A Different Kind of Fire
by Suanne Schafer Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance
Ruby Schmidt has the talent, the drive, even the guts to enroll in art school, leaving behind her childhood home and the beau she always expected to marry. Her life at the Academy seems heavenly at first, but she soon learns that societal norms in the East are as restrictive as those back home in West Texas. Rebelling against the insipid imagery woman are expected to produce, Ruby embraces bohemian life. Her burgeoning sexuality drives her into a life-long love affair with another woman and into the arms of an Italian baron. With the Panic of 1893, the nation spirals into a depression, and Ruby’s career takes a similar downward trajectory. After thinking she could have it all, Ruby now wonders how she can salvage the remnants of her life. Pregnant and broke, she returns to Texas rather than join the queues at the neighborhood soup kitchen.
Set against the Gilded Age of America, a time when suffragettes fight for reproductive rights and the right to vote, A Different Kind of Fire depicts one woman’s battle to balance husband, family, career, and ambition. Torn between her childhood sweetheart, her forbidden passion for another woman, the nobleman she had to marry, and becoming a renowned painter, Ruby's choices mold her in ways she could never have foreseen.
Ruby sat on a stool before her easel with Willow to her left. On Ruby’s right, Ira Wheatley paced as he worked. Like her, he was a redhead, though more carrot than blond, and so large in frame she’d found him intimidating when they first met. She wondered how his enormous hands could manipulate a brush, much less create the delicate lines of engravings. His work captured bizarre unposed moments, making her wonder what happened immediately before or after the scene. The week before he had shown her etchings of everyday life in the tenements of Philadelphia. One depicted a woman in a nightgown holding a kerosene lamp and looking down at a man in a bed.
“Is she a wife? Perhaps caring for an ill husband?” Warmth raced up Ruby’s face as she posed another possibility. “Or a soiled dove who’s forgotten which man remains in her bed?”
“A soiled dove?” Wheatley smirked.
Embarrassed, Ruby averted her eyes. “You know, a lady of…of…ill repute.”
He shook his head at her euphemism, smiled enigmatically, and refused to clarify his artwork. “It is what it is, Red.”
“You fiend!” She’d swatted him with her paintbrush.
Now, she sensed Wheatley’s frequent, prolonged gaze. Irritated, she turned to confront him. “Quit staring.”
Hearing whispering, Anshutz walked toward her as if to shush her. Instead, he stopped at Wheatley’s easel. “Is there a reason you’re not working on today’s assignment?”
Ruby, along with the rest of the class turned, stared, and held their collective breaths waiting to see what happened.
“I finished the bust.” Wheatley lifted the sketch he was working on and revealed he had indeed completed his drawing.
One of Anshutz’s famous harrumphs of disapproval erupted as he looked at Wheatley’s drawing from the cast. He made several swipes with his charcoal before he flipped back to the top drawing and appraised it. “Hmm. Well done. However, the Committee on Instruction feels your fellow class members are not appropriate subjects, particularly if sketched without their consent.”
Wheatley scribbled his name across the bottom of his drawing before tossing it at Ruby. “Here, Red.” He slammed his portfolio shut and stormed out of the classroom.
Ruby looked at the drawing. Her irritation faded. Surely she was not as lovely as Wheatley envisioned her. He had rendered her face and body in charcoal but had used red ochre for her hair. In his sketch her shoulders were bare. Her cheeks burnt as she wondered if, in his mind, he had removed the rest of her clothing.
Mr. Anshutz moved toward Ruby. “You may wish to keep that. I suspect Mr. Wheatley’s drawings may fetch a pretty penny one day.” Then he made numerous bold corrections on Ruby’s work. “Do it again. You must not thinkthe lines, Miss Schmidt, you must feel them.”
She had thought her drawing good. Her smugness evaporated with his criticism. Anshutz was worse than her father. Nothing she painted would ever please her professor. She stood abruptly. Her stool clattered to the floor. Holding back tears, she dashed from the room.
In her retreat, she ran by Willow. Her friend grabbed Ruby’s hand, tugging her back.
Ruby broke free.
When Willow tried to follow her, Anshutz said, “Remain here, Miss Wycke. She must develop a thicker skin, or she’ll never survive as an artist.”
Suanne Schafer, born in West Texas at the height of the Cold War, finds it ironic that grade school drills for tornadoes and nuclear war were the same: hide beneath your desk and kiss your rear-end goodbye. Now a retired family-practice physician whose only child has fledged the nest, her pioneer ancestors and world travels fuel her imagination.
She originally planned to write romances, but either as a consequence of a series of failed relationships or a genetic distrust of happily-ever-after, her heroines are strong women who battle tough environments and intersect with men who might—or might not—love them.
Suanne completed the Stanford University Creative Writing Certificate program. Her short works have been featured in print and on-line magazines (Bête Noire; Brain, Child; Empty Sink Publishing; and Three Line Poetry) and anthologies: (Night Lights; Graveyard; 166 Palms; and Licked). Her debut women’s fiction novel, A Different Kind of Fire, explores the life of Ruby Schmidt, a nineteenth century artist who escapes—and returns—to West Texas. Suanne’s next book explores the heartbreak and healing of an American physician caught up in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.