Writing The Cherokee Rose

The Cherokee Rose began with a history that began with the voice of a slave. In the late 1990s, I was a graduate student researching my dissertation on the subject of slavery in the Cherokee Nation of the nineteenth century. Some of the richest first-hand accounts on this topic were the letters and diaries penned by Christian missionaries from the Moravian Church who had traveled to Cherokee country in what is now Georgia to start a church school and mission on the land of a wealthy Cherokee slaveholder named James Vann.

Moravian Church Archives

Moravian Church Archives

In the small basement reading room of the Moravian Archives Southern Province in Old Salem, North Carolina, I immersed myself in translations of the old German missionary script, reading about Vann, his family members, his missionary associates, and the slaves owned by both Cherokees and the Moravian Church alike. Although I was focused then on the moving story of one particular enslaved woman, a young girl named Doll who was owned by a Cherokee warrior and became the subject of my first work of history, I could not help but attend to mentions of another woman. This was Pleasant, an enslaved mother of a young mixed-race boy, Michael, brought by the missionaries from North Carolina to the Cherokee Nation. Pleasant was described by the missionaries as cursing at them when they gave her orders, slowing down the pace of her work, and driving them to near madness with her belligerence.  Although the missionaries who sought to extract more labor from her saw Pleasant as a nuisance, I saw her as a hero. She was a woman who was handed a raw deal in life but refused to give in to her circumstances. She exhibited intelligence, bravery and creativity throughout her time in the Cherokee Nation, by pushing back against her missionary-masters’ wishes, seeking to protect her son from sale, forming bonds with other slaves as well as Cherokees, and growing an enviable garden.

The strength of character of this enslaved woman of the past led me to my second academic book, a history of the Diamond Hill plantation owned by the Vann family where Pleasant was enslaved. The research for that book took me to Moravian sources once more, to journals kept and feelings recorded by missionaries of that Church. It also took me, time and again, to the Chief Vann House State Historic Site, the place that used to be called Diamond Hill in the years when Pleasant lived there. It was during one of these visits to the Chief Vann House in the sticky heat of July that the seed of The Cherokee Rose, my third book on Cherokee slavery, was planted.

I was walking among the trees by a clear spring once considered sacred by Cherokees, a spring that had given the former Moravian mission station its name of Springplace. A colleague and friend, Dr. Rowena McClinton, accompanied me. She was an expert on Moravian documents and a translator of the Springplace diaries, who would often send me loose sheaths of translated pages in the mail when she came across Pleasant’s name. Rowena and I were standing, talking about our Cherokee research, and feeling the soft, welcome breeze by the spring when I let my mind wander. I looked up at the trees, through the canopy of leaves filtering the day’s languid light, and I imagined that I saw Pleasant there. She was high in a tree of all places, a tree that I later embellished in memory as bearing round, blush-pink peaches, and she was demanding my attention. I glimpsed Pleasant by the spring that day, and with her the untold stories of a hundred slaves who had lived on that land.

I do not say that I saw a ghost that summer afternoon. I do say that I saw a figment — a figment of the past, a figment of my imagination once it had been set free, which would take final shape as a ghost in a novel then unwritten. Seeing Pleasant sitting there in her dress and headscarf unveiled for me a living sense of the past and a means of connecting to that past outside the realm of my accustomed mode: academic history writing. Pleasant, the historical person, the figure in the tree, became the character Faith in The Cherokee Rose. My experience of sighting her became Ruth’s experience of encountering the ghost of Mary Ann. I felt that by writing the stories of women who lived in the past in a mode that allowed for a deeper connection than is often possible in historical writing, I could share their struggles and strengths with others like me, readers who like to climb inside stories and stay for a little while, and who feel that the histories we inherit make us what we are today.

I knew for a long time that I needed to heed Pleasant’s call beyond the writing of a work of history. But knowing it and doing it were two entirely different things. I was an academic with three young children, classes to teach, articles to publish, and little to no time to spare for creative writing. Soon after my youngest child was born, I attended an annual conference of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association in Minneapolis. One evening, I wandered into a bookstore in the Uptown neighborhood where the bookseller was dressed up like Mother Goose (more evidence for the adage that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction). With my four-month-old son in the stroller beside me, I browsed the shelves, coming across a golden book propped face out. The book was This Year You Write Your Novel.  The author was Walter Mosley, my stepfather’s favorite crime novelist. I bought the book, tucked it inside my diaper bag, and read it over the next month. By the time the academic year ended, I was ready to write my novel, at least in spirit.

