A Candid Talk with Frankie Washington and Rena Leland from Michelle Shocklee’s Under the Tulip Tree

Welcome, ladies. Tell us how you became friends. 

Frankie: It began when I received a letter from the gov’ment wanting to hear my stories about being a slave. I thought they was fooling with ol’ Frankie. Why would anyone care about such things in 1936? But sure enough, one day this pretty gal arrived on my doorstep with a list of questions a mile long. 

Why was the government collecting stories about slavery seventy years after the Civil War ended?

Rena: I think there are two reasons. First, when the stock market crashed in 1929—on my sixteenth birthday, no less—a terrible depression hit the economy. Millions of people lost their jobs, including my dad. President Roosevelt hoped to help people get back to work by creating jobs through the government, and one of those organizations was the Federal Writers’ Project. Because I’d worked for a newspaper, I was hired by the FWP to interview former slaves for a project they called the Slave Narratives. People like Frankie were getting older—sorry, Frankie, I don’t mean to say you’re old.

Frankie: Child, I’ve seen 101 birthdays. If that ain’t old, I don’t know what is. {chuckles}

So, the government wanted to preserve the stories of former slaves? Why are they called narratives?

Rena: Yes. Like Frankie said, when I arrived at her house, I had a list of questions I’d been given by the FWP director in Nashville. My instructions were to ask the questions and then record the interviewee’s answers word-for-word. That’s what makes the narratives so special, in my opinion. They are the words of the person who actually lived them out. 

Was it difficult to revisit the dark days of slavery, Frankie?

Frankie: It was, but the Lord helped me. I know it’s important that our stories aren’t forgotten. Slavery might not be legal nowadays, but there’s still a lot of problems left over from slavery times. I have hope that people like Rena and her young man, Alden, will be the ones to bring about change. 

Rena, did you know much about slavery before you met Frankie?

Rena: I’m ashamed to say I didn’t. Even though I’d grown up in Nashville and had studied about the Civil War in school, I don’t remember learning much about the evils of slavery. When I heard Frankie’s story, I knew there were thousands of others like it that needed to be told. People of my generation and the generations to come shouldn’t forget about slavery. I’m thankful it isn’t legal to own a fellow human being anymore, but, like Frankie said, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order for everyone to have equal rights.

Frankie, you’ve shared that you’re 101 years old. You’ve seen a lot in your lifetime. What are some of the most memorable events you recall?

Frankie: Gracious, there’s so many. I remember hearing the news that President Lincoln had been killed. Sam and I cried our eyes out, ’cuz he was a good man. I remember when the first black senator was elected—Hiram Revels of Mississippi—five years after the war ended. I didn’t think I’d live to see such a thing. I believe it’s good to have different kinds of folks running the gov’ment. Kinda give them a more complete perspective on things. I remember seeing a car for the first time and hearing a man’s voice coming from a wooden box called a radio. Those are some mighty amazing inventions, and I ’spect there will be more to come long after I’m gone home to heaven. 

If you could go back in time and change something about your life, what would it be?

Rena: I wish I could stop the stock market from crashing, because it caused so much pain for so many people. But, admittedly, I wouldn’t have met Frankie if I hadn’t taken the job with the FWP, and I took the job because my family needed the money. I also wouldn’t have met Alden.

Is he someone special?

Rena: Yes, he’s become quite special to me. He also works for the FWP.

Frankie: This might come as a surprise to you all, but I wouldn’t change anything about my life, not even being a slave. God didn’t make me a slave, but he was with me as I lived as one. Back in the Old Testament, his chosen people were slaves in Egypt for four hundred years. That doesn’t make slavery right, but it tells me God has bigger plans than what I can see in my present circumstances. Like Rena said, if I hadn’t lived the life I lived, I wouldn’t have met my Sam or her. 

What do you hope your friendship with one another will inspire in others when they read about it?

Rena: I hope it will inspire people like me and my family to get to know people like Frankie and her family. I’d always been warned to stay away from the neighborhood of Hell’s Half Acre because it was dangerous, so you can imagine how surprised I was to find this dear woman had lived there most of her life. Too often we make judgments about people and places without knowing the full story. I can’t imagine my life without Frankie in it. 

