With Allegheny Arsenal explosion as background, 'Consecrated Dust' blends history and fiction

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In June 2002, after Mary Frailey Calland read about the Allegheny Arsenal explosion in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, the story stirred her ethnic and maternal sensibilities and launched her on 10 years of research.

"I was pretty surprised at how young the girls were. Childhood wasn't looked at the same way that it is now. These girls were doing full-time work for much less pay and they got paid less than the boys," she said.

The result is "Consecrated Dust: A Novel of the Civil War North." The title derives from a phrase on an Allegheny Cemetery monument that honors the unidentified victims killed in the three explosions on the afternoon of Sept. 17, 1862.

Since reading "Gone With the Wind" at age 12, Ms. Calland has relished historical fiction, especially that of E.L. Doctorow and Leon Uris. While researching the history that frames her novel, she raised three daughters and two sons with the help of her husband, Dean. Ms. Calland empathized with the parents who came to the scene in search of their children.

To find Pittsburgh landmarks and historical markers from the Civil War, she visited Downtown, Lawrenceville and the North Side. In the 1860s, the North Side was a separate community called Allegheny City, and Ridge Avenue was becoming an enclave of Pittsburgh's wealthy families.

Understanding the experiences of the infantry soldiers in the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves Regiment required four trips to the Antietam battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md., where the author trekked over the cornfield with a helpful park ranger. News of that battle, which happened on the same day, overshadowed Pittsburgh's deadly explosion that killed 78 people, 72 of whom were girls or young women.

To see how wounded soldiers were treated, the author visited the Civil War Museum of Medicine in Maryland. She also did research at the Heinz History Center, where Andrew Masich, the museum's CEO, showed her how to roll a bullet cartridge.

A retired lawyer who lives in Mt. Lebanon, Ms. Calland grew up in Elmira, N.Y., and studied English, history and journalism at the University of Notre Dame. She asked members of two local book groups as well as a third group in Boston to read and comment on her work. That feedback helped her balance the fictional narrative with factual events.

Her novel begins in December 1860, the month when South Carolina seceded from the Union. Ms. Calland said she wrote the book for people who don't normally read history. The protagonist, Clara Ambrose, is an outspoken doctor's daughter, and the novel opens with her attending a fancy ball at the Monongahela House, a Downtown establishment where Abraham Lincoln slept while en route to his inaugural.

When she speaks to audiences, Ms. Calland shows them the plaque that notes the former location of the Monongahela House -- at Smithfield Street and Fort Pitt Boulevard.

Ms. Calland finds that people are eager to play the game of casting movie stars to portray the characters she created in her book.

"My top choice for Garrett Cameron would be Matt Damon. The kids at Oakland Catholic were saying Liam Hemsworth. For Annie, they suggested Emma Stone," Ms. Calland said.

From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. today, the Lawrenceville Historical Society will hold a series of free events in Arsenal Park, including period music, panel discussions, tours and cannon demonstrations. At noon, re-enactors Lisa and Stephen Moles of Penn Hills will join members of the Civic Light Opera Academy of Musical Theater to re-create that day through story and song. Ms. Calland has written the script.

Mr. Moles will portray Alexander McBride, the superintendent who was blamed for the accident and who lost his 14-year-old daughter, Kate, in the blast.

books - lifestyle - civilwar

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published September 16, 2012 4:00 AM


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