Tag Archives: Philadelphia

The Food of Water Signs: Italian Wedding Cookies

I thought it would be fun to take a break from some of the heavier themes and plot points to focus in on another aspect of Water Signs — the various foods specifically mentioned, especially in Part One, to help evoke the culture and atmosphere of the Philly/suburban Philly/South Jersey area.

When I wrote about the literary techniques employed, I noted:

As part of bringing regional culture and tradition to both a new and familiar audience, much of the activity in Water Signs revolves around popular foods and delicacies. Maddy and Ken’s beach picnic, for example, features provolone cheese from South Philly, homemade Italian wedding cookies and “tomato pie” (a special pizza-like creation first introduced to the area by a South Philly bakery in the 1900s).

This beach picnic takes place in Chapter 6 in Ventnor, New Jersey where Ken, having determined previously Madeline’s weakness for the popular regional treat, presents her with a homemade tray of Italian wedding cookies, prepared by his roommate from South Philly (who, by the way is a fictional creation):

“Hey,” he warned seriously, “No starvation tactics tonight. You and I are both going to enjoy this good food—no apologies. Oh, and you have to have some wedding cookies. Kathy made those especially for you.”

“She did? How’d she know they’re my favorite?”

“Cause I told her,” he shrugged. “After that, I asked for her advice about how to go about winning the heart of the most beautiful Italian girl I’ve ever met—a girl I almost blew it with that night at Key Largo when I was incredibly stupid and bought a rose for her friend instead of her.” Maddy laughed at the memory.

“And she suggested wedding cookies?” she teased, raising an eyebrow. She gazed at him with her mesmerizing brown eyes, and he felt as if he would shatter into a million pieces.

“She said it was a good place to start, considering they were on your Top-10 list,” he smiled. “And she makes the best, believe me.”

“Hmmm, well I think my Aunt Maria might take issue with that,” Maddy stated. “Still, those do look pretty good,” she admitted, eying the full plate of the familiar twisted knots covered with white icing and multi-colored sprinkles.

Although in real life it was my Great Aunt Emma who was most famous for her baking and cooking, since Aunt Maria plays such a prominent role in this part of the story, I attributed this quality to her (and yes, she was a great cook, too).

The next morning, as they sit around the breakfast table, Maddy, Aunt Maria and Mom enjoy the homemade cookies with their coffee — another element of real life brought into the story. In my family, Italian wedding cookies typically showed up during special occasions like graduations and bridal showers, and on holidays like Christmas. And while they are delicious any time of the day, I remember enjoying them most in the morning, with a hot cup of happiness (as my friend Ava calls it).

Funny, we never actually referred to them as wedding cookies growing up; in fact, I used to call them “coffee dunkers” or when I was very young, “the cookies with the sprinkles on them”. I don’t think I discovered the proper name “wedding cookie” until many years later.

Finally, although I describe them in the book as “twisted knots” (normally how they are fashioned), I prefer to just roll mine into round balls, not being known for my endless reservoirs of patience when it comes to baking. Come to think of it, Aunt Em used to make hers that way, too. Unlike her, I prefer to use either lemon extract or vanilla extract as opposed to anise — a flavor I don’t much like.

But whatever you name them, however you shape them and whatever extract you choose to add to the mix, call them delicious! Enjoy. 🙂

Pictured: Maddy's favorite cookies, in a rounded Christmas-themed incarnation.

RECIPE FOR ITALIAN WEDDING COOKIES

1/2 cup butter, softened

1/2 cup white sugar

3 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla OR lemon extract

3 cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease cookie sheets.

In large bowl, cream together butter & sugar until smooth. Mix in the egg & vanilla. Combine the flour & baking powder; stir into the creamed mixture until blended. Divide dough into walnut-sized portions. Roll each piece into a ball and place inches apart on prepared cookie sheets. Bake for 8-10 minutes in the preheated oven, until firm & golden at the edges.

Icing: Mix together confectioners sugar with half & half in a bowl, making sure the mixture isn’t too thin. After the cookies cool, drizzle icing on top and sprinkle with jimmies (that’s what we called them in Philly…lol!).

