Monday, October 23, 2017

The Mystery of History

My most recent novel is set during the American Civil War. The idea sprang from a visit we made to Virginia for a family wedding and I had the opportunity to visit some of the many Civil War battlefields and to hear some of the stories of the valiant men and women who lost their homes and their lives in this tragic period in our history.

Though my ancestral family is almost entirely Northern, my extended family includes members with historical links to the South. I doubt there are many families whose ancestral links go back to the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States that don't have close family members somewhere along the line who took a different side in the conflict that has so deeply defined our national character.

One of my sisters married a charming young man from Oklahoma. As soon as he joined our clan, he was subjected to hateful abuse from another sister's Yankee husband. Seeing this, more than 150 years after the end of the conflict, made clear to me how deep the scars have been embedded in our collective psyche. Although my Southern brother-in-law had taken no part in that war, my Northern brother-in-law took great offense at the welcome extended to him, as if the Oklahoman carried the guilt of his ancestors by virtue of his place of birth. 

Seeing for myself how deeply hatred had infected one brother-in-law actually opened my heart and mind to discovering more about the history of my own country, from both points of view. Not long ago, I was confronted by a colleague who informed me that I "must" take the correct side if I was going to write about the Civil War. 

Is there any such thing? Aren't there always, at least, two sides to any story? Yes, there were terrible atrocities committed against other human beings but, as in all wars, the truth is somewhere between the two sides of the conflict. We demonize whichever side is opposed to our worldview but are we right to do so?

When I undertook to write Pavane for Miss Marcher, I thought long and hard about 

  • the ancestors of my own family who fought on both sides; 
  • the teenage cadets of the Virginia Military Institute who gave their lives to protect their homes; 
  • the freed and runaway slaves who fought for their freedom putting their families at risk; 
  • the enslaved men, women and children who never escaped;
  • all the kind and generous people I've known of all races whose roots are in the South; 
  • the black Americans I know who have served in the military; 
  • my father as the training officer of young men about to go into war; 
  • the heroes of the American Revolution who were considered traitors when they opted to fight for the Constitutional  Rights of States; 
  • the citizens of California who are considered courageous for considering secession when their fellow citizens were called traitors for taking the same action 150+ years ago;
  • the 600,000 Americans killed in the Civil War on both sides who all believed they were doing the right thing.
After all these many years, can we accept that, because we are all human, we are flawed? That our thinking processes are tainted; that we inhabit an imperfect world which we strive, as a nation and as one people, to make "more perfect"? And, isn't writing with an open heart and mind critical to writing truthfully?


  1. Leigh, I love the thought that went into your blog entry and it seems into your book. The Civil War is one of my favorite book settings. I'll have to check it out.

  2. Thank you, Fran. With ties to Gettysburg on both sides, my family has a vested interest in that war, as well as many others. This particular war was so divisive and continues to be, I had some trepidations about this book, but I did all I could to be fair - there are always two sides. And neither is without its faults.

  3. You've captured the tragedy of grudges held and the damage they can do. It's a complex subject and one that needs to be faced if we're ever to come together.

    1. Thank you, Sandy. We seem both unable and unwilling to forgive the flaws of humanity. The push to blame and blame forever is immensely destructive to any society. This leaves no way to move forward.

  4. Hi Leigh--
    Such a volatile time in our history, and tragic that the wounds are passed on even 150 years later. I know you took great care with your research and writing since the subject matter is so dear to your heart.

    1. I did my best to be faithful to facts. The story itself is a romance that takes place in New England, but the American Civil War is part of the backstory for both the hero and Miss Marcher, affecting their lives and defining their characters, for good and ill. Thank you for your comment!