Frankie: I agree. Unfortunately, the same can be said for folks down in the Acres. We make judgments about people who are different from us, just like anyone else. My hope and prayer is one day we’ll all simply love one another as Jesus commanded in Matthew 22:39. Wouldn’t that be something?  

Thank you, ladies, for sharing your hearts with us.


Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at michelleshocklee.com.  

Photo credit: Author photo taken by Jodie Westfall, copyright © 2012. All rights reserved.

Book Review: Under the Tulip Tree by Michelle Shocklee

Come back tomorrow for the character interview of Rena and Frankie!

Tyndale House Publishers, September 8, 2020, Pages:400, ISBN:978-1-4964-4607-7

The story begins with the stock market crash of 1929 when Rena Leland is about to celebrate her sixteen birthday. Because her father is a banker who mismanaged his assets, their lifestyle takes a dramatic turn for the worse.

For me, this beginning was slow. The real story gets going when we leap forward seven years as Rena, out of work at a newspaper office, takes a job with the WPA interviewing former slaves. (If you find the beginning slow, stick with it. You’ll be glad you did.) I knew about these slave narratives and have read a few of them. With all the stories and movies out there on slavery and the Civil War, readers might be tempted to think it’s all been done before. However, the author drew me in as Rena is engrossed in hearing the story of Frankie Washington, a woman who said God told her she couldn’t die until she told Rena her story. I was engrossed too. It kept me turning pages as the book is partly told in Frankie’s point of view from the past.

Uncomfortable at times (how can it not be?), readers are taken back to the horrors, the heartbreak, and the incredible endurance of those who lived through it. Frankie’s story takes place in Nashville before and during the Civil War. Frankie and other slaves are held in a contraband camp when the Union Army takes control of the city. She is allowed to work and be paid for washing officer’s clothing. During a battle she cares for injured soldiers. And then she is asked to do the same for the Confederate soldiers, something she struggles against, blaming them for all the pain and suffering she endured as a slave. How she deals with this and what she learns will also teach Rena some incredible lessons.

Rena feels regret for her family having owned slaves in the past, but she thinks all that is in the past. Then she realizes that between her mother objecting to the neighborhood she must visit for the interviews and her own anxious feelings when she travels there without a companion and is stared at, there is still a vast difference in the white/black culture and much mistrust on both sides. With the supporting characters of her grandmother and a handsome co-WPA worker, Rena learns things about the past that she never learned in school. More importantly, she learns about the life-long spiritual journey of the former slave, and this changes Rena’s outlook on her own life and on her family she previously had trouble tolerating, and also on the man who has been transporting her to Hell’s Half Acre to conduct the interviews. This transformation flows perfectly. It’s not rushed for the sake of the story or preachy at all. The ending held a surprising twist that will cause this story to stay in readers’ minds for a long time.

I really enjoyed this book, and having recently read Lisa Wingate’s The Book of Lost Friends, I found Under the Tulip Tree a fitting companion. Highly recommended.

Cindy Thomson, Novel PASTimes

I received a free advanced reader copy from the publisher with no obligation to review.

Meet Piper Danson from Ann Gabhart's An Appalachian Summer

Welcome to Novel PASTimes! We are pleased you stopped by today. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Certainly. It’s so nice of you to ask me in to talk about what I’ve been doing in 1933. My name is Piper Danson. I grew up in a nice home in Louisville, Kentucky, where one of my very favorite things to do was go horseback riding with my friend, Jamie. My father is an attorney and my grandfather founded a bank that managed to keep its doors open during the economic crisis after Black Tuesday destroyed so many banks and businesses. I’m happy we are beginning to see signs the country is coming out of the depression thanks to President Roosevelt’s programs to get people back to work. The soup lines in town were terrible to see and some of my dearest friends’ families lost everything in the market crash. That’s one reason I was not very excited about my debutante season and my debut ball in May. It simply seemed wrong to spend so much money on a party I really didn’t want when others were in need, but my mother insisted I had to be a debutante whether I wanted to be or not.

