In Under the Ashes, Elizabeth “Littlebeth” Morgan’s family wants her to become a proper lady, so they send her to stay with her Aunt Sally in San Francisco. But before Littlebeth can adjust to cultured city life, the earthquake hits. Will Littlebeth be able to survive the disaster and be reunited with her family?
We were lucky enough to sit down with author Cindy Rankin to talk about Under the Ashes, finding inspiration close to home, and her nineteenth-century idols.
Q: Your novel is centered around a historic earthquake. Why did you choose to write about that?
A: This began as a short story about a spunky girl. When I decided to build a novel around Littlebeth’s character, I needed a big challenge for her to face. I knew the deadliest earthquake in U.S. history happened in San Francisco in 1906. In researching what was called the Great Quake, I became fascinated by the era, and wondered how Littlebeth would manage in an unfamiliar city that collapsed around her.
In 2003, my hometown had a destructive temblor. I learned first-hand how frightening an earthquake can be. It left a lasting impression. Under the Ashes is a historic novel, but young people still deal with the same kinds of issues as Littlebeth—living up to parental expectations, finding one’s own place in the world—and unfortunately, there will always be disasters that result in loss and refugees. I hope readers experience what it was like to live in another time, yet understand how Littlebeth feels when her parents send her away, and imagine how they might react if they were caught in an epic calamity.
Q: Did you base the character of Littlebeth on anyone?
A: As a child, my daughter’s confidence amazed me, yet it was also irksome. She posted her “rules of life” on her bedroom door: “Everyone has to stay ten feet away from me!” That didn’t work. Our house was too small and I’m a hugger. Smart, strong-willed kids are a challenge to raise, but usually grow into fine adults. I dedicated this book to her.
Q: What inspired the title of your book?
A: It had to reflect the story. After the Great Quake, a huge fire broke out and burned for three days. Ash rained down and covered everyone alike from the elite to the poor as they all tried to survive the catastrophe. Littlebeth came to understand the similarity and difference between people isn’t status, religion, skin color, or nationality. It’s inside the heart that matters most. She discovered even under the ashes hope exists for a new beginning.
Q: If you lived in 1906, would you have been wild like Littlebeth or the proper young lady her parents wanted her to be?
A: Well, you’d never catch me chasing skunks or a rattlesnake! But I wouldn’t be a proper young lady either, because my imagination is too big to stay quiet or still for long. Today girls have the freedom to play sports, excel in school, and be who they want to be. It wasn’t always like that. In the past, standing out like Littlebeth wouldn’t be acceptable.
Q: Littlebeth gets to meet famous opera singer Enrico Caruso in San Francisco. If you lived in the early 1900s, who would you like to meet?
A: Like Littlebeth’s papa, I’m a fan of our 26th president,Teddy Roosevelt. Also, I admire Andrew Carnegie. He was born poor in Scotland, came to the U.S. and made a fortune, then donated great sums to enrich communities. I’d like to thank him for all the libraries he built. My hometown has a Carnegie Library that opened in 1909. My children and I spent a lot of time there. Now it’s the home of our Historical Society.
Q: What books did you like to read when you were young?
A: The Boxcar Children. Kids making it on their own struck my fancy. Also Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew series—solving mysteries and driving a roadster—nothing better! But my all-time favorites (I reread them every few years) are: Anne Of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Q: Are you working on other projects?
A: I’m writing a contemporary middle grade novel about a boy whose father is missing in war, and the unusual way he copes with his dad’s absence. I come from a military family. This story is in my bones.
Thanks, Cindy. Check out Under the Ashes on our website, where you’ll also find links for purchasing the title.