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Six Degrees of Separation

After the LinkedIn incident, I decided to leave well-enough alone. Thanks to another social media site, I’d figured out who’d been responsible, and though I was tempted to follow up my email to “Ken” with a phone call, better judgment prevailed. But a curious thing did take place soon after.

Before I get into that, I want to back up to June of 2008, and an interesting photography session. A good friend of mine — a professional photographer — spent an entire Saturday at my home, creating images that would eventually be employed for book promotion, including the back cover head shot of Water Signs. For the purposes of this story, it’s not necessary or even advisable to reveal her name, but I will mention that she’s one of my oldest and dearest friends in South Florida. In fact, the character of Isabella is partially based on this friend, along with another woman I used to know.

Although I absolutely hate posing for formal pictures, my friend and I had so much fun that day changing venues, outfits and poses. The community in which I live is rife with beautiful, outdoor scenery and locations, so we’d alternate indoor shots in my home with others out in front of the garden, with the palm fronds swaying  behind me.

Since we were together for a while that afternoon, I filled my friend in on the back story behind Water Signs, since — much like my close friend “Elyse” (Theresa), she’d known nothing about “Ken” — notwithstanding our 12-year friendship. As I’ve noted, the mind and will are powerful forces.

Anyway, as I relayed the information, something clicked with her, something pertaining to “Erin”. Seemed she had a friend who’d written a cookbook and sought out “Erin’s” professional services pertaining to web design and marketing. To be sure, she called her friend, who upon hearing the real name, confirmed it to be true.  To say that this woman had not been happy with the customer service she’d received would be an understatement.

My photographer friend had already known of her dissatisfaction, since she’d helped her locate another designer to complete the cookbook website — which happened to revolve around the state of Pennsylvania and its traditions (another ironic twist), including the Amish Country. This woman relayed several fascinating tidbits, such as never being allowed inside “Erin’s” house (site of her office). Whenever she needed to drop something off to the designer, she was immediately greeted just outside the front door or in the driveway; never once was she invited in.

As a customer, this woman found her hired designer to be quite rude, with a “basic” personality, lacking in depth and character. If I recall correctly, the last forms of communication they’d had via email (once the woman had secured a new person to finish the project), had been very terse. According to the friend of my friend, “Erin” was a typical “Philly Girl” — a phenomenon with which she was familiar, having been raised in the area.

So when the LinkedIn thing happened much later that same year, I can’t say I was surprised when I finally unraveled the mystery and discovered the real culprit.

About a week or so later, I attended a Boca Raton Meetup for entrepreneurs presented by  Jay Berkowitz. The information I gathered that evening proved to be invaluable, but the most memorable aspect of the event occurred long before Jay took to the podium. As is the case with most of these gatherings, every person in attendance was given a minute to introduce themselves and explain their business in brief. When it was my turn, I mentioned that I was an author as well as a web content writer, editor and blogger.

After all had introduced themselves, we were allowed some time to simply mingle  before the formal presentation. And that was when a very nice  woman, a financial planner, came right up to me and asked, “Do you know “Erin Lockheart”?

Oh, you mean the woman who while pretending to be her husband, asked me to recommend his “big johnson” via the LinkedIn social media site? That Erin Lockheart? Yes, I’m afraid I do know her.

While I wish I could’ve replied that way, I somehow managed to hide my surprise, stating something to the effect of “Yes, I’ve heard the name”. After which, the woman insisted on taking one of my business cards (which were in my hands, thus eliminating the excuse, “Oh, I am so sorry I must’ve run out of them”)  because she was pretty darned sure that  as a web designer, “Erin” might have a need for good content writers from time to time. Bless her heart, that lady was such a great networker. And I must admit, I got a chuckle out of imagining the whole scenario of this woman presenting Erin with my business card and glowing praise.

Yes, in Boca Raton there are definitely six degrees of separation. And this was only one of many forthcoming incidents to prove it.

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Midweek Musings

Another one of those old songs that conjures up fond memories of childhood, including summers in Ocean City, New Jersey.

