Tiya Miles’ novel, “The Cherokee Rose,” is refreshing. That might be a surprising word used to describe a book subtitled “A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts.” Regular readers of the column have probably noticed I love both mysteries and historical fiction. “The Cherokee Rose” blends both genres to create ghost story mystery around The Cherokee Rose Plantation—a.k.a. “The Hold House”—in northern Georgia.
Jinx Micco is living in Oklahoma after walking out on her history Ph.D. She has carved a niche for herself around the Cherokee and Creek as a tribal historian. An accusation veiled as a challenge sends her to Georgia to investigate Mary Ann, a young Native American woman who disappeared from tribal records around the time of the forced Indian relocation of the early 19th century. Jinx sets off on a road trip to the plantation to try to find some answers. Unbeknownst to her, the plantation has just come up for sale by the state of Georiga, which has ceased operating it as a museum.
The two-fold loss is felt through the local community: the loss of income from tourists coming to the plantation and the silencing of the history of the Cherokee in the area. But an Atlanta debutante, Cheyenne Cottrell, has decided it is exactly what she wants. More so, she has the family resources to buy the property and open it as a boutique bed and breakfast.
Fresh from an interior-designing job in Atlanta, she hits up local real-estate mogul Mason Allen (favorite son of the county and most well-connected of Plantation Princes) who wants the property. It never occurs to him he won’t win the local auction, nor that he would lose to an African American woman from Atlanta. No surprise he begins terrorizing her to try to get her to leave as soon as she takes possession of the house.
In the midst of all the upheaval, a third woman arrives: Ruth Mayes, a freelance writer from up north, who is looking for a story about the plantation’s history, sale and future—and maybe her own.
There are a lot of concurrent themes in the novel; one is how each of the main characters tries to control “the story.” Cheyenne is an anorexic control freak, but she also has a very specific story in her mind of who her ancestors connected with the plantation were and idyllic lives they must have lived, in spite of being people of color during slavery. Ruth is in clear denial of her own past, but also of any possible happy ending for the plantation’s inhabitants or herself. She mirrors the past so strongly she becomes the bridge: The ghost of Mary Ann Battis appears. Three women find the diary of a missionary woman who lived and worked on the plantation. They also find answers to their questions both acknowledged and denied. It is a pretty powerful testament to the written word traveling across time.
The “refreshing” descriptor I used earlier comes from Miles’ writing more than the story. Miles manages to address some very sensitive and heavy-weight topics without dancing around them or beating her audience over the head repeatedly. For example, the Hold Plantation was owned by a slave-owning Cherokee. The painful reality of black Indian slaves is far too under-addressed in American history. It is complicated and doesn’t fit comfortably into any of the established narratives we have about slavery, African Americans or Native Americans. But it was real and part of our shared history.
The role of missionary schools in the early 19th century and the power of literacy—a skill that could mean the difference between being able to forge a pass to leave the plantation or not—is another subtle exploration Miles uses. There is also a romance that blossoms between two of three women in the book. It is not the focus but a natural progression for them, and it adds dimension and never comes close to veering into a story about their coming out. These two women have passed the gateway and are at a different part of their lives, which is refreshing: to see mature lesbian romance handled as a story element rather than the entirety of the plot. I know it is surprising to think adults can have additional interests besides the defining characteristic that puts them in a single box (i.e. gay, Native American, botanist, etc.) but we do. Love is important but so is our ouvre.
I love how Miles weaves all the threads together to make them what they are: parts of a bigger quilt and parts of a bigger story than these three women ever imagined.
– Gwenyfar Rohler, Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column
(July 5, 2017.)
“The Cherokee Rose” is the enlightening debut novel from historian Tiya Miles. This work of fiction brings together an unlikely trio of women to tell a story of the little known history of Native American slaveholders.Through the course of the novel, the women discover history about their ancestors while also coming to terms with things within themselves that they were reluctant to acknowledge.
Cherokee Rose CoverJinx is a present-day Cherokee-Creek historian and writer from Oklahoma. She is proud of her heritage and has devoted her life to continuing the work of her beloved aunt through her research and record-keeping of tribal history. Jinx’s interest is sparked after she writes an article criticizing the life decisions of a young Native American-Black girl, Mary Ann Battis, who remained in the South instead of joining her Creek family in Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears.
Jinx is confronted about her portrayal of the young girl and forced to acknowledge her own racism as well as her aunt’s. She then travels to the Cherokee Rose Plantation in Georgia to find out what really happened to Mary Ann Battis and learns more than she anticipated.