The Depression was a terrible time and we do want to know more about that and about your debutante year. But first, Piper is an unusual name? Is it a family name? 

No, I wasn’t named after anybody in my family. When I was younger, I did wish I might have been so I’d have an ordinary name like Sally or Elizabeth. But now, I like having a different sounding name. Especially after I discovered how I came about the name. I was born during a terrible snowstorm. At home, of course, as was the custom when I was born. My father happened to be away on business when I decided to make my appearance a few weeks early. His sister, my aunt Truda, had been standing in for him to make sure my mother had whatever she needed. There were servants to help, but a family member needs to be in attendance too, don’t you think? So, when I was born and turned out not to be the boy my parents had hoped for since they already had one daughter, my mother had no ideas for names. Father said she should have never asked Truda for suggestions. After all, Truda doesn’t exactly have a common name either. Truda claims she had no reason for suggesting Piper and that she was surprised when my mother agreed to the name. Perhaps Mother did think it was a family name. Truda says my mother letting her name me was one of her most precious gifts since Truda has no children of her own. 

When I went to the mountains to volunteer with the Frontier Nursing Service, the first thing they did was give me a nickname. I have to admit I was very glad they didn’t choose Pip.

That’s so interesting. It sounds as though you have a special relationship with your aunt Truda? Is that so?

Oh yes. Truda and I have always been close. Some say I’m so much like her that I could be her daughter. My mother is petite and delicate. Truda and I are tall and slender but no one would call us delicate. That’s fine with me. I like being strong enough to handle a horse while not looking like a shrinking violet. Of course, looks can be deceiving when it comes to my mother. While she has always seemed happy as a devoted wife and mother, I found out she was one of the suffragettes who wore white dresses and marched down Louisville’s streets demanding the vote for women. So perhaps I get my independent thinking from both my aunt Truda and my mother.

But you did say it was your mother who insisted you have a debut party, wasn’t it?

Yes. Mother does like to keep up appearances, and Father thought it was a way I could make a proper match. My father had the perfect man, according to him, picked out for me to marry. I thought he might have a stroke when I told him I wanted to do something different before I settled into married life.

I thought most young women loved being debutants. That’s something like being a princess for a season, isn’t it?

I suppose so, although I can’t really answer for other girls. Perhaps if I’d had my debut when I was younger, I would have been more excited about the process. Due to the economic downturn, we thought it best to delay my debutante season. So, I was already twenty when I had my debut, a bit older than most. You’re right about the princess feeling. Debutantes wear elaborate white gowns and are given many bouquets of flowers on their big night. Emily Post has whole sections in her etiquette book of how such parties are supposed to be done along with how a debutante should act and what she should or shouldn’t say. Each girl must have her own special event with all the other debutantes in attendance. A debutante season can be a round of one party or tea after another with all the new dress fittings in between. Some girls do love it all, but I found it tiresome. I’d much rather be riding my horse. Perhaps not everyone is cut out to be a princess. 

What can you tell us about the Depression?

I don’t know what exactly caused it. Truda said people were riding too high thinking the good times in the Twenties were going to last forever. Then Black Tuesday hit in 1929. People lost everything. Banks ran out of money. Factories closed. There weren’t any jobs. My best friend’s family lost everything. Their house. Their money. Everything. He even lost his father. A sudden heart attack partly attributed to the stress of the market crash. My family was able to continue with some semblance of the lifestyle we were used to, but many were not as fortunate. I think knowing how so many were suffering may have been the reason I couldn’t embrace the idea of my debutante season. I wanted to do something different. Something more than dancing away the nights while others no longer had any reason to dance. Something that mattered.

You keep mentioning doing something different. So, did you find something different to do rather than go to those debutante parties?

