Aretha Franklin, We'll Miss You

Every book I write has a soundtrack. My first novel, the book that taught me how to write a novel, was set in Detroit, and it was so evocative that my first readers asked me if I'd grown up there. Its soundtrack was Aretha's Gold.

I like to think that she'll be singing in Heaven, alongside her friends and colleagues in life, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, who could also sing of earthly and heavenly love with equal power and equal joy. But it's a small consolation today.

Oh, Doctor Ree, as they called her in Detroit, how we'll miss you.

History Behind the Story: A Black Teacher in Georgia

Most of the women who taught at black schools in the Reconstruction South were Northerners. In Let Me Fly, the character of Frankie Williamson, who teaches in the Cass County school, is an Oberlin graduate from Ohio. She is based on the lives of four real women, free before the war, all of them Oberlin alumnae, who did just that. But Hettie Sabattie, a black woman born and raised in Georgia, who taught in Darien just after the Civil War, had an equally interesting background.

Hettie Sabattie was born in 1836 in Darien to free black parents: Mary Garey of Darien and Clemente Sabattie of San Domingo, scene of the Western hemisphere’s bloodiest slave uprising, who came to the United States in 1795. Her father moved the family to Savannah when she was a child and prospered there. By the 1850s, he owned property worth $500; he also owned four slaves, unusual in Savannah. Sabbatie may have received her education in a school run by Mary Woodhouse in Savannah in the 1850s, who--presaging Sabattie's own career--was a seamstress who doubled as a teacher.

After Sabattie’s father died in 1856, Sabattie found a white legal guardian, a Savannah attorney named John M. B. Lovell. For free persons of color, guardianship was a common safeguard against being sold back into slavery. During the Civil War, she supported herself as a dressmaker. While she never married, she had a child in 1862, whom she named Mary after her mother.

After the war, Sabattie returned to Darien and began to teach. In 1868, the Freedmen’s Bureau took an interest in her school and offered it some financial support. She remained in Darien to teach until 1869.

For a record of Sabattie's correspondence with the Freedmen’s Bureau, see Whittington B. Johnson, “A Black Teacher and her School: the Correspondence of Hettie Sabattie and J. Murray Hoag, 1868-1869,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 75, No. 1 (Spring 1991), pp. 90-105.


History Behind the Story: Julia Tillory

Julia Tillory is not a historical figure, but her words are famous.

She was born in Lincoln County, Georgia in 1822, into a family splintered and scattered by slavery. Her father, Rex Lee Walker, "carried away" to Mississippi when she was twenty, and her mother Rosa died in Lincoln County, as did three of her siblings--her two brothers, David and John Oliver, as well as a sister, Angeline. Before the Civil War, a move usually meant a sale, which was likely the reason for her remove to Columbia County, along with her sisters Annis and Maria. There’s no record of her marriage to Jerry Tillory, but she later listed him as her husband in the census and at  the Freedmen’s Bank.

In the spring of 1866, she left Columbia County on foot for Atlanta. When she arrived, she sought out the Freedmen’s Bureau office to stand amidst a crowd of tattered, hungry, and footsore former slaves like herself. A Northern lady, sent south by the American Missionary Association to help the newly free, overwhelmed by the misery she saw, stopped to speak to her. She asked Tillory why she had left her master and her plantation for all the uncertainty and difficulty of life in Atlanta.

Julia Tillory’s answer still resounds. She answered, "To enjoy my freedom."

I'm indebted to historian Tera Hunter, both for the details and for the quotation.




Hidden Figures: Eleanor Creesy

I found Eleanor Creesy, who is hard to find, through a circumventous route. I picked up a biography that featured one of John Singer Sargent's best-known portraits, that of Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes. They were a power couple of New York's Gilded age; she was a muse to several artists and he was an amateur scholar.

But that isn't the story, not yet. Mr. Phelps' family had made their fortune in shipping, running clipper ships, among them a famous one, The Flying Cloud, which set the world’s sailing record for the fastest passage between New York and San Francisco in 1851.

But that isn't the story either. It's that the Flying Cloud was navigated by Eleanor Creesy, wife of its captain Josiah Creesy, a woman whose life had prepared her for the task.

She was born and raised in the early 19th century in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where her father, a master mariner, taught her navigation--despite the puzzlement of his neighbors. She dreamed of marrying a sea captain and sailing with him, and she held out until she met Josiah Creesy in 1841.

