The Seeds of Exiled South

Author Harriet Cannon and I connect during an author talk I gave last October. Harriet’s latest novel EXILED SOUTH released January 3rd, 2022. Exiled South is a dual time-line story of a twenty first century woman’s reckoning with Civil War era events that split her family for generations. The story features nursing during the late American Civil war and in particular during the Siege of Charleston South Carolina.

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The seeds of Exiled South, a dual time-line contemporary-nineteenth century novel, germinated for years. I grew up in a history loving, storytelling family. My mother inherited a bundle of family Civil War era letters. My father’s mother told and re-told her grandmother’s story of sacrificing wedding pearls and a ring in 1864 to save her fourteen- year-old son from the draft and certain death. Her son departed Charleston harbor on a ship headed for the Bahama Islands and was never heard from again. Years later, while living in South America, I learned the obscure story of the Confederados; Former blockade runners, skilled Black tradesmen, and others with reasons to flee the South immigrated to Brazil after the Civil War. I was hooked. I decided to write a novel about far-reaching consequences for civilians reeled into in a war they may not have agreed with. 

It was a challenge to write a mid-nineteenth century character like my protagonist Laurette, keeping her true to the mind-set of the era while concurrently creating a forward-thinking woman with gumption. I read a plethora of fascinating nineteenth century diaries and collections of letters written by well-educated Southern White women; tutored at home or allowed to attend the new academies for girls. While some women had strong social reform or political opinions, the freedom to speak out or act independently was heavily restricted by the rigid Victorian rules of gender comportment. Rare exceptions such as the famous, Grimke Sisters, overt suffragettes, and abolitionists, with wealth and social status behind them could step outside the boundary of homemaking and childrearing. 

An additional challenge creating Laurette’s character was the fact, in the South, in the 1860’s, female ‘nurses’ were widows or older married women who had experienced death and dying in the family and knew The Ladies Indispensable Assistant inside out. Younger single women visited hospitals to write letters and read to patients but it could ruin a unmarried woman’s reputation to physically minister to unrelated men. 

When the siege of Charleston began, people of means fled the city in the ‘grand skedaddle’ of July 1863. The remaining women, children, old or disabled White and Black men lived through Federal bombardment from Morris Island for 567 days. Food insecurity became the norm. Life threatening random rockets exploding on the peninsula kept farmers from supplying Charleston with fresh food with any regularity. Making matters worse, as the South was desperate for military supplies from Great Britain, fewer blockade runners could justify adding civilian necessities like muslin for clothing, thread, medicines, and kerosine for lamps to their cargo. 

However, the Siege relaxed social rules giving my protagonist Laurette the opportunity to work at the hospital nursing male patients. I created a backstory that would make sense when she knew to use snapdragon for skin rashes, tea of slippery elm for whopping cough and the inner bark of the dogwood tree as a replacement for quinine when it became unavailable. Laurette acquired knowledge of herbs and plants because her father had been a no nonsense practical Scottish immigrant with a chronically ill wife. When Laurette showed interest in the healing arts, he gave her permission to study ‘Hoodoo Medicine’ from a free Black woman and local midwife. 

Although racism was exceptionally cruel in the nineteenth century, it was not unusual for Black and White women to assist each other in childbirth, caretaking of sick children and to share herbal remedies. In her book, Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies, Faith Mitchell discusses not only the medicinal knowledge enslaved women brought to North America, but she also compares the similarity between European, Native American, and African plants and trees used for healing various ailments.

Serendipitously, in the mid nineteenth century, native flora and fauna had become popular additions to the fashionable home garden. The naturalist, Dr. Francis Porcher, published Resources of Southern Fields and Forests in 1863. His book became a go to medical guide in the late Civil War when opium for pain, quinine for fevers and chloroform for surgery were impossible to come by. 

But finding the plants and herbs needed wasn’t easy during the siege of Charleston. Laurette’s diary entries tell how she and another herbalist, risked rape by deserters hiding in bombed out buildings as they sought out plants they needed in abandoned gardens. 

