Doubling and Splitting in the Fiction of Charlotte Hinger
Posted by Barbara Leavy on Dec 9 2014, 3:30 PM
     It is almost a paradox that the doubling that characterizes identical twins results from an act of splitting.  A woman’s single fertilized egg divides within a few days of conception and the two zygotes share their DNA.  Fraternal twins result from two ova being fertilized at the same time.  Differences are notable when the babies are born: sometimes one is a girl, the other a boy; if the same gender, they might have different blood types and be distinguished by other strongly observable differences. In some if rare cases, twins can look so alike that they are assumed to be identical but prove after testing to be fraternal. Among identical twins differences begin to assert themselves even in the womb.  Still, the idea persists that because identical twins are just that, identical, they are useful for studying how nature and/or nurture shape the individual person.  Scientists as well as social scientists and fiction writers have been drawn to the mystery and fascination of twins.
      In Charlotte Hinger’s Lottie Albright mystery series, Lottie is an identical twin so attached to her sister Josie that she is sure that were Josie to die, so would she.  But they live very different lives. Each has studied for a different profession. Josie is a clinical psychologist who also teaches at a college in Eastern Kansas;  Lottie has a PhD in history and is the Director of the fictional Carlton County Historical Society in Western Kansas, where she earns a pittance and has personally paid for much of the equipment necessary for the center to function. She had fallen in love with and married Keith Fiene, who is a widower much older than she. He is the father of four grown children, and a retired veterinarian, who can, however, be called upon in an emergency, and a full-time farmer. Josie is incredulous that her twin has chosen to live in what Josie considers a wasteland, and Lottie is constantly challenged by Josie’s disbelief  to define herself and her life—to her twin and to herself.  One way to understand their differences is to think of them as identical twins who live in a state consisting of symbolically fraternal twins—a divided Kansas.
    Hinger has described the stark contrasts between Eastern and Western Kansas, and her account is useful to understand these as a background to her Lottie Albright series, its imagery and symbolism. “Western Kansas was settled later than Eastern Kansas and it wouldn’t have happened at all if it had not been for the Homestead Act, because Western Kansas was still regarded as the Great American Desert.  There is a dramatic difference in the topography of the regions.  Eastern Kansas is wooded, has a lot of water, and resembles Missouri.  Western Kansas was strictly and forevermore bound to agriculture and [its residents] viewed as poor relations because of the constant appeals for aid.  The climate was radically different, usually extreme, and Eastern Kansas cousins were disgusted by the lack of judgment of these needy settlers who shouldn’t have gone there in the first place. Eastern Kansas had the Missouri River, commerce, industry, mining, and theoretically civilization.
     “Then everything changed. Western Kansas homesteaders started making money.  The western part of the state was labeled The Breadbasket of the World.  Wheat was gold. Cattle was a priceless commodity.  Things changed again.  Some of the country cousins became incredibly rich because they struck oil and discovered they were sitting on fields of natural gas.  Also, enormous packing plants and feedyards sprang up.  However, the area was still agriculturally driven.  Then Eastern Kansas wanted some of the revenue to assist their impoverished urban areas and the westerners scorned their formerly haughty city cousins.  Some things stayed the same.  Population was concentrated in the east, and the west complained that legislation was always passed for the advantage of Eastern Kansas.  In turn, Eastern Kansas thought the westerners lacked the political sophistication to decipher complex issues.” 
     Josie’s astonishment at Lottie’s choices reflects the perceptions of Western Kansas by the Easterners, and Lottie cannot completely shake off Josie’s denigration of her lifestyle. It has been said that the “symbolism of twins, so richly elaborated in the mythology of many cultures, is a picture of our own duality.  The stories tell us that we are all twins, that the sense of duality is inborn.”  To judge by Charlotte Hinger’s fiction, she would agree with this claim, but she also knows that nurture plays a large role in how identical twins differentiate themselves. If raised together, their similarities are almost always pointed out as a mark of something unique and special, even cute, and perhaps in defiance they must strive to individuate themselves--in contrast to the divided “self” that seeks unity.  As Lottie says in Lethal Lineage,  “As twins, Josie and I had been constantly scrutinized and compared when we were children. Identical in appearance, we had always known we shared the same heart. Came from the same egg. Yet, as we aged, differences emerged.  At first they were subtle, then they became more obvious, and by the time we were shipped off to finishing school, we flaunted our individuality.”
     But the idea of a divided “self” is relatively new in Western thought as are the implications of the word self.  Individuality among humans was in itself a new concept for defining the species.  It was for earlier centuries understood that humans were beings split between their animal nature shared with beasts and their spiritual strivings on behalf of their immortal souls.  In Hinger’s fiction, what St. Paul described as the warfare between flesh and spirit will be strongly reflected in the third of her mystery series, Hidden Heritage.  Throughout her books, however, the complexities of doubling and splitting underlie her plots and reveal how her characters deal with the ambiguities that pit them as individuals against their environments--natural, political, cultural. And often complicate their personal relationships.
