Over this year of disruption and isolation and sorrow, I have heard many people say they intended to dedicate some of the time they were stuck at home to sorting through family photos. While I seem to have frittered away all those months with nothing to show for it, some of you apparently followed through.
A week ago I was delighted to receive an unexpected text from a former classmate and old friend, Anne Moffett Simmons, who I hadn’t heard from in decades. Attached were photos that she and her sister had discovered while going through family albums.
One photo shows my mother, around age six, with her arm around the younger David Caddell, Anne's uncle, as he sneaks a kiss.
In another photo, there's my mother sitting next to her friend Dot (Dorothy) Caddell, Anne’s mother and David's twin sister. David stands to the left, looking a little sheepish, and my mother’s cousin, George McWilliams Jr., is on the right, seemingly disinterested in all the commotion.
I cannot explain the sheer joy that photo elicited. There was my mother, surrounded by her pals and playmates when she was a very young girl, holding what appears to be a bouquet of flowers. She’s smiling at the person taking the picture, whom she seems to completely trust to capture her pleasure in the moment. Dot looks like she can barely tolerate sitting still for these ridiculous shenanigans and is already plotting her next move. The boys stand as unwilling sentinels on either side.
It’s only since I began working on Next Train Out that I have become more fully cognizant of the depth of sadness my mother endured in her lifetime. The loss of her husband in mid-life was just the final blow. There had been the loss of two children and her mother while she was hundreds of miles away from family. The permanent absence of her father who had never bothered to contact her after disappearing shortly after she was born. And, after returning to her hometown to raise her two daughters, the eventual recognition that her old friends had largely moved on with their lives.
While I can recall moments when my mother laughed or acted a little silly, those were few. By the time I was old enough to pay attention, she seemed more commonly somber and somewhat melancholy. It has taken me a lifetime to reflect on why that was.
But in this photo she radiates happiness. Happiness to be seated beside her friend Dot. Happiness that she's the focus of someone's attention. Happiness that someone wants to take her picture. I wish I could ask that little girl what she’s thinking.
As you come across family photos while sorting through the detritus of your rich and complicated lives, I encourage you to consider who else might relish a glimpse into the moments captured by the camera. Because our connections with others have been so restricted over the past year, many of us are aching for a little time with those we love. You might be surprised how healing it can be to have your emotions stirred, even by a black-and-white photo from a time long ago.
Did you feel that lurch? That was the earth shifting on its axis Monday night when GSA Administrator Emily Murphy finally acceded to a peaceful transfer of power. I can’t say that she officially recognized Joe Biden as the president-elect, because she didn’t. She never mentioned his name or his new role in her letter of ascertainment. But that doesn’t matter.
Those pleasurable frissons that followed on Tuesday? Those were the aftershocks we experienced as President-elect Biden’s new security team introduced itself to the country. Oh “the coherence, the humanity, and the sincere humility,” as my cousin Charley said. “So adult. So refreshing. So encouraging,” said cousin Sandy. Charley again: “I had to stop and sit down and listen to what normalcy and rationality and world leadership actually sounds like.” Ever reflective, cousin Vince added: “What a restorative influence he will impart to our allies… My spirit was buoyed by the quality and experience of the new team as a whole.” In short, as cousin Barbara said, “The adults have returned to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” Cousin Myra summed up our feelings: “WE ARE FINALLY BACK TO THE GOOD OLE USA !!!!”
I realize you may not fully share my family’s enthusiasm for this week’s turn of events. You may be fearful of the policies this team will support. You may feel it’s reactionary to celebrate a return to a state of decorum that emphasizes civility and diplomacy and compassion. You may agree with Sen. Marco Rubio that these individuals, if the Senate confirms them, “will be polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline." You may have been uncomfortable seeing that diverse group of vastly experienced leaders on the stage with President-elect Biden. It may feel to you that the earth shifted in a more dastardly direction.