Last night’s call with the team was productive and exciting. I am beginning to see our book on the fundamentals of liberty taking shape, and have learned so much from the wonderful essays submitted. Although history had always been one of my favorite subjects in school, as I recall, my teachers tended to emphasize the memorization of dates over all else. Obviously, it is of great importance to know when significant events took place. But in addition to knowing who, what, where and when, it would’ve been nice to get a fuller, more enthusiastic appreciation of why and how.

While I don’t remember any anti-American bias seeping through in classroom lectures (e.g. no one ever told me as an impressionable youth that the Founding Fathers were all a bunch of racists), I can’t exactly say that my teachers, for all of their excellent instruction, adequately impressed upon me the miraculous nature of the founding of the United States of America. That in the history of the world, there has never been a country quite like this one. That, up until the day Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, governments were about oppressing the ordinary, everyday individual, not recognizing his/her God-given right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

Fortunately, as I mentioned in my Independence Day post, I had parents who believed in bringing history to life via countless visits to downtown Philadelphia and other historic places, but also on a personal level, by reminding my siblings and me often as to why our great-grandparents and grandparents left everything they knew to come here.

Even so, reading the submissions from my writing team has provided an opportunity to learn even more about this land of opportunity, and the men and women who helped create it. Our biggest challenge is remaining within a 500-word count — no easy feat, especially when writing about such accomplished human beings as Washington, Jefferson, Lee, Madison and Adams. But our goal here is to entertain, instruct and ultimately inspire others to want to learn more via their own research. If we can whet our readers’ appetites for more information and contribute in some way to the “re-education” of America, we can play a part in turning this ship around. As an added bonus, focusing on this worthy project is one of things helping me to maintain my sanity.

In the Freedom’s Wings chat room last night, I made a few folks chuckle when I noted that for a few hours yesterday, I was so engrossed in my work, I’d forgotten all about Barack Obama — and it was like being on vacation. And since part of my responsibilities today will include doing some marketing for a friend’s deli and catering business, I should be able to tune him out rather easily. Additionally, tonight is my weekly prayer/church night with a close friend, another patriot with whom — among other things — I pray for the success of the 2010 midterm elections, the effectiveness of the conservative revival now taking place nationwide, and the safety of our men and women in uniform.

Much like the Founders, for those of us who believe, it is time to turn back to God and ask for His guidance, wisdom and strength to continue the fight and to ultimately prevail in the name of freedom once again.

Have a great Wednesday!


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Happy Birthday USA!

Having been born in Philadelphia and brought up in a nearby suburb by parents who cared about imparting knowledge of history to their children, Independence Day has always been one of my top three favorite holidays, second only to Christmas and Thanksgiving. Frequent visits to historic places like Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell were quite common in our home, particularly during the summers. And whenever we’d host visiting relatives from other states, it was a sure bet that among other things, we’d give them the grand tour of the most significant places of the city and surrounding areas, from the Brandywine Battlefield and Penn’s Landing to the Penn Mutual Tower and the obligatory Philadelphia Art Museum (where  invariably at least one of them would attempt a Rocky-style run up the steps).

During the Bicentennial Year of 1976, I recall my mother and assorted family friends/relatives piling all of us kids in the car for yet another excursion into Philadelphia for yet another celebration of our country’s 200th birthday. It was an exciting year for me, as — along with a bunch of other kids I knew, including my sister– I got to dress up as a colonial girl for that year’s early-American-themed Cardinal O’Hara Annual Fashion Show (for which my highly organized mother was the chairperson) and as Betsy Ross for Halloween (with a costume made specially for me by a very nice woman who was one of my mother’s good friends). Never mind that I recently discovered Betsy didn’t really sew the flag; it’s still a great memory!

In addition to exposing us to historic events and places, my parents often spoke of the emigration of their parents (in my dad’s case) and their grandparents (on my mom’s side) to the United States, in search of a better life. My father’s parents were young, married adults in their early 20s when they set out for this beautiful land of opportunity, with their two infant/toddler sons (the third of four boys, my dad was the first one to be born on US soil). They landed in a section of Philadelphia called Germantown. Although my grandfather never completed grade school, he worked hard as a tailor and owned his own home, in which the entire family took great pride. Yes, my father grew up in a row-house, not a stately mansion — but in those days, people cared for the things they’d earned, no matter how seemingly insignificant or trivial they might be by today’s standards.

