The Road to Frogmore -- The Inspiration
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The Road to Frogmore -- The Inspiration

Whose Story Is It? Laura's? Or Rina's?

I began this book as an exercise in speedy writing. When I wrote my 50,000 words of “Gideon’s Ladies” for National Novel Writing Month” (NaNoWriMo), I typed away without ever considering point of view. The result was a mish mash. Each day’s output had a slightly different focus, and a second reading revealed that I had no idea where I was going.  

The story of the Port Royal missionaries is, of course, a mish mash in itself. People come and go. Leadership changes. The events of the Civil War affect what is happening in the Low Country with unexpected results. The missionaries become involved in one dispute after another, and their alliances change with every change in the political winds that blow through their affairs.  

I began to understand the magnitude of the problem when I tried to use Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Pro” software to outline my novel. It’s a 10-step program, and I only made it to step two before I knew I was lost. Step Two asked for a one-paragraph synopsis of the story: the set-up, the disasters that occur, and the ending. Sounds simple, right? Hah! Story takes place in South Carolina during the Civil War. OK. That’s the set-up. So far, so good. 

Now for disasters. Those we have in abundance. Storms, raids, murders, boll weevils, smallpox, yellow fever, vandalism, fistfights, searing heat, killing frosts, hangings, invasions, battles, conflicting laws, drownings—the list goes on and on. But whose disasters are they? 


  • The emancipation proclamation is a disaster for the cotton agent whose workers walk off the job to celebrate their freedom. 
  • A threat of invasion is a disaster for the missionaries whose sponsors call them home, but it’s a victory for the plantation owner who sees the slave schools close and his field hands come back to work. 
  • The failure of a cotton crop because of worm infestation is a disaster for the cotton farmer but a blessing for the field hand, who can now devote full time to the crops that will feed his family through the winter. 
  • The missionary-teachers celebrate the firing of a corrupt cotton agent, who must return home in disgrace. 
  • The cotton agents smile when they see a prominent minister recalled for lining his own pockets with money that should have gone to the plantations. It all depends on your point of view. 

I began to find my way when I started asking the right questions. Whose story is this? Who is most affected by the events? Who has the most to lose?  
 
I thought I knew that my focus would fall on Laura Towne, the founder of the Penn Center, but she was not yet in the area when some of the crucial events took place. In almost every case, the slaves were the ones whose lives were being turned upside down. But could I write the story from the slaves’ point of view? That would be a real stretch, for a couple of reasons.  

First, there is almost no evidence of what the slaves thought about the goings-on in the Low Country during the Civil War. It would be accurate to say they were confused, I suppose, but there is no actual evidence to back up even that claim. Because it was against state law to teach a slave to read or write, there are almost no letters or diaries. Most of the slaves spoke the Gullah language among themselves. The first whites who came to work with them found them almost unintelligible. With no record of what they thought, I would be unwilling to trust my creative ability to fictionalize their attitudes. 

Second, the slaves were not in a position to understand much of what was going on around them. Even if we could find some record of their reactions, they were limited because no one had ever told them about politics, or military strategy, or religious differences. Some of them had heard about Baby Jesus and Uncle Sam, but they had no real understanding of those concepts. Their white masters had wanted them kept as ignorant as possible because a lack of knowledge kept them from rising up in revolt. No, the slaves would not do as the narrators of my story.

And yet, I needed to tell part of the story from their point of view! As I struggled to deal with this issue, I realized that I did have a bit of evidence about the slaves after all. In the Laura Towne diary and letters, Laura makes repeated references to Rina, the woman who does her laundry and ironing for a small salary. Rina held an important place in the slave matriarchy, evidenced by the fact that when the slaves assembled for a “Shout,” they did so at Rina’s cabin. 

Laura, too, found that Rina was invaluable. The diary echoes with one phrase—“Rina tells me that. . . .” As trust built up between the two women, Rina became Laura’s window into the world of the slaves. Rina also functioned in the book as something of a one-woman Greek chorus, commenting on the events of the day and the foolishness of the white people around her. 


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