But I hope, on this Thanksgiving eve, we can all exhale and count our blessings. Our democracy is intact. Record numbers of Americans were able to vote in the middle of a pandemic in a variety of sometimes novel ways, despite widespread and creative efforts at voter suppression. Amid fears of malign intrusion, the Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council said the election was “the most secure in American history.”
For 20 days after the election we held our collective breath, wondering if we could indeed come to a peaceful settling of the score. It appears the proverbial guard rails, though strained, have held.
Nonetheless, nearly half the nation stands to be unhappy with this outcome. Although President-elect Biden received over six million more votes that President Trump, the election revealed a deep and lasting bifurcation in our philosophies of how government should work and how leaders should behave. It will take remarkable effort on the part of our elected officials and every American citizen to pull together and address the harrowing list of challenges we face, starting with an out-of-control global pandemic and an economy that has abandoned a wide swath of the electorate.
So let’s all take that deep breath. Let’s see if we can reset our expectations, our hopes, and our vision of what this country can be. Let’s look to our right and our left and see who most needs our help. And then let’s get back to work.
A few years ago, as I was piecing together my father’s youth from his writings and photos, it seemed clear that three of his favorite Anderson County haunts were the camp he built with Bobby Cole on Salt River, Lovers Leap, and Panther Rock.
Perhaps the latter two were preserved in words or pictures largely because they were notable local landmarks, scenic hideaways from what passed for civilization in the small town of Lawrenceburg. The fact that all three feature rocky outcrops overlooking moving water may reveal my father’s affinity for those natural features. Or perhaps it’s simply a testament to the magnetic beauty of the limestone palisades that dot the eastern Anderson County landscape.
In 2015, retired biologist and Lawrenceburg native Bill Bryant took me to Camp Last Resort for the first time. My own love for the woods and water made me wonder, somewhat peevishly, why no one had ever thought before that I might like to see the place that was so special for my dad. The photo on the cover of The Last Resort shows my father perched on a bluff above the small waterfall near his camp on Salt River. When I saw that photo, it seemed clear where I got my penchant for sitting with my feet dangling over a rocky cliff. (See photos below.)
I still have not been to Lovers Leap, the Kentucky River overlook near where I used to bike as a teenager, on rural roads I imagine my father also pedaled. But last weekend I finally made it to Panther Rock—unfortunately, too late for Dr. Bryant, the expert on Panther Rock, to accompany me.
I’m not sure what I expected. I had seen one photo of my dad seated below the rock face, but it had been hard to make out the full magnitude of what the picture relayed. When our small hiking party caught our first glimpse of the rock from the narrow approach path, however, I was dumbstruck by its immensity. We scrambled down the steep path and poked our noses into the cave at the bottom of the wall. We negotiated the fallen rocks and boulders until we reached the small stream dropping sharply away from Panther Rock.
The whole area felt mystical, magical, remote. I could not believe this gem lay hidden, at least for me—majestic and unexplored—as I grew up roaming the domesticated woods and creek behind my Lawrenceburg subdivision, just a short distance away.
In local mythology, Panther Rock got its name in 1773 when Elijah Scearce, a hunter and trapper from nearby Fort Harrod, was captured by a Native American chief. That first night a panther supposedly sneaked into their camp under the rock face and killed Scearce’s captor. Scearce then memorialized the area by naming it after the animal that had purportedly saved his life.
The area seems to have preserved its magic ever since. I am grateful to the property owners who permitted us to absorb its wonder for a short time on a bewitchingly perfect fall day. I can only hope that generations of future explorers who stumble into this sacred place will experience the same awe as their forebears. I know I could almost hear Pud and Bobby speaking in hushed tones as they pulled bacon sandwiches from their knapsack.
Bobby Cole at Lovers Leap in 1941. Photo taken by Pud Goodlett. On May 13, 1942, Goodlett wrote in his journal, "Rinky, Bobby, and I went to Lover’s Leap this afternoon. We saw the unusual red sticky flower, and lots of pinks, but outside of these, the day was very dull. Lover’s Leap seems to have lost its attraction."
