My most recent book, Wading Home: a novel of New Orleans, was chosen for the 2012 Clemson University freshmen summer reading program!
It was also chosen for the summer reading program of Ojai Valley School, a boarding and day school in Ojai Valley California, close to Santa Barbara!
I'm honored, and humbled. And excited. I’ve always wanted my books to reach more young folks, because I want the chance to pass on what was given to me when I was a student: a love of reading.
And maybe even the chance to inspire of few of those who'll be part of a generation of new writers.
So here’s a shout-out to all of you students who are now reading my novel, Wading Home, as part of a summer reading program. To Clemson students, I’m looking forward to seeing you on campus on August 20 when we’ll get a chance to meet and talk about the book.
And to Ojai students, I’m looking forward to meeting you sometime in the future, perhaps through the wonders of Skype.
By now, I hope you are about to read it, or in the middle of it, or maybe you’ve just finished it. If you haven’t finished it, I don’t want to ruin it for you by saying too much. But I want to share what I had in mind when I was writing this book.
Wading Home is a story set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the rebuilding, re-uniting, and reassessing that figures into the recovery from an event that is devastating beyond words. But it’s also a story of family legacy, and even though it’s culled from my own story of family and is primarily an African American story, it can apply to anyone who has only just learned to treasure something when they may be about to lose it.
So here is my story, and what I just recently learned about how my history connects with the school you future Clemson students will be attending.
My great-great grandfather, Moses Story (the character Moses in Wading Home is named for him), was enslaved on a plantation not far from Clemson. The master of this plantation was a wealthy Scotch-Irish planter named Charles Story who owned Moses and about 24 more African slaves, including Moses’ mother, her husband, and Moses’ brothers and sisters. And since slaves were only given first names, when Moses was finally emancipated he took his master’s name, Story, and that’s how that name became mine.
When Moses’ master Charles Story died in 1835, he was buried, coincidentally, at the cemetery by the Old Stone Church where he was a member, very near where the university now stands, down on Stone Circle Road. The Old Stone Church was apparently the first church where blacks were allowed to worship with their masters. So my great-great grandfather, a South Carolina slave, very likely attended The Old Stone Church a couple of miles from Clemson.
I had no idea I had this slight connection to the university when I was approached by Clemson for the summer reading program.
Charles’ wife and other family members and their slaves moved westward to Alabama after he died. It was after emancipation, in Louisiana, where the black Storys set up a homestead as free people before eventually settling in the piney woods of southern Arkansas.
It’s the place where we still have a few hundred acres of land, and where we now have our family reunions.
It’s unclear how Moses Story, a poor black ex-slave with no money, no material possessions, no education back in the late 1860s, acquired land. Probably nothing like what happened to the fictitious Fortier family in Wading Home, but land changed hands in unusual ways back in those days.
When his descendants eventually moved to Arkansas, the story is that my grandfather share-cropped a parcel of land. Sharecropping was a popular practice during and after reconstruction where slaves stayed on the master’s land, farmed it, sold the crops, and gave almost all the money back to the landowner in exchange for being allowed to stay.
While most sharecroppers were eternally in debt to their landowners (another kind of ‘slavery’), my grandfather was somehow able to purchase the land from its owner, free and clear.
I often think of my grandfather’s grandfather Moses, the first in our ancestry to experience freedom, and what it must have been like to suddenly realize the exhilaration of being free, followed by the panic of ‘now what?’ What do you do if you learn at age 43 that you are no longer someone else’s property, and can go anywhere and do anything, but have nothing to do it with? Moses owned his life, but little else. But somehow that was enough to build a legacy that accounts for me and my brother and our cousins being here today.
The land was the key. Once the Storys owned land, they had the tools to begin a real life where they were beholden to no one. And they had something to pass on to the next generation, and the next, and the next.
So in a way, Wading Home is the story of land, family, and the ties of land to family pride.
When I was constructing this story, I came across a series of Associated Press articles published in 2001 called “Torn From the Land,” which told the stories of how African Americans, who once owned about 15 million acres of farmland, came to lose all but 2 million acres over the last 90 years. Land disappeared from the hands of ex-slaves and their descendants through various means; sometimes, of course, families sold it as they moved north as part of the great migration. But often it was lost through deceit, exploitation, theft, violence, and the misuse of ill-conceived laws.
Rolling green acres became cluttered with condos, time shares, factories – you name it.
It’s hard for many of us to relate to it now, but there was a time when a piece of family land, whether owned by blacks or whites, and no matter how small, was almost as precious as life itself, passed down like priceless heirlooms from generation to generation.
The narrative of "Torn from the Land," which portrayed the struggle involved in keeping one’s land and knowing its value, became the blueprint for the ‘Silver Creek’ part of Wading Home, and for the story of the Fortiers.
The stories of farms and beautiful acres of trees and creeks and streams in those articles reminded me of my family’s little village of Noxubee, Arkansas, where the air is hot and thick in summer, and the woods at night roar with the calls of crickets, and where a little community of families all looked after each other, built churches, planted cotton and corn, raised hogs and chickens, and many, many children. Unless you loved vast stretches of reddish brown earth dotted with tall pines, sweetgum, and magnolias, you could say there wasn’t much to look at.
But we owned it.
I grew up in Kansas City – the North, according to some true southerners. Jazz, baseball, stockyards and barbecue were what I knew. When I was first taken down to Arkansas as a child to this piece of land, I went virtually kicking and screaming. Like Julian in Wading Home, I was a true city kid. Hated the heat, the bugs, the dirt. The outhouse (need I say more?). The smells of mildewed wood and stagnant ponds, the taste of well water, the grit of yard dust in my mouth, the snort of hogs. It was only later that I came to appreciate it, after I understood its untrammeled beauty, and after I saw the land around ours begin to change.
Now we understand the value of land and what it must have meant to our forebears. It allowed them to have a chance at a decent life. They worked it, subsisted off of it, and were no doubt immensely proud of it.
And similarly, in New Orleans, families lived in and owned houses and plots of land that were passed down through generations. The loss of land because of the flood, much of it by poor folks who didn’t own much else, kind of mirrors what happened in the rest of the south through the decades since the Civil War – land disappears from families, cultures die, legacies are lost.
Now, with that loss of land and fight to reclaim it, there is a struggle over whether New Orleans will be a city that maintains its rich amalgam of cultures with African American culture as a prominent part of the mix, or whether it will become something else. And that brings me to what this story is really about.
Wait – I’m going on a little too much. After all, you are reading Wading Home. You will no doubt have your own ideas about what it’s about, or what it’s trying to be about, and whether the author (me) was successful in fulfilling what you believe is the book’s intention. I can’t wait to hear your opinions and ideas when we have a chance to meet.
I welcome your thoughts. To have an engaged audience of smart young readers – that’s every writer’s dream.
Happy reading, guys.