by Nancy Means Wright

Decades ago, my husband and I, newly married, lived and worked at Boys’ Home, deep in the state of Virginia. Freight trains rumbled and snorted behind our shaky cottage, and we had to shut our windows against the smelly, air polluting chemicals from the local pulp and paper mill. But we loved working with the homeless boys–one of my tasks was to teach them to dance (I kept band-aids handy)–and several were students in the English classes I taught at the local high school.

My classes were huge, and a fair percentage of the kids dropped out of school to work in the mill. But there were dedicated students, too, and it was a joy to see young minds open to vibrant language and ideas in poems, plays and essays. Until, that is, I decided to introduce the Gettysburg Address.

“Yankees,” one of them snarled.

“But we’re not fighting a civil war now, are we?” I asked. “Especially one that ended in 1865?”

“Well, my great-great…granddaddy got hisself kilt at Bull Run. My daddy says we can’t forgit that!”

Other voices chimed in. Sally Lou’s ancestor fought the Yanks at Shiloh. Johnny’s was a bugle boy who lost a leg. Johnny was still angry about that. “I aint readin’ no goddam Yankee speech!”

I finally compromised and offered anyone extra credit for writing about the speech “as literature.” Only one girl did. (Her parents were born in Connecticut.)

I’m still amazed at how long people nurture old wounds. I think of Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, and IRA Irish still bitter over the outcome of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne–Catholics vs Protestants. Or the blood shed by Spartans and Athenians in ancient Greece. Or the 13th-century Italian Capulets who hated the Montagues. Even my own 20th-century mother was at war with “that tribe of Italians down the street. Why, they fought against us in WW2!” (Never mind that couple was young, with a new baby.) Mother complained, as well, about Poles, Russians, and Irish immigrants, although my father’s family had come from Ireland during the Great Famine, and Mother’s own parents took ship in the late 19th-century from Scotland.

I wouldn’t be that way, I told myself. I would respect everyone, regardless of race, gender and attitude. In Vermont I fought for Civil Unions and Marriage Equality. I espoused Death with Dignity and Gunsense. I kept an open mind, didn’t I?

Then this fall, longing to see the ocean, my spouse and I took a Road Scholar trip to Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. Out of 24 participants, we were the only New Englanders; most were from the West or the South. The South? A red light flashed on. I loved southern writers and had a beloved editor who was a Georgia native, but the Virginia school experience still rankled in my mind. I had encountered like-minded authors at a mystery writer’s conference in Alabama, but during a side trip to a small town was told to keep my mouth shut about being a northern liberal–and worse still, a Unitarian. “You could get shot for that,” a fellow writer warned.

So I was wary at meals when we sat beside couples from the Deep South. I thought of the novel, The Help, and the Tea Partyers who were obstructing Congress and deadheading important (to me) issues about immigration and climate change. I came to the dinner table with narrowed eyes, fueled by Move On, Bill McKibben, and other activists.

Yet as the week wore on, I found myself in conversation with southerners, including a Mississippi woman who charmed me, in spite of myself, with her warmth and good humor. She loved to read, and we talked about Faulkner and our mutually beloved Eudora Welty who was a native of her town.  We discovered that we had a Scots-Irish ancestor in common whose surname we still carried on, and that we had a basic respect for people–although we carefully avoided talk of religion or politics. After the trip was over, I discovered to my great surprise, that her son is a respected politician of my own persuasion. And “certain” she was secretly against all I believed in, I’d never dared ask her outright.

How wrong I was! I’m ashamed now of my narrow prejudgments. I wish that I had met some of those small town Alabama folks who kept their rifles at the ready! I might eschew their politics, but I’d surely find them stimulating as people, wouldn’t I, once I got to know them? Why, we might even have broken bread together. The liberal and the arch-conservative: finding connection–at the very least, in food and family. Not to mention grist for the writing mill….

Dancing—and Other Things—With(out) the Stars

The thing about me that disappoints my wife the most—at least, that she will admit to—is that I don’t/can’t/won’t dance. Her next husband, she swears, will be a dancer.

