud, triumphant creature taking joy in his freedom.
It was the perfect gift for little me, for I loved books and I loved horses, but I didn’t have any way of knowing how my love for Black Beauty would shape my life. All books before this, I realize now, had been storybooks—simply plotted happenings, sometimes in clever rhymes, but nothing that made me feel anything stronger than amusement. Reading Black Beauty, I cried real tears, many times, and when I finished, I read it again and again, finding I craved the feeling of being pulled by words through delight, heartbreak, and all the emotions in between, ultimately to a deep contentment I could carry with me, reflecting on what Black Beauty had learned: that terrible things happen sometimes, beyond our control—like a stumble in a rut—and change the course of our lives; that no matter how hard we try to hold our heads up, to be good and noble and kind, we don’t always get the treatment we deserve or deserve the treatment we get; that genuine triumph comes only after trial, and that nothing matters so much as knowing and holding onto our true selves.
Though I’m sure at seven I had never heard the word literature, I know now that reading Black Beauty burst open the seed of who I am—the lover of literature and the writer—all of it the gift of a horse who never lived, but who lives always.
Here’s a Christmas recipe suggested by my novel The Sisters. Since COVID-19 has driven so many people to spend more time in their kitchens, taking the time to prepare treats they wouldn’t have thought of attempting before, this seemed a good time to share the recipe again. It’s easily adaptable: any unsweetened cocoa will do, or 3 ounces of unsweetened baking chocolate in place of the cocoa and the first 3 tablespoons of butter. Instead of black walnuts, you can use any nuts you like, or leave the nuts out entirely. The black walnuts lend a distinctive flavor, but without them, you’ll still have a luscious dark chocolate fudge.
Here’s the recipe!
Bertie’s Black Walnut Fudge
A Recipe by Nancy Jensen
(in honor of Chapter Seven of The Sisters)
3 T. butter (6 T total for recipe)
10 T. Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa
–Melt butter in 3 qt heavy saucepan over low heat. Add ½ of the cocoa and stir into the melted butter.
¼ cup heavy cream
¾ cup whole milk
–Measure the cream and milk into a single cup. Add ¼ to the butter and cocoa mixture, stir in, then add the remaining cocoa, stir, and then the remaining milk and cream.
–Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until the milk is scalded and the cocoa is well mixed in.
3 cups sugar
3 T. light corn syrup
1/8 t. salt
–Stir in the sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the sugar is fully dissolved.
–Cook without stirring until mixture reaches the soft ball stage (236 to 238 degrees on a candy thermometer.)
–Pour into a clean 2 qt saucepan that has a handle. Do not scrape the cooking pan. Set the fudge to cool on a rack and immediately add:
3 T. butter
Do not stir. Cool until lukewarm—until you can hold your hand on the bottom of the pan for several seconds without discomfort.
While the fudge cools, line a 9 x 9 pan with buttered parchment paper. Leave long edges so you can lift the cooled fudge out of the pan.
When the fudge is lukewarm, add:
1 ½ t. vanilla
Beat with a wooden spoon until the candy begins to thicken and lose its gloss. Stir in:
½ cup of chopped black walnuts.
Pour into the prepared pan, smoothing to the edges with the wooden spoon if it needs nudging. Mark into pieces with a sharp knife while still warm. When the fudge is cool, using the parchment paper, lift the block out onto a cutting board and slice through the marks with a thin, sharp knife.
Now through December 31, 2020, you can snag a 20% discount on my novel In Our Midst. If you’re a member of a reading group planning to add In Our Midst to your 2021 schedule, this is a great time to order a copy individually or multiple copies as a group. I love chatting with reading groups, so if you’d like for me to join you online for part of your meeting, please get in touch. In the meantime, here’s the reading group guide.
The 20% discount code applies to In Our Midst–and all other offerings from my publisher Dzanc Books, so visit the site and consider stocking up on reading to carry you until a COVID vaccine is widely distributed and proving effective. At checkout, enter the code 2020SNAG.