Launch: Sarah Angleton’s White Man’s Graveyard
INTERVIEW BY REBEKAH SIMMERS
Sarah Angleton is the author of three historical novels, including companion novels Gentleman of Misfortune and Smoke Rose to Heaven, and she is the writer behind the Practical Historian humor blog and the essay collection Launching Sheep & Other Stories at the Intersection of History and Nonsense. A surprise discovery led her to a family story that influenced her latest novel, White Man’s Graveyard.
What is your ‘elevator pitch’ for White Man’s Graveyard?
Abolitionist siblings Annie and Sylvanus find themselves on opposite sides of the issue, and the ocean, when the plan to settle former American slaves in the colony of Liberia divides the movement and pits political conviction against family loyalty.
What life experiences have shaped you as a writer or affected how you approach your stories?
I’m a reader first and have been since I was very young and was drawn to historical and literary fiction. As a college student majoring in zoology, I found myself filling as many of my elective courses as I could with writing and literature, so when I had the opportunity to go back to graduate school, I decided to make that my focus instead.
What attracted you to writing about this particular period of history and setting?
This novel project has been particularly special to me because it comes from a part of my own family history. Among my grandmother’s possessions when she died nearly twenty years ago was a lawyer cabinet with a drawer that had a false bottom. Beneath that we discovered a family diary from the late 1830s. Belonging to Annie Goheen, it contained a hand-written dedication in the front from her brother S. M. E. Goheen (Sylvanus), who presented it to her as he prepared to travel to Liberia as a Methodist Episcopal missionary physician. The diary contained a few letters and personal reflections, some newspaper clippings and family records, but not nearly as much as I would have liked. It did, however, point me in the direction of a piece of American and Liberian history that felt really important and too little known.
What an amazing discovery! How did you start your research process? Did your family have information available for you?
The diary quickly led to the work of scholars on the history of Liberia, the colonization movement, and many personal accounts from missionaries who made the trip. I spent time diving into the archives of a small college in Illinois that Annie’s husband helped found. I also traveled to the University of Wisconsin to review their microfilm collection of the missionary newspaper for which my other protagonist Sylvanus served as editor.
My most exciting research success was discovering Sylvanus’s personal account of his time in Liberia, which I had seen referenced in a footnote in a scholarly work, but which the university library that holds it initially could not locate. That took some detective work to find and the very kind assistance of a dedicated archivist who went above and beyond. I spent many hours deciphering faded handwriting. I had to laugh when I realized that this physician who apparently took great care with his letters and flourishes, got much sloppier when dashing notes about patient care. In this aspect, perhaps doctors haven’t changed that much.
I did reach out to family members who had done some genealogy research. I had a very enthusiastic aunt who enjoyed chasing down all the rabbit holes, which was really helpful. In fact, she is the one who discovered the diary and encouraged me, as the writer in the family, to tell the story. Unfortunately, she passed away this past spring before reading the resulting novel. It is dedicated to her memory.
Did you try to stay “as true” to the family history as you could, or was it used more as inspiration?
This is a work of fiction. Some characters were invented for the purpose of the story, but the majority were inspired by real people. Annie’s story is necessarily more fictional. This allowed me to place the siblings on opposite sides of the debate over the colonization movement, which in reality they probably both supported. I made Annie a more hardline abolitionist who espoused the opinion of William Lloyd Garrison who opposed colonization, because he saw it as a release of pressure that would eventually force an end to slavery in the US. Their different perspectives and conflicting ideologies became the driving conflict of the book.
What was your strategy for developing characters based on your family members? Any advice that you would offer other people who are interested in researching and writing their family history?
As I read more about them, and more of their own historical writing, I recognized pieces of myself and my family. That became especially true as they began to interact with each other on the page. Annie and Sylvanus are the siblings of my grandfather’s great grandfather. Writing them at times felt very much like hanging out with my aunts and uncles and cousins.
I was lucky that the family members I was hunting were connected to more well-known people. Sylvanus wasn’t terribly difficult to track because he is often referenced in scholarship about that era in Liberia, in Methodist Episcopal records from the time, and in the personal accounts of other missionaries. He also contributed quite a bit to a missionary newspaper that I was able to read. Because of this, I stuck fairly close to historical detail for him.
As you might imagine, Annie was more difficult. History is never as good about remembering women. Outside the scraps she kept in her diary, which is austere and practical, I had little to go on. She is mentioned occasionally in the writings of her many brothers. She eventually married an Illinois circuit rider named Peter Akers. Akers once delivered a prophetic camp meeting sermon suggesting that slavery would soon come to an end and that someone in the congregation would have an important part to play. Abraham Lincoln was in the crowd. Information about Akers is plentiful, and his wife gets an occasional nod.
My best advice for researching lesser known figures from your family history is to try to come at it sideways and look for any slightly better known connections in whose story your historical figure of interest may have had a part to play. And in the end, it is fiction, so do the best you can and be as true to the era as possible.
How do you organize and track your research?
I’m a little bit old school. I kept a detailed bibliography, hanging folders devoted to each main character and location, outlines that started vague and became filled in with details and questions and notes. I love Post-Its and sticky tabs and highlighters. My office contains a white board and multiple chalk and cork boards. I always have masking tape at the ready for sticking important pictures to the wall.
What is the last great book you read?
Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People.
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