Whose story is being told in The Road to Frogmore? 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 lived 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 evidence to back up even that claim. It was against state law to teach a slave to read or write, so there are no letters or diaries. Most of the slaves spoke the Gullah language among themselves, so the first whites who came to work with them found them almost intelligible. With no record of what they thought, I would be unwilling to trust my creative ability to fictionalize their attitudes.
Second, the slaves in South Carolina were not in a position to understand much of what was going on around them. This was especially true in the Low Country , where fear of slave uprisings lead the plantation owners to keep their slaves as much in the dark as possible. Even if we could find some record of their reactions, they were limited because no one had ever let them know 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 they knew that knowledge would make them dangerous. No, the slaves will not do as the narrators of my story. And yet . . . .
And yet, I need their point of view! As I struggled to deal with this issue, I realized that I do 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 did 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 assemble 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 as something of a one-woman Greek chorus, commenting on the events of the day and the foolishness of the people around her.
Once I understood Rina's role in my story, the point of view decision became clear. This book will use a mixed point of view. Rina's comments and stories will appear in short chapters written in first person. Laura's diary provides a close enough approximation to allow me to record Rina's own words, and I must let her speak for herself. But she cannot speak about all the ideological differences that erupt into crisis points in the story. Since she does not understand what the cotton agents are trying to accomplish, their part of the story must appear in a third-person narrative. The same is true of the soldiers and of the missionaries who come to South Carolina from a variety of backgrounds and with diverse motives.
Because there are so many stories to be told, I plan to use a limited third person point of view for all of the characters except Rina. Each chapter will clearly designate the character who appears as the subject of that chapter. Switching the point of view will allow the reader to relate to one character at a time as the focus shifts to those who are most affected by events at any given time.
The result, I hope, will allow the reader a clearer understanding of what the Gideonite Experiment was all about. When Rina speaks, she knows only what her own experiences have taught her. She may make assumptions about the other characters, but she will be presenting a single opinion that is already formed. She speaks her mind, allowing the reader to understand her, even if the truths she speaks are unwelcome. When the book turns to the people who surround Rina, the third person point of view allows the reader to form his own opinion about each of the characters because it offers many views.
And that, I think, will be the real message of the book. It will present as dispassionately as possible the ideological clashes that make up the great divide during the Civil War. It will not choose between North and South, Evangelical and Unitarian, abolitionist and slave owner, civilian and soldier, businessman and humanitarian, states rights advocate and federalist.
The one constant feature will be the voice of Rina, reminding the reader that she is the one with the most to lose when the people around her make the wrong choices.