Ruth is a biracial magazine writer living in the Midwest who sets off on a writing assignment based on the Cherokee Rose Plantation. Ruth has family history in Georgia and spent time in the area during her childhood. She is apprehensive about revisiting that part of her life and she is even more unnerved when she comes face-to-face with a childhood acquaintance, Cheyenne, who has just purchased the plantation. Immediately this seemingly simple writing assignment turns out to be more than Ruth bargained for. During her stay at the Cherokee Rose Ruth encounters the ghost of Mary Ann Battis, struggles to accept the truth of her own mother’s murder, and starts a romance with Jinx.
Cheyenne, an African-American Atlanta socialite, leaves behind the life that she has built in Atlanta in search for answers to where her roots lead. To the surprise of those who know her as the ultimate city girl, she purchases the Cherokee Plantation and embarks on an adventure to live a simpler and more rustic life on the plantation, which she plans to turn into a posh bed and breakfast. Cheyenne’s fascination with the plantation stems from her belief that her family was Cherokee, which in her mind gave her bragging rights that non-Native American black people did not have. Her world is turned upside down when she discovers the truth about her heritage.
The women discover the centuries old journal of the plantations former missionary. The stories in the journal give accounts of life on the Cherokee Rose Plantation in the early 1800s. By reading the journal, the women honor the lives of the women who came before them and start healing processes for themselves.
Jinx, Ruth, Cheyenne and all of the women of the Cherokee Rose were once worlds apart but in the end, established a kinship that will last for centuries to come.
Tiya Miles did an excellent job in ensuring that “The Cherokee Rose” was soundly researched. The historical aspect brings life to the characters without Miles having to over embellish the scenes and characters and allowing for more substance to be packed into this work.
This was the perfect book for me to end the year with. Not only did I enjoy the story, it also allowed me to reevaluate my discernment of my own heritage and reevaluate the kind of legacy I want to leave behind.
– Katrina Young, Gay San Diego
(December 25th, 2015.)
It is amazing how someone can write a great lesbian novel without telling anyone. It is even more amazing that a publisher that specializes in historical non-fiction about the Southeastern United States would publish such a novel. John F. Blair, Publisher only selects one or two fiction manuscripts a year for publication. Based on my delight with The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts, I can see that they only choose the best.American history buffs would appreciate the novelist’s background. Tiya Miles is a professor at the University of Michigan who teaches courses on American Culture, Afro-American and African Studies, History, Women’s Studies, and Native American Studies. She is an African American scholar whose research includes the interrelated comparative histories of African Americans and Native Americans, and white women’s histories in the United States; and African American and Native American women’s literatures. Miles has previously co-edited a book about the African diaspora in Native American territories, and wrote two non-fiction books about relations between Cherokee and African-Americans in the South. The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts is her first novel.
Most people will never get a chance to take one of Miles’ classes, and may not have access to an academic library that would house her historical research. Through The Cherokee Rose, Miles tells you a story that rings true. Even without knowing her research background, a reader can feel that Miles has been to the places that she paints in this story, and that she has taken it in with all five senses down to the details of interior design and the smell and sound of the soil, plants, and river cane. Some critics have compared Miles’ style to that of Alice Walker, Octavia Butler, and Louise Erdrich. While her background is academic, Miles writes well-paced, lively fiction chock full of rich, complex characters that beg for the big screen.
According to Miles, 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. 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.
The Cherokee Rose is as much about a historical site as it is about people. The Chief Vann House Historic Site in Chatsworth, Georgia is the central focus of this novel–the reason why three women descended upon a small town. African-American Atlanta debutante Cheyenne Coterelle buys the Chief Vann House to reconnect with her Native American heritage, rescuing it from destruction. Biracial magazine writer Ruth Mayes visits the Chief Vann House to cover its architectural style, and rediscovers the plants and stories of her Georgia mother. Last but not least, our Twizzler chewing, Converse clad Cherokee-Creek heroine Jinx Micco travels—part-time librarian and amateur historian—drives from Oklahoma to the Chief Vann House to uncover the mysteries of her tribe’s controversial racial history. The meeting of these three women seems predestined, as each holds a piece of the story that the others desire. Together the women discover the ghosts, brutal secrets, and true owner of the Chief Vann House through the hidden diary of Moravian missionary Anna Gamble. Anna’s diary also reveals how women—even during slavery—can empower each other through compassion and commitment to a shared vision. As Jinx, Ruth, and Cheyenne unravel Gamble’s account, they reconcile past and present history, which helps the women resolve the conflicts in their own lives.
