When I first began top read about the Gideonites and their
mission to bring education, religion, and medical care to the slaves of South
Carolina, I did not focus on any one individual. In fact, I saw the group as a whole and
assumed they acted with a single purpose.
Eventually I ran up against clear evidence that a great deal of
infighting was going on and I realized that these people had varied interests.
Their diversity, however, made them hard to deal with. I needed a strong character as the focus of
my research. There were many candidates,
but eventually I chose to tell the story of Laura Towne. Why? Because she was a misfit.
As the middle child in a family of seven, she received
little attention growing up. She was too
young to accept responsibility but too old to be “taken care of.” That role
seemed to carry over into her adult life, as her siblings alternated between
lecturing her about her weaknesses and relying on her strengths – and resenting
She grew up in an era of evangelical religious fervor, but
her family attended the Unitarian Church, which valued restraint and logic rather than passion. That alone made her stand out in the normal
day-to-day life of Philadelphia, but Laura’s own value system brought her
additional attention when she became strongly attracted to the abolitionist
Abolitionists were never popular. Her association with them did nothing to help
Laura’s own isolation.
Girls of the upper
and middle classes were expected to become happily married wives and mothers,
interested above all in taking care of their families. Laura hated the very
thought. She was distantly fond of
children, so long as after a while their parents whisked them away. She did not dislike men but could not imagine
ever being subservient and obedient to one of them. Courtship did not interest Laura, nor did the
socially accepted feminine charms by which a lady was expected to attract a
suitable husband. Laura gratefully
accepted spinsterhood as the better alternative.
Education beyond the rudiments was usually deemed unnecessary
for a girl. But books wooed Laura with an attraction that a man could never
have provided. Laura longed tor
scientific knowledge and dreamed of becoming a doctor. She enrolled in one of
the very first medical schools for women but rebelled when she discovered that
she could only read the texts. Clinical
experience was closed to her because society believed it was improper for a
woman to see a man’s body. That limitation sent Laura off on yet another
tangent, exploring the strange world of homeopathic medicine because
traditional medical studies were beyond her reach.
So there she was – an abolitionist spinster who practiced
the mysterious rituals of homeopathic medicine. She chose to travel to an
unknown part of the country in the company of
an equally unknown group of people
rather than to stay close to her family. She chose another woman as her
lifelong companion and settled down at last with a house full of adopted black
children. Fascinating. Her story cried
out to be told.