More photos of Panther rock, november 2020
Tessa Bishop Hoggard, a native of Paris, Ky., who now lives in Texas, shares how she stumbled across Clearing the Fog and helped connect me with Jim Bannister.
Have you ever experienced a time in your life when the stars were perfectly aligned and from that perfection flowed precious nuggets of gold? It’s as though Sagittarius’ arrow struck its target on the Milky Way, releasing hidden treasures for such a time as this.
And what time could that be? It is a time of a ravaging pandemic and a nation fraught with political, economic, and racial turmoil, yet in its midst virtue is found. I’m left pondering how events, encounters, and circumstances were well-positioned to uncover the details of a crime and bring healing for two families.
The catalyst for the unfolding events was the 1901 lynching of a black man in Bourbon County, Ky. In 2014 I learned about this story from my mother, the biggest supporter of my genealogy research. Immediately I applied my research skills to finding answers to the “who, what, and why” of this tragedy.
My first discovery was the “who.” Two individuals are prominent characters in this story: Mary Lake Barnes Board (the accuser) and George Thomas Carter (the accused). Though I got a good start on my research, a busy life put this project on hold.
By 2020, six years later, I had the opportunity to speak with James (Jim) Bannister, great-nephew of the victim. Jim inspired me to revive my research efforts and write a story for him. Within two weeks of restarting my research, I Googled "George Carter Paris KY 1901.” Several pages of results appeared, but one result was promising: a Murky Press blog that included an entry titled “Time Stands Still” dated 11/30/2019. Its author stated that her grandfather “spent a lifetime coming to grips with the perverted justice he witnessed as an eight-year-old boy in Paris, Ky.” My interest was piqued, and I reached out to the author for any information that her grandfather may have shared.
On June 17, 2020, the author replied that she didn’t have the specific information I was looking for; however, within her words were nuggets of gold:
“A friend of mine was doing some genealogical research for me and, upon searching for information about my great-grandmother Mary Lake Barnes Board, initially stumbled across a story about the lynching in a California newspaper.”
Whoaaaa!!!! This is incredible! Do you mean to tell me I’m communicating with the great-granddaughter of Mary Lake Barnes Board, the accuser of George Carter??? I sat motionless, telling myself to breathe, and trying to wrap my brain around the author’s response. What are the chances of encountering a close relative of an 1800s Bourbon County family that you’re researching? My only response to Sallie Showalter was, “May I now call you on your cell?”
Since that momentous call, Sallie and I have exchanged numerous emails and enjoyed many telephone conversations. I’m continually blessed by her kind, fierce, and generous spirit as well as her beautiful writing/editing skills.
The providential encounters with Jim and Sallie led to their now well-publicized meeting at the Hopewell Museum in July 2020 in which they discussed their link to the 1901 crime as well as its impact on their families. A 120-year-old crime was laid bare and two individuals exemplified the meaning of courage and forgiveness for not only Bourbon County, Ky., but a strife-ridden nation.
Ahhhhhhh, behold the golden nuggets that radiate like diamonds within the mighty and vast universe for such a time as this!
“If you had been a boy, we planned to name you Lazarus.”
My mother told me that story over and over. I was never sure whether I believed her. Would she really have dared to give me such an unconventional name, a name with such a specific Biblical story associated with it? I was a serious Sunday School student and understood the weight that name would have carried. Thank goodness I was a girl.
“The doctors told me you were dead,” my mother would continue, usually after my unrelenting energy and general rambunctiousness had worn her down. While pregnant with me, my mother had been advised that she was carrying a dead fetus in her womb. That presented enormous risk for her, and her physicians felt they had to take extraordinary steps to save her life.
But it was 1959. And a doctor could not legally “take” a baby before birth. So a courageous and determined Dr. George Heels admitted my mother to Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass.—for an appendectomy.
