The Haunted Mansion of History

Welcoming Leslie Simmons, author of Red Clay, Running Waters, to the blog today. Her post eloquently reminds us that historical fiction is an important tool to illuminate issues of the present.

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At the crossroads between this blog and today’s spooky holiday, the metaphor of a haunted mansion and our perceptions of history criss-crossed in my thoughts. Both the past and the mansion are dark, dusty, mysterious and a little frightening. We never know just what we may find around any corner, or behind a dusty shelf, both being universally met with equal amounts of fascination and aversion. The ghosts and shadows of our past hover; we are never quite sure what is real or not.

Curiosity, like all ghosts and muses, is mercurial. You never know when it will set a spark off. Your normal life can take a turn of direction from a casual thought, a glance, or word spoken at the right time. Like mine did.

It was my passion for history, the desire to answer a BIG question, that turned into a journey spanning forty years, ultimately leading to my first novel, Red Clay, Running Waters, and a new perspective on History for me.

My initial curiosity was two-fold: How was such a thing as the Trail of Tears possible in a country so recently inspired by Rights in a War for Independence, and what role did the occupants of the house talked about in my blog Inspiration from Old Houses play in the tragedy of the Indian Removal of the 1820-30s. 

From its origins, the history we learn as gospel is often garbled from one generation to the next, by perspective, interpretation, new insights – till the story that comes out the other end often seems like what might have been, but it’s not.  This can be said about many stories we learned from history. I found it to be particularly so when it came to America’s colonization and the expulsion of First Nations people. It is heartening to see new perspectives and some of those stories coming to light recently.

Books often start with a BIG QUESTION. My BIG Question led me into researching an era of American History I knew little about, drawing me into the lives of the Ridge family, once prominent members of the Cherokee Nation east of the Mississippi. Unravelling the threads of the Ridge’s legacy offered ample parallels between our current social strife, and those the Ridges lived through. As I trawled through original sources – the speeches, letters, memorials, and reports — the phrase ‘past is prologue’ flashed like a neon sign before me. The more I understood the conflicts, the contradictions, the paradoxes, the good intentions gone wrong, the more connections I could draw to our own times, and to the human experience. I became immersed, not in imaginary characters, but in real people whose footsteps I had walked in, who lived through similar events long forgetten. 

Those who study history may see the turning points and crossroads ahead – the seemingly inevitable milestones laid down by our predecessors – but most people occupy their own present, one that appears very different from that of their predecessors. Through the process of my discovery, empathy grew for our ancestors and the events they lived through — events and human behaviors so eerily similar to experiences of our own. 

That is where the stories Historical Fiction authors create — especially those about real people — play an important role in bringing relevance to a murky and mysterious past. Once light is thrown on dark corners, often another angle comes into view, revealing a story different from the one generally told, often a story demanding to be told.

Passions certainly drove the lives of the Ridges, as it did me, as it often does the human world. Sadly, as humans, our lives, and our cultural memories are short, often becoming unbalanced by the scales of common wisdom, overwhelmed by the voices of the victors that have turned mythical. History can be complicated, to say the least, frequently perceived as a jumble of facts, not a lived experience. Although most of us know George Santayana’s quote, ‘Those who cannot remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes,’ we seldom personalize historical events. . . until they are turned into story.

Using the power of story, we writers of Historical Fiction make the past an inhabited place, peopled with emotional resonance and consequences readers empathize with. And empathy is a very powerful emotion, powerful enough to teach and open minds. In constructing story, we extract motivations, illuminating behind the events, hopefully revealing what drove the interlocking puzzle pieces of cause and effect. At our hands is the capacity to give readers the opportunity to explore how a past we didn’t live shapes the lives we live today. And it always does — continuing on in the world of choices, attitudes, and behaviors we inherit from our ancestors.

In this process of unearthing and crafting Red Clay, Running Waters, I came to agree with Clarence Darrow, that “history repeats itself, and that’s one of the things that’s wrong with history”. But history has also shown over-and-over that perspectives can change. Writers of Historical Fiction play an important part in casting a light into history’s shadows were there are treasures, as well as scary things. My aspiration is to use my pen, as John Ridge and the Cherokee so gloriously did, to shine a light on who we were, who we are now, and hopefully share some of the same insights I gained in the process. We all share one thing – our common humanity – something many often neglect, or deny, something the Ridges never forgot. It has been through their story I have come to understand them, their times, and my own times as well. I am the better for it.

Many thanks, Leslie, for sharing the inspiration for Red Clay, Running Waters and this important time and an issue that continues to resonate.

Red Clay, Running Waters by Leslie K Simmons

Red Clay, Running Waters is the little-known story of John Ridge, a Cherokee man dedicated to his people, and his White wife Sarah Northrop, a woman devoted to his cause.

In 1824, John Ridge, the promising son of a Cherokee leader, returns from his New England education with his White bride, Sarah. John burns to realize the dream of an independent Cherokee Nation, using his eloquence, his education, and his Cherokee heart in defense of his people’s humanity and rights. Peace at home evades when tensions rise between the Southern states and the federal government, pulling the couple into the crossfire of a divided country on the brink of civil war.

As America wrestles for its soul over the fate of the Indians, John and Sarah unite to forestall a Cherokee diaspora, testing the limits of individual commitment and the meaning of sacrifice. The Ridges’ abiding love for the Cherokee compel them to join forces seeking justice, but with options eroding, and Andrew Jackson in office, John and Sarah must confront an agonizing choice about the future of the Cherokee Nation.

In a timely saga of one family’s search for justice in the 1830s Removal Crisis, this story of profound love, sacrifice, and the meaning of home weaves the complex strands of politics, race, religion, and love into the tapestry of the turbulent times before the Trail of Tears.

Grappling with universal themes – the meaning of love, commitment, and the courage to confront tyranny, Red Clay Running Waters is a vibrant and heart-breaking portrait of the Antebellum Era and the fate of Native Americans. Readers will be propelled across true events on a stunning journey leading to a haunting and moving conclusion.

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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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2 Responses

    1. I couldn’t agree more!!! I’m wondering if it isn’t a mini-series?

      Hmmm…I already have cast members in mind!

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