The Birth of a Character: Ella McFarland

From where does a novel’s character emerge? 

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Ella Pyle, inspiration for the character Ella McFarland, at age 14

The character Ella Jane McFarland took shape as I considered Mama, my maternal grandmother. What patterns might have emerged in Mama’s kaleidoscope of life with a single twist in one direction or the other? The character Ella McFarland from The Calling of Ella McFarland emerged from this essential question.

Mama was born Ella Jane Pyle in Cooke County, Texas in 1886. Like Ella McFarland, she grew to adulthood as a farmer’s daughter in Indian Territory prior to Oklahoma statehood. 

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Ella Pyle’s engagement portrait, 1904. Age 18

She married my grandfather—William Tribble Banks—in 1904 Indian Territory. Papa had lost an arm in a cotton gin accident but he never saw the loss of the limb as an impairment. With a bit of ingenuity, he farmed as other men did.

Although different in superficial ways, Ella Pyle and the character Ella McFarland are alike fundamentally. Like Ella McFarland, Mama possessed a will of iron and a rock-solid faith.

Mama never drove an automobile or voted. She never joined a woman’s club or spoke publicly. She never progressed beyond third grade. But Ella McFarland attended college and became a skilled teacher. She’s an advocate for women’s rights and speaks publicly as a suffragette

William Tribble and Ella Banks, 1910
William Tribble and Ella Banks, 1910

Touched by the plight of those in need, my soft-spoken grandmother tended sick neighbors. (Tweet That!) She prepared some bodies for burial. She never drove a car. But she handled a team of mules pulling a covered wagon from Oklahoma to the southern tip of Texas in 1923. (Roadways are a sight better today.) Ella McFarland is cut from the same mold.

Unlike many women today …

 
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Ella Pyle sewed her own clothes. Ella McFarland does the same.
Mama never leaned back in a massage chair for a manicure/pedicure, but she picked 100 pounds of cotton a day. Ella McFarland could do the same.
 
Mama never shopped at a mall, but she cleared land for farming for $8 an acre and sewed up a dress in a matter of hours. Ella McFarland could do the same.
 
Ella Pyle never considered the merits of granite countertops over tile or real wood floors over laminate, but she made a home out of a corner in a barn. She used a broom on the dirt floor. If called to do so, Ella McFarland could do the same.
 
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Mama with her four surviving children, circa 1940
Both women possessed single-minded devotion to their families and overcame hardship through pure grit and faith in Almighty Go. Both women’s lives testify to the hope and healing found outside themselves—in Jesus Christ
 
Ella Pyle and the character Ella McFarland were forced by circumstances to make decisions about their faith, family, and aspirations. 
 
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Ella Jane Pyle Banks Anderson Know
By 1922 Mama had borne seven daughters and buried four. Her fourth daughter Eula succumbed to typhoid along with Papa. Ultimately she withstood the deaths of two husbands and five children. She experienced destitution few have known, yet she left a name worthy of a great-great granddaughter–my granddaughter Ella Jane–and the heroine of The Calling of Ella McFarland.
 
A portion of Ella McFarland is Ella Pyle, but a full ¼ of me is Mama. For that I’m very thankful.
 

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Doin’ the Happy-Dance

gourd-474219_1280Giving thanks sometimes means I break out in a happy-dance.

My recent happy-dance commenced when my husband came inside holding a UPS delivery and wearing a smile.

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My happy-dance commenced with a plain box.

The Calling of Ella McFarland had arrived! 

I cleared a space on the kitchen counter.

He set down the box and took out his pocketknife.

“Wait! Let me get a picture!”

“Of the box?” Barely veiled incredulity on his part.

“Of course.” Duh.

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The happy-dance rhythm picked up.

And then the opening … and the drum roll!

“Stop! I need another picture!”

“What?” Unveiled incredulity this time.

“Don’t you know it’s a process?” Duh.

He scratched his head and complied.

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Cause for the Happy-Dance

Then my “Oh … how beautiful … I’m going to cry.” 

He humphed. Flipped pages. Umm-ed. And nodded.

“Take another picture.”

“Of …?” He eyed my bedhead and p.j.s. 

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Happy-Dance Time!

“Just my hands. Holding a book.” 

Relief showing, he followed instructions and then, “I’m going to the shop.”

My Happy-Dance commenced when The Calling of Ella McFarland arrived
My favorite coffee mug watched over the telling of Ella’s story: THE CALLING OF ELLA MCFARLAND

Which was my cue to spread out the books and start snapping photos. Forget breakfast. 

Meanwhile, I’m doin’ my happy dance! And thanking God.

P.S. I can’t count the hours my sweet husband devoted to preparing meals, doing dishes, washing and drying clothes, shopping, running errands, protecting my space, listening, enduring my occasional wails, encouraging, praying, and even shedding tears over some lines as I wrote Ella’s story. Like Aaron and Hur on the mountaintop supporting Moses’ hands (Exodus 17:8-14), Al held me up when I grew weary.

You turned my wailing into dancing … Psalm 30:11

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