Joyce Hinnefeld


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Stage in my Brain

I am not a writer of plays, but I’m struck by how often I see the things I’ve written in dramatic terms. In my novel In Hovering Flight, I used that dramatic structure deliberately: on the morning after Addie Kavanagh’s death, the people closest to her appear, one by one—like characters on a stage—on the porch of the house where she has died.

That’s not how my new novel, Stranger Here Below, is structured. But when I think back over the long process of writing and rewriting this book, back to the beginning, to the first inklings of what it would be, it seems to me that the stories of Stranger Here Below presented themselves to me almost like they would in a play.

First came the setting—the stage. I visited two beautiful places in Kentucky years ago: the Pleasant Hill Shaker site ( and Berea College ( Pleasant Hill is now a restored historic site that’s open to visitors; Berea College is still a thriving college. If you visit these communities, I think you’ll see why both fired my imagination. Both are filled with beautiful buildings and stunning crafts, surrounded by the green hills and knobs of Kentucky. And each is steeped in its own complex, sometimes painful, sometimes ecstatic history.

Onto this stage walked Sister Georgia. Granddaughter of a fervent abolitionist; her mother dead at her birth, her father frail and well-meaning, but fearful, forbidding his daughter’s one great love. She would be connected with both Berea and Pleasant Hill, I decided. And she would live long enough to witness profound and tragic changes at both.

Then onto that Kentucky stage skipped/danced/marched/stormed a wild girl named Amazing Grace Jansen, or Maze for short. Her heart in the mountains, in the weaving and the music that she’d learned to love as a child. Refusing to believe things have to be the way they are—that she can’t be friends with a black girl, that she has to go to college and become a teacher, that our nation can pluck young boys from the poor countryside and send them off to die in unasked-for wars.

Next came Maze’s roommate at Berea, Mary Elizabeth Cox. Quiet, watchful, a gifted pianist who hasn’t yet found her way to her own place, her own heart, in the music she plays. Determined to be good in other people’s eyes, but not at all sure why. Puzzled by her roommate Maze—amused by her at times, frustrated by her at others. Locked out of the story of her own mother’s painful past.

Then these girls’ mothers—Vista Jansen and Sarah Cox—each of whom presented me with a story that broke my heart.

That may sound a little too mystical for some (“they just walked onto the stage in my brain and I wrote their stories”), but it doesn’t feel too off the mark as I write this. Of course, what I’m leaving out is the years of reading and research I did, all I learned about the early Shakers and their eventual fading, about the Jim Crow era, about life in a border state like Kentucky. Speaking of things that will break your heart.

Stranger Here Below moves back and forth in time, telling all these women’s stories in pieces that are woven together, bringing the reader all the way from Sister Georgia’s birth in 1872 to an anguished letter that Maze writes to Mary Elizabeth in 1968. Once these women walked onto that Kentucky stage, I found that I couldn’t write their stories in simple chronological order. History—our personal histories, our national history here in the U.S.—just seems to me more complex than this. And it does seem to repeat itself, often in tragic ways.

In the weeks ahead I hope to write more here about the process of learning, and writing, about history, race, repeated mistakes, etc. But also about happier discoveries I've made during the years of working on Stranger Here Below--of the Shakers and their visions, the beautiful music and intricate handcrafts of the mountains, the passions and committed struggles of an overlooked place and time in American history.

John Fee, the founder of Berea College, said “History should have its lessons.” I worry sometimes that it doesn’t. But I continue to hope that it does.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post, Joyce -- I can't wait to read this book!