     Lottie and Josie were raised together but even in boarding school they chose different sports to excel at.  Later, Josie maintained a way of life consistent with her privileged upbringing.  She would not as would her twin willingly relinquish the pleasures of shopping malls, small boutiques, high-end cafes and restaurants, and places to groom her equally pampered pet dog, a shih tzu named Tosca after a favote opera of both Josie and Lottie, but also a sign of the culture of Eastern Kansas and its supposedly absence in the western part of the state. But luxury does not in itself define Josie.  She is smart, accomplished, and willing to face danger in order to help Lottie, who will become a deputy sheriff in order to fight the crimes that are the inevitable consequence of developing Western Kansas. In contrast to Josie, Lottie lives among people who struggle to wrest a living from a harsh land, those owning businesses subject to even minor fluctuations in the economy. But Josie’s initial disapproval softens in the course of the series, and she becomes more involved in Lotte’s new life, drawing closer to her brother-in-law Keith Fiene, an educated man, a skilled musician, but, again, a farmer.
     Farming, at least as far back as Euripides’ version of the Electra story, is seen by the upper classes as a lowly occupation, however necessary, and Electra’s forced marriage to a farmer has drawn discussion by many classicists.  On the one hand, after her father Agamemnon has been murdered by her mother Clytemnestra and her mother’s lover, Electra is a princess forced to marry a farmer in order to insure that her children will never inherit the rule of Argos. In turn, Euripides’ farmer is a noble character who never demands of Electra his marital rights, thus leaving his virgin wife in a position to marry someone more suitable to her position. This is not to say that Charlotte Hinger has taken Euripides’ version of the Electra myth as a model for her own stories, but only that there is a long literary tradition reflected in her series as Lottie moves from  finishing-school  to living among farmers.
     Although in the course of even the first book, the initial conflict between the twin sisters begins to dissipate as Josie’s respect for Keith grows, it would be too optimistic to say that Charlotte Hinger projects onto their close bond the image of a unified Kansas.  For Hinger, Lotte, has a clear-eyed view of reality and does not indulge in political wishful-thinking.  Hinger’s series is about conflict and how individuals grapple with forces over which they may have little control, although sometimes successfully managing to change their circumstances.   
     There are two ways to approach Hinger’s fiction for those who wish to go beyond the intricate puzzles that form her plots.  The history of Kansas, its geography, its different cultures, and its internal conflicts supply her books with many of their incidents and their varied characters. As does Lottie, Hinger collected stories from families in Western Kansas to preserve in books their history and a record of their lives. This was a veritable treasure trove of tales, especially when her informants’ lives were colored by family secrets whispered in private, never making their ways into the official versions.  But it is also possible to trace in Hinger’s books themes having to do with twinship, an essential duality in human beings in general and in any one individual’s attempt at self-definition. Looking back from the Lottie Albright books to Hinger’s standalone novel, Come Spring,  the early writing proves to be a fountainhead for what will later be developed in the series.
      Come Spring is an historical novel about the settling of Western Kansas. Its point of view character is Aura Lee, and her life before and after she marries homesteader Daniel Hollingworth is one of the most extreme examples of splitting in Hinger’s fiction.  Before the marriage, Aura Lee slept on satin sheets in her home in St. Jo, Missouri; afterwards she lived with Daniel in what was called a soddy, a primitive house made of blocks of sods but out of the earth.  She is luckier than many of the other homesteaders’ wives in Western Kansas, many of whom lived in dugouts, literally caves carved out of the earth. Aura Lee’s soddy has glass windows and she owns a modern stove that was a wedding gift from her parents.  But neither cooking nor keeping her surroundings clean, especially since her house was forever covered in the dirt that blew in from the outdoors, was part of Aura Lee’s experience.  As time went on, Aura Lee had a harder and harder time adjusting to her new existence and she becomes weary of Daniel’s promises that things would get better for her “come spring.”
     The at-first ecstatic sex Aura Lee knows with Daniel dwindles and she must pretend to enjoy their lovemaking.  As scholar Wendy Doniger has said about the conventions surrounding the image of twins to be found in many cultures, a married couple is in a sense a set of twins striving for oneness. She writes, “The sexual double is one of the most compelling forms of the more general image of the double.  This may well be because the sexual act is in itself the most ‘doubling’ and ‘undoubling’ of acts.  Where all other doubles split into two, sexual doubles unite into one.  There are all sorts of reasons, sexual and non-sexual, for an individual to proliferate personalities, but in the sexual act, the opposite happens: two become one when the double, a couple, coalesces into the one.” As a result, myths of sexual doubles represent this tension between the urge to diverge and the urge to merge.  And twins, being nature’s doubles, frequently become involved in sexual masquerades.”
     By masquerades, Doniger is referring to frequently told tales in which one person impersonates another and takes the latter’s place in her bed. In a sense, when Daniel is briefly seduced by Lucinda (more about her shortly), she becomes the impersonator. And when Aura Lee pretends to Daniel that she enjoys sex with him as she always has, she is also in a sense masquerading, and her pretense is a sign of her emotional withdrawal. Later, Lottie Albright will experience with her husband Keith what Doniger calls the “urge to diverge and the urge to merge,” and this will be a recurrent if not sexual problem for her in Hinger’s series.  Aura Lee’s masquerade, in contrast, is different, for a woman’s choices had multiplied by Lottie’s time, although the conflicts between the individual and the couple persisted. What Aura Lee wishes for and Lottie wants are far from the same.
