Now for Something Completely Different

Alana’s Tale is out (available here and at Finding Avalon) and I got about halfway through writing Volume 3, The Tale of Roderik and Sophie, when I realized that rewriting from memory is just not as much fun as the thrill of creation. So I’ve been working on another book.

Thirty-five years ago, when my firstborn was a toddler, I responded to an ad, “Learn how to write children’s books!” They sent me a test, and one of the questions was a short paragraph about a boy standing on the lakeshore, waiting for the man in the canoe to return while women cooked in the cabin behind him. There were blanks to fill in. Since I was born coloring outside the lines, I not only filled in the blanks but crossed out some words and added others. By the time I was done, he was an escaped slave waiting for a man in a rowboat while the women in the house behind him cooked to distract the bounty hunters.

The story sat in the back of my head for a long time, while I did other things: two more kids, an assortment of jobs, a couple of cross-country moves, many happy hours of research on Medieval England, and the occasional bout of computer solitaire. Oh yeah, and an unsuccessful attempt at writing a thriller. Every time I thought of this story, two thoughts would go through my head: 1. I’m white. I have no business writing this. and 2. What! Start researching another historical era?

And, nearly seven years after moving to the geographic center of Harriet Tubman country, that thing was still tap-dancing in my brain, so here I am.

It was common for those escaping bondage to change their names. I recently asked the hive mind of my writing buddies how to handle changing all my characters’ names in mid-book and they gave me lots of good suggestions. So, for those of you who helped out (and anyone else interested) here’s the scene where they change their names.

Comments appreciated.

I learned a lot at the Mendenhalls. Over dinner they talked about politics and things happening in the world, and every day in the study I learned all the letters and began to learn words.

One morning, not long before we left, she [Dinah Mendenhall] told us she was going to teach us to write our names, so that we could sign things if we needed to. “But first,” she said. “Thou need to pick new names. The handbills sent out have thy real names on them, and if you are caught, thou will need different names.”

The handbills didn’t have my name on them, but why take the chance? So I thought about it. I would be Smith, for my Pa’s trade, which I hoped to take up, and thought long and hard about what my new first name would be. I thought of all the people who had helped us: Captain Jack, his helper Henry, Mr. Tatowin, the Jump family, the Cowgill brothers, Mr. Hamm, Mr. Corbitt, Mr. Garrett, Davey, Mrs. Mendenhall. I didn’t know the name of the people who let us stay in their barn, or the man who rowed us across the canal or the lady fed us and who saved my skin in Wilmington… so many people, all kinds of people, black, white, Indian, rich, poor, who all helped us out of the goodness of their hearts. Well, except for the man who rowed us across the canal. He did it for four dollars.

Dan took Mr. Davey’s name, because he had the charm, and maybe it would rub off. After some thinking, he changed his last name from Sykes to Summers. Levi Houns decided to be Lewis Harris. 

“What about you, Isaiah?” she asked me. 

“What’s your first name, Miz Mendenhall?” Everyone laughed. “You’re teaching me to read, and I want to remember you for that.”

She smiled. “Dinah,” she said, “But I don’t think that would suit thee. However, my husband’s name is Isaac. Would that do?”

I smiled. “Isaac Smith,” I said. 

She wrote it across the top of the slate and handed me the chalk so I could practice copying it.

“And you, Lissy?”

“I want to be Elizabeth, for that lady back in Dorchester County who hung out her quilt.”

“Mr. and Mrs Maples, thou need to pick a new family name.”

“Could we take yours?” Ma Maples asked.

“Oh, I am flattered by thy choice, but we are known abolitionists, and it would not be safe for thee or us.” She thought a moment. “We do have a mill in the family, however, so would Miller do?” They nodded.

“And you, Amos?”

“Adam,” He said, “Adam, because he was the first man.”

And there it was. We’d crossed the line to a Free State, and had our own free names, chosen by our own selves, but we wouldn’t really be free, free to come and go about our business without fear of slave catchers, until we got to Canada.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s