By the end of the novel, all three women share a special bond, and all three have filled emotional holes of loss and longing. In Jinx’s case, she finds Ruth and brings her back to Oklahoma as her lover. Ruth once again has a woman in her life who loves her, and the possibility of a family who will embrace her. In Cheyenne’s case, she finds the truth about her ancestry, as well as the true owner of the Chief Vann House. What all three women achieve set many things right in the course of history, and ask their communities to rethink their prejudices. The end of Cherokee Rose is just the beginning for Jinx and Ruth; it begs a sequel, as the tribal law of Jinx’s community does not recognize same-sex relationships, and her people look at mixed-race relationships with suspicion. What will Jinx and Ruth have to do to prove themselves? Will their relationship survive these challenges?
Historians reveal uncomfortable truths and novelists force us to look at them. Miles accomplishes both and gives us hope that the once marginalized will reclaim their desired place in America through love and loyalty to their communities of choice. Perhaps The Cherokee Rose is John F. Blair, Publisher’s nod in support of the New South that recognizes its multicultural past, present, and future.
– Rachel Wexelbaum, Lamda Literary
(August 23, 2015.)
The Cherokee Rose, the debut novel by historian Tiya Miles, caught me in the middle of a longstanding argument. I had pre-ordered the book from its publisher John F. Blair, and so it arrived unexpectedly, as if unsummoned. It was March, a busy moment in the term. Still, I stole time that Saturday, reading it nearly cover-to-cover in one sitting. I left the last chapter until the next day, just to savor the experience. Miles is my colleague at the University of Michigan, and that hints at why I’d let my email pile up just to read a work of fiction. Generally, I’m the sort that lets a stack of books accumulate for later summer reading. But there was more. As I said, I was trying to settle an argument and thought The Cherokee Rose might help.
Many of us know Miles for her award-winning works of history: Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family (University of California Press, 2006), The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), and Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era (also coming from UNC Press this fall). Miles’ insight into the intimate dynamics of slavery at the crossroads of Native American and African American experience has won her professional accolades and an eager readership. In this sense, while The Cherokee Rose is fiction, it is no sharp departure. Miles builds upon what she had already taught us, including her exploration of Georgia’s Chief Vann House, to provide a new vantage point from which to explain the past.
The Cherokee Rose tells two stories. The first is about our own time, seen through a fascinating if improbable trio of women–a Cherokee-Creek researcher, an African American debutante, and a mixed-race journalist. Each is drawn to the site of a nineteenth-century Cherokee plantation, remembered by the name of its owner, Chief James Hold. Miles follows each woman as she leaves her home and much that is familiar, drawn to Georgia and the promise of the former Indian mission school site. Each has her own expectations about what might be found there, based on the beliefs about family and community that undergird each’s identity. Once allied through a shared interest in the site’s history, these women are tested. We follow them as they encounter an unsettling host of characters, from locals who also revere the Hold plantation as a historical site to real estate speculators who see in its acreage an opportunity for profit. How will three women, with their romanticized views of the place, save it from erasure? To answer this, Miles tells a second story, this one about the lives of Indians, African Americans, and white missionaries who confronted one another in the same place two centuries earlier. Saving the site from destruction requires confronting the violence that has always been there. The modern-day women discover a diary, penned by a missionary to the Cherokees who chronicled the trials to which enslaved women were subjected on the Hold plantation. Through it, they and we learn how violence, particularly sexual violence, defined the places where Indians, African Americans, and whites lived, worked, and died. What they discover about the past arms Miles’ intrepid women with the insight and shared purpose they need to preserve the site. When the past becomes knowable and known in The Cherokee Rose, it makes possible a new future.The Cherokee Rose cover
Today, the debate about when to distinguish history from fiction isn’t especially novel. Still, over the last decade historians of slavery have returned to this question with a twist: the biographical turn. Earlier questions that had been addressed through social and cultural historical methods are now being explored through biographies and family histories of slavery. Miles pioneered this approach in her first book, Ties That Bind. There, she experienced how fragmentary archives leave us grasping to interpret silence. We lament the elusive subjectivity or interiority of enslaved people themselves. The puzzle that The Cherokee Rose helps us think through is the one that arises when we try to write through that silence. Should we proceed by way of context, generalizations, analogy, careful speculation, or even the imaginative evidence that is fiction? From her earliest work, Miles has suggested how she finds fiction to be a source for explaining slavery’s past. In Ties That Bind, for example, her reliance upon Toni Morrison’s Beloved grew out of that novel’s “intuitive sense and articulation of the power of the unspoken.” In the face of silence, fiction might become a source that permits the historian to give voice and even to speak.