I never have been able to dance. When I was in junior high (late 1950s) a couple of my female cousins tried to teach me how. I watched “American Bandstand”—mostly because of Justine Carrelli—but I just never had the sense of rhythm, or the ability to let myself go, that enabled me to dance. Oh, sure, I could slow dance—by which I mean put my arms around a girl, the way that lucky s. o. b. Bob Clayton got to put his arms around Justine, and shuffle around in a vaguely circular pattern—but when the music got faster, I headed for the row of chairs around the edge of the gym. I felt a little better one day when I heard Dick Clark admit that he couldn’t dance.

I grew up in a religious environment (Southern Baptist) in which dancing was seen as a “gateway drug” to sex. One dancing experience that is burned into my memory could give some credence to that belief. In tenth grade I went to a sock hop with a girl who was much more interested in me than I was in her. It was one of those “Sadie Hawkins” dances. (For those under 60, that’s a reference to a character from the old “Li’l Abner” comic strip, a woman who was always trying to land a husband.) My mother drilled it into me that, if a girl asked me to go to something like that, I had to go unless I had a legitimate excuse. Not being interested in the girl wasn’t a legitimate enough excuse.

As we slow-danced that evening, this girl practically gave me a lap dance. Being a 15-year-old boy, I had the reaction that a 15-year-old male would have. When she called me later that weekend (I never called her), she cooed, in her best Marilyn Monroe imitation, “I know what you wanted Friday night. Any time is all right with me.” It was probably a good thing that my family moved to another state after that school year.

To get back on point (but not en pointe), as much as I can’t dance, I do enjoy watching people who can dance well. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers top the list. Thanks to the internet, I can watch their dance numbers without having to sit through the banal story-lines of their movies. Astaire moved with a fluid grace that no one could teach. Rogers was equally adept, his perfect complement. I know people say she did everything he did, except backwards and in heels. That’s not entirely true. She didn’t have to dip him or lift him, for one thing. But she was a superb dancer and none of Astaire’s other partners ever came up to her standard. My favorite performance of theirs is “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat. It is breath-taking: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLIMZ-gKyF0

I also enjoy the “Night and Day” routine from The Gay Divorcee, especially at the end when Fred lets Ginger down gently on a divan and, as she gazes up at him, misty-eyed, offers her a cigarette. He might as well ask, “Was it good for you too?” Maybe the Southern Baptists were right.

One of my guilty pleasures the last few years has been “Dancing With the Stars.” My wife introduced me to it, I think in hopes that it might inspire me. After all, these non-professionals can learn complicated dances in only a week. Why not give it a try?

Well, a lot of them aren’t really non-professionals. Jennifer Gray? Does the phrase “Dirty Dancing” ring a bell? Kellie Pickler? Former high-school cheerleader who does a lot of dancing in her musical performances. Zendaya? That lovely young lady has been dancing since she was about three. She starred on a TV show on which she, you know, danced. And these people have professional teachers and can spend hours a day rehearsing.

Still, I’ve enjoyed watching the show. Until this fall, that is. Part of the fun of it has been watching people I’ve seen perform in other contexts become proficient dancers. Who would have suspected that comedian Bill Engvall could be such a terpsichorean? And football player Jacoby Jones was amazing. But, when I saw the list of “stars” this fall, I thought, “By what definition are these people stars?”

Admittedly, I’m not up on pop culture, but Tommy Chong and Lea Thompson were the only ones I’d ever heard of. Chong—well, I’m not sure “star” is the right word. Thompson (Back to the Future, “Caroline in the City”) has a legitimate claim, even though she has played only supporting roles in recent years. But she studied ballet and was dancing professionally by the time she was 14. She appeared in 45 ballets before shifting her focus from dancing to acting. Can you spell “ringer”?

A few minutes of Googling the other names introduced me to people who’ve been on TV shows or in movies that I’ve never seen or heard of and would never watch (e. g., “Duck Dynasty”). I guess DWTS is looking for a different demographic. From what I’ve read about it lately, it’s struggling for survival. For me this fall, with no participants that I care about, it has as little interest as the baseball post-season.