They had a decade of collaboration before they took on the challenge of the Flying Cloud and sailed the ship from New York to San Fransisco in a record-breaking 89 days. It was universally acknowledged that Eleanor's skill in navigation was essential to setting the record.

Sadly, I can't find any image of her, only of her husband. A hidden figure indeed.

Let Me Fly: Cover Reveal

I'm delighted to show off the cover of Let Me Fly, the sequel to Sister of Mine, which will be available in October of 2018.

Let Me Fly 003.jpg

Thanks go to Laura Klynstra, who designed the original cover for Sister of Mine, and the folks at EBookLaunch, who made it into something new that beautifully echoes the old.

The Face Behind the Character

Whenever I create a character, I like to have a face to inspire me. My forthcoming novel, Let Me Fly, includes a Jewish Freedmen's Bureau agent who has just mustered out as the Captain of a black regiment.

You can get an overview of the Freedmen's Bureau here, since it figures so much in the story, but today I want to share two real men whose faces inspired the character of Captain Lewis Hart. Links only, alas, since the pictures are copyrighted.

Captain Abraham Cohn, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, who looks like a Jewish version of General Grant in this image.

Private Joseph A. Joel, best known as the writer of a letter about the travails of Passover in the Civil War field. Very dashing!

Free to Marry

For for black people just emerged from slavery, the freedom to get legally married was an essential part of their emancipation. Former slaves took full advantage of this freedom. Couples who had been married in fact, if not in law, hastily solemnized their unions after the Civil War, and couples marrying for the first time were proud to take on all the trappings of Victorian marriage.

In 1866, Harper's Weekly published an illustration of a marriage between a black soldier and his fiancee. Note the white dresses of the bride and her attendants an the bride's demure expression.

 Marriage of a colored soldier at Vicksburg by Chaplain Warren of the Freedmen's Bureau from Harper's Weekly, June 30, 1866. Public domain from the  Library of Congress .

Marriage of a colored soldier at Vicksburg by Chaplain Warren of the Freedmen's Bureau from Harper's Weekly, June 30, 1866. Public domain from the Library of Congress.

At Long Last...the Sequel to Sister of Mine is Coming!

It's been a while in the making, but my new book Let  Me Fly, the sequel to Sister of Mine, is due to publish in October of 2018. Much more to come as the book get closer to publication. here's a teaser...

Adelaide Kaltenbach and Rachel Mannheim, once mistress and slave, fought a war to be sisters. Now that the war is over, they discover that a new fight is just beginning.

Adelaide, married to a Georgia cotton planter, never dreamed that she would side with the Union or the Freedmen's Bureau. In Cass County, just after the Civil War, she's done both. Her school for the county's black children has earned her the warm appreciation of Captain Lewis Hart, Union War hero and Bureau agent, and the animosity of her Confederate neighbors and former friends.

Her half-sister Rachel, no longer Adelaide's slave, used to dream of being free. Free to marry. Free to make a living. Free to educate her daughter Eliza. But after emancipation, freedom remains elusive--and risky. When Rachel buys a hundred acres of cotton land in Cass County, with the help of the Bureau's dashing black lawyer Daniel Pereira, she becomes the target of the just-formed Ku Klux Klan.

As the newly free struggle to reconstruct their lives, will Adelaide find the resolve to stand for freedom? And will Rachel find the courage to follow her heart?



What I'm Reading: African American Faces of the Civil War

This is a twofer--a fascinating book full of period photographs, in which the images are accompanied by capsule biographies. The author has compiled cartes de visite, tintypes and ambrotypes, all of them images of black Civil War soldiers. They include famous names like Martin Delany and Lewis Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass, as well as people otherwise unknown. And they served in the best-known of all black regiments--the 54th Massachusetts, featured in the movie Glory--as well as the obscure ones, like the 108th Infantry USCT. You can learn more about the book, and you can also get a taste of the images.

Now, if someone would just do an album of African-American women in the Civil War...Don't suggest that it should be me...

Hidden Figures: Mary Edwards Walker

As I was researching something else entirely--black women who served as soldiers and spies in the Civil War--I stumbled upon the story of Mary Edwards Walker, a woman born a century before her time. She was an Abolitionist before the Civil War and a suffragist after. She earned a medical degree before the war broke out, and when hostilities began, offered her services to the U. S. Army as a surgeon. After the Civil War, she was the only woman awarded the Medal of Honor.

