When I first began thinking about the book that would follow “Yankee Reconstructed,” two different ideas tempted me. One was that unspoken demand of the marketplace that two volumes about a South Carolina family needed a third to make them a trilogy. The other was a different project, based on the stories my mother had told me about growing up in a family of eight girls on a farm in Pennsylvania. Which one would win my attention?
I really did not want to do another South Carolina book. The story was pushing into the last decades the nineteenth century, a dark period in the history of the state. There had been an earthquake, i knew, that had destroyed almost the entire city of Charleston in 1886. But just as devastating was what was happening politically and socially. The education system that my characters had worked so hard to put in place had completely collapsed. State government was riddled by corruption. The economy had crumbled. it was also the era of Jim Crow laws, which were nothing more than a white supremacist plot to destroy the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. The state gave off an aura of hopelessness that no mere novel could hope to counter.
But the Pennsylvania topic also had its problems. True, the North had much more to commend it at the turn of the century. Rapid industrialization had benefited the economy but had also revealed a need for social and political reforms. The period from 1890 to 1920 has been called The Progressive Era, as it sought to transform society. It was an exciting time, with campaigns to give women the right to vote, to put a stop to the excesses of alcohol, and drive political bosses and their corrupt machines out of local and state government. But the stories I had inherited from my mother were much more personal than that. They were the stories of individual struggles to find new roles for ordinary people in the dawning twentieth century.
it is not my favorite period of history, but I knew i could pick up the information I would need. No, what troubled me was the reliability of the stories in question. I first saw a book about my mother’s McCaskey family as a return to my favorite genre of creative biography rather than fiction. But that plan rested on the assumption that what my mother had told me was completely accurate. And there I hit a wall. My mother, the youngest of the eight McCaskey sisters, was a creative soul, with a well-known habit of . . . uh . . .embellishing the facts. She told a great story, but it was not one on which I was willing to rest my own reputation as a historian. I also had to think about all my second, third, and fourth cousins out there, who might be disturbed or hurt by a less than factual “tell-all” book about their grandmothers or great-grandmothers.
I dithered and put off making a decision. Then came two small revelations that suggested a third path. First, that real Charleston earthquake drove thousands into the streets, and anyone who could escape the city did so. The three youngest Grenvilles had only loose ties to the city. Rebecca Grenville had agreed to stay there only to keep the family mansion open. If the earthquake destroyed it, she would be free to go anywhere, even Pennsylvania.
And then I noticed that the fictional Jamey Grenville was exactly the same age as my maternal grandfather, Joseph McCaskey. Both had been little more than toddlers at the beginning of the Civil War. Each was the youngest child in his family, and both had older brothers who fought in the war. How easy it was to conflate the two—to use the details of Joseph’s adult life in Pennsylvania to create a new fictional life for Jamey Grenville.
And that’s how “Yankee Daughters” came into existence. Jamey Grenville met a young Pennsylvania Dutch girl who, due to a tragic accident involving her parents, had inherited a farm that she could not manage on her own. In a novel he could ride to the rescue, marry her, and save the farm. A few years later, as the earthquake destroyed the last Grenville ties to Charleston, he could once again be the hero, rescuing his sister Rebecca Grenville and bringing her to live near his own growing family in Pennsylvania.
Suddenly, all I had to do was change the names of the McCaskey women, and I had a novel on my hands. There was a hero who was adored by both the women in his life— his wife and his sister. He had a family of eight daughters—interesting creatures with eight distinct personalities. And there was a feud between the wife, who wanted only to see to it that her eight daughters found suitable husbands who would support them and protect them, and the sister, who hoped to encourage her nieces to become strong, independent women in their own right. At one point in the story, Rebecca complained that her sister-in-law was raising 19th-century women who would have to live in a 20th-century world. She thus neatly summed up the central theme of the coming book.
Coming soon: A series of posts to introduce the new characters, illustrated by old photographs of the real women who inspired the characters. Stay tuned.