Rachel Fordham is the author of The Hope of Azure Springs, Yours Truly, Thomas, and A Life Once Dreamed. Fans expect stories with heart and she delivers, diving deep into the human experience and tugging at reader emotions. She loves connecting with people, traveling to new places, and daydreaming about future projects that will have sigh-worthy endings and memorable characters. In this interview, Rachel talks with us about her latest novel, A Lady in Attendance.
FF: Can you please provide a brief summary of your new novel, A Lady in Attendance?
After spending five years in a reformatory, Hazel has moved on from her romantic ambitions to merely hoping for a way to survive and someday reunite with her family. She takes a job working as a lady in attendance for Dr. Gilbert Watts, a dentist in Amherst, New York. What begins as a means to support herself soon becomes a refuge. In the walls of the dental office, she finds friendship, purpose, and hope.
Gilbert has led a quiet life and has little desire to change that until he meets Hazel. When she reveals her past to him, he struggles to reconcile the girl he knows with the stories from her past. Honor and a strong sense of loyalty beckon him to help clear her name.
Their quest is about more than the past. It’s a journey of two people learning about forgiveness, friendship, and, ultimately, love.
FF: Even though your main protagonist, Hazel, has faced some traumatic experiences, she also encounters hope, friendship, and love. How do these elements play out in A Lady in Attendance?
One of the lessons Hazel learned while she was in the reformatory was to make friendships quickly and to not take them for granted. This skill helps her as she starts her new life after her release. Though cautious, she quickly finds a kindred spirit in another woman at the boarding house and then ultimately with Gilbert.
These friendships buoy her when the shadow of the past feels dark and heavy. Hazel’s journey and relationships remind us that small acts of compassion can change the course of a life.
FF: After being released from prison, Hazel finds a job as a lady in attendance. Can you provide more information on this profession?
In the late 1800s, dental assisting (known as ladies in attending) was a brand-new profession for women. Originally their role was rather limited. Their presence meant that female patients could come see the dentist without having to arrange for a chaperone. They sterilized instruments and helped comfort patients, and as time went on, they became more and more involved in the actual procedures.
Hazel accepts the job despite having no experience, but her natural people skills help her find success.
FF: Hazel’s backstory includes years spent in a New York reformatory. What type of research did this involve?
I began by researching prisons for wealthy people since having money and a place in society often meant they received different punishments. This research led me to the reformatory movement, and I knew that was what I wanted my character to experience. I was not able to include all the fascinating details I learned, but hopefully readers will get a sense of her experience. During the late 1800s, important voices were starting to question the long-held notion of “once a criminal, always a criminal.” The idea that people could change and reformation was possible through education and life skills was experimented with.
In many ways, reformatories were the first juvenile delinquent homes. The originators of the movement believed age affected one’s ability to change their life. However, the ages were different from the ages we use today. In Hazel’s case, the reformatory she went to was for women up to the age of twenty-five. Most were poor women, many of whom were desperate and living on the streets. Hazel feels out of place but soon learns to love her fellow inmates. And though her experience is hard, she does change a great deal during her time there.
I’m grateful for the internet, which helped me become acquainted with the reformatory experience without ever having to live it!
FF: To obtain a better future, Hazel must expunge her past. Can you provide some hints about how this is achieved?
Hazel’s past is an interesting one, because on the one hand, she is innocent. She spends time in the reformatory for a crime she did not commit. On the other hand, she is well aware that who she was as a youth is not who she wants to be today.
To clear her name of the crime, she needs people who believe her to fight alongside her and help her open doors that were closed to her before. She finds such people in Amherst. It’s this unique cohort of friends that gives her the courage to confront her past, dig for clues, and ultimately set her record straight.
Her mistakes as a youth can’t be cleared by bringing evidence to a judge. Friends can’t wash it all clean for her or open a magic door that makes it all go away. Her reckoning with her past takes forgiving herself and learning that mistakes are part of the journey.
FF: What do you hope readers will gain from reading A Lady in Attendance?
First and foremost, I hope readers are entertained! I hope they sigh when they finish the book and feel grateful for the time they spent with Hazel and Gilbert.
In addition to being swept away to another time and place, I hope readers feel like they learned about the reformatories and the new field of dental assisting. I’ve sprinkled historical trivia throughout this book, and it’s my hope those details are enjoyed as much by the reader as they were by the writer.
My other hope is that readers will pause and think about the people in their lives. How often do we make it difficult for others to move on from their pasts? I hope Hazel’s story and journey to discover who she is and not just who she was inspires compassion in readers.
How did you become interested in writing historical fiction?
Historical fiction has always been my genre of choice. I love sneaking off to another era and getting lost in the challenges, struggles, and triumphs of the past. When I decided to try my hand at writing, it made sense for me to write what I loved!
The very first manuscript I wrote took place in a city near me. It’s a beautifully preserved Victorian city on the water. I was walking the streets, looking up at the tops of the buildings—many of which are vacant now—and my mind lingered on the question, “What was it like in its glory days?” That question prompted my first story, and similar questions have been at the root of all my stories since.
Is there a particular time period you enjoy writing about the most?
The late 1800s is always the era I rush back to. There are many eras I love reading about, but this period seems to hold my attention like no other. I like the pioneering spirit, the hard work, the struggle, and, of course, I find the era romantic.
What are you working on next?
My 2022 book takes me back to Iowa! Norah King’s future is laid out for her. She is going to marry to save her family farm, and though it’s not a love match, she is at peace with this decision until she finds an injured, penniless man on her property and decides to nurse him back to health. For better or worse, every plan she has is affected by this one choice to help.
Five years in a New York state reformatory have left a blemish on Hazel’s real name. So when she takes a job as Doctor Gilbert Watts’s lady in attendance in 1898, she does so under an alias. In the presence of her quiet and pious employer, Hazel finds more than an income. She finds a friend and a hope that if she can set her tarnished past in order, she might have a future after all.
As Gilbert becomes accustomed to the pleasant chatter of his new dental assistant, he can’t help but sense something secretive about her. Perhaps there is more to this woman than meets the eye. Can the questions that loom between them ever be answered? Or will the deeds of days gone by forever rob the future of its possibilities?
A Lady in Attendance
Genres: Historical, Romance
Release Date: June 1, 2021
ISBN-10 : 0800739736
ISBN-13 : 978-0800739737
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