It’s all in the name for new novel set in Winfield
BY BROOKS TAYLOR
Mt. Pleasant News
S.M. (Stuart) Harris just loves the name Winfield. The author loves it so much that it serves as the setting for his first novel — “The Northeast Quarter” — which was released Nov. 15.
It is quite possible that no one in Winfield has ever heard of Harris, and the Brooklyn, N.Y., playwright and author has never visited the Henry County community, although he has Iowa roots extending several generations.
He admits he brushed off his artistic license for the Winfield setting. “I just love the name Winfield, I wanted to create the novel in a town whose name I liked. I knew there was a Winfield in Iowa, but I doubt the town I created looks like the real Winfield.”
The Northeast Quarter also includes a reference or two to Arabella Mansfield, who lived in Mt. Pleasant, graduated from Iowa Wesleyan and became the first female attorney in the United States.
He said he did some research on Mansfield and opted to use her as the impetus for the lead character in the book, Ann Hardy, in becoming an attorney.
“I mention her (Mansfield) because she is an inspiration for Ann’s decision to become a lawyer,” Harris said. “Ann (who was 10 years old at the beginning of the book) sees her world falling apart around her. All the adults are either bought off or too terrified to stand up for themselves. Ann begins to wonder, ‘How would Arabella Mansfield have dealt with this?’ Then she starts considering how she would handle her predicament if she were a lawyer.”
Harris, despite living in New York, is not a foreigner to Iowa. His great-great-grandparents settled in Audubon County in the late 1800s and at one time the family owned 20 farms in the area. All but one of the farms, which Harris now owns, was a victim of the Great Depression.
His great-great-grandfather, Captain Charles Stuart, was the founder of the town of Audubon and the town of Stuart was named after him. The town of Gray, Iowa, was named after Harris’ great-great grandmother, Lois Gray.
Harris’ novel covers life on the farm in the United States from 1918-1930. Ann’s character is “very loosely” based on his mother, also named Ann, Harris said, and conversations he heard as a youngster growing up between his mother and other relatives about family property in Iowa.
The novel draws its name from a promise — never to sell the northeast quarter of the family’s land holdings — Hardy made to her grandfather prior to his death. Hardy was able to keep the promise despite many obstacles and hardships.
Hardy’s life is about survival and unimaginable achievement under the toughest circumstances. She is forced out of the home she always knew and sent to a boarding school where she is miserable, while her family endures the end of a life they enjoyed. The theme of the book is about staying true to yourself, Harris said, never giving up and standing up for what you believe in, regardless of what obstacles are in front of you.
“Ann saw how the Great Depression hit farms before the cities,” Harris explained. “She saw a lot of people financially hurt and that bothered her.
“She (Ann) begins in the book as a precocious girl,” Harris continued. “As characters keep taking over the estate, she says I have to stand up to them. She then learns about Arabella Mansfield and starts studying law and by the end of the book is a lawyer.”
Harris had originally intended the book to be a three-act play. A playwright, he has written about 10 plays including two off-Broadway productions. He also is a member of the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York. He said the play became a book “because not many plays can’t handle the number of characters I have in the book and some of the things in the book would be hard to convey on the stage. I really wanted to write a play, set in Iowa.”
The writer became a playwright later in life, working as a property manager, travel agent and clerical employee at an art gallery in California before taking playwriting courses at night at UCLA. “When I was answering the phone at the art gallery, I thought I needed to broaden my horizons, so that is why I went back to school.”
He said it took him six years to complete his first novel — three years to write it and the same number of years to edit it.
So what’s next? Harris said he doesn’t know. He is torn between writing another novel and renewing ties with his playwriting buddies.
“I would like to write more novels,” said the 69-year-old Harris, “but I miss my playwriting group. It is has been six years since I’ve been with them. My future writing direction is kind of up in the air.”