Her interest in reform included the reform of women's dress, and she walked the talk as few 19th-century women did. The National Library of Medicine holds this image of Dr. Walker in bloomer dress, and a few years later, dapper in a man's suit.

What I'm Reading: Catherynne M. Valente, Fairyland Series

By now, readers should be well aware of my fondness for books written for children. I just finished The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and I was enchanted by it. It's one of the oldest tales in the world--a quest--but it's written from the absolutely believable perspective of a 12-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska. The voice and the use of fantasy elements makes the story fresh. And the illustrations are delightful, too. I'm looking forward to the rest of the books in the series.

Images of the Past: Hugh Mangum's Photographs

19th-century photography subjects were rarely caught smiling. Whether is was the length of the exposure needed, or embarrassment about the condition of their teeth, we're not sure. The photographs of Hugh Mangum, an itinerant North Carolina photographer active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are not typical in that many of his subjects are smiling. He was also unusual in photographing black people as well as whites, and he had an eye for an attractive face. Duke University holds his images, so I'll have to send you there to see them, but take a look. They are meeting your eyes, and their faces are full of good cheer.


What I'm Reading: A. S. Byatt, Possession

Less cranky, but inclined to re-read books that I've enjoyed in the past, in the hope that I'll like them just as well this time. A. S. Byatt's Possession works equally well as a mystery, a romance, and a literary tour-de-force. I'm impressed by anyone who can write reams of convincing poetry in the 19th-century style, a talent so far removed from my own that I can feel admiration instead of irritability.

Music to Write to: Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Standing in the Shadows of Motown (reviewed years ago by Roger Ebert) is a wonderful documentary about the men who were the "hidden figures" of Motown--the studio musicians who created some of the best-known riffs and melodies of 20th-century popular music. I like Joan Osborne a lot as a  performer, but her role as producer does her proud. The musicians thought of her as one of their own, and the moment when she sits with them, all of them pleased and smiling, is a lovely one.


The Argument Settler, Then and Now

I stumbled into my study late one night without my glasses on, and reached for what I thought was my cell phone. It was not. It was this:

Argument Settler.JPG

Published in 1896, it was the right size to fit in a man's vest pocket, and it was full of useful information for the day, such as the origin and names of fabrics (page 30); the number of trees on an acre (page 71); the distance traveled by a horse in plowing an acre of land (page 128); and the first lightning rods (page 236). It's not hard to imagine an know-it-all reaching for this volume in a bar in 1900 to smugly say, "I'll find the answer for you!"

But it is exactly the same size, and the same heft in the hand, as my 21st century version, the iPhone SE.



What I'm Reading

A lot of books that are making me cranky, either because they're boring me or they're frustrating me with their relative publishing success. When I'm in this mood I like to read books by long-dead authors. Anthony Trollope is my favorite. If you don't have the patience for his written oeuvre, the BBC's Palliser series makes an excellent substitute.

W. E. B. DuBois in Love

WEB DuBois_Battey LOC.jpg

William Burghardt DuBois is rightfully remembered for his scholarly achievement and his social activism, and his most familiar image is one of gravitas, like this formal portrait taken by photographer Cornelius Battey in 1919. But he was not always an elder statesman or a cultural icon.

In 1885, as a 17-year-old student at Fisk University, he fell "hopelessly in love," as he later recalled. Lena Calhoun was sixteen and not only beautiful; she was the daughter of the wealthiest black man in Reconstruction Atlanta, Moses Calhoun. She would become great-aunt to Lena Horne, and DuBois, who had occasion to observe them both, later wrote that "as fair as Lena Horne is, Lena Calhoun was far more beautiful."

He loved in vain. In 1888, Lena Calhoun married Frank G. Smith, another Fisk classmate, and  Willie, as he was known at the time, had to nurse a broken heart.

The quotes from DuBois and the story (as well as photographs of Lena Calhoun) can be found in Gail Lumet Buckley's family history and memoir, The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights.


What I'm Reading: Plain Kate, Erin Bow

The Tolkien tradition has cast such a long shadow over the literature of fantasy that it's refreshing to read a fantasy in a setting that is rooted instead in Eastern Europe. I found Erin Bow's book Plain Kate appealing from the outset for its a dark and brooding Slavic cast. But it's equally compelling as a story, with an utterly believable magical quest and a talking cat, rendered completely without cloying sentiment.