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Foodie Lit

Holly Bush's Romancing Olive

Olive Witkins was sure she had her days planned out. At 35, she was a spinster, worked at a Philadelphia library and took care of her parents’ house. She kept her hair in a tight bun, wore black clothes and kept herself all buttoned up. Then life intervened.


With the death of her brother and his wife in 1891, Olive travels to the wilds of Spencer, Ohio to save their two children, fantasizing about the culture and family legacy she would bestow on Mary and John, how she would teach them and they would love her.

Her dream shattered when she saw the hovel where her drunken brother had kept his family, not fit for human habitation.

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What her brother and his wife put their children through “rubbed raw all that she knew to be true…” With great difficulty, Olive rises to the occasion, mothers her niece and nephew with the help of her brother’s neighbor Jacob Butler. She begins to mother his 3 children as well. Despite her lack of experience and being used to Philadelphia life, “Olive felt more alive, more focused than she ever had before in her life…. I am done letting life go by.”

Farm life is not easy and Olive finds herself working hard cooking, cleaning, teaching and loving the 5 children she is now responsible for. Mary and John are realistically drawn abused and neglected children: Mary becomes cynical and tough; John withdraws and is terrified. Both are fearful. Their reactions are not so different from abused children today. Olive is stiff and unprepared for life as a mother substitute, yet she feels that she learns more in Spencer than she had in the more sophisticated Philadelphia. Her education is less of an academic sort, that she received in the city. In Spencer, Olive is brave, learning to give her heart, afraid as she is, even to the point of saving their lives.


Holly told me, “Almost all of my books begin with a person traveling to a new place. It doesn’t really matter, I don’t think, whether you are going from farm to city or from city to farm. Those kind of lifestyle changes could be just as dramatic then as they can be today. New people and habits and sometimes a new way of looking at things can be the making of us. It was the making of Olive.”

Olive brings her Peach Cobbler to a community fest.  I've recreated this traditional dish, delicious today as it was in the 19th century!

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