My mother was never convinced that any of this was necessary. Although the doctor had not been able to detect a fetal heartbeat during her recent appointments, she knew I was kicking and moving around. She knew she wasn’t carrying dead weight. She protested vehemently when he tried to tell her otherwise.
My mother had already successfully carried one baby to term. She had experienced the stillbirth of another, and the agonizing death of yet another shortly after his birth. Her life had hung in the balance both times. She was no novice.
“When they wheeled me into the surgery prep room before my appendectomy,” my mother would explain to me yet again, “Dr. Heels gently laid his stethoscope on my abdomen one last time. This time you kicked the stethoscope out of his hand. You finally proved to him that I was right. I knew you were fine all along.”
I expect that nearly every adult woman has a story of a doctor who didn’t believe her, who minimized her complaints, who explained impatiently, in a condescending manner, why he (in that era they were usually men) was right and she was mistaken about her own body and the symptoms she was experiencing. It still happens today, of course. It is at the root of our ongoing discussions about whether women should retain control over their own health and their own bodies.
In January 1973, when Roe v. Wade changed the law of this land, I was 13 years old. I had heard my mother’s personal story many times by this point. I had heard her share details of the suffering and the horror and the deaths of women who had sought “back-alley” abortions, or who had tried some granny’s remedy to terminate a pregnancy. She was a fierce supporter of legal abortion. She was a fierce supporter of women knowing their own bodies and making their own decisions.
Sadly, it’s time for all of us once again to drag these stories back out in the open. Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan recognized that. This week, he shared the painful story of his first wife’s abortion, a procedure that probably saved her life. As Peters said, “It's a story of how gut-wrenching and complicated decisions can be related to reproductive health." Many women, many families know the importance of having this procedure available when needed.
My mother’s story ended with an unexpected twist. She and my dad became close friends of Dr. Heels and his wife, Vera. They socialized and traveled together. It was as if helping my parents through a series of traumas connected the two families emotionally.
And that’s what we need to do again now. We need to recognize the shared humanity in all of our stories. The shared pain. The shared hope. We need to ensure that hope is available for women who find themselves in life-threatening or life-altering situations that they cannot endure. We need to trust the women when they know it is so.
Once I had decided to write a novel about my grandfather, I knew that I wanted to hew to the facts of his life as closely as possible. That, of course, required extensive research—research into the public records that revealed his movements and actions, research into the other people who inhabited his world, research into the cities where he made his home, and research into the history and culture of the United States between 1900 and 1942.
For me, one of the most difficult aspects of writing Next Train Out was knowing when it was time to stop researching and start writing. In the end, external circumstances pushed me to abandon my feeble efforts to educate myself and find the courage to put words on a page. I had enrolled in the Author Academy at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, Ky., and my mentor wanted to see a fledgling manuscript. Although there was still research I wanted to pursue, I stopped making that my emphasis and turned my attention to creating a fictional world.
Occasionally, of course, I still had to stop writing and look up some historic detail or spend a little time pursuing a lead that had just turned up. Sometimes the leads that most intrigued me were unfortunately set aside as new distractions demanded my attention.
Earlier this summer I finally picked up the phone to pursue one of those leads. I had some notes that indicated that, in 2000, Effie Mae’s great-granddaughter had lived one county north of my home. I didn’t know if that was still the case, or whether the contact information I had for her was still valid. But since I finally had some time, I was determined to see if I could find her.
Eventually, one of the phone numbers I tried rang through.
“Hi. My name is Sallie Showalter. Is this Storme Vanover?” I asked tentatively.
“Ms. Vanover, I live nearby in Scott County, and I recently wrote a novel about the woman I believe was your great-grandmother—Effie Mae Frady.”
“Yes, that’s right. Effie Mae was my grandmother Edna’s mother.”
“Well, my grandfather was married to your great-grandmother and, if you’re interested, I’d love to meet you and give you a copy of the book.”