For a long time I disagreed with Miles on this last point. I have resisted filling in the blanks of my own history of an enslaved family, refugees from the Haitian Revolution making their way in several North American port cities. I’m exploring how enslaved people navigated different legal regimes and how they articulated their claims to freedom. I have been able to follow this group through five generations, from the 1780s to the 1880s, but the records are in shards: baptisms, deaths, sales, mortgages, freedom paper, travel permits, court filings, the census. I have not one bit of narrative evidence, except that which comes from the slave holders (and even that is slim.) Still, when I assemble these fragments, I see common threads emerge. I see choices that were made and paths not taken. I see signs of what constituted what we would term “family.” For me, the silences are artifacts that demand explanation rather than filling in. Voids in the historical record, and there are so many, need to be left undisturbed. The historian’s charge, as I see it, is to explain the lives of slaves through their very distance from the archive. This approach makes the instances in which enslaved people broke the silence all the more meaningful.
I presented these ideas as an argument of sorts during a spring 2012 William and Mary Quarterly–Early Modern Studies Institute Workshop on “Early American Biography” led by Annette Gordon-Reed, whose book The Hemingses of Monticello is a model for how to navigate these questions. I arrived there armed with an essay about the Haitian refugees that was bare bones, stripped of phrases such as “perhaps,” “it may have been,” or “it seems likely that.” I aimed to persuade the group how this approach, through its very starkness, had the power to convey the experience of enslavement for men and women who rarely commanded the power of pen, paper, or the archive. Some colleagues at the workshop urged me to carefully embellish, imagine, and otherwise push toward boundaries just this side of historical fiction, saying that my subject warranted ambitious analysis and a good story, even if the documentary record was limited. We concluded that, as Gordon-Reed later put it, when writing biography there is no way to avoid a measured degree of speculation, even when that might otherwise compromise a historian’s authoritative voice.
My book on Haitian refugees will, I think, remain devoted to the problem of the archive. We will learn some about how enslaved people left their mark there, how they forged a relationship to pen and paper. Because the capacity to produce words on paper is essential, especially when it comes to the law, I intend to resist the urge to fill in very much. But when I picked up The Cherokee Rose I found myself still looking for another answer to the questions we chewed on at the WMQ-EMSI workshop. Miles’ turn to fiction suggests that, in the face of silence, a historian might draw upon the speculative imagination of fiction. She has confronted the limits of what historical writing might accomplish and has shifted genres to fill in the blanks of the past. In fact, her portrayal of twenty-first-century characters reminds us that we write for a variety of audiences who come to history needing to understand the past and who have only modest regard for the limits of evidence. Miles’ rendering of the layered interiority of nineteenth-century figures reads so true that we believe her historian’s imagination and her capacity for informed speculation can produce insight and the sort of truths that advance our understanding of the past. Might The Cherokee Rose be evidence itself? Has Miles created an artifact upon which we might draw to know rather than simply imagine slavery? As with any good debate, only time will tell.
In her novel “The Cherokee Rose”, author and historian Tiya Miles examines a little-known aspect of America’s past slaveholding by Southern Creeks and Cherokees and its legacy as reflected in the lives of three young women who are drawn to the Georgia plantation where scenes of extreme cruelty and equally extraordinary compassion once played out. “The Cherokee Rose” is based on historical sources about the Chief Vann House Historic Site in Chatsworth, Georgia, and the Moravian mission sponsored there in the early 1800s. The characters in The Cherokee Rose include Jinx, the free-spirited historian exploring her tribe’s complicated racial history; Ruth, whose mother sought refuge from a troubled marriage in her beloved garden and the cosmetic empire she built from its bounty; Cheyenne, the Southern black debutante seeking to connect with a meaningful personal history; and, hovering above them all, the spirit of long-gone Mary Ann Battis, a young woman suspected of burning a mission to the ground and then disappearing from tribal records. The story of the women’s discoveries about the secrets of a Cherokee plantation traces their attempts to connect with the strong spirits of the past and reconcile the conflicts in their own lives and hearts.
A superbly crafted gem of an historical novel, “The Cherokee Rose” documents Tiya Miles as a master of the storytelling craft. Deftly drawn and memorable characters embedded in a plot of surprising twists and turns, “The Cherokee Rose” is a compelling read from beginning to end — and one that will linger in the mind long after the novel is finished and set back upon the shelf. “The Cherokee Rose” is very highly recommended for personal reading lists and community library Historical Fiction collections.
– Midwest Book Review
A buried, early-19th-century diary, the fragrance of wild white roses and the rustling of river-cane reeds bring to life this refreshing debut novel by Miles, a winner of a MacArthur Fellowship (American Culture/Univ. of Michigan; The House on Diamond Hill, 2010, etc.).