Baseball brings me to another aspect of the definition of “star.” This year, not for the first time, the teams competing in the World Series are also-rans. Neither the Giants nor the Royals were good enough to win a division title in their respective leagues. There was a time when the Series was played between the best team from each league (i. e., the Yankees and somebody else). The Royals and Giants were the fourth best teams in their leagues. So what does “champion” mean now? The better of two fourth-place teams?

And who is a “star” these days? I found myself asking that question a couple of weeks ago when my wife and I went on a short color tour to northern Michigan. She got tickets to see Loudon Wainwright III at Interlochen while we were there. Something about the name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place him. He has, it turns out, appeared in supporting roles on a number of TV shows (including “M*A*S*H*”) and in movies and has written music for quite a few others. His only record to reach the charts was the novelty song “Dead Skunk (In the Middle of the Road),” which got to #16 in 1973: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaN7xuAIjXI. He referred to the small audience that evening as “my demographic,” which, judging from the number of bald guys with ponytails, seemed to be code for “ageing hippies.”

In introducing himself, Wainwright mentioned that his father had written columns for Life magazine for a number of years. Of course: “The View from Here.” I read those columns in high school and college. Wainwright has memorized some of them and quotes them in his act. Some of his songs grow out of them. He’s talented and his performance was mildly entertaining, but I do hope he can someday resolve his daddy issues and his issues with his own son. (Name a kid Rufus and write a song about him breastfeeding called “Rufus is a Tit Man” and you’re just setting the stage for years of dysfunction and psychotherapy.)

Wainwright was once called “the new Bob Dylan” but never lived up to the hype. He wrote a song about his failure to make the A-list: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWmtMp9oaEU. I can imagine him commiserating with Bobby Murcer, who, also in the early 1970s, was supposed to be “the next Mickey Mantle.” Murcer had a long and respectable career, but he was never Mickey Mantle, any more than Wainwright became Bob Dylan.

I actually have a great deal of empathy for such folks, those who labor in the shadows of people they wish (or are expected) to emulate or surpass but who never make the move up to that A-list, to become actual stars.

You see, I’m one of those people.

In the field of Roman mystery novels, looming over a legion of wannabes, stand the “Big Three”—Lindsey Davis, Steven Saylor, and John Maddox Roberts. A couple of reviewers have been kind enough (I like to think “perceptive enough”) to say that my Pliny novels should make it the “Big Four,” but that phrase hasn’t caught on. Saylor and Roberts have given my books enthusiastic blurbs. (Not so Davis. At a conference a few years ago her editor informed me that she does not even read, let alone blurb, other people’s Roman mysteries.)

Like Wainwright with “Dead Skunk,” I had a moment of glory when Library Journal named my second Pliny novel, The Blood of Caesar, one of the 5 Best Mysteries of 2008 and, in a starred review, called it a “masterpiece of the historical mystery genre.” But, like Wainwright, I don’t seem to be able to stay at that level. Library Journal hasn’t even reviewed my last couple of books, although Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus gave them decent notices.

So here I sit, somewhere well below the A-list of stars in the constellation of Roman mystery writers, or writers of anything, as unknown to most people as the current crop of “stars” on DWTS are to me. Bobby Murcer, sadly, died in 2008, at the tender age of 62. But maybe I could join Loudon Wainwright III on the next season of “Dancing With(out) the Stars,” if there is a next season.

Ladies Who Lunch

Wendy Hornsby

Over the weekend I went to a wonderful ladies’ luncheon; yes men were welcome and several attended. The theme was women in the 1930s, and the setting, a house designed by Julia Morgan, the architect who also designed Hearst Castle, was perfect. The sweeping drive was lined with vintage vehicles, attended by drivers dressed in plus fours or pin stripes and fedoras. There was a fashion show, of course, of authentic clothing from the era, and music and some dancing, and food made from recipes taken from Ladies Home Journal, circa 1930. As I talked with friends and sipped wine—we are in wine country, so of course there was wine—I thought about my mother and her friends and the luncheons they hosted for each other. What fun they had, and what work it took.

