What I Have Learned from Readers of The Cherokee Rose (Part 1)

Since the release of my first novel, The Cherokee Rose, just over a year ago, I have had an amazing opportunity that I never expected when I was solely writing academic histories. I have had the chance to hear from nearly a hundred people – as it happens, all women — who read the novel as members of book clubs, as well as many others who emailed me or sent comments via my website, Facebook, or Twitter. I’ve also had the privilege of joining readers while they discussed the book on several occasions, twice in person and at other times via Skype or Apple Facetime. The book groups ranged from graduate students of color studying Psychology at the University of Michigan, to white Christian women’s clubs in two Michigan cities, to black women professionals in Milwaukee, to members of the American Association of University Women that span the country. What I couldn’t have imagined before publishing fiction is the emotional and intellectual energy that talking about my narrative with others could stir up, or the depth of heart-felt feedback I would receive. I got a huge kick out of hearing a black and Latina graduate student ask each other which character they identified with and share their initial dislike of Cheyenne, which evolved as they read the story. I also found that readers are interested in knowing which character I identify with most – a question I had never thought of while writing the book. All of these readers were attentive to the multiple layers of the story and sharp-minded about relations between characters as shaped by race, gender, and sexuality. I have been absolutely enraptured by the feeling of having aspects and implications of my work presented to me that I had never thought of and by the feeling that someone “got” exactly what I had been hoping to convey – and more. There is nothing that comes close to connecting with readers over imagined scenes and characters, not even Graeter’s chocolate chip ice cream, which may just be the best in the world. Connecting with readers through my novel is almost like meeting other people inside my own dream, and no longer being alone there.

While listening to women readers, while responding to and interacting with them, I have learned a lot about how The Cherokee Rose functions as a novel and about how I can strengthen my craft in the next go-around of fiction writing. The realization that stands out most in my mind is that readers fastened first on character. The people who inhabit the story matter fundamentally to the investment that readers will make and the experience they will have. I recall one reader saying that she had trouble keeping up with so many central characters, which is constructive feedback for me about the trade-offs between choosing one or more than one protagonist. I wrote The Cherokee Rose around three protagonists—Jinx, Ruth, and Cheyenne – in order to offer intimate angles on different perspectives. But some readers wanted to follow only one character closely; and interestingly to me, it is Cheyenne – the third character to arise in my mind while I was conceiving the story – who seems to garner the most attention. As one reader said on Twitter, Martha Jones, a legal historian and my friend, every black woman knows a Cheyenne. I take away from this that I need to hone my ability to shape these constructed personalities into real people and to continue to let them surprise me and my readers.

I also noted the repeated comments that readers made about place – about the Chief Vann House State Historic Site and about Oklahoma. Women told me  they loved the feeling of making connections between places they had been and places in the novel, and even of feeling a sense of déjà vu as they read the novel. A comment that I take as a reassurance and compliment all rolled together made by two readers – one living in Oklahoma now and one who grew up there – is that they saw and knew the Oklahoma I had painted. They felt I had gotten Oklahoma “right.” Such comments were also a challenge, making me cognizant of the need to get all of my places (or environments) “right” – so that readers who have not been there can discover and learn about places telepathically, and readers who have been there will stick with me in the story (rather than chaffing against off-kilter descriptions) and add more threads of connection to the places they know and love (and to the places they know and hate) through the story.

On plot, the women I had the privilege of talking with and hearing from had different views.  I heard from people who described themselves as being utterly taken away by the story presented in The Cherokee Rose. (One woman said she missed her bus because she couldn’t put the book down – wow, did that comment make my week!) I also heard from readers who felt the story got off to a slower start but took on a purposeful shape when the three main characters met at the plantation house. Some readers felt that the ending was emotionally satisfying; others felt that the ending was a little too easy on the characters, who all see their desires met in some form or fashion. Another reader, Ana Rosas, a professor of history and ethnic studies in California, said what struck her as most appealing was the ultimate optimism of the story amidst difficult issues and moments. (Professor Rosas created an insightful, probing document of excerpts from the book and questions for me – which I have attached to the end of this post.) One woman who attended a University of Michigan library event intimated that she wasn’t so sure about the role of the ghost in the novel. Another woman from that same event said she had come to hear me talk a few months later at Blackstone Books in Ypsilanti because she found the various elements fascinating. This range of feedback proves to me an old adage – it is impossible to please everyone. But I can strive to satisfy, push, delight, educate and engage those who grant me the precious gift of their time by picking up my books and trusting me enough to turn the pages. Clearly, a multipronged task before me is to develop my ability to structure plots that work even better in terms of pace and supernatural elements and that can balance a sense of hope and optimism (to which I am wedded in my fiction writing) with a sense of the nitty gritty, dangerous realities of human existence.

One more very important take-away that I gleaned from women readers’ reactions, is that history is critical to them, and that learning more about shrouded and lesser-known histories was a great pleasure for many in reading The Cherokee Rose. This message, which came across in several interactions, was conveyed most clearly via a reading group still going strong after eighteen years that chose the novel at the suggestion of a member who directs public programming at the Teddy Roosevelt Historic Site in Buffalo, NY. Another member of that group sent me a message that shared, in part: “We read only historical fiction and she said this would be a great book for us. It was a fantastic read, learned so much and had a great discussion too. We enjoy more history than story and this book opened our eyes to our past . . . Thank you for a great book.” This comment infused me with new excitement to press on with the kind of fiction I had intuitively adopted – dual time period fiction that presents contemporary people from various racial backgrounds grappling with the past as a way to make personal and political meaning in the present. This comment also gave me the charge (and maybe the kick in the seat) to keep working with history through fiction, and to strive to do so in a way that captures the “truths” of history on a level that reaches beyond documented fact. I can’t wait to move ahead with this vision.

(I am thrilled that The Cherokee Rose will be out in paperback this fall. I do hope that readers will continue to find the novel and to share thoughts with me, so that I can add a Part 2 to this blog post on what I have learned from you! You can see Professor Ana Rosas’s astute questions about The Cherokee Rose here. She asked the first three questions of me at a session of the American Historical Association Pacific Coast Branch conference in Hawaii, August 2016.)