I did. Something very different. My aunt Truda gave a tea for Mary Breckinridge who founded the Frontier Nursing Service in the Eastern Kentucky Appalachian Mountains. I was very impressed with her talk about the nurse midwives who rode up into those hills to help mothers give birth and to do their best to improve the families’ health. Then when she said young women like me often volunteered weeks or even months of their time to take care of the nurses’ horses, run errands or do whatever was needed to give the nurse midwives more time with their patients, I knew that was the something different I wanted to do. I have always loved horses and while I had never had to do much actual work, I was not afraid of getting my hands dirty if it was doing something worthwhile. So, I got on a train and went to Leslie County, Kentucky to volunteer as a courier with the Frontier Nursing Service. Believe me, I found my something different.

What did your parents think about that?

They weren’t happy. Especially my father who thought I was throwing away my chances for a good marriage. Mother, surprisingly enough, seemed to understand and although not happy about me casting aside my debutante season, was very supportive.

Tell us something about the Frontier Nursing Service. It sounds very interesting.

Actually, the Frontier Nursing Service is proof of what one determined woman can accomplish when she has a vision. Mary Breckinridge had that vision of helping mothers and children who lacked access to proper healthcare due to their isolation and poverty. She had seen how nurse midwives served people in France after the Great War in 1918. So she went to England to train as a midwife since there were no midwifery schools in America. Then she talked some of those English midwives into coming to Eastern Kentucky to start her nurse midwifery service in Leslie County, Kentucky. She recruited nurse midwives by promising them a horse, a dog and the opportunity to save children’s lives in a rugged but beautiful area of America. Dedicated women came to the mountains from across the sea to do just that. Mrs. Breckinridge managed to get a hospital built in Hyden, Kentucky. 

She was from a socially prominent family and she used those contacts to speak to groups of women who supported her work in the mountains through contributions of money and supplies. I met her at one of those teas. She never asked for money. She merely told about the amazing work of her nurse midwives and how the mountain mothers needed healthcare. The donations came in and young women like me volunteered to be the hands and feet of those nurses. The Frontier Nursing Service has a record of healthy births as good or even better than anywhere in the country. One woman. One vision. Hundreds of healthy babies and mothers.  

That is inspiring. I can see you were impressed by Mary Breckinridge and her nurse midwives. But what about you? What happened once you got to the mountains?

I couldn’t even begin to tell you all the things I experienced. Babies being born. Horses needing care. Seeing stars that seemed almost close enough to touch. Hearing whippoorwills and learning mountain trails. Crossing swinging bridges. Getting to know the nurse midwives. Doing things I could have never imagined doing before I volunteered as a courier and some I find hard to believe even now that I did manage to do. Then aunt Truda came to visit and both the man my father wanted me to marry and my old friend, Jamie, followed me to the mountains. Needless to say, things got really interesting then.

It sounds like you had a busy summer.

I had a wonderful summer. An unforgettable experience. If I ever have a daughter, I’m signing her up on the waiting list to be a Frontier Nursing Service courier as soon as she’s born. Working with the midwives in the mountains changed my life and it would surely change hers too. They have a saying at the Frontier Nursing Service that nobody comes there by accident. I think it was no accident that I heard Mrs. Breckinridge speak and then headed to the mountains. The Lord knew I needed this summer.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you? What’s next for you?

I have no idea what’s next, but I am so ready for the adventure of life now that I’ve witnessed babies taking their first breaths, explored new places and dared new things. I want to rejoice in the gift of each day and keep looking for that something different to do.

Thanks for allowing us to get know you a little better!

Thank you for inviting me over. I’m always ready to talk about my Appalachian summer.

After the market crash of 1929 sent the country’s economy into a downward spiral that led to the Great Depression, the last thing Piper Danson wants is to flaunt her family’s fortune while so many suffer. Although she reluctantly agrees to a debut party at her parents’ insistence, she still craves a meaningful life over the emptiness of an advantageous marriage.

When an opportunity to volunteer with the Frontier Nursing Service arises, Piper jumps at the chance. But her spontaneous jaunt turns into something unexpected when she falls in love with more than just the breathtaking Appalachian Mountains. 

