Illuminating History’s Shadows Through Fiction
Illuminating History’s Shadows Through Fiction
Inspiration from Old Houses
Mar 13, 2023
I love old houses. Always been drawn to them. I’ve restored a few, sometimes to my financial detriment, but with much satisfaction and pride in the result, regardless.
In our house, we use the phrase ‘It’s a mystery’, my favorite line from Shakespeare in Love. We use it when we speak about things beyond our comprehension, things you almost don’t want to explain or dissect because there’s magic behind not having an answer for everything. ‘It’s a mystery’ has stuck because the phrase encapsulates so much about our human journey. Enquiry into why things intrigue us quickly mushrooms beyond our comprehension. Indeed, the answer in many cases remains a mystery.
Curiosity about one old house — the Ridge House in Fayetteville, Arkansas — led me on a journey that spanned forty years. It was a journey into an era of American History I knew little about, a journey into the lives of the Ridge family — once prominent members of the Cherokee Nation — that ultimately led to Red Clay, Running Waters. You could say this modest house in the center of a historic Ozark town where I attended University has had a significant impact on my life.
I often passed The House (originally built in 1836) as I walked the streets, wondering who lived there, what happened to them, what the times the house had seen were like. In my work-study job at the University Museum, I even handled artifacts that came for an excavation there. But the moment that mysterious something grabbed me I recall as clear as day. At lunch one day my Anthropology professor explained it once belonged to a White woman married to an Indian man. He then solemnly added that most Cherokee considered the woman’s husband a traitor.
My assumptions were mightily challenged. A marriage between a White woman and a Red man certainly wasn’t common before the 1830’s, even if the house did lay close to the border of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. And just what was it that had led her husband down the treacherous path to treason? I knew little of the era, and even less about the Cherokee, but something ensnared me. As I ‘dug’ (as Anthropologists do), I wanted to know more. Then life took off.
Fast forward decades, along my circuitous life, raising kids, following dreams and a husband across a plethora of careers, adventures and distractions. It’s a mystery why, rather than letting go of the idea of writing a novel about the Ridges, I become more fascinated and committed as the years passed. I was neither a writer, nor a historian, and I still had a mortgage to pay. Yet the more I trawled through the records, the more trips I took to where John and Sarah Ridge’s lives were led, the more the phrase “past is prologue” flashed like a neon sign in front of me. Understanding the Antebellum Era and the conflicts, betrayals, and good intentions gone wrong that were part of the Ridge’s lives brought parallels to my own times front of mind. I knew I wanted to show through their story how a past we didn’t live shaped our lives today.
My first draft began in earnest in 2016. Decades of research (commuting by train four hours a day), thousands of hours of writing (and rewriting), dozens of beta readers, a lot of soul searching, and eight-plus drafts later I felt as though I was enough of a writer to test the publishing waters. Low and behold, someone else thought Red Clay, Running Waters was the incredible story I always believed it to be, and Koehler Books offered to bring it to the world.
My attraction to old houses never wavered over the course of my life, and neither did my commitment to writing this story. John, Sarah, and the Ridge family deserve to be known, IMHO. Their presence in history will remain with me for the rest of my days. Their story raises issues familiar and still unresolved in today’s America. ‘The Indian Question’ of 1830 still haunts US Society – questions about race, sovereignty, colonization, and rights left behind on the bloody trail of American Indian Policy.
It’s still a mystery why the lives of the occupants the Ridge House took such a hold on me, but I’m grateful I followed the call. Without it I would never have learned about a little-known part of the American past, or John and Sarah’s incredible story holding so much significance and so many lessons for our times. Without it I would never have made many friends, or discovered that I could indeed write Red Clay, Running Waters. Call it what you will – destiny or a mystery – it has woven itself into the tapestry of my life.