Dr. Porcher’s book became a bonding vehicle for Laurette and her brother-in-law, John, who considered himself a modern scientific physician. In his mind, Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, written by a doctor, justified using herbs and elevated his unmarried sister-in-law to the position of a colleague making her plant-based recipes legitimate treatments not old fashion folk medicine. Although Laurette’s skill as a nurse herbalist brought her respect, the consequences for the choices she made on behalf of her patients forced her to join the diaspora of Southerners who immigrate to Brazil at the war’s end.

Read more about Exiled South at www.harrietcannon.com

A few interesting books on the practice of medicine during the Civil War Era:

  • Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies, Faith Mitchell
  • Kate: The Journal of a Confederate Nurse, Kate Cummins edited by Richard Harwell
  • The Ladies Indispensable Assistant, E. Hutchinson (1851)
  • Motherhood in the Old South: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infant Rearing, by Sally G. McMillen
  • Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Dr. Francis Porcher (1863)
  • Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex and the Civil War, Thomas P. Lowry
  • Unvanquished: How Confederate Women Survived the Civil War, Pippa Pralen

It’s fascinating that there are so many untold stories out there waiting to be discovered. Many thanks for sharing the backstory for Exiled South, Harriet. I know your audience will enjoy the way you’ve brought authenticity and inspiration to the novel.

Exiled South by Harriet Cannon ~~ Lizbeth Gordon, a school counselor and master at facilitating conflict resolution in everyone’s life but her own, returns home to South Carolina after her husband’s sudden death. An elderly aunt has troubling stories of ancestors who disappeared during Civil War Reconstruction. Curiosity drives Lizbeth into roots research that dead ends. 

But tentacles of family history reach across the continents when Lizbeth takes a job at an international school in Rio de Janeiro. She meets multiethnic descendants of Confederate exiles with her surname and nineteenth-century documents. Robert Gordon’s letters describe bold escapes from Federal blockaders and Civil War intrigue in Scotland. His sister, Laurette Gordon, left a diary that shares a heart-wrenching story of sacrifice that insured her daughter’s life would be free of shame. Will the keys to family secrets help Lizbeth open a door to family reconciliation?

A story of family identity and second chances.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, 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.

Who by Fire

Shira Dest and I came into contact through a particular post here on A Writer of History. And I’m delighted to welcome her to the blog to talk about her work in progress. Shira’s published historical fiction is a serial short story called Ann & Anna (this is a link to the first part), which was posted on her blog. She is a published academic, community organizer, and an advocate for building strong public domain social infrastructure.

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Thank you, Mary, for inviting me to write this guest post.  I’m currently coming back to working on my novel after a pause to work on a rather different project.  The working title of this novel, set in 1838 Baltimore, is Who By Fire.  When I picked up the thread of Isaias, the novel’s protagonist, I found that the arc I’d been outlining for him wasn’t working.  To my surprise, readers were far more interested in a short story series I’d begun: Ann and Anna, set twelve years later with a different protagonist, named Willow.  The novel and the series both draw from a similar set of sources, dealing with a subset of the domestic slave trade known as The Fancy Trade.  The character arcs are also similar, but I’ve learned a lot from the short story series that will apply to the novel.

Who by Fire – working cover

The arc for Isaias involves his being forced to make a choice, in order to save his family.  His wife, held on a different plantation, is about to be sold as a Fancy Maid, and he must learn to trust others to get the help he will need to save himself, his wife, and his son.  Ann and Anna’s Willow must also learn to trust, but she is a woman who has been a Fancy all of her life.  I discovered that the networks needed to make the novel work were very complex, as were the social interactions involved.  Much of the subtle communication revolves around song, and I had difficulty planning those interactions in an organic way.  The short series helped me work this out in a similar setting, but with a simpler cast.  While writing the shorter scenes for Ann & Anna, I found that reaching back for phrases I heard as a small child, often bits of song verse, helped to create smoother dialogue in the correct setting.  I checked time periods for phrases and songs by searching the internet.  There was also the normal historical fiction research on clothing, transportation, lodgings, and food, differing by social class and station.  Other research was more specialized.

