“Blown off track by the winds of chance” – The Accidentals by Minrose Gwin
It is often a flash of an image that catches one’s eye that is the trigger for something much bigger. In this case it is three images that inspired Minrose Gwin to write The Accidentals (William Morrow, 2019).
The first image, Gwin explains, was a picture of Laika, the first Sputnik dog, which she looked for after someone mentioned, in passing, that the “little mutt” Gwin had adopted from a local pound resembled the Russian stray mongrel that was “unlucky enough to have been strapped in a capsule the size of a rural mailbox and launched into space in 1957.” Gwin researched the story behind the tragic and poignant event and was struck by the irony of the small, female dog being confined in such a small space for the purpose of exploring the vastness of space itself. Gwin compared Laika’s imprisonment with that of women in the 1950s, who were “feeling more confined after tasting the freedom and financial solvency of working outside home during World War II.”
The second image is one of giraffes dancing. Gwin herself witnessed the strange, highly stylized performance that displayed a sense of physical and emotional freedom, albeit within the confines of a zoo enclosure. As she watched, an image came into her head of two young sisters mesmerised by these animals using their bodies in such a beautiful, natural way, unaware that their mother, “entrapped by a third pregnancy, lay delirious, bleeding to death from a botched abortion.”
The final image that inspired Gwin, was of a painted bunting, a bird rarely seen in the piedmont area of South Carolina, that visited her garden to feed. A neighbour told her that it was an “accidental,” a bird blown off course from its normal migration path. Gwin was fascinated by this term and realised that it was “enormously generative” and could be applied to people as well as birds. She has made each of the characters in her book accidentals, people blown off course “in life’s great migration … by the winds of chance.” Also, of course, birds represent flight and freedom, something all the characters yearn for.
Gwin uses these three images to great effect in her novel, in which she describes the plight of females, both young and old, in the 1950s, a period when she herself was a young girl. Gwin wanted particularly to write about “the desperation of women and girls who faced unwanted pregnancies” in a pre-pill age, when a baby conceived out of wedlock would either be illegally aborted at great physical risk, or adopted, at great mental and emotional risk to the mother. Such events are graphically described but there is real empathy with each character, who is affected, knowingly or otherwise.
Each chapter is written in the first person by one of seven characters: Olivia, the mother; Holly, the father; their two daughters, Grace and June; Olivia’s sister Frances; Ed Mae, an orphanage carer; Fred the ambulance driver. The latter two are almost incidentals as well as accidentals, but the ripple effect of their actions touches the other characters in ways they never know. Gwin admits it was challenging having so many all speaking in their own voice, but she wanted readers to “get inside their psyches,” to understand their dreams and nightmares, their motivations and inspirations, which cannot be achieved, in Gwin’s opinion, by a limited or omniscient point of view. Gwin has no favourite and loves them all equally. Each character is, in his or her own way, confined, either literally or by life itself, but Gwin tells of how “brave and fierce and irrepressible they were.” Gwin shows that there is a powerful force that “defies repression, that bubbles up” and enables her characters to create their own freedom.
Gwin has done a great deal of research and explains that each important personal moment in The Accidentals is accompanied by a historical event: the launching of Laika into space; the murder of Emmett Till, which sparked the later Civil Rights Movement; the Cuban missile crisis; the moon landing. Gwin admits that making the history and personal timelines match was one of the hardest parts of writing the novel. As well as all her other objectives in writing The Accidentals, Gwin explains that she wanted to imbue her novel with “the feeling of fear, both personal and historical during the Cold War.”
Certainly, the book is one of tragedy, wrecked lives and a sense of doom, but Gwin wants the reader to have read the book and go away knowing that “life is a series of accidents, both tragic and miraculous,” but also of beauty and, just like “the bird’s irrepressible call: joy.”
About the contributor: Marilyn Pemberton’s ambition is to bring Mary De Morgan, Victorian writer of fairy tales, out of the shadows. Marilyn has fictionalised her life in The Jewel Garden. Her second novel, Song of the Nightingale, tells of the fate of two young castrati and is due to be published March 2020.