     Although Aura Lee dearly loves her husband, she finds herself drawn to the attractive wheeler and dealer Graham Chapman, whose personal ambitions also contribute to the development of Kansas but in ways far more ambiguous than Daniel’s.  One of the characters in Come Spring, a Cherokee, compares Graham to the folkloric figure of the trickster, who both gives and takes away. Aura Lee is not, however, conned into imagining he can offer her a life closer to the one she needs, because her attraction for him seems real and not just a passing fancy.  Nor is his attraction to her. Graham lives in what then passed for a town but Aura Lee’s visits to it would be more of a luxury than Daniel could afford. If Aura Lee is to adjust to her new life in Western Kansas, she must distance herself from her earlier life, and this will be no easy thing for her to do.
     As a beautiful if delicate young woman from a well-to-do family in St. Jo, Missouri, Aura Lee was used to being surrounded by young people who admired her interest in the arts and enjoyed the lively conversation that emerged from her keen mind. On the Kansas homestead she is alone most of the time as Daniel battles to clear the land to create the farm that he dreams will produce large quantities of wheat that he can sell and from which he can prosper.  Her nearest neighbor is three miles away and Aura Lee does not even know she is nearby until the woman suffers terribly trying to give birth and her husband Vensel Smrcka comes to Aura Lee and Daniel for help. There being no doctor in the area, they arrive to find her and her baby dead and the only help they can offer is the construction of a coffin for the bodies.  This incident traumatizes Aura Lee and results in a further sexual and emotional withdrawal from Daniel because she is terrorized of becoming pregnant and delivering a baby without medical assistance.  A generalized fearfulness becomes a central feature of her personality.
     On the homestead, moreover, she lacks what would once have been an outlet for her troubled feelings. In St. Jo, she had a piano and her playing of it is not just the accomplishment of a “lady” but is rather a sign of genuine musical genius.  Her music teacher recognizes this and is appalled when Aura Lee leaves for Kansas. He warns her she will die there as Josie would later warn Lottie, although it is a spiritual death Josie warns about. And the music teacher is right insofar as Aura Lee’s once lively spirits begin their demise. There is no music for her on the homestead; certainly no chance for a piano, even come spring.
     As Aura Lee gradually crumbles under the weight of her own unhappiness, she begins to hear voices that frighten and mock her with her own fears and mixed emotions.  These are not hallucinations, the voices of a schizophrenic. Rather they are an obvious externalization of her increasingly divided self.  They are also manifestations of her choices as she struggles with her present existence.  At one point, Daniel betrays her and she must choose between forgiveness and punishing him by even further withdrawal. “Her mind was giving birth to twins again.  The double demons of hate and loved showed side by side and beckoned to her tormented soul, and she chose coldness.”  When she has a chance to leave Daniel for Graham, it is not only morality and convention that restrain her and she cannot end her marriage. For despite the growing chasm between them, she has only one real love in her life, Daniel, and she cannot imagine living without him. She tries to explain to Graham that if it were any comfort to him, “a part of me wants to stay here with you.  A part of me would just love to have you take care of me forever.”  But, clearly, only a part.
     Aura Lee makes a conscious decision to succeed in her marriage and to help Daniel to fulfill his dreams and at that point her voices are approving, emphasizing her choice between two, antithetical decisions: “’that’s right,’ her voices encouraged, ‘It comes down to adjusting or not adjusting.’”  And as she tries to adjust, the voices recede. But when she does become pregnant, they are “back in a flash,” reminding her of her fears and tell her, “You’ll die of course.”  To which she is “unable to respond,” because she is convinced that they are right.  When Daniel, thrilled to start a family, asks her if she is happy, she responds, “’Oh, yes,’ . . . Why wouldn’t I be?’ ‘Traitor!’ her voices cried triumphantly, ‘You were the one who said there would be no more lies in this household.’”  Earlier, when she had started to withdraw from Daniel, her voices had chided her. “Aren’t you ashamed?”  Those voices are at one and the same time  her conscience, her struggle for selfhood, and an expression of the tension between her own needs and the compromises she and Daniel must make in order to be a couple. In Hinger’s series, the dichotomy between the individual, Lottie, and the couple, Lottie and her husband Keith, will be a recurrent theme.
     Although it is Aura Lee’s divided self that dominates Come Spring, it is another female character, Lucinda, who evidences the pervasive splitting and doubling to be found in this novel. She also seems to have her roots in folklore, which, whether Hinger intended it or not, is the art form that is associated with an emerging culture. Aura Lee may long for an ability to visit when she wishes a nearby town that provides her with some remnants of a so-called higher art form, but the Kansas homesteaders are more likely to retain the folklore of their or their ancestors’ native lands.
