Civil War novelist brings readers close to river settlers
Hudson-area readers will feel right at home with author Lisa Doerr’s new post-Civil War novel, “Eureka Valley – Grandfathers’ Grandfathers.”
Its central characters: the St. Croix River, the rich landscape around it and the real-life settlers who fought long odds and a sometimes stacked economic deck to help make the entire river valley what it is today.
“So many people came up that river to settle in Hudson and farther up. It was a major artery for commerce,” Doerr explained of the Civil War’s aftermath in a telephone interview last week.
“The story is about the river itself and the people who settled here. The story is based on real people, the way they lived and the obstacles they had to overcome after the Civil War, but it also has a lot of reverence for the St. Croix River Valley itself,” added Doerr.
“I also really tried to look at the economics of those settlers and how things worked financially around the river then. One of the stories in the book, for example, involves East Coast big money, which would buy up huge chunks of land near the river and then sell it to settlers, often at a huge profit. So one of the book’s aspects is the question, ‘How did people finance the way they settled here?’”
Drawn from the real lives of early Hudson-area settlers Lycurgus Bell and Wood John Johnson, Doerr’s novel takes the reader from Alabama’s Appalachian hills to the St. Croix River Valley while unraveling the roots that still bind the main characters to a modern rural couple.
Doerr has lived for 15 years in the St. Croix River Valley near Cushing, about 50 miles north of Hudson, where she and her husband raise gaited horses and grow hay for the area equine industry on their farm near Alabama Lake.
Wood John Johnson, “a very well-known settler” in the post-war St. Croix River Valley, is Doerr’s great- great-grandfather-in-law.
Notes a promotional flier for the novel: “Swedish immigrant Wood John Johnson spends years felling Wisconsin’s forests and cruising new timber stands for East Coast financiers. Upon entering Eureka Valley’s unique transitional ecosystem, he glimpses a different way of life that lives on today.”
Lycurgus Bell, meanwhile, was born to an Alabama family loyal to the Union and served in Lincoln’s Civil War army – only to be forced out of his lifelong home by the Ku Klux Klan when the war ended.
“When he returns home a victor, he expects his just rewards,” the flier adds. “But instead, the Union he suffered greatly to save hangs him out to dry.”
Said Doerr: “I’d always wondered why there was an Alabama Lake in northwestern Wisconsin, and it turns out that a big part of this area was settled by southern Unionists who’d been driven out of their pre-war homes by the KKK.
“In reality, one in 10 southern soldiers fought for Abraham Lincoln, so for every 900,000 Confederate soldiers, there were about 100,000 southerners who fought for the Union. Yet southern Unionists have gotten almost no recognition. … That’s what really got me interested – finding out about Lycurgus Bell.”
“Eureka Valley – Grandfathers’ Grandfathers” is the first work of fiction for Doerr, who calls Cushing “the center of the universe – right after Hudson.”
She also has done environmental, technical and research writing after 20 years as a communications and policy professional for environment-focused organizations.
“I have a lot of stories in my head,” Doerr said. “So I feel blessed because now I can focus full-time on my creative and fiction writing.”