Yesterday morning, men installed a gas log in my fireplace. I lit it and sat for a while with my rescue dogs, Schatzi and BoPeep, watching the leaping flames. The fire lent warmth, both physically and aesthetically, to the room. I felt cozy; the pups felt cozy. I pictured long-ago grandparents, having survived perilous ocean voyages from northern Europe to live out their lives in the New World, warming themselves in front of stone fireplaces.
It’s easy for me to slide back into history. I’m the family genealogist and my idea of heaven is finding a panoply of kinfolk assembled to greet me when I die: Quakers, Presbyterians, unbelievers, Huguenots, Papists, knights, farmers, kings, sea captains, peasants, preachers, etc. Saints and sinners they would be, with some, middling-good. For nearly all my life, I’ve gathered their stories and ache to speak with them.
My southern ancestors were slave-owners. Unlike actor Ben Affleck, who sought to hide his family’s slave-owning past, I admit it. It shames me, but it happened, and I can’t undo it. My planter ancestor, Peter Poyner, secured a land grant from the English Crown in 1680 and sailed to the New World. He paid his way, and the transportation costs for six others, who became indentured to him. He acquired 360 acres in Virginia. Subsequently, he bought land in North Carolina and moved there. When he died in 1715, he left several plantations to his sons.
One of my great-great grandmothers was Keziah Ann Poyner, a direct descendant of Peter Poyner. She came with her family to Indiana in 1832, where she met Illinoisan James Blaine Handy and married him. Keziah and her brother had been left one slave to share in their father’s will, but they did not bring him or her with them when they came north. I’m guessing they sold the slave.
Where the River Runs Deep (WTRRD) is, in part, written as an apology for my ancestors. Years ago when researching family at the Dallas Public Library, I found reference to a court record revealing slave punishments carried out by my Poyner ancestors on the North Carolina barrier islands. The barbarism of my people stunned me.
WTRRD is a work of fiction, focusing on slavery and its snarly reach into the present. In the book, the slave-owning family is the Creightons, founded by Old Peter, who lived to be one hundred years old. Like my ancestor Peter Poyner, Creighton secured a land grant from the Crown and arrived in the New World sometime in the late 1600s. The excesses of the Creightons are imagined, but from the court record concerning my own people, not implausible.
Present-day characters, who live in fictitious Cherapee County, try to explain slavery to protagonist Maria Pell. June Whitehall informs Maria that slaves ran away from their plantation homes (Note: homes, not prisons). Later when she speaks of slave uprisings in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, June lapses into present tense: “We can’t sit around and let the darkies kill us!” In Chapter Twelve, Maria deplores slave executions. Her friend, writer Phoebe Burns says,” Don’t be judgmental, Maria. It was the times. A lot of people owned slaves. Those that rebelled posed a danger to society. Examples had to be set.”
In WTRRD, set in 2014, characters have not left slavery issues behind. In a plea to wake people up, lawyer Seth Creighton laments the bad practices that have brought the community to ruin: “I mean our curse, slavery,” he cries, “and its after effects.” Does the plea move the community to positive action? How quickly can one change wrongheaded minds?
Read my book and see.