     Soon after Aura Lee is traumatized by helping to bury a woman who with her infant has died in childbirth, the widower Vensel surprises her by introducing a new woman,  who he hopes will be a loving wife and a nurturing step-mother to his young son, Anton. Her name is Lucinda and the emerging splits in her character are extreme and can be divided between what is positive and what is negative, thereby creating a plethora of doubles. For example, as will be seen, her attachment to nature and her love for the natural environment of Western Kansas, which neither Aura Lee nor, later, Lottie Albright can wholeheartedly embrace, make her the kind of woman that Western Kansas needs to develop its potential as the Bread Basket of the World.  On the other side, her connection to nature reflects some traditional and persistently negative elements in how both the old and new countries would perceive the place of human beings, particularly women, in their conventional societies. The natural woman would be too close to the wild woman recognized throughout the world and depicted in stories.  They are too distanced from the stereotype of the womanly woman who is content to be her husband’s helpmeet, What is a bleak landscape for Aura Lee and later Lottie Albright is for Lucinda an exciting promise.  She is not averse to the hard labor homesteaders’ wives would have to endure as their part in taming a stubborn land.  But just as the land must be tamed, so must the wild woman be.
     Lucinda is sometimes portrayed as a fully human character who reflects desirable female attributes. She not only accepts the domesticity that defines her role as Vensel’s wife, but she revels in it.  She is succeeded in Lethal Lineage by another character very much like her.  Myrna, someone Lottie at first pities because she is busy all the time, tending to her children, who seem always to be physically attached to her; taking care of a mother-in-law suffering from dementia; baking her own bread; watching the mill that grinds the grain so as one involved in an income-producing income, she is sure of what it makes; overseeing her family’s resources. She reminds Lottie of a painting, Song of the Lark, perhaps the unnamed painting Hinger had in mind when Lucinda at one time remembers a work of art she had seen in a gallery. The figure in Song of the Lark is working in the fields with a scythe in her hand.  Although she is upright, the painting captures the mood of Millet’s The Gleaners, hard labor by ordinary women that contrasts with an earlier artistic convention that portrays aristocratic women as shepherdesses or grand ladies in fine gowns having their portraits painted—in short the kind of lady that Aura Lee was in Saint Jo before she became the wife of a homesteader in Western Kansas. In the later book, Lottie thinks of how “Myrna was born for the land, the day.  For planning and plotting and matching her wits against the weather, the wind, the government, the economy.” For Lottie, Myrna was the epitome “of one of the most puzzling characteristics of Western Kansans.  A goodly number of them simply wanted to work all the time.” Similarly, Aura Lee thinks of Lucinda as “destined for the prairie.”
     Lucinda also evidences some of the negative attributes commonly associated with ordinary women.  She is prone to jealousy: later in the book she will covet Daniel and try to win him away from Aura Lee. As she envies Aura Lee her husband, so does she earlier resent her having in her soddy an up-to-date stove.  Lucinda pretends concern for Aura Lee when what she really feels for her is contempt. For just as she glories in nature, so does Lucinda believe that a real woman is one whose sexuality is apparent to men. She therefore denigrates Aura Lee for lacking this obvious appeal. At the same time, Lucinda’s sexuality is part of her connection to wild nature, and her husband Vensel thinks of how she exhausts him in bed.  But what most obviously conflicts with Lucinda’s natural exuberance as she enjoys the Western Kansas landscape is her bitterness about her place in a social hierarchy, one usually associated with towns and the advance of civilization.  On the homestead, she is superior to Aura Lee. Were they to live in a town, Aura Lee would be popular and looked up to while she, Lucinda, would have no place in the society in which Aura Lee moved.
     While one side of the divided Lucinda is fully human, so is she described in images that take her out of the real, material world.  She is like a phantasm that appeared from some unearthly realm. When her husband first sees her, she seems to him an apparition.  This perception involves a paradox: Lucinda is both of the earth and of some place beyond it. Either way, she is distinguished from ordinary women. Vensel describes how she “looked like a goddess with her rounded curves and [auburn] hair ablaze, queen of harvest and fertility.” When Daniel visits her dugout, the smells from her baking seemed to him to be “heavenly.”  A goddess, however, a divine creature, is quite different from the figure of the wild—the natural--woman. For Lucinda glories in her connection to nature. At one point, she pauses from her work and responds to “the wildness of the elements.  Like called to like and the soil had met its match.”
     The “wild woman” motif defines a group of widespread, criss-crossing narratives told throughout the world. The wild woman is often portrayed as being drawn to animals as lovers and mates.  The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses is a story to be found among many Native American tribes, as is the story of Bear Woman, once a mortal woman who mated with a bear and was turned into one. In some variations the animal mate suggests a variation on the Beauty and the Beast story, and the wild woman who lurks beneath the surface of the self-sacrificing woman who will disenchant the beast in some stories prefers it to the handsome prince. Even when the animal motif is absent from stories, the wild woman is perceived as inimical to civilization, unable to accept the restrictions of her culture. When a defiant Lucinda plans to go into town on her own, that is without her husband, Aura Lee tells her that would be unthinkable.   The human woman who wants social acceptance is thus split off from the wild woman who rebels against social norms. 