Mom and her friends would be classified as housewives, but the house is not where you find them on most days. They were the board of the PTA, scouts and Camp Fire, Little League, Equestrian Trails, and various Sunday schools. They sat on, and frequently chaired, town commissions, councils, advisories, and the school board. Their careers were family, town and church, and they probably spent as many hours meeting, planning, and acting as any nine-to-five worker would. Their compensation? Well-schooled, healthy children, I suppose. More than that, their big reward was the fellowship of other bright, active women marooned in outer suburbia.

They made occasions to celebrate and entertain. School teacher luncheons, baby showers, officer initiations, summer, fall, winter, spring, were among the occasions they feted. When it was Mom’s turn to host a luncheon, the entire family was set to work days ahead of time. The floors were waxed and polished, windows washed, lawn mowed, silver polished, guest towels, table cloths and luncheon napkins ironed, and nut cups filled. The nut cups were my favorite part. We mixed pastel pillow mints with salted Virginia peanuts and distributed them into little fluted paper cups that were set at each place, and usually taken home by guests to children who would expect them.
hostess plate 2

Mom would know who in her community had card table and chair sets, from whom to borrow a coffee urn or punch bowl, who had flowers in bloom, and who to call for hostess sets. Hostess sets were pressed glass plates that had a well for the little matching cup and sometimes a thumb hole like a painter’s palette so that the plate could be held onto at a buffet. They came in several patterns, and everyone knew whose set was whose so that they could be returned after the event. Husbands were deployed a day or two ahead of time to gather in the necessary equipment, and the evening after to return it all.

The meal would be elegant, and most of it would have been made the day before so that the kitchen was spotless when guests arrived and the hostess would look fresh and relaxed as if everything had been effortless, which of course it had not. The whole affair involved quite a bit of sleight of hand.

As for the food, the hostess played to her culinary strengths and her serving pieces. Mom had a lovely silver holder that fit 9”x13” Pyrex baking dishes, so whatever she served would be something that could be made in 9”x13” Pyrex baking dishes. The day before, she would make several pans of her entrée and stow them in the refrigerator until just before guests were due. She was famous for her pie, so deep dish chicken pie showed up regularly, as did pretty pecan tarts.

I loved Mom’s chicken pie, which we would eat for several days afterward. But I especially liked her custard sandwiches, that are a sort of non-fried version of a Monte Cristo. The preparation is easy, it’s make-ahead fare, and perfect for holiday brunch or lunch, so, with the holidays fast approaching, I’m sharing this one with you.

           Fern’s Baked Custard Sandwiches
Serves 8
Assemble the night before serving

Note: The bread needs to be roughly square. Pullman loaves are best, but any sandwich loaf will do.
8 slices of good white sandwich bread
8 slices of wheat or rye sandwich bread
8 slices of Swiss cheese
8 thin slices of ham or turkey
6 eggs
2 cups milk
1 tsp. mustard powder
healthy pinch of cayenne or chipotle powder
1 stick butter, melted
Assemble sandwiches: slice of white bread, cheese, ham, slice of wheat or rye bread. Cut off crusts. Cut each in half. Place sandwich halves in 9”x13” Pyrex baking dish in rows, long edge down, so that white and dark bread alternate (e.g. don’t put 2 pieces of white bread next to each other). The finished dish will looked striped.

Beat together eggs, milk and seasonings, and pour evenly over the sandwiches. Don’t worry if all the liquid pools in the bottom. It will even out overnight as bread absorbs it.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. 45 minutes before serving, heat oven to 4000.   Melt butter. Uncover refrigerated dish and pour butter evenly over the top. Bake for 30 minutes or until custard is set and the top and bottom are golden. If it browns too fast, tent with aluminum foil.

Slice and serve with preserves on the side.


