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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Theme

One More Touchy Subject

Yes, I know it's supposed to be "Gullah Wednesday." I'll get that post up later today.  But first I need to finish off this question about the themes that run through The Road to Frogmore. I had hoped to do this yesterday, but Lions Club business kept getting in the way -- a meeting about the venue for the 2014 State Convention and a trip to Arkansas so my PDG husband could do an installation. 

Readers did not provide much feedback from yesterday's post.  I'm assuming that means that people more or less expect that a Civil War novel will have to deal with racial issues. Of course it does, and the revelation that even the staunchest abolitionist was not 100% color blind is not particularly shocking.

But there is another issue that lies beneath my entire story, one that deals with gender roles.  Laura Towne had a friend, Ellen Murray.  They were (take your pick): best friends, life-long companions, partners, intimate friends, soul mates. All those terms have been applied to these two women, who left their families and fled to South Carolina to establish their own household and work together toward a common cause. They lived together for 40 years, remaining faithful to one another to the exclusion of all others, until death parted them.

I have been unable to find any overt mention of a sexual relationship between the two women, but given the repressive nature of 19th-century mores, that is not surprising.  Married couples don't often talk about sex in the 1860s either. But there are intense emotional moments. Laura fears that Ellen will not be able to join her and literally faints with relief when Ellen actually arrives.  The two greet each other with restraint and then "cavort with glee" when they are finally alone. Laura is at one spot struck dumb by Ellen's fragile beauty. Ellen believes her purpose in life is to take care of Laura. The crisis points in Laura's story frequently have to do with with Ellen. Changes in their relationship send their story off in new directions. It is simply impossible to talk about one without talking about both.

The relationship has gone undefined by historians. I suspect that is at least in part because of our own societal disagreements about same-sex marriages and partnerships. In the 19th century, there was an accepted family structure known as a "Boston marriage." Even gender studies expects disagree about the exact nature of the relationship, but it always seems to involve two unrelated women living together as husband and wife, thus forming a family unit. Is this what was going on between Laura and Ellen? 

Can I ignore it in this book?  I don't think I can.  I don't want to get into a whole discussion about "otherness" here.  However, if Laura and Ellen are a part of a gender-based minority -- if they experience discrimination because of their affection for one another -- then that may help explain why they choose to build their life together in the isolation of the  Sea Islands rather than the urban settings of their upbringings.  Their experience may also give them an empathy for the problems faced by the freed slaves.

Will my readers be disturbed?  What do you think?

The Challenge of the Touchy Subject

Once I winnowed my character list, the next step in re-designing the new book was to identify the theme or message.  So what's a theme?  Hard to identify! I see two major  ideas affecting almost every step of my story.  both of them are controversial.  I'd really like some feedback here.

The first has to do with the abolitionists as a group.  They talk easily about the evils of slavery, the need for emancipation, and the potential for turning slaves into loyal and productive citizens.  I know Laura herself agreed with every one of those points.  But what the Gideonites don't seem to recognize is the degree to which they harbor some level  of prejudice against the blacks.  They want the slaves freed but still see them as a working class. They will pay them a small salary for their labor, but need them to keep working at the same jobs they have always done.  They observe the religious practices that go on in the slave cabins  -- the Shout, for example -- and label them heathenish.  They complain that the blacks are no longer obedient. They want to change their child-raising practices, their marriage customs, their level of cleanliness, their dress.  They want to free the blacks and then turn them into whites. But they do not expect them to rise to their own level of personhood.

Laura is as guilty of these attitudes as any of them, but she does struggle against them.  In several places in her diary, she marvels at incidents in which she forgot the issue of race.  Two black school teachers visit her one day, and at dinner the conversation is exciting and stimulating as they discuss the methods that work well oin the classroom.  Later she writes that she enjoyed the evening so much that she failed to notice that the two visitors were black. 

What is your reaction to such incidents?  Does it make you uncomfortable to be reminded that even the best of us has inborn prejudices against those who are different?  Does the above incident make you think any less of Laura?  Are my readers going to see this theme as polemic?

I'd really like to her what you have to say.  Comment below, please.

Gullah Wednesday: Do You Have a Theme Song?

I learned early on that a story needs some unifying characteristics that help emphasize the meaning of the story.  My teacher was Carl Sandburg.  I suspect most people think of Sandburg as a poet, but he also wrote one giant novel, over 1000 pages in fact, called Remembrance Rock. It is an epic journey through American history, one that begins with the first settlers and continues into the 20th century.  Its theme -- the whole sense of what this story means -- is the unity, or perhaps the resilience,  of the American experience.

But Sandburg does not hit us over the head with that message.  Instead, it permeates the story in subtle ways.  The setting of each chapter contains a specific rock on the New England coastline -- Remembrance Rock, of course. Every generation has its own war to fight. One child in each chapter is born with flaming red hair.  And every chapter has its own yellow cat, usually named Mesopotamia, or Tamia for short. The reader comes to look for those markers as as a way to connect one episode with the next, and as reassurance of the continuation of the spirit that holds the country together. The device is simple.  It exists without disrupting the flow of the story. And it is the vital element that holds the book together.


In Beyond All Price, I borrowed shamefully from Sandburg by turning Nellie Chase into a cat lover and introducing a cat into each crisis point in the story. For Nellie, the cats represented her need to have something or someone to love.  And readers did catch on.  One was even inspired to take Nellie's photograph and photoshop several cats into it.



In my current novel, The Road to Frogmore, the continuing theme is the persistence of Gullah culture among the newly-freed slaves of St. Helena Island. Its spokesperson is the narrator, the slave woman Rina. In order for my heroine, Laura Towne, to be successful in her own personal quest, she must come to understand and appreciate that culture.  

The readers will have to undergo the same learning process.  So to help matters along, I'm introducing a new feature in this blog -- Gullah Wednesdays.  I'll be bringing you all sorts of snippets of Gullah culture as we progress, but for today, let's start with this  video Introduction to "The Roots of Gullah Culture on St. Helena Island:

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Roots of Gullah Culture Part 1 - St. Helena Island
In 1995 Judith Jamison, Artistic Director of The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater,.choreographs Riverside, set to music composed by Kimati Dinizulu.The following footage is an excerpt of some of...