Eternally grateful to be living in the land of opportunity, their primary goal had been to set the foundation for their children to go on to create an even better life, knowing that for each successive generation the only obstacles to success would be self-imposed. My dad went on to become a highly regarded general and vascular surgeon, after his dreams of playing Major League Baseball ended with a shoulder injury. Needless to say, he didn’t get a free ride, nor did he expect one. He worked his way through high school, college and medical school, maintaining excellent grades and earning the money he needed to achieve his dream. And he was thankful for the opportunity afforded him by virtue of his American citizenship.

On my mother’s side, the generations arrived here a bit earlier. In fact, her mother (for whom the character of Madeline in Water Signs is named) was actually born in upstate New York, in a town called Utica, before the family relocated to South Philadelphia. And thanks to the incredible courage of her widowed grandmother, my mom’s father became an American citizen at the young age of eight, an event I retell in flashback in my novel:

…Monica [character based on my mother] herself descended from a long line of “tough” women, beginning with her paternal grandmother Rosaria who as a young widow, uprooted her three small boys and relocated with them to America in search of a better life — a particularly gutsy move considering she didn’t know a soul in the New World, nor did she speak the language.

But unshakable faith and stalwart desire had spurred her on in spite of fear. And thanks to her abundance of courage, each of her sons had achieved remarkable success in their adoptive homeland as pharmacists, graduating from prestigious Philadelphia universities when such accomplishments were unheard of for immigrants.

Indeed, it is an everlasting source of pride for my mom to be part of such an accomplished family. My grandfather eventually opened up his own pharmacy in Germantown, which was a neighborhood landmark for over 25 years.

While I want to avoid negativity on this wonderful, world-changing holiday, I just wanted to point out one tragic statistic I recently discovered, thanks to another patriot friend in a recent chat room: 40% of 18-29 year-olds don’t even know why we celebrate July 4. That is absolutely disgraceful.

Our Founding Fathers risked their lives, sacred honor and fortunes to create an unprecedented system of government that acknowledged that the rights of man come from God, not government:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed“.

For anyone unfamiliar with the European concept of the Divine Right of Kings and other oppressive systems of government, it may be difficult to comprehend just how astonishingly ground-breaking the Declaration of Independence was in the annals of history. To conceive of a government “for the people, by the people and of the people”, and to articulate this vision through the written word, as Thomas Jefferson did in the Declaration of Independence, was nothing short of an act of incredible defiance and courage in the face of tyranny. The fact that close to half of today’s young adults simply don’t understand the magnitude of the Fourth of July is a stunning testament to the success of the anti-American agenda in the public school system, pop culture and media.

I thank God for the patriotic revival now taking place from coast-to-coast, and I pray hard for its success in returning the USA to the Constitutional Republic created by our Founders. And if you know of any American citizen — young or old — who doesn’t fully appreciate this miracle we call the United States of America, I suggest they watch the History Channel’s The Revolution, an excellent recounting of our nation’s birth.

May God continue to bless America and her proud patriots!

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Robert Allen Mansfield, candidate for PA Governor, on Liberty Belle Hour this Week

Please join me this Thursday, May 27 as I welcome Independent conservative candidate Robert Allen Mansfield to The Liberty Belle Hour. Known as “Mr. Independent”, Robert is an Iraq War veteran who has returned home with his sights set on restoring honor and integrity to Harrisburg. A Philadelphia native, he believes it is time to put the people of Pennsylvania back in charge of their state.

I will chat with Robert about all of the important issues of the day including immigration, national security, Islamic terrorism, taxes and the ever-expanding nanny state. As always, I welcome your calls at (561) 228-4020 and your presence in the live chat room. Hope to see you there!

In the meantime, check out Robert’s website here. And for more information on Thursday’s event, click here.

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Literary Technique: Flashback

Since this technique is such an important element in Water Signs, particularly in terms of creating intrigue, I decided to devote an entire post to its discussion. Given that readers know the ending of the story the moment they read the Prologue,  I had to employ every possible literary tool at my disposal to build suspense and maintain a good pace throughout the novel. I’ve noted most of them previously, but wanted to delve into the flashback technique in greater detail, since the entire work of fiction is, in essence, a series of smaller flashbacks within the context of one big 16-year flashback.

