Last year I participated in a year-long project by the College of Charleston to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Emancipation and the subsequent desegregation of South Carolina schools. My book, The Road to Frogmore, told part of that story. The project came to a close last November, but today I received a request from the director:
"We would appreciate it if you could write a reflection about your book, The Road to Frogmore. Your comments should focus on what you found to be most important about your work--share what you found to be most rewarding, most difficult, most surprising, whatever you find to be most significant to your individual experience and the project overall."
After a bit of stewing about the prospect of yet another writing project , I realized that I had already written such a reflection as an "Author's Note" at the beginning of the book. So here it is, with only a bit of editing so that the article can stand alone as part of the archive of The Jubilee Project.
THE ROAD TO FROGMORE: TURNING SLAVES INTO CITIZENS
Carolyn P. Schriber
“Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.”
The Road to Frogmore tells the story of Laura M. Towne, who came to a small island on the coast of South Carolina during the Civil War and almost single-handedly created a school tha could turn former slaves into producive American ciizens. The book is fiction, but its story is true, and its characters are real. How can that be? It is true because it is based on documented historical evidence. It is fiction because I have had to use my own imagination to fill in the blanks within the evidence.
There is no shortage of sources material for the story of Laura M. Towne. Laura, like most of her colleagues, kept a diary throughout the first years of her stay in South Carolina. All of her Gideonite colleagues were inveterate letter-writers, and much of their correspondence is still available. As a result, a researcher suffers from an over-abundance of material evidence. Almost every event during the Port Royal Experiment had multiple witnesses and participants. The problem, of course, is that when nine different people write their own descriptions of a particular event, they produce nine different truths—and all of them may be “true.” Truth changes, depending upon who tells the story.
tell what she has chosen to forget or what she failed to see. In Laura’s case, her diary entries
often reveal a dark side to her character, and her fears come out to play in the dark. Her letters
can seem cloyingly sweet and cheerful. She was very likely to write to her sisters to tell them she
was bursting with good health, that she never felt better in her whole life. But a diary entry
written the same night may indulge in descriptions of raging headaches, nausea, and muscle
cramps that she feared were symptoms of terminal illness. Which one was the true Laura? That is
the question her diary and letters fail to answer.
The Port Royal Experiment was marked by ongoing disagreements—religious differences,
opposing political and economic theories, and widely varying reactions to the conditions under
which they were all living. The result was, of course, a narrative of disagreement. In a novel, the
reader wants to know how much is true, but there is a difference between truth and fact. Facts
reveal details but can hide the truth behind a wall of distorted mirror images. Which image is
The writer of historical fiction must take the details and transform them into a story that makes
sense. Sometimes that task demands a new search to ascertain the “truth” and sometimes it needs
a healthy dose of imagination to make facts understandable. In The Road to Frogmore, all the
characters are real, and I have changed no names to protect anyone from the consequences of his
or her actions. Events are factual; dates are accurate; outcomes fully revealed. Is the story true?
Perhaps. But it is also fiction because it reflects my own interpretations of how the characters felt
and how they must have talked to one another.
My greatest challenge came when I tried to portray the slaves who were the heart and soul behind Laura’s story. The slaves of St. Helena Island left no written record of their experiences and feelings. Yet every time I described a crisis point in their story, I knew I was missing an important factor because I had no evidence of how the slaves interpreted the event. At last I chose one individual as a spokesperson for them all. That spokesperson was Rina, the slave woman whom Laura paid to be her laundress.
Throughout Laura’s diary, she referred to Rina in ways that suggested that this woman was a keen observer of her surroundings. Time and again, Laura writes, “Rina says . . .” and the following comment turns out to be a crucial observation. Rina appears throughout
Laura’s diary, all the more frequently as Laura came to rely on her as a conduit into the slave
community. In my book, she functions in the same way as a Greek chorus does—watching the action while remaining aloof from it and commenting on the behavior of those who don’t fully understand the culture in which they are embedded.
I must add a word about Rina and the language she speaks. Rina, like all of the slaves in the Low Country, spoke Gullah, a language in its own right, with its own rules of grammar, a distinct syntax, and a vocabulary that contained both English words and words from several African languages. It also used certain sounds that a speaker of a European language cannot pronounce. Linguists no longer see Gullah as patois, or a form of broken English. But for that reason, it became a daunting task to reproduce it authentically, while making it understandable for readers of English.
While I wrote, I kept by my side a Gullah dictionary and a wonderful translation of De Gullah
Nyew Testament produced by the Penn Center’s efforts to preserve the Gullah language. Yet the
closer I came to being able to recreate the speech of a St. Helena slave, the more unintelligible it
version of Gullah that preserves much of the authenticity of the original language while making
it accessible to speakers of English.
We started by eliminating all apostrophes. An apostrophe suggests that there is a right way to
pronounce a word, and that the speaker has failed to include all the correct syllables or sounds. It
privileges the English form over the Gullah instead of recognizing that they are separate
languages. An English speaker says “Tomorrow we are going to Beaufort.” A Gullah speaker
says “Morrow we gwine go fuh Bufor.” Both are understandable. Apostrophes are unnecessary.
We included a few words that appear only in Gullah, such as buckra, which means a white man
or white person. We also used the Gullah fuh in place of an English infinitive to and replaced all
forms of going to with the Gullah gwine.
The verb to be, with all its forms (am is, are was, were, have been, has been, had been) appears
in only two forms in Gullah (be or bin). A similar reduction occurs with pronouns, which for the
most part are not inflected (no possessive or accusative forms). So a speaker of Gullah says, “He
bring food fuh we” (not “for us”).
Gullah speakers do not (perhaps cannot) pronounce a sound that would be an unaccented syllable
at the beginning of an English word. This happens most often with words that begin with a
vowel, such as accept, which becomes cept or exactly, which becomes zakly. The result is a
speech pattern that always begins with an accented syllable and produces a strong rhythm similar
to the poetic sounds of an English dactyl.
Finally, certain common English sounds are difficult for a speaker of Gullah. Our version
changes all fricative th sounds to d (they becomes dey; other becomes udder). An aspirated th
changes to a simple t (thing becomes ting; thumb becomes tum). Similarly, most v sounds change
to a b (never becomes neber; very becomes bery).
With those adaptations, Rina’s voice rang true, and she was able to speak directly to the reader, putting into her own words the inchoate feelings of her fellow slaves. Hers is the voice that guides the reader down the long road to Frogmore Plantation and the founding of the Penn School.