Romance and adventure are in the Kentucky mountain air as Gabhart weaves a story of a woman yearning for love but caught between two worlds—each promising something different. 

Ann H. Gabhart is the bestselling and award-winning author of several Shaker novels—The OutsiderTheBelieverThe SeekerThe BlessedThe Gifted, and The Innocent—as well as historical novels—River to RedemptionThese Healing Hills, Angel SisterLove Comes Home,  and more. Writing as A. H. Gabhart, she is also the author of the popular Hidden Springs Mysteries series. She has been a finalist for the ECPA Book of the Year and the Carol Awards, has won Selah Awards for River to Redemption andLove Comes Home, and won RWA’s Faith, Hope, and Love Award for These Healing Hills. Ann and her husband enjoy country life on a farm a mile from where she was born in rural Kentucky. Learn more at www.annhgabhart.com.

Meet Millie from Salt the Snow by Carrie Callaghan

Excuse me, Miss Bennett, I know you’re running to file a story with your newspaper, but do you have a minute to chat?

I get to be on the receiving end of an interview? You bet.

Thanks. Here, drinks are on me — let’s get two vodkas. Now, tell me, how long have you been in Moscow?

Swell stuff, this vodka. I showed up here at the beginning of this year. February. So it’s been six months now.

What do you make of Russia?

For starters, the winter is way too long. They were still chipping ice out of the river in June, and the building I’m living in only turns the heat on every other day. Though these white nights in summer are to die for. Not that I’m complaining. It’s hard work building a new kind of life here, and I’m glad I get to watch the rooskies try. I love their sense of humor and adventure — I think they have a lot in common with us Americans.

Miss Bennett, you’ve been married before, but aren’t attached at the moment. Is that right?

Ah, Mike Mitchell, that was my first husband. A swell guy, but we weren’t cut out for marriage. Or he wasn’t. 

But are you seeing anyone now?

Well, there is one young man. He’s an actor in the opera and he says he used to live in a palace when he was a kid (don’t tell the secret police about his class history). We do like to go on long walks around the city.

What do you want to accomplish in your time in Moscow?

Look, my friends back in San Francisco tell me that everything there is washed up. The Depression is eating them alive. I came here … for personal reasons but also because I wanted to see if the Soviets could find another way to do right by the little guy. I’m not sure they can, but I’m here to write some stories about how they’re trying. And maybe I’ll help the English-speaking workers here feel a little more at home.

There are English-speaking workers in Moscow?

Sure there are! The Bolsheviks have invited all sorts of foreigners in to help them learn the things that Russians couldn’t learn while stuck in feudalism. They’re industrializing, and it’s pretty swell to watch.

What do you do for fun?

You’d think with all the writing I do for work that I’d be sick of my typewriter, but an unanswered letter bothers me like a cherry stone under a saucer. And I do love keeping up with my friends back home, so I write a lot of letters. The lady I’m staying with is also one of the editors at the newspaper I’m working at, so she doesn’t have much time for socializing. But I think I’m meeting some new people to go to parties with. I hope.

And there’s that former palace-dweller of yours.

I’m not sure he’s mine! Though he is handsome.

What advice do you have for anyone thinking of coming to Russia?

Bring a warm coat! And an open mind. I see so many high-minded people strutting through here who have already decided what we’re about before they even see Moscow. This city’s always changing, and you never know what you’re going to find.

We’re excited to see what you find, Milly! Now go file that story, and we can’t wait to read what you do next.

Carrie Callaghan is the author of “Salt the Snow,” (Amberjack, Feb. 4, 2020), her second novel. She lives in Maryland with her family, where she drinks altogether too much tea. She’d love to hear from you on Twitteror Facebook.

A Behind The Scenes Chat With Geoffrey Hagan of Eastbound from Flagstaff by Annette Valentine

Mr. Hagan, those of here at Novel Pastimes are curious to know how a farmer in the 1920s survived the farm crisis that began in that decade and how the Great Depression later on affected your everyday life.