Conventional Wisdom

Sooner or later, authors seeking ways to promote their books consider the prospect of attending conventions.  I have mixed feelings on the subject, probably because I’ve had mixed results.  When I say ‘convention’ I mean a gathering of fans and creators of literary genres like science fiction, romances, and mysteries, not conventions of the American Legion or the Modern Language Association, though I can imagine circumstances that would make that kind of convention a profitable venue for a writer too.  My father, for example, self-published his WWII memoirs, attended a convention of Navy veterans, and sold a healthy number of copies to them.  A friend wrote a mystery involving needlework and sold dozens of copies at a quilting convention.

I started attending science fiction conventions in the 1960s, here and in Canada and Britain, and I enjoyed them only partly because I like to read s.f. and fantasy.  My first convention was a Worldcon (the big international s.f. convention) held in Los Angeles at a hotel near the airport.  The hotel clearly catered to businessmen most of the time.  As my husband and I went to the desk to register, we saw several wide-eyed men in suits and ties in the check-in line overlooked by a massive Viking dressed in a brown bathmat and wearing a horned helmet.  He was carrying a (bonded) battle axe.  Nobody gave him any lip.  On our way up to our room we got stuck in an elevator with Ray Bradbury.  Bliss.  Since I was not a published author at the time, I could relax, attend panel discussions, and enjoy listening to my favorite s.f. writers arguing with each other over what was hard science fiction and what mere fantasy.  In that era, most of the non-writers at such a convention were compulsive readers of s.f. and fantasy.  These days, many of the attendees are game players and media fans–in other words, they are less likely to buy books than in the olden days.

Fan conventions multiplied in the decades since that LA Con.  Dozens of regional conventions are held every year as well as specialized conventions for fans of comics or games or Harry Potter.  The s.f. conventions, since they did involve compulsive readers, also spun off mystery and romance conventions.  The romance conventions seem to be aimed primarily at writers rather than readers, though attendees share the s.f. fondness for costuming.  Mystery conventions do focus on readers, and they seem more serious to me than either romance or s.f. conventions.  You will occasionally see a mystery fan dressed as Sherlock Holmes, but mostly not.

All of these conventions feature panels of authors, editors, and agents, or authors and fans.  The discussions are almost always interesting and sometimes quite heated.  Many writers spend their convention hours schmoozing in the bar, which is not a bad idea, but it would be a shame to miss all the panels.  Even if the discussion is not world-shaking, it will give readers insight into the favorite writers’ personalities, and the panels are very helpful to beginning writers.

I think conventions, particularly the smaller ones like Left Coast Crime, can provide writers with a good promotional venue, but they are not for the faint-hearted.  Above all, they aren’t for late-comers.  If you intend to go, sign up early and be sure to ask to be put on panels.  You will also be invited to sign books, usually at a specified time and place where your fans can find you.  I also suggest that shy writers take a friend with them because a convention, especially a large one like Bouchercon, can be very isolating.

Going Home


I spent the past weekend in New Jersey with former classmates, celebrating the 50th (yes — unbelievably – 50th) anniversary of our graduating from Glen Ridge High School. One of the highlights of my weekend — and there were many — was speaking at the library which had been my refuge and inspiration during the years I was growing up.

I first discovered the library when I was about ten, and saw their collection of Walter Farley books (yes, I was one of those girls who loved horses) and marveled at their shelf and a half of Doctor Doolittle books — I’d thought there was only one. After that I cajoled my mother or grandmother to take me to the library often, since although it was only about seven blocks from our home, those blocks included a major intersection. My grandfather, who loved mysteries and always had a stack on the table behind his pipe and next to the Morris chair where he spent hours each day, was often included in the expedition.

When I was in sixth grade I was thrilled when my mother and the mothers of two of my friends decided together that the three of us were — yes! finally! — old enough to make the library trip on our own. We walked there every Saturday morning, taking out as many books as we could carry. By then I was reading Betty Cavanna and Lois Duncan and other “books for teenage girls.” (I’m thrilled that Lois Duncan is now one of my Facebook friends ….)

