From the first chapter of the novel Forsaken, its young narrator, newspaper reporter Charlie Mears, is preoccupied with truth. He wonders if the tale an old neighbor spun about the 1831 slave insurrection in Southampton County, Virginia, is true. He even wonders if his own story of Virginia Christian’s trial and execution is true. Sometimes […]
Words did not come easily to my mother. Yet there we stand, embowered by her eloquence.While Mom was diffident in the way of country people, you can see from the picture she could make anything grow. In an academic career spanning one undergraduate and two graduate schools, I could bring home nearly any straggly, […]
A goal I set for the novel Forsaken was to have it be as accurate historically as I could make it. This became an obsession. I’d caution anyone interested in writing historical fiction against the sirens’ song of research. There’s so much information! As writers, we want to listen to what history has to say. […]
Found guilty of first-degree murder in the courtroom shooting in Hillsville, Virginia, Floyd Allen was sentenced to death by electrocution in May 1912. Virginia Christian’s murder trial took place a month earlier. Her lead attorney, George Washington Fields, a former slave, was blind. Despite the disability, he was masterful at interrogating witnesses. J. Clay Smith, […]
On March 14, 1912, four days before Virginia Christian murdered Ida Belote in Hampton, a stunning event took place far away in the mountains of Virginia. At the Hillsville Courthouse, after a verdict in a case against Floyd Allen was returned, gunshots rang out. The sitting judge, Commonwealth’s attorney, and high sheriff lay dead. A […]
Despite the fact that her work appeared in many magazines and journals, including the New Yorker and the Southern Review, and that she was a poet laureate of Virginia and a Pulitzer Prize winner, I’d never heard of Claudia Emerson till I read her obituary in the University of Virginia Magazine. True, I’d graduated from […]
When I was six, Mother returned with my sister and me to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, to grow up among her people. “Uncle George” Weddle looks in this photo just as I remember him. Erect. Solitary, since his wife and daughter were dead. Stern. Wearing clean khaki trousers and a clean, khaki long-sleeved […]
On this day in 1912 at 10 o’clock in the morning, the murder trial of sixteen-year-old Virginia Christian opened in the Elizabeth City County Courthouse, Hampton, Virginia.
An African-American girl, “Virgie,” as she was called, was convicted of killing her white employer, Ida Belote, a fifty-one-year-old widow.
Virgie died in the electric chair at the state penitentiary in Richmond the day after her seventeenth birthday. She is the only female juvenile executed in Virginia history.
In February 2016 NewSouth Books of Montgomery, Alabama, will publish Forsaken, my first novel, which opens with the trial and execution of this girl and dives deep into the poisonous waters of Jim Crow Virginia.
For me, the publication of the book will be the fulfillment of a dream born when I was Virgie’s age. But like the novel, the achievement is bittersweet.
I’ll be sixty-five years old when Forsaken is released. I’ll be a debut novelist who just enrolled with Medicare. Many of the family members, school teachers, and college professors I most would have wanted to see its publication are long since gone.
What’s more, any sensible reader might reasonably inquire, “What could a sixty-five-year old white man have to say about a sixteen-year-old black girl who lived during the rise of racial segregation in Progressive-era Virginia?”
In the weeks ahead, please return to this site. I’ll do my best to answer that question and others. I’ll tell you about the creative process I followed to research and write the book and provide background on the history and politics of the times, times fraught with wrenching change, blighted hope, and sometimes brutal cruelty.
I’ll fill in the lives of the historical figures I came across in my research, figures who absolutely would not let me turn away, figures I wanted to bring to life in hopes they might help us today live lives of understanding, tolerance, and empathy. The events in Forsaken are tragic, but the story is one of redemption and hope.