Greetings from the Smoky Mountains! After two years of obsessing over my book, it’s at the publisher’s. Now that we’re settled in our summer home, I’ve spent many glorious hours rocking on the porch, savoring the cool breezes and ever-present music of nearby Buck Creek while slowly depleting the pile of unread books I brought with me.
The Abolitionist’s Daughter was one of the first I read. I’ve known Diane McPhail, a gifted visual artist and now a bona fide writer, for several years. I’ve attended her art workshops here, and she’s attended my dream groups. We both attended meetings of our little town’s writer’s group. I first heard about her project years ago when she was in the early stages of crafting her story and shared samples of her work with us, all the while wondering if she had it in her to be a real writer. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since and wasn’t disappointed. Far from it. I was captivated from beginning to end and devoured it in three days. I highly recommend it for several reasons.
First is her careful and thorough research into the details of the everyday lives of the people who lived on a slave-holding farm in the pre- through post-Civil War in Greensboro, Mississippi. I craved the early morning biscuits slathered with apple butter made by Ginny, the housekeeper/slave who was a strong surrogate mother, wise counselor, and courageous friend to Emily. I would have liked to meet Emily, the outspoken daughter of a judge who wanted to abolish slavery and saw to it that the ones he owned were taught to read. Paradox? Yes. Hypocritical? Perhaps. But also a harsh reality in a place and time governed by laws that fiercely protected the institution of slavery.
I wanted to protect Emily from the narrow mindsets and sullen glances of the townspeople who shunned her for her father’s views. Watch the swaying of her green silk dress with its ruffled hooped skirt when she danced around the room with Charles. See the basketsful of fresh-picked turnips, beets, and greens that the indomitable Adeline, mother of Charles and wife of an abusive alcoholic, secretly brought to the family when food was scarce. Share the celebratory feast where Ginny served a “slow-cooked stew of beef and onions; green tomato pie with potato crust, minus the called-for lemon zest; layers of sliced turnips and potatoes baked with cheese: Indian bread: and rice pudding with molasses, flavored with a bit of brandy and the carefully hoarded nutmeg.”
Even if you didn’t know that Diane is a gifted artist as well as writer, you would probably suspect it from her discerning, artistic eye that sees beauty in ordinary things: the tangled limbs of a tree limned against a blue stained-glass sky that reminds Emily of a broken and repaired piece of pottery. A fragment of a quilt used as a potholder.The delicate young violets and pansies dipped in sugar for the children to savor. A small blue feather left by a migrating bunting among the green clover and milkweed of an ungrazed pasture. The Indian summer heat that “rose off the fields in waves of liquid mirage.”
I especially admired the author’s deep compassion and psychological understanding of her realistic characters. (Diane is, by the way, a minister and doctor of divinity.) Emily, with her forgotten childhood traumas that gave rise to unexplained anxieties, her sheltered innocence, her forthrightness and innate kindness. Ginny’s resilience, strength of character, maternal love, and determination. Benjamin’s pride in his work, respect for his owner, forgiving nature, and love for his son, Lucian. Dr. Charles’s well-intentioned playfulness and love for Emily combined with his cluelessness about how to understand and relate to her. His passion for healing others combined with his womanizing and greedy determination–triggered by his abusive alcoholic father and impoverished childhood–to make something of himself. These are not cardboard figures, but very human, complex, and real. Through it all we watch Emily transform from a brave but naive and vulnerable child into a confident and accepting woman.
Finally, the pacing of this fictional story about a real-life family feud set against the backdrop of the Civil War is well-conceived. Like life, it moves quickly and seamlessly from a tender domestic scene in one moment to images of unspeakable tragedy in the next. From dramatic events and powerful emotions like love, envy, greed, and hatred, to the inescapably depressive aftermath of trauma with its lengthy road to recovery and forgiveness. The realistic development of McPhail’s theme of human prejudice, greed, and resilience, combined with her compassion for her flawed characters, is a major strength. Another is her graceful writing, which manages to convey a maximum of information and meaning with a minimum of carefully-chosen words. In fact, this first novel contains a delicious basketful of strengths.
Congratulations, Diane. You are, indeed, a real writer!
The Wilbur Award is given by the Religion Communicators Council for excellence in communicating religious faith and values in the public arena and for encouraging understanding among faith groups on a national level.