My husband, Joseph Gone, our children and I, moved to Montana for the summer; my husband was conducting wellness intervention research in a community partnership on the Blackfeet Reservation. During the days, I snatched time around caring for our five-year old twin daughters and eight-month-old son to start the novel that Pleasant’s visage had sparked in me years earlier. The project before me was daunting, but a single question guided my thinking, enabling me to take the plunge from historical writing into fiction writing. I had by then conducted extensive primary research on the Diamond Hill plantation. My history book on the plantation was in production at the University of North Carolina Press and would be released the next year. I knew that the owner of that plantation, the legendary Chief James Vann, had been murdered under mysterious circumstances. His unknown assailant had never been apprehended, but historians believed the culprit was his male friend turned enemy. Remembering Pleasant in the tree, and knowing what I did of the lives of enslaved women, as well as Cherokee women, on Diamond Hill, I thought that in a world of my own creation, a fictional world, another scenario was entirely plausible. Who killed James Vann? This became my trigger question. My answer: the women of the Vann plantation acting in an alliance built of love and necessity. I needed, then, to craft a story that realized that version of events, made it believable, and showed it to be relevant to the lives of women in our contemporary society, women that I knew and loved, like my family, friends, and associates.

I always felt a passion for this story, a dedication that pushed me through the difficult moments when time was scarce, children were noisy, and faith in my ability to write it wavered. But writing fiction after seven years of academic professional training and fifteen years of writing history, proved the most challenging part of this endeavor for me.  I had always loved and read fiction and had even studied it in college and my early years of graduate school, but as a history scholar, I had been trained to render the “truth” of the past as I found it, to offer my analyses backed by evidence fairly and rationally interpreted. I had striven to construct narratives around what I could reasonably support with the data provided by primary sources and context found in the work of other scholars. Now that I was trying to write fiction set in both the past and present in a real place where historical lives had unfolded in ways I had already documented, I had a hard time letting go of the known past. My efforts found me sticking so closely to historical dates and events that I gave myself no room to develop a new plot. I finally found my way out of a data-bound tunnel when I reread the wonderful diary of missionary Anna Rosina Gambold. Although I had read pages of her diary many times before when mining them for historical information, now I read decades of her daily diary straight through sitting outside in the sunshine. Her observations were so detailed, her turns of phrase so captivating, that I became absorbed by her world just as the character Jinx does midway through The Cherokee Rose. I had another heroine now, next to Pleasant, a heroine who was talented, moral, and deeply flawed by prejudice and the habits of her culture. Anna Rosina, herself a writer of diaries, letters, and botanical papers, opened the door to fiction writing for me. I began by free-writing new entries of her diary in my best estimation of her voice. At first these diary pages stuck very close to the originals, duplicating the missionary’s recorded dates, locations, and words. But before I knew it, the diary entries that I was writing for Anna Rosina took on a life of their own. The pages began appearing on the computer screen without my full knowledge of how they had gotten there. Later, I would face the task of uncoupling my Anna Rosina entries from her own and of setting my Anna Rosina off onto her fictional narrative trajectory.

Pleasant inspired me to write this story. Anna Rosina guided me into the heart of its pages. Shaping the lives of the main contemporary characters: Jinx, Ruth, Cheyenne, Adam and Sally, took me quite a while longer to get a handle on. I struggled with making these characters real as people, with giving them things to do and words to say that were not mere reenactments and recitations of the historical information that I wanted to share with readers. In the end, with the feedback of editors and fiction writing workshop leaders who helped this manuscript along, I hope I have been able to give them breath and life. By the time I finished writing the umpteenth draft of The Cherokee Rose, I wanted to visit my characters at their restored historic site. On the eve of my youngest child’s sixth birthday, five years after I read This Year You Write Your novel, I could finally say that I had.

During a visit to the University of Oregon in 2014, I gave a lecture in honor of Professor Peggy Pascoe, a historian and mentor in whose memory this book is dedicated. The other amazing women, now gone, who join her in that dedication are my graduate school friend and writing group ally, the historian Josie Fowler, and my college roommate, the poet and animator, Helen Hill. A professor of Native American literature in the audience at the University of Oregon lecture, Dr. Kirby Brown, asked what the difference was for me between writing history and writing fiction, and why I had chosen to take up the latter genre. His question helped me to form an answer that I had not fully articulated before he asked it. I told him that I had not been happy with how the real story ended for enslaved women and Cherokee women on the Vann plantation, and that in fiction, I get to write my own endings to stories of the past.  I explained that in The Cherokee Rose, the weak are strong, and the ne’er-do-wells get their comeuppance. Jinx says it for me, indirectly, at the end of the novel. Making the leap from history to fiction has given me the chance to achieve a kind of poetic justice for women who saw little or no social justice in their lifetimes. In writing their stories, sharing their stories, and finding inspiration there, we can bend our own lives more toward justice, and like the flowers in the rose garden: grow.

 

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