In seventh grade we began attending the school across the street from the library, and I began finding excuses to go to the library after school. There was always a subject to be researched in the encyclopedia collection there, or checked in magazines in the stacks. I discovered the Dewey Decimal system, and read every book on writing … since some day that’s what I would do. Secretly, I dreamed of someday seeing a book I’d written on one of the shelves. I discovered The Writer Magazine. I knew when it arrived at the library each month (it couldn’t be checked out,) and would curl up in a special window seat and read it, cover to cover. I learned about manuscript submission guidelines and agents and rejection slips and how to write dialogue. I studied the market place information, pretending I was going to submit something I’d written. I even got brave enough to send a few poems to magazines, and was proud of the rejection slips that resulted. They made me feel like a real writer. I planned to save enough slips to cover a wastebasket with them, but never did.

When I was a sophomore in high school I started working at the library as a page. I shelved books after school and weekend for fifty cents an hour. After I’d shelved the day’s books I started working my way around the shelves, checking that all the books were shelved correctly. (A lot weren’t, but the librarians never had time to do what I was doing.) It took me most of the school year to check the children’s room, where I also discovered other wonderful authors that were, theoretically, too young for me — but whom I loved.

In my junior year I was moved to the adult department, where I repeated my verification of book locations.

In the summers, in Maine, I became a frequent patron of the Wiscasset Library (where I now do a lot of research for the books I write.)

But the Glen Ridge Public Library wasn’t finished helping me, When I was working on my masters thesis at New York University I lived in New York City, where my libraries of choice were the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village near my home, and the Donnell Library on 53rd Street, which was their version of a children’s room. Librarians in New York were able to find many of the books written for teenagers in the 1950s and 60s that I based my thesis on, but New Yorkers are tough on books. I bothered my mother to represent me back in Glen Ridge, and the library there put in inter-library loans, searching New Jersey libraries for many of the books I was looking for. And finding them,

I hadn’t been back to the Glen Ridge Public Library in decades. But I was thrilled when several of my classmates asked if I’d do a book signing during our reunion, and the library I’d loved invited me to speak there. I felt the way I had when my undergraduate college asked me to come back to speak and gave me a lifetime achievement award. I felt as though I was truly going home.

The Glen Ridge Library today is, I am pleased to report, still wonderful, and, despite the major budget cuts that have affected so many of our nation’s libraries, it has expanded. Its addition has added a special room just for YA books, handicapped accessibility, and more space for books, computers, and research of all kinds .. including a meeting room, where I spoke Saturday. I was also thrilled to see that the parents of one of those two girls who walked to the library with me every Saturday were among the major donors who’d helped the library expand.

Today visitors to my home often joke that it’s like a library. Floor to ceiling bookcases are in every room and most hallways. To me, home and walls of books are synonymous. They are comfort and company and escape; they have stayed the course during the ups and downs of my life.

Books represent home. And last week’s visit to the Glen Ridge Library was, in many ways, even more a homecoming for me than seeing my former classmates. That library was where I grew up.

Hank Phillippi Ryan & Lev Raphael Rap about Writing

We all know that writing is a solitary affair–even when you talk to yourself and your spouse or your dog comes in and stares at you.

That’s why it’s so much fun for us authors to go to conferences.  It’s not just about meeting fans, though that’s always a treat.  It’s about communing with our peers.  It’s about piercing the bubble of loneliness.  But there’s something even better than being on a panel  or hanging out at a bar afterwards or going out to dinner: appearing with a fellow author at a bookstore event.  Because that allows for a special kind of intimacy.

Last week I did an event in Ann Arbor with the supremely charming Hank Phillippi Ryan, celebrated TV reporter and thriller writer, at the mystery book store Aunt Agatha’s.  Hank had suggested we interview each other, and as a former radio talk show host, I grabbed the first question.  I couldn’t resist asking something lighthearted: who should play her in the movie version of her life story?  She opted for Katherine Hepburn, a natural choice for someone so classy.  I wanted Michael Fassbender for his long lean looks (among other attributes).

