In Loyola alum Susan Ingalls Finan’s new novel, “The Cards Don’t Lie,” women don’t just influence history — they design it.
Finan’s novel takes readers on a detailed, exhilarating journey through nineteenth-century New Orleans where mystery, love and heartache surround the harrowing events of the War of 1812.
The novel focuses on three women: Marguerite, a dutiful Creole plantation mistress fighting to provide a male heir; Millie, a plucky prostitute who seeks a better life for herself; and Catherine, a voodoo healer whose powerful gifts determine the outcome of the war in unforeseen ways. As the women’s paths intertwine, readers are introduced to the complex mystique of Creole culture as well as the monumental influence women had on the war effort during the Battle of New Orleans.
“The Cards Don’t Lie” brings to life the vibrancy and charm of New Orleans, from the bakeries and butcher shops in the French Market to the plantation mansions atop the bayou. Finan deftly interweaves the tragedy and heartbreak of warfare with inspiring accounts of people coming together in love and friendship to defeat the odds and defend their beloved city.
After graduating from Loyola in the 1950s, Finan went on to become a teacher, which brought her to work alongside the Dominicans at St. Barnabas School in Chicago’s South Side. As an Irish Catholic, she said her faith is a major component of her identity. Finan said her Irish heritage links her to the supernatural element of her novel.
“The Irish do a lot with tarot cards — the tinkers, when they came over because of Oliver Cromwell, they didn’t have any real skills . . . so they went around in these little carts telling fortunes,” Finan said. “And you know, that’s the first thing you see when you go to Jackson Square, is the fortune tellers.”
Finan’s connection to history doesn’t end with her heritage. For the literary keen, perhaps one element of Finan’s name stands out, and for a valid reason — she’s related to the legendary pioneer author Laura Ingalls Wilder. As a member of the Ingalls lineage, Finan knows how it feels to be a part of American history.
“I’ve known since I was really young that I was related to her because my father did say so, and my grandmother became a member of the DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution] because of our connection to the Ingalls people who founded Lynn, Massachusetts. back in the late 1600s,” Finan said. “I certainly feel her hovering around me sometimes, if you want to get into the supernatural.”
As a city, New Orleans certainly has a character of its own, with its colorful history reflected in its architecture, cuisine and people. Finan said she believes the city’s unique aura is due, in part, to the voodoo tradition, which is in close connection with Catholicism. During past visits to the city, Finan was struck by how wholesome she found its people.
“I found the people to be very, very accepting of one another and respectful of one another,” Finan said. “After Katrina — that was such a horrendous situation, you know, [and] they did help one another.”
This feeling of camaraderie extends to the historical events within the novel, which portray people from all walks of life coming together under General Andrew Jackson’s command in the fight against the enemy. Finan said this mutual solidarity among New Orleans’ people was vital in determining the outcome of the war.
“If they did not bond together, then they would have lost the city, and the British would have definitely taken over because the sea port was so important to them,” Finan said. “So, the idea that they did all get together for that I thought was really important — not only the men, but also the women.”
It took Finan several years to research the War of 1812’s history, as well as the cultural and societal facets of the era. She said her experience as a writer for her local newspaper in Healdsburg, California, The Windsor Times, helped her during the process. She also shared that her husband played a huge part in assisting her with historical research, unearthing the more specific details regarding battle strategies and other characteristics of early nineteenth-century warfare.
Finan’s novel is rich with historical detail, brimming with facts that’ll be unfamiliar to most readers. One such historical detail is found in Catherine’s position within an arrangement called a “plaçage.” Plaçage was an extralegal system practiced in French and Spanish slave colonies, in which white European men entered into unofficial unions with women of African, Native American and mixed-race descent.
Referred to in the novel as “secondhand marriages,” these unions weren’t legally recognized by the white men who engaged in them, often leaving their “wives,” or placées, in one-sided matrimonies with unfaithful men. Nevertheless, this situation was widely accepted by free women of color during this time.
Finan said this kind of blind obedience among women in early nineteenth-century New Orleans, as well as Creole culture, fascinated her and inspired the formation of her characters.
“I loved that it was so accepted by everyone and nobody ever questioned it. Not only about Creoles being at the top of the caste system, so to speak, but also that the … placées didn’t question their situation — in fact, they were quite happy with it,” Finan said. “And the Church condoned it all, which you know, is kind of interesting. But in those days, nobody questioned anything in [the sense] that you were born into this particular situation, you just accepted it and continued.”
Having witnessed the rise of second-wave feminism, Finan recognizes the disparity between the position of women today and female societal constraints of the past. Consequently, she said she felt a strong connection to Catherine’s character.
“When I got to Catherine, thinking about her situation and why it was and why she had never questioned it before — you know, that was one of my favorite parts that I wrote because I’ve been there,” Finan said. “You know, when I was in school and I went to Loyola, as you know, the females in my area had basically three choices, and that was to be a teacher, to be a nurse or to be a nun, and you know, that was it!”
Finan dismantled the domestic sphere through the eyes of her three heroines, whose seemingly disparate lives converge as they contribute to the war effort in unique ways. In doing so, Finan commemorated the courage and fortitude of women and demonstrated how they have undeniably designed history.
In various ways, Finan’s novel reflected the heart of New Orleans’ rich traditions and the strength of its people, granting readers a fascinating and entertaining exploration of an often-overlooked portion of American history.
As an author whose works have been featured in countless magazines, anthologies and newspapers, including the Windsor Times and Sonoma: Stories of a Region and Its People, Finan knows what it takes to be a writer. In her mind, there are three different motives for writing, which she hopes readers encounter from reading her novel.
“As a writer, you write for three different reasons — that would be to persuade, and that would be that women did play an important part in everything … you know, ‘Behind every great man is a great woman.’ Also to inform, and that’s what I hope, [that] people will learn a lot more about this battle or the whole war,” Finan said. “The final reason one writes is to entertain, and so if people finish it, I guess they’ve been entertained! There you have it!”
“The Cards Don’t Lie” hits store shelves Oct. 9 and will be available for purchase online as an e-book. Paperback copies will be available for purchase at Barnes & Noble and Target.