     Lucinda may love nature, love the land, love Kansas, but she is dangerous.  Hinger’s challenge will be to give her antithesis, Aura Lee, a more positive relationship to nature and to make her a Kansan. Ironically, it is Aura Lee who proves to be the more natural woman, more productive in the end, than Lucinda. It is Aura Lee who successfully “witches” during a search for the right place to find water by walking with a wooden stick that points downward where drilling should take place. Later, in Hidden Heritage,   it will be the non-believer, Lottie Albright, who successfully witches even though Keith has invested a large sum in hiring an engineer. When Lottie discovers Keith has also hired a witcher, she secludes herself in order to laugh uproariously without offending him. But later in that book, she will develop a different relationship to the otherworldly. Lucinda, however, does not fulfill the promises implied by her emphasis on the natural. Despite her association with fertility, Lucinda fails to become pregnant although she exhausts her husband in her attempts to have a child.  It is instead Aura Lee who will become pregnant, childbearing on the prairie and its dangers an important plot motif in Come Spring.
     The wild woman is not the only folklore figure to whom Lucinda can be compared.  She is also the archetypal wicked stepmother of so many fairytales.  Her abuse of Vensel’s son Anton will eventually force her out of Vensel’s and Anton’s lives, destroying her ambitions to be a prairie woman. An even stronger connection to folklore links her to the widespread tales that cluster around the Mysterious Housekeeper, a character in another large group of criss-crossing stories, among them the Pygmalion tale. The Mysterious Housekeeper suddenly appears, as does Lucinda, to meet the needs, domestic and sexual, of a lonely man who has difficulty fending for himself. She is a projection of his basic needs and perhaps his fantasies.
     When Lucinda materializes unexpectedly at the widower Vensel’s dugout, she explains that she is his late wife’s cousin. Still, there is something strange about her sudden appearing with her suitcase and violin (more about that instrument shortly). She sends the driver away immediately and it is noteworthy that neither he nor his horse require rest and refreshments, lending both a ghostly, unreal existence. When Lucinda later is revealed as the wicked woman Aura Lee fully realizes she is, she vanishes as “mysteriously as she had come to him, leaving no trace of having been there at all.” 
     Other story elements connect Lucinda to the Mysterious Housekeeper folktale.  Her domestic skills are prodigious, and she is a willing sexual partner. Although the man in the widespread story is almost bewildered by his good fortune, he also comes to sense that there is something wrong with this woman who cleans his house, cooks delicious meals, and shares his bed.  In one story, a strange smell always lingers about the Mysterious Housekeeper; in another he comes across her cooking with her own urine. In many folktales there is a taboo, a condition he must adhere to in order to keep his partner. It may be learning something about the strange woman that he is not supposed to know or learns only too late. At first it is Vensel’s son Anton who senses that the woman whose appearance he at first welcomes is not what she pretends to be. In literature, children and fools often possess insights adults lack.  Vensel later comes to realize that he was a fool to marry this woman with her nagging at him for not doing enough work each day although he comes home exhausted from his labor; with her denigration of his son as a dullard; with even her sexual demands on him that contrast with the pleasure he had from his more reticent but also passionate late wife.  The final straw for Vensel comes when he learns that Lucinda has physically abused his son and the punishment he metes out is violent and brutal in an act that will later be repeated for different reasons in Hidden Heritage.
     Lucinda’s otherworldly aspect is most ominous when she is seen as a devil. Although Charlotte Hinger says she did not consciously make the connection between Lucifer and Lucinda (private conversation), the names do evoke such a reading, the “Luc” at the beginning of each name signifying “light,” although both Lucinda and Lucifer prove the antithesis as agents of darkness.  Aura Lee understands this when she confronts the woman who has been so destructive to all who know her and who has tried to steal Daniel away from her. “You’re wicked. . . You’re one of the most attractive women I’ve ever seen, and you’re rotten through and through.  But then, Satan has always appeared as an angel of light.” Satan’s endeavors were to steal the souls of human beings, to turn them away from the light.  As Daniel listens to Lucinda play the instrument often associated with the devil, the violin that she brought with her when she suddenly appeared to Vensel, her music “wrenched [Daniel’s] soul from him.”  Even these comparisons indicate extreme splitting of characters.  Lucifer, the highest being in the hierarchy of angels, whose name indicates light, becomes after his fall Satan, the epitome of symbolic darkness.  The beauty of Lucinda, whose name also suggests light, obscures the spiritual ugliness that will later emerge.   