Part One begins in 1992, with Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey (i.e. Greater Philadelphia area) as the setting. The Prologue, set in Deerfield Beach in 2008 at St. Ambrose Catholic Church (a place where I regularly attend Mass), has just alerted readers to the significance of the nuptials about to take place between Ken Lockheart and Madeline Rose, “by the grace and mercy of God” and “at the end of a long, arduous and oftentimes broken road.” Considering I’ve now piqued their interest in the long  journey leading to this momentous occasion for my two main characters, I next had to focus on crafting an interesting, page-turning tale worthy of the intrigue generated from the outset.

Of course, as I’ve noted before, it helps that so much of Water Signs is based on real life, proving the maxim “write what you know”.  And in spite of a well-meaning editor/friend’s advice, I declined to change the geographic locations of the story from Southeastern Pennsylvania to Illinois, and from South Florida to Southern California, for this very reason (along with a few others). I didn’t have to agonize over describing unfamiliar locations, or researching the local culture and traditions of unknown parts of the country, and then trying to infuse them into the makeup of my characters.

I know what constitutes a Philly girl versus a suburban Philly girl versus a Boca Babe, and a South Jersey guy versus a South Florida guy. I feel passionate about Philly sports, food, culture and history. I’ve spent countless summers at the Jersey Shore in my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. I’ve lived in South Florida most of my adult life. Therefore, immortalizing these characters and settings was effortless. And the result is an authentic work of fiction that simultaneously uplifts, instructs and and occasionally tugs at the heartstrings.

However, I still had to make many necessary adjustments and/or embellishments to certain plot points because — let’s face it — sometimes actual events do not quite have the same dramatic oomph required for compelling fiction. Case in point: the night Maddy and Ken peruse his old US Navy photo albums while hanging out at his house (Chapters 4 and 5). While this is a true-to-life occurrence, it took place in “Ken’s” living room, while we were both seated on the couch in broad daylight, not in his bedroom in the late-evening, as is the case in Water Signs. I changed the locale from living room to bedroom and time period from afternoon to the almost wee-hours of the morning, to increase the sexual tension between the characters, as well as to test Ken’s ability to respect his new love’s clearly articulated boundaries, and in turn, her willingness to trust in his sincerity.

This incident is also a great example of the flashback technique, as although the scene begins in Chapter Four and continues into Chapter Five, it’s not until later in Chapter Five, when Madeline is cruising along the highways of suburban Philly conducting sales calls for her job, that we learn the full extent of what transpired during the previous night’s intimate moments. Prompted by the song, Just Another Day, she reminisces back to Ken’s recounting of his broken engagement, complete with raw emotional betrayal and visceral heartbreak. This gives readers another insight into Ken’s history, and his motivation in wanting to marry and settle down with his true love; it also offers a window into Maddy’s soul, and the extent to which her lingering insecurities, exacerbated by a previous relationship, will cause problems for her nascent romance with Ken.

Much later, in Chapter 31, as an older, wiser and recently reunited couple are cruising down Camino Real on the way to Ken’s parents’ home in the Royal Oak Hills section of Boca Raton, Maddy embarks upon a silent remembrance celebrating the history of her family. This provides readers yet another new insight into her character, and conveniently (for the author) lays the groundwork for future prequels featuring the entire Rose clan.

Look for the use of strategic flashback through the novel.

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Guidelines on Fictionalizing Facts into a Novel, Part Two

With the news that my wonderful father, Dr. Al DiGiovanni, will be honored by the Drexel University College of Medicine (now consolidated with Hahnemann Medical School, the institution from which he graduated in 1960) for 50 esteemed years in the medical profession, it is only fitting to focus this next installment on the character of Dr. Joseph Rose.

As I mentioned in Fun Facts, I initially planned to make “Rose” my main character Madeline’s middle name, before deciding that it made an excellent surname for the entire family. Rose happens to be my wonderful mother’s first name, while Madeline (technically the Italian version, Madelina) had belonged to my maternal grandmother. So it had always been a given that I would create a character named Madeline Rose as a tribute to both women (I’ll discuss the character of Madeline Rose, who is based on me, in another post).

