A new, young adult fiction book set in the Missouri Ozarks just hit store shelves, and award-winning author Nancy Rosenthal Stewart, a Belleville native, said she drew inspiration from her environment and her own life situations.
“All of us as human beings are just an amalgam of experiences — that’s all we are. Experiences really define who we are, I think, and who we become,” Stewart said.
For Stewart, growing up alongside her cousin and visiting Lake Taneycomo every summer were the experiences that sparked her first novel “Beulah Land,” which was released in November. The book revolves around the life of 17-year-old girl Violette Sinclair, whose family has lived in the Ozarks for 200 years.
“Most summers, my family and I would spend a week or so in the Ozarks, and I just grew to love it. It’s just a wonderful — a bit rugged — place, but beautiful to visit,” Stewart said. “It really made a bigger impression on me than I thought it did at the time.”
Stewart said Violette’s character was influenced by the life of her late cousin, Jill. “My cousin was gay, and she had a very hard time growing up because ... part of the family simply did not accept her.”
Stewart said she began writing the story after her cousin died three years ago. “At her celebration of life party, the novel ‘Beulah Land’ came to me basically fully formed, it was like a Rubik’s Cube — ch, ch, ch, ch, ch — and there it was.”
According to Stewart, the main character needed to be placed in a difficult environment, and for Violette, that would be the rural Ozarks. “Authors always put their protagonist — hero or heroine — in the hardest place possible (to) give them so many things to overcome. So the Ozarks for a girl who is gay, that’s where she had to go.”
However, both the author and editor said Violette’s sexuality is not the main focus of the story.
“Though Violette Sinclair is definitely facing adversity due to her orientation … that’s not the point of what she’s trying to solve in this book,” Annie Harper, executive editor of Interlude Press, said. “What she’s trying to do is solve a mystery to save her family.”
“Vi, at the end of the day, is a wonderful, courageous human being, who just happens to be gay — it’s just one little facet of her life. The rest of her life is so much more,” Stewart said.
A publisher of LGBTQ fiction, Interlude Press has a young adult offshoot called Duet Books, through which “Beulah Land” was produced. Harper said it was important to publish the novel because of what the main character represents.
I really think it is a book for all people because it doesn’t just only deal with a gay girl — it deals with truth, and it deals with honesty, and it deals with valor.
author Nancy Rosenthal Stewart on her first novel “Beulah Land”
“She doesn’t just survive — she triumphs,” Harper said. “We don’t have enough stories about girls and women driving the story, driving the action, solving the problem, you know, without necessarily relying on someone else to do it for them.”
Stewart said she caught the attention of publishers after “Beulah Land” won an award in 2015 for being the top book in the state of Florida, where she currently resides. “Believe me, no one was more surprised than I was,” Stewart said.
While some may avoid the young adult section of the bookstore for one reason or another, Stewart said this narrative is not just for teen readers.
“The most important people to read it, I think, would be young people who are just learning about themselves; young people who are conflicted, perhaps, about their sexuality, but having said that, I would really like for their parents to read it, too,” Stewart said. “I really think it is a book for all people because it doesn’t just only deal with a gay girl — it deals with truth, and it deals with honesty, and it deals with valor.”
About the author
Just as Violette’s family roots run deep, so do Stewart’s. She said her family has lived in the Belleville area for nearly 100 years.
“I’m so fortunate to have grown up in the Midwest, with Midwestern values. I think that Belleville was a great place to grow up,” Stewart said. “I know that smaller communities sometimes get a bad rap, but I don’t feel that way. Belleville will always have a very warm spot in my heart.”
An alumna of Washington University in St. Louis, Stewart went into education and found herself at McKendree University teaching children’s and young adult literature when she began to consider writing as a career.
“During those years, I began to toy with the idea of writing, and over about a four- or five-year period it just became clear to me that I wanted to write.”
Stewart has published five children’s books in addition to “Beulah Land.”
Retail price for “Beulah Land” is $15.99. This and other books by Stewart can be purchased on Amazon, at www.nancystewartbooks.com or at Barnes & Noble.