     The ambiguities surrounding Lucinda can reinforce an understanding that the image of the wild woman is but an extension of the perception of women as intrinsically rooted in the natural world, who, like nature, must be held in check, paradoxically to keep men rooted in culture.  To quote from the review of a book in which stories of the wild woman and the Mysterious Housekeeper are analyzed, there is an essential paradox involved in women’s role, a “tension between the wild with which woman is traditionally associated and the domestic space to which she is nonetheless assigned” and which she is expected to keep in order. It is therefore the case that whether women are perceived as wild or as conventionally agreeable to confinement in the home, there is always an anti-feminist tradition at work. It is this paradox that creates a dilemma for Lottie Albright.  For even though her choices with regard to work within the home or outside have multiplied since Aura Lee had to balance her needs as an individual with the requirements of being part of a couple within a marriage, Lottie—as has already been noted—faces the same dilemmas.
     Before marrying Keith Fienes, Lottie had earned a PhD in history.  Charlotte Hinger is an historian and the title Come Spring is an intriguing combination of the past, the settlement of Western Kansas, and the future, what would become the place Lottie has decided to live her life.  So far, all three titles in the Lottie Albright series suggest a past that will impact on the present—and by extension on the future: Deadly Descent  (DD), Lethal Lineage (LL), and Hidden Heritage (HH). The repetition of the initial letters in each title signifies doubling, although each novel will be about splitting as well.
     It is an accident that begins the conflict between Lottie and Keith, and Lottie with herself.  In Deadly Descent, her work at the historical society involves her in a nasty conflict with another set of twins who fight over the family story one of them has submitted to Lottie for inclusion in one of the historical books she is compiling.  One of these twins will be murdered and in order to help investigate the crime, Lottie will be sworn in temporarily as a deputy sheriff.  Her investigations will extend into the past and another set of sisters if not twins whose relationship is deadly.  There are therefore three sets of sisters in Deadly Descent, two sets creating a sharp contrast with Lottie and Josie, two sets also involving a sharp division between two women, the divisions in their relationships central to the plot in this mystery.
     When Lottie decides that she wants to make her position as deputy sheriff permanent, her conflicts with Keith emerge.  “He was proud of my work as a historian and my contribution to the community,” she explains in Lethal Lineasge,  which, like the others books in the series is told with Lottie as the first-person narrator. “Everything would have been perfect if I hadn’t decided to become a deputy sheriff so I could help solve a murder.”  In Deadly Descent, they had argued bitterly when she asked for the permanent position without consulting him. He was angry and frustrated: “You’re a liberated lady.  Got a star on your chest to prove it.  You say what you want. Do what you want.”  Lottie counters with, “I don’t. I don’t.  Every breath I draw is dictated by you.  I don’t speak, act, or do anything without your permission.”  She is not quite fair when she says to herself and to the reader, “If Sam [the sheriff] and Keith had their way, I would be wearing an apron and making strawberry jam.”
     In Lethal Lineage, the next book, Lottie repeats this expression of her resentment and her conflict, for she values her marriage as much as and even more than her sense that neither it nor her work at the historical society is self-sufficient. “Deep down, [Keith] would like me barefoot and pregnant.  Metaphorically, that is.”  Less angry if still frustrated, she realizes that both the sheriff and her husband are not trying to restrict her so much as to keep her safe, Keith in particular because of how his first wife died, a trauma from his past that still haunts him when Lottie is in danger. “Beneath the surface,” she realizes, “both Sam and Keith believe in protecting the womenfolk; we should get in the lifeboat first.”  It is because of man’s traditional role, which Keith has trouble redefining, that Lottie had not consulted him about becoming a deputy sheriff. “I knew you’d try to stop me and this was my decision. It’s about my life,” to which he responds “Not it isn’t.  This has to do with our marriage, not just your life.”
     Earlier, in Come Spring, a similar conversation had occurred between Aura Lee and Daniel, one  that emphasizes the man’s point of view in such exchanges as well as assumptions about gender roles.  The two of them had openly defined the differences that were dividing them, and it is Daniel who, as would Keith in Lethal Lineage, draws a distinction between the individual and the couple. Daniel tells his wife, “But even more important than you to me, is us, and sometimes I will have to put your desires aside for what will be the best for us as a couple.  And choosing a way that will make one or the other of us miserable is never going to be good for us.” Both Come Spring and Lethal Lineage prove the adage, easier said than done.  But the bond between Lottie and Keith is too important to each of them to allow their differences to destroy their oneness, their marriage.
     Lethal Lineage, the second  book in Hinger’s Lottie Albright series, is, like Hinger’s previous fiction, replete with images of splitting and doubling.  It is a locked room mystery, once the gold standard of the mystery genre, a very difficult feat for Hinger to achieve. Mary Farnsworth, an Episcopal priest, dies while administering Holy Communion during the consecration of the church Lottie had helped build to allow Episcopalians their own place of worship.  In the 1880s they had shared a church with Methodists, and that they no longer could share with other denominations is the reason not only why such a place of Episcopalian worship became necessary but also another sign of divisions rather than unity in the community. Interestingly, Keith is a devout Roman Catholic and Lottie what she describes herself as a “lapsed Episcopalian.”