With that prompt, Storme, who was driving her car at the time, began to share some of her family’s story. Last week I met with her for an hour in her home in northwestern Grant County, and she graciously filled in more of the details.
Storme is indeed the granddaughter of Effie Mae’s younger daughter Edna (whom I call Eileen in the book). I knew from my research (or rather, from Chuck’s research) that Edna had eventually moved to Michigan and married there. Storme was born in Detroit. What I did not know was what happened after Effie Mae left her three older children in Kentucky, including Edna, when she and her youngest son Doug moved to Cincinnati.
The 1920 census confirms that Effie and all her children were living with Effie’s brother in the Logmont coal camp. But I had to imagine what happened to the three older children Effie Mae left behind. In my naiveté—which reflects the ease of my own life—I decided that the children stuck together and successfully navigated their way to adulthood. As I look back on it now, I created a rosy moving picture story, complete with a softening scrim that subdued the hardships they must have endured.
In reality, as Storme shared with me, Edna, at some point after her seventh birthday, was put on an orphan train and landed in a Catholic orphanage. No one knows where that orphanage was, but I was distressed to read the stories of neglect and abuse at a number of those institutions in Kentucky and elsewhere.
According to Storme, Edna eventually initiated steps to take her vows as a nun. But her plans were derailed when she became pregnant by a young priest-in-training—or was it a truck driver? Edna's story would vary. Wherever the truth lay, it seems that Edna’s older sister Vivian (I call her Valarie in the book) cared for baby Shirley for some time, perhaps contrary to Edna's wishes. Edna eventually moved to Michigan, and Edna and Shirley were reunited when Shirley was six. The father of the child had no further role in their lives, and Edna and Vivian never spoke again.
This is just a glimpse into a family story full of tragedy and mésalliances as well as love and loyalty. That story is Storme’s story, and I will leave it to her to tell.
But I’ve thought about what I’ve learned from her about the fate of Effie Mae’s children. If I had reached out to Storme while I was writing the book, would I have portrayed Effie’s story any differently? Did Effie Mae know what happened to Edna? To Vivian and Lynn, her older son? Did Effie herself put Edna on that train? Or was that Edna’s father, whom Edna was devoted to? Or was it her uncle, who had taken the whole family in?
I didn’t pursue a lead while I was writing my grandfather’s story, and I now know more of the truth underlying his tale. That truth doesn’t change the work of fiction I created. But it does deepen my understanding of the lives interwoven with his own, and it reveals the hidden complexities of all our stories.
Yesterday I talked with Effie Mae’s granddaughter. Doug’s daughter.
Many of you who have read Next Train Out know that the novel is based on the life of my grandfather, William Lyons Board. You know that most of the major events in the book are factual, according to historical records uncovered over years of research.
But you may not have fully understood that Effie Mae, the other narrator in the novel, was also drawn nearly completely from records of her life. The same goes for Doug, her youngest son.
Some years ago my friend and collaborator, Chuck Camp, found Kathleen, Effie Mae’s granddaughter, in the Washington, D. C. area. He talked to her a few times, pressed her about what she knew about her grandmother, who had died before she was born. The details were few, but Kathleen was able to relay some sense of the warm relationship her dad had with both his mother, Effie Mae, and his stepfather, “Bill” Board.
Chuck and I had tried to arrange a trip to meet Kathleen and interview her in person, but we kept bumping into scheduling obstacles. Eventually, I shifted from a focus on research to writing the novel, and I threw all my energy into getting words down on the page.
All along, of course, I knew Kathleen was out there, and I hoped to finally meet her. I had planned to invite her as a guest of honor to the book launch party that had been scheduled for April. When the coronavirus forced us to abandon those plans, I once again turned my attention to other things.
