Lisa Ard is the author of the upcoming novel Brighter Than Her Fears. She is also the author of three children’s stories. I asked Lisa to reflect on how this novel, which is set in the 1880s, has parallels to today.
While researching my historical fiction novel, Brighter Than Her Fears, I was fascinated by the similarities between America in the 1880s and today. The more I read, the more I realized I knew little of this era. Yet many of these late 19th century issues are familiar to us. In my novel, modern readers will relate to the entertaining story layered on 19th century political, economic and social constructs.
Brighter Than Her Fears takes place in 1882 Asheville, North Carolina and is based on my great-great grandmother, Alice Harris. At age thirty, Alice was compelled to marry a Civil War veteran twice her age. Her three sisters married at the same time. Now why was that? Changes in farming and trade point to possible economic reasons for the rushed marriages.
After the Civil War, the crop-lien system prevailed in the South, with both Whites and Blacks working land they didn’t own. Many took out loans for seed and equipment. At the end of the harvest, they paid back these loans with a portion of their crops. When crop prices tanked, farmers were left with little to nothing after paying their creditors. In my story, Alice and her husband have tenants and take 75% of the crop as payment. Good for them. Not so good for the tenants.
In the late 19th century, the rising disparity between the extremely wealthy and the common man led to populism. The Farmers’ Alliance sprang up as a political group representing the working man. More recently, Time magazine described populism as “the politics of the little guy against the big guy — the classic struggle of the haves against the have-nots or the have-not-enoughs.” Alice and her family fell into the latter category.
Populism has had a resurgence in our modern era as seen in this chart from Highcharts.com:
The other influence on Alice’s family was the expansion of the railroads. While this growth had a favorable outcome on farmers wanting to get crops to coastal markets, it changed trade routes. It virtually eliminated the Drover’s Road, by which men led cattle, sheep, and other animals from the mountains to the coastal markets. The Harris family had an inn on the Drover’s Road. Business dried up.
Politicians eagerly extended the railroad lines through western North Carolina and on to Tennessee. Senator Zebulon Baird Vance, along with others, struck deals with the rail lines, garnered investment, and supplied prisoners for labor. African-Americans made up 90% of the labor. Many had been arrested for petty crimes such as walking on the grass, or vagrancy.
Combing through books, documentaries and newspapers, I uncovered corrupt politicians, embezzlement, and monopolies. Exploitation of workers. Extreme wealth. Desperate poverty and homelessness. Such was the Gilded Age. Mark Twain coined the term to describe the thin layer of wealth the elite held, which concealed the broader issues of the lower and middle income classes.
In the late 19th century, this disparity was on display outside Asheville with the building of the Biltmore. George W. Vanderbilt’s lavish home is still the largest single residence in the United States. Vanderbilt acquired 125,000 acres, and spent an estimated $6 million (today’s costs: $1.6 billion) for the 250-room residence. To put that in context, a bricklayer at that time averaged $2/day and worked 60 hours/week. In my novel, Alice and her family take a day trip to view the majestic Biltmore.
Then and now, the rise of inequality made headlines. While productivity has increased tremendously since the 1970s, wages and purchasing power have diverged greatly, with the wealthiest in our country reaping more of that benefit than the lower income groups.
Inequality and the rise of populism are just two of the similarities between the late 19th century and today. In my novel, I touch on others: racism, education, and women’s rights. My great-great grandmother took advantage of the new women’s rights when she turned to the courts to secure her property and independence. Finding these legal documents was a thrill!
History books provide facts. Historical fiction allows readers to learn people’s stories in the context of that history. It brings history to life. When historical fiction resonates with today’s issues, readers enjoy comparing the past to the present. My hope is readers will discuss these issues through the book club questions provided in my novel, Brighter Than Her Fears.
Many thanks, Lisa. The Gilded Age indeed – what an ironic term. And thank you for showing how historical fiction illuminates the issues of today. Best wishes for Brighter Than Her Fears!
Brighter Than Her Fears by Lisa Ard ~~ due out in January 2024
Thirty-year-old Alice Harris is compelled to marry Jasper Carter, a Civil War veteran twice her age. Striving to maintain her sense of self, Alice joins forces with the women campaigning for Asheville’s first public schools, learns to grow and market tobacco, and makes inroads into her newfound family—or so she thinks. When Jasper dies, Alice discovers marriage offered a tenuous promise of security. Her property rights are questioned. The family files for guardianship of her stepson. Alice discovers the Carter family’s hidden motives and turns to the law to fight for her independence, and finds an unexpected love.
FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.