Fiction with a Message

Wendy Hornsby

When Harriet Beecher Stowe set out to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a fictional tale told largely from the point of view of sympathetic slaves on theKentucky plantation owned by the evil Simon Legree, her primary goal was to earn a bit of money to supplement her preacher husband’s meager salary – there were seven little Stowes to feed.  What she wrought, however, was a mass movement against slavery north of theMason-Dixon Line, and vast outrage as the south felt besieged by abolitionist pressure during the years leading to the Civil War.

 If the author had written a diatribe against slavery instead of a sympathetic portrait of a mother, the beautiful Eliza who sacrificed herself to save her little son from slavery, she would not have reached the audience she did, nor would her writing have had the same effect.  Through fiction, she touched the hearts of parents around the world.  To save all the Elizas and their little Harry’s, slavery had to be abolished.

When Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the White House he is alleged to have said, “So you’re the little lady who started this great war.” 

I doubt there are many books in history that are credited even in jest with starting a war, but once in a while a work of fiction will touch the hearts and minds – and stomachs as in the case of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle – of the readers with such force that they are inspired to action. 

Like Mrs. Stowe, many of us who write fiction do so in order to support our families.  Beyond that, I believe that we hope that in the course of delivering a story well told, we also give our readers insight into something that is corrupt or unfair or just plain wrong.   I know I do.

Quite a few years ago, while in the process of doing research for the book that became A Hard Light, I encountered a situation that I thought was just wrong.  And a plot was born.

It was shortly after the 1992 riots, AKA the Rodney King riots, andSouthern California still seethed.  Probably hoping to take advantage of the emotional, anti-cop atmosphere of that time, the lawyer for two career criminals – real bad guys – convicted many years earlier of murdering an off-duty sheriff’s deputy, managed to schedule a court hearing to re-examine the evidence that led to those convictions.  The lawyer’s argument was not that the men had not committed the crime – they had confessed – or that there was new evidence that would exonerate them, but was that because the victim had been a sworn peace officer, the accused could not get a fair trial. 

The LAPD conducted a thorough re-investigation that upheld the original case, but it didn’t matter what the detectives found, or didn’t find.  The judge, elected to the bench remember, was perhaps afraid not to set the convictions aside.  She not only exonerated the convicts on the murder charge but she also chastised the detectives for past sins of their department before she settled a few million city dollars on the poor incarcerated lads, and the pair walked free. 

Full of righteous ire, I began to write.   Among the bad guys was a judge lacking both common sense and moral courage.  I loved writing that character.

Before I had finished the first draft, one of the newly freed men was back in court.  Fresh from prison, on his way out of town he stopped at a motel in Beaumont where he kidnapped and raped the desk clerk before driving on toPhoenix where, impatient for his settlement funds, he robbed a bank.  He was still mending from the gunshot wounds he collected at the bank in lieu of cash when I attended his rape trial. 

I don’t pretend that the message I tried to deliver in that book, and its modest ramifications, reach even the kneecaps of Mrs. Stowe’s seminal work.  But the motivations – supporting my family, telling a good story and raising some awareness– are consistent with hers.     

Just so you know,  the LA judge eventually apologized.  Said she might have made a mistake.  But the atmosphere in the city had cooled considerably by then.   Too late to say,  No harm, no foul.

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4 Responses

  1. Excellent piece. Even though Cecil B. DeMille’s oft-quoted, possibly apocryphal, comment about messages in films “if you want to send a message, call Western Union,” didn’t mean that literally, your stance is the correct one. Writing that seethes with ire and passion, ladled with a good editor, is the best kind of crime fiction.

  2. What an inspiring piece! Thanks, Wendy. I, too, write for social justice in my books, but largely after the fact. As I wrote my novel Stolen Honey about the unfair eugenics (sterilization) movement of the thirties (in Vermont as well as other states) that led ultimately to the Holocaust, I grew increasingly impassioned. But too late to do anything about it, alas.

  3. It’s very hard to sustain the writing of a novel, and indignation is certainly a traditional motivater. I’m thinking of Oliver Twist and Bleak House as obvious examples, though Uncle Tom’s Cabin is right on the mark. Several of my own books caught fire because an issue provoked me (the Lockerbie disaster in Skylark, and theft of native American artifacts in Buffalo Bill’s Defunct), but sometimes a writer is just pushed by bafflement, confusion, or curiosity. The novel becomes the writer’s way of understanding what happens (mysteries) or what may happen (s.f.). I’m expressing myself clumsily. What I mean is the author may not know what ought to be done and that writing is a way of finding out.

  4. […] might say that these songs have an AGENDA. Wendy Hornsby’s post Fiction with a Message got me wondering who gets these messages, and who is simply bellowing out a song or reading a book […]

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