When I was very young, maybe around eight years old, I can very clearly remember asking my mother what side of the Civil War we had fought on. For certainly I had ancestors in the Civil War, didn’t I? I have no idea where this question came from, maybe from a history class? Maybe I’d been dragged to the movies to see Gone With the Wind. I do remember how they used to bring the film back and show it every few years at a large theater on Times Square. I loved the movie and maybe I’d made a connection that my own ancestors had lived at Tara, all looked like Vivian Leigh and had been gallant soldiers.
My mother looked absolutely horrified when I posed that question. She told me I had absolutely no ties to the Civil War.
“You come from a long line of Canadians,” she said. “Your other half is Irish. Everyone was fresh off the boat.”
Okay. I accepted this and thought nothing more about it. But many years later, long after my mother had passed away, I began to write books. My first novel was loosely based on my own family. As I researched I discovered that my maternal grandfather had been named after a Civil War General, Wade Hampton. Curious. But I surmised that my Canadian great-grandfather must have married a Southern woman who had a brother or father that served under Wade Hampton, and thus, the name.
Before I even finished my first novel I jumped into southern fiction. I was born and raised in New York City but here I was, following my strong affinity for the south. I felt an enormous genetic pull. I felt as if I were channeling these southern characters. They were in my blood and my bones, and if you’ll pardon, my very soul.
My mother died in 1976 so I couldn’t press her for answers. However, I became obsessed with Ancestry.com and did a thorough search. I soon learned that I am a direct descendent of Hardy Ray, who named his son (my grandfather) after the general he served in the confederate army. My southern ancestors go back generations. They had a farm in South Carolina. They kept slaves.
Then I got it. I looked back on that day when I had asked my mother what side we’d fought on. Someone else had been in the room. I can still see her there. Her name was Alice and she was a kind, southern Black lady who took care of me. In the 1950s, I was living the Northern example of the novel: The Help. My mother loved Alice, as did I, and she never would have allowed her to know that our family had been Confederates. We had been on the wrong side of the war. There was a kind of shame to it.
I love to write southern fiction. It’s in my soul, like I said. But I’m awfully glad Alice never knew that my own great grandfather had slaves, and would have died to keep them.
Vera Jane Cook’s first published novel, Dancing Backward in Paradise, (southern fiction) won the Eric Hoffer award for publishing excellence, 2007, and the Indie Excellence award for notable new fiction. The Story of Sassy Sweetwater was released on January 20, 2012 and is available at Amazon.com and at Musa Publishing.