So it wasn’t until yesterday that I picked up the phone and “dialed” the number I had for her, not knowing if it would still be valid. As I was leaving a message, she picked up. We had a delightful conversation, and I am now more eager than ever to visit her in person—whenever that is possible. I confirmed some things we have in common: she and I both grew up in Baltimore, and we both spent at least part of our careers as technical writers. (One distinction: she is still working and loves her job.) In a brief email I sent to her afterwards, I suggested that perhaps we are “step-grandsisters,” her grandmother having married my grandfather.
I have mailed her a copy of the book, and I look forward to discussing it with her after she has read it. No doubt much of it will feel familiar to her. She may also learn some things about her grandmother’s life. And I’m certain she’ll learn a good bit about the man her grandmother married during the Great Depression.
I’ve written before about how these writing projects I’ve undertaken over the last four years have led my life in unexpected directions. I’ve made significant new connections with people whose lives somehow intersected with members of my family. It has been genuinely remarkable. And I’m more and more grateful every day.
I’m going to meet George Carter’s great-nephew.
Even if you’ve read Next Train Out, the name George Carter may not ring a bell. My calculations indicate that I called his name five times in the narrative, but I’ve learned over recent weeks that I probably should have cited his name more.
George Carter is significant to Lyons’ story, and he’s significant to today’s story. In this era of reckoning—and, one hopes, some sort of reconciliation, eventually—the George Carters of the world need to be remembered. We cannot forget. And those of us whose ancestors are directly tied to these stories, we need to face the music. Now.
Next month I will sit down with a descendant of the man who was lynched in front of the Bourbon County courthouse because he allegedly “assaulted” my great-grandmother.
I’m not sure how to relay to you the awe I’m feeling, the anticipation, the relief, the gratitude, and, yes, the shame that shivers up my spine as I contemplate this meeting.
I won’t detail the machinations that resulted in the heinous act on February 10, 1901. I will say that the single news story about the initial incident, which occurred in early December 1900, described what we today would call an attempted purse snatching.
But perhaps it’s important to keep in mind that the newspaper where that article appeared, the Kentuckian Citizen, was published by Mrs. Board’s cousin. The newspaper’s offices occupied a building once owned by Mrs. Board’s father, a prominent physician. After her father’s death, Mrs. Board inherited that property. One of the competing papers in town, the Bourbon News—which carried a fulsome story of the lynching two months later—was published by the husband of Mrs. Board’s closest friend.
I point that out to show how the power structure in town was stacked against Mr. Carter. Whatever transpired between him and Mrs. Board, he didn’t stand a chance. He was black. She was white, and she was connected. Two months after the incident, when the mob formed, whatever had actually happened on that cold December day was long forgotten. Rumors and innuendo and wild imagination had successfully altered the truth. For some in town, the crime now justified taking the life of a young man with a wife and two daughters under the age of two.
We have an opportunity to address some of this ongoing injustice now. Our country is awake. Video recordings provide unshakable truth. We must find the courage and the determination to start fixing these inequalities and addressing the resulting brutality.
I am grateful that I will have the opportunity to speak to one of Mr. Carter’s descendants. I am grateful that he wants to meet with me. I have no idea what I will say. There is no recompense. I cannot change the past. But I’m eager to see what I can start doing today.
This week our dark times got darker.
Over the month of May—still sheltered in place or cautiously emerging into society while simultaneously mourning the 100,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19—we have learned of three American citizens killed, needlessly, inexplicably, by police or those assuming law enforcement duties. All the victims were black. All the perpetrators were white.
Will this outrage never end?
The rage incited by these events has engulfed our cities. Protestors have blanketed the streets. Some agitators have destroyed property, burning and looting businesses with no association to the injustice. A response that initially felt rational now feels insane.
