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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