Mr. Beecher selling a slave girl

I came across the Georgetown Slavery Archive while researching my family history, much of which is from southern Maryland.  The Archive documents the 1838 sale by Georgetown College of 314 enslaved Marylanders down to Louisiana.  The idea that some of those women who were sold south could then have been resold led me to find articles on the domestic slave trade, and to the growing body of research on the Fancy Trade.  I needed to understand how pricing of various types of slaves affected their treatment both within the enslaved community, and by free people of color as well as the various parts of the white population.  Many newspapers sold ad space for runaway slaves, and those ads are an important source of detail as well.  For me, imagining how my 5xs great grandmother might have felt as she saved up her earnings as a dress-maker in Charleston, SC, likely for many years, in order to purchase her freedom, helped me imagine the feelings of both Isaias and Willow.  Moving up to sources on slavery in Maryland, I sought out research on both the free mulatto population as well as the census data available across the board.  Much of this was already familiar territory from my family history research.  I was also able to make use of a few of my own family secrets, accidentally, at first, to bring Willow to life, by creating a similar situation set in the series period.  This made it almost uncomfortably easy to see the horror of being a Fancy through her eyes.  That will transfer over to both Isaias and especially to his wife, in the novel.  Many of the paintings and Abolitionist material around the so-called White Slave Trade, or the sale of Quadroons and Octoroons as Fancies, have been useful in both the story series and in the novel.    

Fancy Quadroon New York Metropolitan Museum

As to the setting, I grew up in and around Washington, DC, spending part of many summers in southern Maryland.  The smells, sounds, and varying kinds of food from season to season defined the area for me.  In the 1970s, varieties of lima beans, corn, seafood, wheat, and even cornmeal changed by time of year.  Those tastes, smells, and sounds, like crickets during a normal year, and cicadas during a noisy year, all end up in the story.  As do the groans of people chained to the walls of the slave penns, or marching in the coffles.  Obviously, bits of backstory emerge as explanation when needed for the story, as with the GU272, as Georgetown College’s enslaved Marylanders are now known.  These details have to be filtered through different classes of people who might have been in a position to overhear and then piece together the information and pass it on to others.  For example, body servants or other house staff in the halls might be able to hear discussions of the sale before it became final.  The Jesuit documents concerning the sale of the GU272 indicated that some were warned before the traders arrived to transport them, and indeed, one was able to hide long enough to evade sale.  That woman was the basis for my idea of Lucy, Isaias’ wife.  Paintings from the time portray a large variety of women known as Quadroons, then and even today in some places.  Having such a wealth of research material, family background, and pressure of conscience, I had to create the stories and learn my craft.  I continue to do this work to honor my own ancestors, and also in the hope of building empathy for the plight of women everywhere who endure the pain of trafficking today.  Thank you for this opportunity.

I’m grateful to you for sharing the background and some of your personal history for the novel you’re writing, Shira. Others look to family history for inspiration, but yours has such poignancy and such relevance to today. I will look forward to reading Who By Fire, when it is published.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, 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.

The Role of Politics in Historical Fiction

I had the pleasure of listening to Samantha Rajaram and Carrie Callaghan‘s talk The Fictional is Political during the 2021 HNS North America conference. The premise of their presentation is that every story is political given the power dynamics behind its characters and their world, and that those writing historical fiction must delve into and interpret the complex politics of the past. Definitely a topic of interest for the seven elements of historical fiction – so I invited Carrie and Samantha to answer a few questions.

Can you start us off with a definition of politics that provided a foundation for the presentation you gave at HNS 2021?

Carrie: Politics is the pursuit or exercise of power. So what’s power? In college, my professor defined power as the ability to force others to do as you will. I think that coercive element is unnecessary and distracting; rather, power should be the ability to do as you will – power is agency.

Samantha: I love Carrie’s definition of politics from our presentation for the Historical Novel Society, which is better than what I could come up with! In a generalized way, I think of politics as interlocking systems of power and how those systems affect my characters

When you think of politics in the context of historical fiction, what aspects do you consider to inform the stories you tell?

Samantha: We live in a time where people often feel so disenfranchised and disempowered that we begin to believe we have very little effect on these larger systems at play. Through my fiction, I hope to demonstrate how marginalized people are, in fact, the people who most interrogate, challenge, and change these systems that we tend to believe are immutable and entrenched. Perhaps it’s an aspirational inclination, but the historical record is full of “regular people” who radically changed the world. 