Jennifer “Jinx” Micco, a Cherokee-Creek reporter for the Muscogee Nation News in Oklahoma, Cheyenne Cotterell, a wealthy interior designer and genealogy buff from Atlanta, and Ruth Mayes, a grief-stricken home-and-garden magazine writer from Minneapolis, investigate their possible ties to the Hold House, a Cherokee plantation in the North Georgia foothills once inhabited by Cherokee-Scottish Chief James Vann Hold, his two wives, his many children and his African-American slaves. Early in the novel, the pre–Trail of Tears history of Cherokee slaveholders and Christian missionaries overwhelms the narrative. But the pace picks up after Jinx and Cheyenne discover the 1815 diary belonging to missionary Anna Rosina Gamble, whose detailed account of her and her pastor husband’s establishment of a Moravian church on the plantation, along with her relationship with her favorite pupil, Mary Ann Battis, upends everything Jinx, Cheyenne and Ruth thought they knew about their heritage. Anna’s vibrant voice is the most dynamic in the novel: “Our hope of bringing the Gospel here has yet to find fertile ground. It looks very dark in this land.” And it’s through Anna’s entries that Miles’ keen understanding of Cherokee slave owners and the braided lineages of Cherokee Indians and African-Americans shines through.
An enchanting examination of bloodlines, legacy and the myriad branches of a diverse family tree.
– Kirkus Reviews
(January 21, 2015.)
This well-researched, intriguing historical novel from MacArthur fellow Miles (The House on Diamond Hill) delves into the little-known story of the prosperous Cherokee slaveholders in the antebellum South. In the present day, Jinx Micco, a Cherokee-Creek part-time librarian and newspaper columnist, lives in Ocmulgee, Okla. While conducting tribal research, she looks in to a missionary school on Cherokee chief James Hold’s plantation in Georgia, called the Cherokee Rose. She discovers his manor house, now a state museum strapped for funds, is going up for auction and travels to the Cherokee Rose to learn the true fate of one student, Mary Ann Battis. Meanwhile, Cheyenne Cotterell, a wealthy interior designer from Atlanta, decides to buy the Cherokee Rose in order to set up an upscale bed-and-breakfast and get back to her Native American roots. The third protagonist is Ruth Mayes, a magazine writer from Minneapolis and Cheyenne’s childhood friend, who arrives at the Cherokee Rose to write a feature story. When Cheyenne’s $1.5 million offer outbids the real estate tycoon Mason Allen, she makes a vengeful enemy. Jinx, Ruth, and Cheyenne form a sisterly alliance and befriend Adam Battis, an unemployed park ranger, former caretaker of the museum, and descendent of Chief Hold. The women soon unearth a lost diary, which brings to a close Miles’s wrenching yet enlightening saga. Readers will be taken with the way this novel blends past and present.
– Publishers Weekly
With both modern-day and historical characters equally believable in their desires and life journeys, this novel tells a little-known story that is complex and captivating.
With The Cherokee Rose, Tiya Miles has written a complex and suspenseful tale of the Old South, the modern world, and how history is always with us. More specifically, this is the story of three strong women, each working separately to understand herself, the world, and her place in it. Their lives are conjoined at the intersection of the legacy of slavery, the unfinished business of the Cherokee Nation, and its removal from Georgia and North Carolina in the early 19th century.
Miles is a distinguished professor of American culture, history, Afro-American and African studies, Native American studies, and Women’s studies. Yet, in The Cherokee Rose, she has adroitly managed to avoid the dryness often associated with academic writing. Introducing Ruth, stuck in her work cubicle and her job, Miles writes, “Reaching for her travel mug, she took a sip of bad office coffee, then pulled off her tortoise-shell glasses and tugged a corkscrew of thick, dark hair.”
The Cherokee Rose is filled with characters both modern and historical: the contemporary characters are warmly portrayed as actual persons with talents, virtues, and flaws; the historical characters are based on years of detailed research done by the author and are equally believable.
The novel has a significant historical section, a recounting of slave life on and around a plantation in Georgia. It relates the interaction between Native Americans who owned slaves, the slaves, and white missionaries who operated in the vicinity. The story is often graphically brutal and realistic, but it plays an essential part in the novel and can in no way be characterized as gratuitous or exploitive.
The nearly ten-page author’s note is nearly as captivating as the novel. Here, Miles explains the historical research she conducted at the Vann plantation in Georgia, a real-life plantation much like the fictional one depicted in the novel.
In addition to The Cherokee Rose, Miles has written two histories: The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story and Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom.