Finding Lucy Stone – Leaving Coy’s Hill by Katherine A. Sherbrooke
When she decided to write a novel about suffragist and abolitionist, Lucy Stone, Katherine A. Sherbrooke felt a strong sense of responsibility. “Given that many readers might be discovering Lucy Stone for the first time with this book,” she explains, “I felt a great responsibility to try and get her character right.”
The book in question is Leaving Coy’s Hill (Pegasus, May 2021).
Lucy Stone was born in 1818 in rural Massachusetts. She was the first woman from that state to achieve a college degree and made her name by writing and delivering speeches in support of abolition and equal rights. Although less well-known, perhaps, than her fellow suffrage activists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone’s lifelong contribution to both the suffrage and abolitionist causes makes her a fascinating subject for a novel.
“When I stumbled upon Lucy Stone’s story,” says Sherbrooke, “I was hit by the double whammy of the long odds she overcame to find her voice (literally, given that women were not supposed to speak in public at that time) combined with the fact that she was essentially written out of history because of her falling out with Susan B. Anthony. It was a story I needed to know more about, so I figured readers would want to know more too.”
Stone’s “fall-out” with Anthony took place in 1869 and concerned the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution giving citizenship and voting rights to African American men. While Stone was in favor of the passage of these amendments, Anthony was single-minded in her support for the rights of white women. The split was significant: Lucy Stone established the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and edited the Woman’s Journal, while Susan B. Anthony, with Cady Stanton, formed the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (NWSA). It has been argued that this dilution of forces set back the cause of women’s suffrage, and so it is appropriate that the relationship between Anthony and Stone is a key storyline in Leaving Coy’s Hill. “They were such strong allies, and the two women who probably put in more hours on the road and in public debate working on behalf of women’s rights than anyone else at the time,” says Sherbrooke. “When they deeply disagreed on the right way to approach the fifteenth amendment, they both felt betrayed, personally and publicly. It’s something I don’t think either of them ever really got over.”
Another key conflict experienced by Stone concerned her decision to marry. “Lucy was driven by a strong sense of fairness and consistency of thinking,” Sherbrooke explains. “We are all human, so why should Black humans be treated differently than White humans? Why should women be treated differently than men? She dedicated her life to sacrificing her own needs to fight against those injustices. But when she is offered a chance at the very thing she is fighting for— in the form of a marriage of equals—the notion of this ideal applying to her own life throws her. How can she stand on stage and warn women about the dangers of marriage law if she has willingly stepped into it herself? If she is able to maintain control over everything she fought so hard to attain (like her own earnings) can she continue to insist that marriage law strips women of their rights? Can she be married and still prioritize her career when society is very clear about what is expected of a wife?”
With this mix of the public and private aspects of Lucy Stone’s life, Leaving Coy’s Hill offers the reader the chance to encounter a range of fascinating famous figures from 19th-century America, including Frederick Douglass and Antoinette Blackwell, Stone’s sister-in-law and the first woman to be an ordained minister in America. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was someone that Sherbrooke particularly enjoyed writing about: “She is so colorful and a force to be reckoned with in her own right. She could be tremendously visionary and forward-thinking on the one hand, and then completely selfish and racist in her thinking in the next breath. That fine line between hero and villain is always fun to write.” Similarly, Stone’s father, a key influence, was a mass of contradictions: “He was so fervent in his abolitionist views and yet he refused to see the parallels between slavery and how women were treated in their own homes. It’s the kind of quasi-liberal thinking that still plagues our society today across a host of issues that aren’t convenient to face.”
The star of the novel, however, is always Lucy Stone. Sherbrooke explains, “I often imagine Alice (Lucy’s daughter) or Nette (her sister-in-law) reading this book and hope that they would recognize the Lucy they knew on the page. That said, no person is perfect, and no story is interesting if there isn’t conflict, mistakes made, regrets to be wrestled with. So, I took a long time to consider the things that happened in Lucy’s life and to make sure they didn’t just happen to her, but to give her some responsibility for the things that went wrong as well as the things that turned out all right in a way that was consistent with her character. The goal was to present her as a person who was flawed and admirable, strong and vulnerable, a warrior and ultimately entirely human. I hope I’ve done her justice.”
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is the author of three historical novels, most recently The Girl Puzzle – a story of Nellie Bly (Crooked Cat Books, 2019).