Well, truth is, the Depression had already hit folks like myself whose livelihood depended on crops. You see, an economic downturn happened in the rural south long before the Stock Market Crash in ’29, and it stemmed from the military’s need for high production during World War l. Those demands drove the market supply up, and that in turn caused prices to go up. But I have to say this: a lot of factors in addition to the economic depression tended to trigger rural communities to pull us together when we suffered. Take for instance the fire that broke out on my farm: neighbors came from all around to help. We connected as a community in the same way we did during the crisis that began in the 1920s. Families helped each other, and during harvest: the same thing. We’d give each other food. We helped each other with repair work. It’s the American way. I hope that will always be the case, that we pull together for each other, stand united. We have ourselves a mighty fine country, worth fighting for—dying for if it comes to that.

You have the one son, Simon, that we’re particularly interested in. He must have been a big help during those difficult times.

Ah, yes, you’re speaking of my eldest, but just for the record: I have eight sons and three daughters. I’m mighty proud of Simon, though, for following his dream as he did. Makes me smile to talk about him—flamboyant young man, tall, good looking. Yessiree, and a hard worker, too, but he wasn’t a farmer. Simon was a dreamer. He experienced an awful tragedy when he was seventeen, and circumstances turned him in a new direction. Odd as it seems, he might not otherwise have gone after his dream.

Sometimes it takes hard times to turn us around. And sometimes it takes a higher power.

That new direction must have taken Simon to Flagstaff. Tell us about the significance of his going out there. Did he have something specific to do, someplace that called him? 

Oh, indeed, he did have something that called him, but not so fast, my friend. When Simon left Elkton, he was bent on going to the big city of Detroit to find meaning for himself—struck out on his own at eighteen years old. He possessed foundational strength when he left here. Turns out, he needed it to survive.

Detroit offered a high life, alright, but life can throw us curveballs, can’t it? He started with a factory job at the Ford Motor Company and went from there to combatting the Mafia at the height of the Roaring Twenties, to falling in love with an unlikely soul. Prejudice, prohibition—all of that pretty well defines the Era of the Roaring Twenties, and it’s a far cry from the quiet life he knew here in Elkton. He experienced it all until Albuquerque, New Mexico became another chapter in his life. Not too far from there is Flagstaff, and Flagstaff held some very real dreams for Simon.

Was there someone who influenced his choice to go to Detroit?

You bet there was! Senator Maxwell. He’s a decent sort of fella—puffed a lot of hot air—but Simon sure looked up to him. I’d be safe in saying it was Senator Robert Maxwell alone who dangled the big city in front of my son’s eyes.

Simon wasn’t the only son of mine to leave Elkton, though. Alan—my spunky redhead with all the spitfire to go with it—that one sure looked up to his big brother. Alan made some bad decisions. California bound, he was, with an obsession, and obsessions have a cruel way of looking good before they suck you in. Nothing wrong with ambition as long as you don’t exchange ambitions for obsessions.

Might just add that Simon took on the world when he went up there to Detroit. If you want the whole story, you’ll see where Flagstaff and Albuquerque had very different reasons for calling two of my sons to the southwest. I gave ‘em roots, but I gave ’em the freedom to find their own way, too.

It’s been a pleasure, Mr. Hagan. Sounds like you’ve handed down quite a legacy.

 

Annette Valentine is an inspirational storyteller with a flair for the unexpected. By age eleven, she knew that writing was an integral part of her creative nature. Annette graduated with distinction from Purdue and founded an interior design firm which spanned a 34-year career in Lafayette, Indiana and Brentwood, Tennessee. Annette has used her 18-year affiliation with Toastmasters International to prepare her for her position with the Speakers’ Bureau for End Slavery Tennessee and is an advocate for victims and survivors of human trafficking and is the volunteer group leader for Brentwood, Tennessee. Annette writes through the varied lens of colorful personal experience and the absorbing reality of humanity’s search for meaning. Mother to one son and daughter, and a grandparent of six amazing kids, Annette now lives in Brentwood, a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and their 5-year-old Boxer. To learn more about Annette’s life and work, please visit https://annettehvalentine.com