Carrie: I adore Samantha’s empowering view of politics in fiction. Likewise, I feel passionately that all lives are intertwined with politics, whether it’s a nun’s pursuit of independence in a 13th century convent or a young woman’s efforts to liberate her enslaved relatives or a female artist’s efforts to establish herself as a working painter in male-dominated 17th century Holland. I want our readers today to see how the threads of power and politics have always formed the weft and weave of human lives.

What research do you do to understand the political dynamics of a particular era?

Carrie: For both my novels, I read widely about the historical moment (17th century Holland or early 20th century Russia). Because history is founded on history, I always research what came before the moment I’m writing about. I also look for the wars. You don’t have to search far to find a war at nearly any moment in history, and understanding those wars helps illuminate the political conflicts of that time.

Samantha: I usually begin by reading books about the subject matter and then go deeper into scholarship. I’m fortunate to have access to some excellent research databases and an incredible public library system with very helpful librarians! For The Company Daughters, I also reached out to some scholars in the field of Dutch slavery in Indonesia and I traveled to Amsterdam as well. 

Do you look for parallels between the politics of then versus now?

Samantha: Those parallels are an inevitable part of writing historical fiction for me—otherwise, what’s the point? Personally, I’m not very interested in the human stories behind famous people in history—monarchs and such. As someone who grew up reading European history until I took an Indian History class in college (taught by a non-Indian professor), I’m more interested in unearthing the stories of the oppressed and colonized. And we live in such a time of social and economic upheaval, that I’m continually surprised and aware that the stories I’m writing, and the dynamics shaping them, are still relevant. 

Carrie: As Samantha said, it’s almost impossible not to find the parallels. As writers we are interested in moments of history precisely because we see something that resonates with us at the moment, and we are offering stories to readers who will become immersed because they too see echoes. Yes, that parallel might be as simple as a common humanity, but that is based in an understanding that our struggles today are similar to those before us. In my first novel, A Light of Her Own, I wondered how Judith Leyster felt about her female ambition in a patriarchal world. Today we’re still not sure what to do with women’s ambitions.

How does the political dimension enrich character development, add to plot and conflict, become part of the world you build for readers.

Carrie: Ah, so much! In my second novel, Salt the Snow, real-life American journalist Milly Bennett is trying to figure out what to make of early 1930s Moscow — when the Depression is ravaging the United States and the Soviet Union seems to be finding its economic footing. Politics at that moment were integral to her personal conflict. As a journalist, she was exploring how to be truthful in a world where it felt like everyone had an agenda. It became personal when her opera-dancer husband was arrested by the secret police. The struggle to exercise power affected every step of her life.

Samantha: In The Company Daughters, I saw so many concentric circles of power/politics. There was the issue of class between Jana and Sontje, exacerbated by the Dutch colonial project at that time and the establishment of what’s now considered the first multinational corporation (The Dutch East India Company). Then there were the gender politics requiring the trafficking policy imposed by the Company. And of course the political realm of religion and how religious dogma further removed women from their sexuality. Finally, there’s just the political dynamic between these two women who fall in love on this awful ten-month journey to the colonies and must constantly navigate shifting systems of power through marriage, sickness, pregnancy, and class when they arrive in Batavia.

Perhaps you could both also answer the question: What novel are you working on now?

Samantha: I’m working on a multi-POV novel set in the 1930s about three young people in India, France, and Vietnam who find their way into anti-colonial activism around a specific historical event in French India.

Carrie: I’m also working on a story set in the 1930s! It’s such a rich era for political uncertainty and drama. My story is about a Spanish woman exiled from her home when her father catches her kissing another woman. It doesn’t get easier from there.

Carrie Callaghan is the author of the novels Salt the Snow and A Light of Her Own. She lives in Maryland with her family and three ridiculous cats. She’s something of a political junky, though she hates to admit it.

Samantha Rajaram is the author of The Company Daughters. Her essays and short fiction have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and India Currents, and she was a contributor to Our Feet Walk the Sky, the first South Asian-American anthology published in the US.

Many thanks to Samantha and Carrie for illuminating the topic of politics in historical fiction. You’ve certainly given me new perspective on the topic along with the notion that politics is (almost) always a source of conflict.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, 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.