 But this religious distinction does not seem to exacerbate any conflicts between them, although the dichotomy between Catholicism and Anglicanism, a major historical division, makes itself felt in Lethal Lineage. When Bishop Ignatius P. Talesbury comes to consecrate the new church, he shocks Lottie by being the “Anglican living image of a nineteenth century Catholic bishop” she had seen in an old photo. Through her historical research she “had come to look upon that very nineteenth century bishop as Western Kansas’ answer to Darth Vader.”  While a personally unsympathetic person, Bishop Talesbury is not a bad one and his own story will help lead to the killer of Mary Farnsworth.
     In the midst of Communion, Mary Farnsworth had been frightened by something said to her by an unknown man whose is searched for throughout the book, his identity a mystery. Dropping the communion wine, Mary flees to a room in which she locks herself and because the whole congregation witnesses this, it is not possible for anyone else going into the room or coming out olf it. When Mary is discovered to be dead and is then declared to have been murdered, how this could have happened remains a mystery to the end of the book.  There are other significant examples in Lethal Lineage of doubling and splitting. Mary’s identity proves false and discovering who she really was involves a major part of Lottie’s investigation and one that bewilders her. “There wasn’t a mean bone in her body and no signs of a double life.”  Another sympathetic character in the book will unexpectedly prove to be a bigamist, and it is her life story that imbues Lethal Lineage with an aura of tragedy.
It is in the third book of the Lottie Albright series, Hidden Heritage, that the themes of doubling and splitting are taken to another dimension altogether. The book is about the Diaz family, who have lived in the United States for centuries and had for almost that long been suing the United States over land they claimed had been unlawfully stolen from them.  The surviving matriarch of the Diaz family, Doña Francesca, insists she has an old map, a document that would substantiate the Diaz claim and that she has hidden it.  When she was young, she was horribly tortured by some men who wanted the map but she wouldn’t disclose its whereabouts. Her husband had died from his despair over being unable to protect her (Keith Fiene’s nightmare). Now her great-grandson, Victor Diaz has been murdered and Doña Francesca is convinced that once again, villains who had heard about the map were after it and killed him. She asks Lottie Albright to help her find the killers of Victor, who is at first believed to have died by accident. 
     Much of the plot of Hidden Heritage has to do with discovering whether or not the Diaz claim to vast areas of land holds up and, even if it does, what the outcome of the legal suits would likely result in.  Hinger alludes to Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House, in which a family is destroyed because of lawsuits that merely deplete the money being fought over until there is nothing left to fight for. (In A Judgment in Stone, Ruth Rendell alludes to Bleak House for a similar reason, for Dickens’ book is the prototype in fiction of the futile, ongoing suit.)  Hinger’s end-notes about a real, similar suit by a Spanish-American family adds another, historical dimension to her mystery after it is concluded. 
     As it is, the already huge Diaz compound in Western Kansas is totally unlike the surrounding land.  Keith is horrified that so much land is lying fallow when it can produce wheat and help feed the world.  What is cultivated with great care are lush gardens fed by underground streams, so seemingly unreal to Lottie and Keith that they are, Keith wonders, like Brigadoon.  Just as ephemeral and just as deceptive, ultimately, are many of the herbs grown on the Diaz compound.  It is not the gardens’ beauty that is poisonous but the extent to which their existence connotes a wide gap between the compound and the world that surrounds it. The Diaz family has created a seeming earthly paradise and its unreality casts further doubt on the validity of the Diaz claim to still more  land.  
     In stark contrast to the beautiful gardens is the “shit pit” from which the murdered body of Victor Diaz is recovered. This nauseating place is the one into which is dumped the dirt and excretions left by cattle in the trucks that transport them from ranches to the feedyard, from which they will be sold to slaughter houses. The trucks will then be washed down before leaving to pick up another load of cows.  The reader with probable revulsion has to imagine Victor Diaz’s dead body covered with excrement.
     In Hidden Heritage, the third and most recent of the Lottie Albright series, there are many examples of splitting and doubling, but, again, these have spun off in a different direction from  Deadly Descent and Lethal Lineage,as well as Hinger’s standalone novel, Come Spring. And the dichotomies can be defined under a general distinction between the material world and something that transcends or goes beyond it.  Even Lottie’s intuition, her ability to sense correctly when something is not right, takes on additional meaning, in contrast to Josie’s logical thinking. There are also in this mystery characters who appear to be opposites and then prove also to be similar.  Doña Francesca, the so-called witch collects herbs and uses them for healing, which in ancient times would have qualified her for being burnt at the stake because she is immersed in fallen nature, the realm of the devil.  Inez Wilson, the county health nurse and a well-known gossip demonstrates the persistence of such beliefs when she announces that Doña Francesca has come to the historical society to see Lottie. As a nurse, Inez scorns Francesca’s claim to being a healer. Even more she proclaims, “Heard tell she’s a witch and knows all kinds of stuff good Christian people have no business knowing.” 
     The great-granddaughter of Doña Francesca, Cecilia, does not believe her great-grandmother is evil, but her own strong Catholic beliefs prevent her from participating in the collecting and processing of herbs, especially those more potent ones that could transport Francesca to what for Cecilia would be a forbidden realm.  Doña Francesca had not at first intended to do more with her herbs than heal. But after she was tortured and her husband subsequently died, she changed. ”Until then I was a shaman.  I healed. Afterward, I followed the path of a nagual, a sorcerer, and became the master of that which I had vowed I would never delve into.” Now, she is convinced that she can induce a vision of the ones who murdered Victor so that she could wreak vengeance on them.
