Deep Readings

My father was born to homesteaders in Alberta, Canada, in 1909. His family moved to the United States when he was ten years old. They tried Nebraska, they tried New York, and then they settled for good in Ohio. As a young man, he was drawn to the glamour of New York City, party-hopping and clubbing at night, sometimes modeling during the day. He had a CPA certificate but was not ready to use it. He was the kind of man who enjoyed creating his own persona.

It was long after my father’s death that my Aunt Joan told me about my family’s Southern roots. It turned out that my paternal grandparents, both of whom had died before I was born, would have had Southern accents. Virginia and Tennessee. That is the lid I decided to lift.

I found my paternal great-great-grandfather’s Confederate Army conscription papers online. He was a farmer in his forties with a family of seven children, living in Virginia’s New River Valley. The Confederacy had by then lost tens of thousands of its young men through battle, disease, and desertion. He served in one of the regiments assigned to protecting Richmond toward the end of the Civil War. The war ended when Richmond fell. He survived.

When my DNA test showed that I had .01% African ancestry, it made me think, hard, about what it meant. It meant that a cascading series of rapes had occurred in my family. It meant that I carry a genetic trace of the Black women who were violated, as well as the heavier imprint left by a lineage of White slaveholders.

My great-grandmother Belle LeGrand was 9 years old when the Civil War ended. The story of her womanhood has flashes of drama, but many of the details are irretrievably lost. I decided to ground my novel in some of the elements I knew. A farm in Southwestern Virginia. A broken romance. A baby. I gave my protagonist a different name—Marina—and made her 24 years old when the book opens in May 1864. Once I began writing, I started to hear Marina’s voice, and I allowed Marina to remember the voice of Coralee, the family’s enslaved 14-year-old.

My research involved reading, viewing, and listening. I read slave narratives and plantation journals, nonfiction books and online articles, and novels. I watched films and television programs, including, of course, Ken Burns’ Civil War series. I listened to audiobooks. Hearing Charles Frazier reading Cold Mountain, and Toni Morrison reading Beloved were peak experiences. In writing Marina and Coralee, I kept Frazier’s and Morrison’s cadences in mind.

My book is essentially written, and dreaming of publication. Meanwhile, I plan to revisit these explorations here, and take a deep dive into each of them.

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