The Eulogist by Terry Gamble: A Family Affair
Terry Gamble’s curiosity about her immigrant ancestors was the spark behind her latest historical novel, The Eulogist (William Morrow, 2019). Her family’s migration began in Ireland in the 19th century and landed them in Cincinnati after a float down the Ohio River in a flat boat. There, James Gamble, the soap-maker, teamed up with his brother-in-law William Procter, who made candles. In 1837 they founded Procter and Gamble, a company that would grow to its current status as a multi-national corporation.
Gamble gives her fictional Givens family the same migration path, including the boat ride down the Ohio, and sets them up for the same types of struggles the Gamble family faced as immigrants. “I am fascinated by multi-generational families and how they either flourish or succumb to entropy,” she says. “Thinking and writing about families such as my own set me on a path of discovery – of secrets, of vulnerabilities, of expedient ambition as well as courage and strength.”
Family is only one of the book’s themes inspired by her own ancestors. Another is geography and the powerful effect it has on communities and attitudes. “You can’t visit Cincinnati and not realize the implications of the geography of a free state separated from a slave state by a river less than a mile wide,” Gamble points out. The issue of slavery rose up early on in her family history research. “I wondered: was [my] family for or against slavery? How did their religion impact their choices? How did they manage to succeed?” While the answers are incomplete as far as her own genealogy is concerned, she lets the issues of slavery, religion and striving to find prosperity play out through three generations of the Givens family on both sides of the Ohio River.
The author pays tribute to her family in a number of other ways in this book, including the names of main characters Olivia and James, and the exhumation and reburying of ancestral bodies in Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery. This real life event was the entryway into her exploration of what she calls her family’s “creation myth,” as well as a key event in the novel. “I’ve drawn from my family’s story in all three [of my] novels, and yet none of these books are biographical,” Gamble says, reminding us all of the rich raw material that can be plumbed from family history and used as a springboard to historical fiction.
There is one thing that sets this story apart from Gamble’s first two books, The Water Dancers (William Morrow, 2003) and Good Family (William Morrow, 2005). “The research for this book far exceeded that for my previous books,” she reveals, “for none of what transpires in The Eulogist took place in my living memory. I had to drill down far more deeply in this book to understand the larger trends of the day as well as the small details of daily life.” Large trends in politics, theology, medicine, and slavery all had significant impacts on both her real and fictional families. Details such as how one dealt with the food, the endless mud and constant stink of the latrines, tanneries and slaughterhouses in Cincinnati not only expanded her understanding of her ancestors but also allowed Gamble to round out the characters and descriptions in the novel. “Researching this book took me to Northern Ireland, to Kentucky and Ohio,” she remembers, “where I lurked in historical societies, met with re-enactors, studied old newspapers, read de Toqueville, Trollope, Dickens, along with a slew of historians covering medical research, slave law, sanitation and farming.”
Gamble also learned about the many specific ways that women’s lives were constricted in 19th century America. She brings these to the novel as well by creating the main character, Olivia Givens, who chafes against female limitations, much like Gamble’s great-great aunt did – she volunteered as a nurse in the camps that were formed during Reconstruction to accommodate the free blacks who had fought in the Union Army.
The author contends that history has “a way of scrubbing out the details, leaving only the notion of the noble family setting off to find prosperity in a new land.” Her extensive research, beginning with her own genealogy, exposes the ambiguity, compromise and terror of 19th century American immigrants as they grappled with the issues of the day. Race and gender, religious and family conflict all influence the characters in the novel, as they did the author’s ancestors, and as they continue to in current times. As Terry Gamble declares: “These issues seem timely. Indeed, much of what transpired during the 19th century set the table for what we must deal with today.”
About the contributor: Lee Ann Eckhardt Smith is the author of two non-fiction history books: the family saga, Strength Within: The Granger Chronicles (Baico, 2005), and Muskoka’s Main Street: 150 Years of Courage and Adventure Along the Muskoka Colonization Road (Muskoka Books, 2012). She is also a photographer and poet, and blogs at www.leeanneckhardtsmith.com