    The otherworldliness of both Doña Francesca and Cecilia unite them in a very complex way.  When Francesca says of generations of her descendents, that none of them know what she has endured, she asks Lottie, “What do they know of grief? All they know of loss comes from video games. And imitations of life. Shadows of the real thing.” The Platonism that leads Francesca to think of material things as shadows of the true reality is also a strong factor in Catholic belief.  Both Francesca at times and Cecilia most of the time turn away from the physical world. Cecilia intends eventually to become a nun, to renounce the world and, as the bride of Christ, to live a completely spiritual life. 
     What is real and what is not, and whether reality is to be defined by the material world rather than an immaterial one play a critical thematic role in Hidden Heritage. As an historian, Lottie thinks in the course of the book, when she is learning about herbs and their use, that she is gathering information of historical value.  None of Doña Francesca’s family will record her knowledge and it will be lost to the future. But the historian Lottie finds her double in the Lottie who realizes that Francesca might supply her with a glimpse into what would otherwise be closed to her. At the same time she knows that such a crossover into another realm would be dangerous.  At the possibility of learning all that Francesa knows, “My pulse accelerated.  A shaman?  Was I going to have the chance to tap into the vast wisdom of shamanism?  Centuries of traditions that brought about spiritual healing.  But even then, a warning bell sounded somewhere from deep within.”
      And this is the most significant and perilous split in Lottie, for when she starts to mix herbs and even drink concoctions made with them, she had already been warned that it is because she is part skeptic and only part believer in them that she is vulnerable to harm, unlike Cecilia, whose firm commitment to her Catholic faith would protect her. Finally Lottie must make a choice, which she does in a state of delirium: between some kind of perfection outside the world of the living, on one side, and, on the other, accepting a life in this world, far from perfect but more satisfying, one in which she will know pain but also love.  Hate is stronger than love she had been told by Doña Francesca, but she comes to know this is not true.
     Hidden Heritage is not the first book in which Charlotte Hinger raises the conflict between two kinds of realities.  In Come Spring, Aura Lee is terrified of being associated with any kind of witchcraft.  When it turns out that she rather than Lucinda can “witch,” that is use a willow stick to locate a source of water, she is more frightened than triumphant as Lucinda would have been.  In contrast Lottie, again, laughs until she cries when she learns that when Keith is looking for water, he hires not only an expensive Geologist but also someone who witches for one-tenth of the money. Lottie’s skepticism holds her back from becoming a shaman. In the case of Aura Lee, it is perhaps because she is not skeptical enough that she must pull back more strongly from what transcends the world of the senses.  She too will be unable to be the shaman she is capable of becoming, according to Charlie Stone, the Cherokee who sees her potential but understands why it will not be fulfilled. Still, she has undergone the purification of the shaman in the ordeal that comes towards the end of the book and that leads her to an enlightenment similar to Lottie’s, that it is in coping with reality rather than running from it that happiness lies. Charlie knows that Aura Lee has “received the touch of Changing Woman, and once given it could never be denied.”
       In Hidden Heritage, the third in the Lottie Albright series, a circle has been created that most strongly links the series to Charlotte Hinger’s standalone novel, Come Spring.   Charlie knows that Laura Lee has through the purification of the shaman become strong, and “through her strength would bring powerful gifts to people who came into this raw land.”  Lottie’s Western Kansas is not quite so raw but with its development comes the almost inevitable increase in problems, in crime.  Her gift is her determination both to fulfill herself and also to give back to the part of the state in which she has found love by combining her talents as an historian who will preserve the past with the intuition that helps her as a law enforcement officer to know when something is not right in the present--and to make it right. Both Aura Lee and Lottie learn to accept things as they are and in so doing help to make them better.
     In Lethal Lineage, Lottie Albright muses that “we all have a double.  Not just we twins.” Those other selves are not easily accessed in our conscious lives. “Strangers,” thinks Lottie, “We [are] all strangers to each other and to ourselves.” Doubling and splitting constitute such dominant and recurrent themes in Charlotte Hinger’s books that it is difficult not to think her own double is also her muse, and that from her other self comes her fiction.


The quotation from Wendy Doniger is from the issue on TWINS in Parabola: The Magazine of Myth and Tradition (Summer 1994)). ). The editors of this issue are quoted about twins as a symbol of human duality.

Expanded discussions of folklore in Come Spring can be found in Barbara Fass LeavIn Search of the Swan Maiden: A Narrative on Folklore and Gende (New York University Press, 1994. This book can be read in its entirety online and its analytical Table of Contents can direct the reader to specific subjects and folklore.

Visit Charlotte Hinger's website: www.charlottehinger.com.  Also visit her Face Book pages.

Comments on this essay should be directed to me at bfleavy2@gmail.com.
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