Please give a warm welcome to historical fiction author, Corinda Pitts Marsh. Corinda is going to share with us her inspiration behind her book…
Behind the Tupelo Tree
Two strong Southern women, one a slave and the other a slave owner, forge a family dynasty with the men they love. These women must brave turbulent times and decide right and wrong in a hostile world too often based on color and gender. They from an alliance that lasts for generations. Pivotal in the lives of these women, big Earl loves and protects them, risking his own life. Coming to them from the block in New Orleans with heavy iron chains on his ankles, Earl changes their lives forever. Later he does the same for a third woman from another world. His legacy carries him into the next century as his son stands behind the Tupelo tree watching helplessly as an innocent man is lynched. The intertwining of these lives tells the story Behind the Tupelo Tree. This edition includes the stories of A Civil War and The Ghost of Blackwater Creek as well as the story of Yemaya, the mother of the Ghost. The stories take the reader from the Antebellum South through the Civil War and the troubled times of the early 20th century.
Selma, Alabama, is the site of one of the most publicized Civil Rights demonstrations of the 1960’s. For some white Southerners, it represents a memory they wish to forget. For many black Southerners, it represents a time of horror that led to freedom, freedom to use restrooms formerly reserved for whites, freedom to drink from a water fountain in a city park, freedom to sit in any vacant seat on a bus or at a lunch counter when they are hungry. Selma, however, is rooted much deeper in history than many Americans realize. It was the first capital of Alabama, and it was the site of a critical and final battle in the American Civil War. Selma’s foundries made most of the Confederacy’s munitions and built some of the ships used in naval battles.
Selma was also the site of Castle Morgan, a prison housing captured Union soldiers between 1863 and 1865. Prisoners who survived its horrors of overcrowding and flooding were released at the end of the war and loaded onto the steamboat Sultana to return to their homes. Unfortunately, one of the boilers on the Sultana exploded, killing 1800 of the 2400 men aboard shortly before they reached Memphis, Tennessee.
I knew nothing about the Sultana or the Civil War battle at Selma, nor was I familiar with the horrors of Castle Morgan. These and so many other facts are Secrets of the South. They became my novel, Behind the Tupelo Tree, but they didn’t come to me on their own. The ideas came from Olafur Gunnarsson, my friend and mentor for the past twenty years. He is an Icelandic author, who reveres history. When I was struggling for inspiration, he said, “Look for a historical event that interests you and put yourself into a character totally different from yourself, preferably a male character of a different heritage, then write, write, and write.” Hands down, the best advice I ever received. From those words, the Secrets of the South stories were born. Inspiration is often as close as a good friend.
After that conversation, I researched Civil War battles. The closest one to my home occurred in Selma. When I began to dig, secrets crawled out of their crevices. The first capital of Alabama was eight miles outside Selma in a settlement called Cahawba. Fortunately, Cahawba is only a four-hour drive from my home, so my husband and I visited the Old Cahawba Archaeological Park (www.cahawba.com). We walked among the ruins and stood beside the fireplace in the prison enclosure.
Although the prison was known as Castle Morgan, it was anything but a castle. It was a 15,000 square foot cotton warehouse hastily converted in 1863 into a prison with 432 bed spaces. By March 1865, one month before the war ended, more than 3,000 men were incarcerated within its walls. That is five square feet for each man—less space than it takes for one man to lie down. In February 1865, the town experienced a devastating flood. It was bitterly cold, and the men were standing waist deep in muddy contaminated water, so prison officials allowed some of the men to leave the compound to search for logs or other objects they could stand on to get them out of the water. Miraculously, the death rate at Castle Morgan was only two percent, the lowest of any Civil War prison. This was mainly due to the kindness of one of the two men in charge of the prison, H. A. M. Henderson, a Methodist minister. Of course, one of the good guys in my novel winds up in this prison.
Research uncovered bits and pieces of history that kept me busy for the three years it took to write the novel. No Civil War novel would be complete without comments about Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, and Robert E. Lee, its most famous general. Davis and some of his friends got into a bit of mischief at West Point Military Academy. During Christmas break, Davis and his buddies left campus to reconnoiter a stash of eggnog, a Southern Christmas drink containing varying amounts of alcohol. The young men proceeded to get thoroughly inebriated. Jefferson Davis was one of the revelers who got caught, and the self-righteous Robert E. Lee ratted on his comrades.
Davis was never one to shrink from a challenge. While serving in the U.S. Cavalry under the future president of the United States, Zachery Taylor, he fell in love with Taylor’s daughter. However, Taylor refused to allow Davis to marry his daughter, so Davis resigned from the Cavalry and married her anyway. The couple went to Louisiana on their honeymoon where both of them contracted malaria. Davis survived but the love of his life did not. They had been married only three months when she died. Davis went back to his farm in Mississippi where he remained in seclusion for several years. When he returned to the Cavalry, he served admirably causing Taylor to comment that apparently his daughter was a better judge of character than he.
Tupelo Tree carries two families, one of slaves and the other their owners, through the war and into post-war conflicts and adjustments. After the war, the story moves from Castle Morgan and Cahawba to Campbelton, Florida. The inspiration for this part of the story came from a random comment my husband made about a lynching that occurred sixty miles from our home in 1934. My husband’s employer had seen the lynching when he was a child. What I found out about that lynching was the most horrific thing I had ever read.
Claude Neal was lynched in Marianna, Florida, in 1934. He was accused of rape, but no significant evidence was ever found: he was dead before evidence could be investigated. The details of this lynching became a chapter in my story. These facts disgust some readers, but others see the reason for their inclusion. Only when we know our history do we have any chance to make our world better.
When I realized the impact my story was having on readers, I understood why I write. I used to tell my students I had only two goals for each literature class: 1) The class should teach you how to live your life better, and 2) it should make you want to read more good literature. Now I try to do that through my books. Olafur Gunnarsson and my husband gave me the inspiration for my writing, but it is my readers who keep me writing. Inspiration is all around us. We only have to open our eyes and ears to see and hear inspiration for our stories.
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About the author
I am first a grandmother then a Southern writer, raised and steeped in the traditions of the deep South. I returned to college at the age of 44, a challenge which certainly changed my life. I fell in love with words and will never recover from that addiction. My favorite authors are Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, and Friedrich Nietzsche. I enjoy study of the paranormal and deep human emotions. Writing for me is a way of knowing. My doctorate is in 20th Century American Literature, but my interests range far and wide. Taking the lead from T.S. Eliot, I steal from those who have come before. Plato and Milton as well as many others are often my literary playmates. I had an imaginary friend when I was four years old, so perhaps I never recovered. I once heard a professor say that for every book one writes, he or she must read 1000 others. This holds true for me. The writers we study become a part of who we are if we are paying attention, and I hope my antennas are tuned to the proper channels. When I’m not reading or writing, I enjoy growing orchids, watching birds, and cooking for my family.