Like my dad, Dr. Joseph Rose is a successful doctor with an outgoing personality; deep love of family and friends; passionate allegiance to the Philadelphia Phillies; and abiding zest for life. In fact, Joseph Rose is pretty much a mirror-image of his real-life counterpart with the exception that his specialty is neurosurgery, whereas my dad’s had been general and vascular surgery. I specifically chose neurosurgery for Dr. Rose, knowing that his daughter Madeline would struggle with panic and anxiety disorder in the novel. Prior to her correct diagnosis, the medical profession would have to rule out possible brain abnormalities. By making her father an expert in this area, it helped to intensify his and his wife’s distress over their youngest child’s worrisome symptoms, which mimicked those of a patient with a serious neurological disorder.

In all other aspects — and perhaps most importantly in their representation of The American Dream — Dr. Joseph and Dr. Al are synonymous. Both are products of immigrant parents who migrated to the United States from Italy, in search of economic freedom and opportunity. Both grew up in the “inner city”, a section of Philadelphia known as Germantown, in a small row-home shared with their parents and three brothers. Both aspired to be Major League Baseball pitchers, but had to turn to their second-love, medicine, when career-ending injuries forever shattered their dreams of pitching no-hitters to packed stadiums of loyal, enthusiastic fans. Finally, both are eternal optimists, grateful for the opportunities afforded them in a free and prosperous country where even the sons of broken-English-speaking immigrants could raise themselves up to greater heights, fueled by their own passion, persistence, hard work and determination.

These are the qualities that define my dad and his character. I have to admit, there was much I took for granted growing up as a doctor’s daughter — namely, my father’s stunning transition from a poor boy with big dreams to a well-respected surgeon with a loyal patient following. I didn’t fully appreciate the obstacles he’d faced and overcome, having only known him an accomplished member of the medical profession. And since he was never one to harp too much (although he had his moments) about how tough life was when he was a kid, (preferring instead to talk about the positives of being part of a close-knit, though financially challenged family), most of the stories I remember involve food, cooking, laughter, childhood pranks and parental devotion.

Not that things were always rosy. There was the occasional brush with bigotry, as when Chestnut Hill Hospital refused to bring an “Eye-talian” doctor on board, resulting in my parents’ move to Delaware County, where he was offered staff positions at Mercy Catholic Medical Center and Riddle Memorial Hospital. And years prior, the tragic and unexpected loss of his mother when he was just a 19 year-old college student.

And yet, my dad persisted — always with an attitude of gratitude and an optimistic outlook.

In spite of his success, neither of my parents ever forgot their roots (although as the daughter of a pharmacist  who owned a corner drugstore in the neighborhood, my mom had grown up in a relatively affluent environment by comparison). Their closest friends included people from all walks of life — doctors, dentists, plumbers, printers, small business-owners, truck drivers and military veterans.

As children, we were taught to be proud of our family members for their accomplishments, but never to think that we were better than anyone else by virtue of what our father did for a living. And my dad certainly walked his talk. Whenever we were out in public places like restaurants, he would always engage our waiter or waitress in friendly conversation, so much so that typically by the end of our meal, we knew as much about that person as they were willing to share — which was normally a great deal, thanks to Dr. Al’s genuine interest and friendly nature.

Ok, I’ll admit, as a kid I found this somewhat embarrassing, just as my mother — a much more reserved person when it came to strangers — often did. We’d joke affectionately about how Dad felt absolutely compelled to know as much as he could about people he’d most likely never bump into again. But as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate and respect this rare quality, particularly in the frantic, me-first culture we’re currently living in. If more people treated strangers, especially those who work in the service industry, as my dad did (and continues to do), our world would be a much better place.

Thanks for the great lessons, Dad! I hope I’ve done you justice in the character of Dr. Joseph Rose.

Note: In my next installment, I will create a comparison/contrast between Dr. Joseph Rose and Ken Lockheart, my novel’s embodiments of the American Dream and the two most important men in Madeline’s life.

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