In the midst of all this horror, another related story caught my attention. On Monday in Central Park, a 57-year-old birder asked a woman walking in the wooded Ramble area to leash her dog, as the area requires. She refused. As he calmly offers the dog treats in an effort to convince her to control her dog, she accuses him of threatening her and says she will call the police. With that, he takes out his phone and begins to record the incident. The woman, who is white, then calls 911 and tells the dispatcher, in an increasingly hysterical voice, that she is being threatened by an African American man. (CNN story)
We all know of famous incidents in our nation’s history where a false accusation from a white woman cost a black man his life. But how many others, never reported or denied by those in power, stain our past? Today we’re finding that an immediately accessible recording device may be the only way for the black victim to get justice, even if it’s posthumously.
In the Central Park instance, which thankfully did not go that far, the man and the woman actually have a lot in common. They’re both sophisticated New York City dwellers who take advantage of the beauty of Central Park. They’re both highly educated—he at Harvard, she at the University of Chicago. They’re both successful in their fields. They even share the same last name (although they are not related).
But Amy Cooper felt that her whiteness gave her tremendous power over Christian Cooper. And she decided to use that power. If he had not recorded their interaction, she very well may have succeeded in having him arrested for a fabricated crime. And convicted. Because of his skin color.
As I worked on Next Train Out, I had to wrestle with my own family’s story of a white woman’s alleged assault leading to a black man’s death. The only information I have about the incident is what was reported in the local and national newspapers, during a time when purple prose and editorializing were evidently acceptable. None of the news articles offers any details that might indicate that what happened should have been a capital crime.
The only witness was an eight-year-old boy, my grandfather. In my fictional telling of the story, I chose to assign him the natural empathy and compassion of a human innocent, someone not yet indoctrinated into the mores of his community’s power brokers.
Over our long and tortured history, I suppose we humans have always sought to subjugate others. To demonstrate power through domination. To cover up weakness by claiming the upper hand.
At risk of repeating a tired refrain, this has to end. We must stop snuffing out the lives of others simply because we deem ourselves superior. The color of our skin does not grant us that privilege. We have to be better.
Nobel Prize-winning writer Czeslaw Milosz is often quoted as saying, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
I stumbled across this quote recently when reading about the one-woman play based on Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton that opened earlier this year in New York. I chuckled. As I have pursued publishing two books about family members—one about my father who died when I was seven, and the other about my maternal grandfather whom my mother never knew—I have frequently wondered about the propriety or even the dangers of writing about family.
In my case, I did not set out to write a “tell all” book or to reveal any uncomfortable truths about my personal experiences.
In The Last Resort, I essentially let my father do the talking, and I was cautious not to include in the excerpts from his Harvard Forest journal any details that I thought might be construed as too personal or too negative toward those in his orbit. Nonetheless, I did want to reveal just enough to make him feel more fully human to readers.
Next Train Out is, of course, a novel. It is a fictionalized telling of my grandfather’s life. I relied on the facts I had at hand to discern possible motivations or character traits that would lead him to take the actions he did. Some may consider the details of the story scandalous or horrifying. I simply view them as the facts.
Nearly all the people who populate these books are long gone from this earth. That distance gave me some comfort and perhaps the license to share these stories. At the same time, I felt some responsibility for making my representation of the characters as truthful as I could, given the limitations of my knowledge. I would sometimes ask myself, “If Effie Mae’s descendants were to read this book and somehow recognize her in the telling, will they feel I have maligned her memory?” I don’t think so.
There is one character in Next Train Out who is portrayed as a sort of villain, which I don’t believe is truly accurate. But I needed a foil for Lyons, and he was a good choice. I checked with his great-grandsons—my cousins—twice to be sure they would be OK with my fictional representation. They assured me I didn’t need to worry.
Another cousin called recently to say how delighted she was to find her grandfather and other relatives identified by name in the novel. It made the whole story come alive for her. She probably didn’t remember that I had called her late last year to be sure she was OK with my using their real names. During that conversation, she offhandedly shared some physical and personality traits of those family members with me, which I dutifully incorporated into the story.
So it can indeed be dangerous to have a writer in the family. Or in your circle of friends. But, as Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”