We moved on to more serious topics, talking about childhood library-going, our love of books, how our families encouraged our appreciation of art and literature, even though she grew up in rural Indiana and I grew up in the heart of New York City.  Our conversation ranged widely, covering her new book Truth Be Told and my new book Assault With a Deadly Lie, our favorite authors, our inspiration, her work as a reporter, my current work as guest professor at Michigan State University.

We flowed in and out of each other’s sentences and stories, riffing freely and companionably.  If you didn’t know us, you might have thought we were already friends, though we’d never met.  Or that we’d had a glass or two of wine beforehand–that’s how animated and relaxed we were.

We were kindred spirits.  We loved what we did.  We loved being there together in a wonderful independent bookstore.  And we were having so much fun with each other and regaling our audience with stories about doing what we love that we could have gone on much longer.

The audience did not know that I had come there after a car accident.  A few days before, I’d skidded off a rainy highway into a median and suffered a concussion.  I was still feeling the effects and hadn’t been able to drive myself down to Ann Arbor (in fact, I felt mildly panicky just being on a highway so soon after the accident: PTSD).  But for the hour and half that I was in Hank Phillippi Ryan’s marvelous company, it was as if my fog and my fear had completely lifted.

That’s what the fellowship of a wonderful writer can do for you. I felt calm, happy and as glad to be a writer as I typically am.  Because whatever career slings and arrows may come my way (and sometimes I feel like St. Sebastian), I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in second grade.  And I am living my dream.


Here we are in a rare quiet moment, Hank looking as if she’s summoning a spirit, and me looking as if I’m about to share what my spirit’s already communicated with me.  Who says two people are too few for a séance? :-)

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Life and 24 other books in genres from memoir to horror to mystery.  His books have been translated into 15 languages, most recently Romanian.

The Strange Tale of Fortune Snow

As a novelist and journalist, I’ve run across some bizarre stories, stories that did more than just test the limits of my credibility, stories of the man in the moon variety. Usually, with a little research, the story is easily disproven. But recently, I ran across a story that, at the very least, passes the first “sniff” test.
In doing some research into 19th century Tennessee, I ran across a newspaper story from 1875 about a former slave named Fortune Snow. The story, which ran in a handful of newspapers across the country, described how the author had encountered a 127 year old African-American in Gibson County, Tennessee. Living with his grandson-in-law, Fortune Snow told the reporter of his remarkable life. He was born into slavery in South Carolina prior to the American Revolution. His master, William Snow, became an officer under General Francis Marion, the famous Swamp Fox, and Fortune went along, acting as personal servant and cook.
After the Revolution, Fortune followed his master to the Mobile, Alabama area, where his daughter “jumped the broom” and married. Fortune stayed in south Alabama throughout the Civil War, but in the years after, he followed his grandchildren north, stopping finally near Trenton, Tennessee.
An interesting story, but hardly one to take seriously. Like I said, I’ve seen such stories before. And tall tales were just part of the journalistic landscape in the 1800s. But here’s where the story of Fortune takes an odd turn.
Part of that same research project had me looking through the 1870 census for Gibson County, Tennessee. Just out of curiosity, I glanced to see if there truly was a Fortune Snow.
Not only was there a Fortune Snow in Gibson County, Tennessee in 1870, five years before the newspaper stories ran, but he was listed as 122 years old. It was absolutely one of those head-scratching moments. I rushed to run down other elements of his story. Yes, there was a William Snow in South Carolina who served with Francis Marion, and yes, there was a William Snow in the Mobile area in later years. Outside of that, it was difficult to find other, corroborating evidence, at least on short notice.
I don’t know if Fortune Snow lived to be 127. What I do know is that his story cannot be easily dismissed. Probably, he was well into his 90s, perhaps even 100 when that reporter encountered him in 1875. But even so, he would have been born around the beginning of the Revolution, and very well could have been with his master in the army of Francis Marion as a young boy. And that, by itself, is a story worth telling.


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