Overcoming Prejudice and Claiming Identity: The Last Blue by Isla Morley
Whilst working on her novel Above (Two Roads, 2014), Isla Morley came across by chance an online article on the Fugate family of Troublesome Creek, Kentucky. Morley recalls that what she found was “what appeared to be a hand-painted daguerreotype of Martin Fugate, his wife and seven children, four of whom were an unambiguous and shocking shade of blue. The accompanying caption could have been the script for a barker at a Freak Show, luring curious customers to inspect the ‘oddities of nature.’” Intrigued, Morley searched for more information but found little, apart from a dry article in a now-defunct science journal.
What Morley really wanted to know and couldn’t find the answers to, was: “what must it have been like to live as a blue person? What must it have been like to love a person who was blue? I wanted to know what it is about otherness that both fascinates us and makes us afraid. And being blue, how would one overcome prejudice and claim an identity for oneself that wouldn’t be centered around the one thing people keep pointing to? What role does love play in all of this?”
Morley decided to answer the questions herself and so wrote The Last Blue (Pegasus, May 2020), which focuses on the fictional Buford family, who have faced prejudice and violence because of their two blue children. The story climaxes in 1937, with a final resolution in 1972.
Although there was not much information on the blue folk, Morley did find the reports and photographs taken as part of President Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration absolutely invaluable. As part of this project, Morley discovered that “writers and photographers were assigned to all parts of the United States to document the plight of thousands of Americans struggling to survive during the Great Depression, and for the first time, the public was afforded its first intimate look at Appalachia. Written, visual and audio depictions of people’s struggles have been preserved and are archived at the Library of Congress, so I was able to put on a pair of headphones and close my eyes and be transported back eighty-some years to a tobacco field in the farthermost reaches of the South where a man behind a plough spoke his mind about the schooling system and what ticket he voted. I viewed hundreds of black-and-white photographs of people on their front porches, walking home from the coalmines and getting baptized in creeks, stories written on the faces of everyone.”
Let us now Praise Famous Men (1941) by James Agee and Walker Evans gave Morley an insight into the working methods and challenges that faced Roosevelt’s investigators and also provided inspiration for Massey, the journalist, and Havens, the photographer, two of the main characters in the book. Having had some photographic experience herself and having, Morley admits, something of an “eye,” meant that she was able to describe the method used and the emotions felt by a true photographic artist, one who uses the camera to both distance himself and get intimately close to his subject.
Morley created the Bufords of Spooklight Holler as being the non-blue mother and father, blue son, Levi, blue eldest daughter Jubilee and non-blue youngest daughter. The story is told from two points of view only, that of Havens, the photographer, and Jubilee, during the years 1937 and 1972. There are other characters, of course, and another important aspect is the landscape, which plays a large part in the story as both friend and foe. Morley was able to describe it so well because poring “over photographs of eastern Kentucky during that era helped me get a sense of place, as well as researching the regional fauna and flora, but I also read poetry by writers who have deep connections to nature as well as drawing on my own experience, having traveled to Kentucky years ago and also recalling what I feel like when I venture out deep into any wilderness. Of course, there is a specificity to that particular part of the country, but there’s also a universality to being in the woods, in how it makes us feel and behave, how we become aware of both the harmonious and antagonistic elements of our relationship with the wild.”
Morley’s description of the prejudice shown towards the blues was enhanced by her own experiences of having lived through the Apartheid-era in South Africa, where she “witnessed acts of bigotry, cruelty and injustice first-hand and at close quarters. I know what it’s like to be reprimanded or humiliated for ‘talking out of turn’ or pushing back against the status quo, but I also know what it’s like to be too afraid to speak up or to fight the perpetrators of injustice. Growing up during Apartheid shaped much of my inner landscape, and it can’t not inform the kinds of stories I’m interested in telling and the way I write them.”
Prejudice invariably ends in violence and Morley again uses her own experiences to good effect in her descriptions of the inhuman acts carried out by man on man. She remembers how, “Before my 18th birthday, I’d witnessed several horrific acts of brutality at close range: one woman knifing another woman just as I got off the school bus, is only one example, but images of violence were broadcast into our living room each night as we ate our dinner on TV trays in front of the news.” She remembers particularly how one woman, whilst being horribly assaulted, “tried to smooth her skirt down to maintain her dignity … I will never forget her.”
At the start Morley admits that she wrote the book purely from Havens’ point of view but eight months into the writing, she heard “Jubilee’s voice in my head for the first time, an inimitable way of describing what it was like to be blue. Her first words I scribbled down were, ‘My blue skin—peel it off and fold it up, and it would be no bigger than a pillow slip, hardly enough to warrant the big fuss it causes. If I could peel it off I would, just to see if raw wouldn’t suit everyone better. Or suit me better.’ After that, how could I not write from her point of view?”
When Morley was asked what single word she would use to describe The Last Blue, her answer was “triumph.” A fitting word indeed.
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 published novel, Song of the Nightingale, tells of the fate of two young castrati. Marilyn is in the process of seeking representation for a historical novel in which a girl in the 1820s tells unconventional fairytales but discovers that real life holds little enchantment.