SPOILER ALERT: This blog post contains numerous plot details from my novel, The Cherokee Rose! If you don’t want to know yet, stop reading now!
During the Q & A after a recent reading from The Cherokee Rose at the Georgia Center for the Book, an audience member said to me: “I understand the tension between Cheyenne and Ruth, but I don’t understand the instant attraction between Jinx and Ruth. Can you explain that?” The questioner happened to be someone I knew casually but was utterly surprised to see in the greater Atlanta area. She was Veta Tucker, a literary scholar and historical writer from Michigan who I knew to be working on an edited collection about the Underground Railroad in Detroit. (I am eagerly awaiting that collection due out next year from Wayne University Press, by the way.) Veta had recently moved to Atlanta to be closer to her family and had kindly taken the time to come hear my talk. Veta had clearly read the novel with interest and attention, but the development of a relationship between two of the characters puzzled her. Since this was the third time I had been asked a similar question (the first time the questioner was my mother; the third time the questioner was a staff member at the Chief Vann House State Historic Site), I realized the third time was an opening for me to try to construct a thorough answer for readers.
There were at least three reasons why I chose to pair Jinx and Ruth — having to do with the characters, the storyline, and meta ideas in the book.
First, the characters: Jinx and Ruth are both individuals sleep walking through life with a deep feeling of loss. Jinx had abandoned her professional dream, taken a job that was less than satisfying to her, and lost her dear great aunt and mentor. Ruth had lost her mother at a young age, was emotionally estranged from her father, and lived a life of weak social connection. Significantly, both women were “motherless” in a sense; they had been separated from key mother figures by death. These characters were drawn to each other because they recognized in each other that emotional tether of loss. They were able to connect over this dramatic absence in their lives. In addition to this link formed of the shared experience of grief and longing, we see from Jinx’s perspective that she feels a physical attraction to Ruth. If not love at first sight, there was a “like” at first sight moment for Jinx, the kind that could happen between any two people who meet unexpectedly. Ruth also notices Jinx, which is an aspect of Ruth’s more general awakening from her emotional stupor in the setting of the magical plantation garden. Because of their loneliness born of similar losses, their physical attraction to one another, their shared professional interest as writers, their feeling of serendipity at being in an incredible situation together – the two women connect romantically.
Have you ever had an intense experience with people you didn’t know very well, an experience in which relationships were suddenly forged and time felt as if it was extended? I experienced this once, while on an outdoors trip in New England. Our group of casual colleagues had started hiking up a mountain in hot weather but we found ourselves in a snow storm by the time we started down from the summit. The weather turned suddenly and frighteningly fierce, and we each had to make decisions about what to do. Most of the group stayed together. But one member of the group (who happened to be the most experienced hiker among us) raced down the mountain alone, leaving the rest of us slower folks behind. By the time the rest of us made it to the bottom safely, we felt bonded to one another (and none too happy with that other guy). That night around the campfire, it was as though those of us who had faced the storm together were old friends. We expressed private hopes for our lives and careers in a way that we never would have just ten hours earlier. This leap in relational bonding due to the intensity of an unexpected and threatening experience is similar to what happens between Jinx and Ruth at the haunted plantation. Superadded to the intensity of an unusual experience for them is the intentionality of the Hold House itself and of its resident ghost, both of whom seem to want to pull the women together in order to keep them at the house until what needs to be done gets done.
Second, I brought Jinx and Ruth together for the shape of the story. A friend I went to graduate school with but had not been in touch with in years, Kate Kane, read the novel and sent me a Facebook message saying : “You are such a romantic.” In a way, I suppose she’s right. I wanted to have a tinge of romance in this novel as a way to give many of the characters, who had been through so much, new leases on life and happier endings. It was important to me that the romance lines in the novel be diverse, that is, not just heterosexually focused. If Cheyenne was going to find the possibility of a love match with a man, Ruth was going to find the possibility of a love match with a woman. (I knew Ruth was a lesbian before I knew about Jinx’s sexuality.) And incidentally, the first drafts of the novel concluded with Ruth and Jinx driving off to Oklahoma together and with Cheyenne and Adam’s relationship still being unformed. Adding an epilogue made the outcome of both relationships more clear. But in earlier versions, I was intent on centering the romantic line of the couple whose sexual orientation marginalized them in American society. Why? Because this novel is in many ways about marginalization, exploitation and the eventual triumph through connection, love, and hope of people deemed different and lesser-than. (Their connection is forged through historical knowledge and understanding.) This is why all of the main characters are women, why characters of African American and Native American heritage are central, why poor white characters have a place, why people with disabilities play important roles, why same sex relationships (romantic and platonic) are key, and why children and babies have a part. Sally’s blue-eyed baby boy, one of the few white male characters in the novel whom we can root for, is going to be raised in a household of people with diverse experiences of discrimination and resistance to it. This will shape him in particular ways, I think, and help him to become someone who – despite his position at the top of the race-gender hierarchy – will grow up to fight against oppressive structures of power in society.
Third, I needed to find an aspect of Jinx’s character that would allow her to really begin to understand the position of Afro-Native people, or “Black Indians,” who are often suspect in their own communities and would-be communities because of their mixed heritage, lack of tribal enrollment status, lack of documented evidence about their claimed family history, and so on. Jinx harbors certain racial prejudices inherited from her great aunt and the larger cultural context. At first, Jinx is not aware of these prejudices, and when she realizes the way she is unconsciously thinking, she cannot accept it; she resists holding herself or her aunt accountable for both their prejudice and their relative privilege in comparison to Afro-Creeks. But Jinx needed to be able to grow in order for the story to progress. It occurred to me out of the blue as I was writing a bit of dialogue between Jinx and Deb Tom that perhaps I could channel sexual orientation as a mode of potential understanding for Jinx. I thought that if Jinx occupied a marginal position (being gay) within an already marginalized group (Native Americans), perhaps she could more readily make that leap of understanding and therefore feel empathy for the experiences of people like Mary Ann Battis historically, or Cheyenne and Adam in the present day. Jinx became a woman who loves women in my mind then, which turned out to be a lucky thing both for her and Ruth.