“Called by Silent Voices” by Shelley Fraser Mickle
“Called by Silent Voices”
by Shelley Fraser Mickle
A funny little story about General Custer taught me that officers’ wives in the l800s often followed their husbands to war. Since General Custer and his wife never had children, it was said that they remained somewhat like teenagers in the midst of a high-school romance, fraught with jealousy and high drama. Since his wife never wanted to let him out of her sight, she followed his army wherever it went, staying in a tent on the camp grounds, then packing up and moving when the army moved. One day, when General Custer’s regiment was about to march, she was getting dressed, and he came frantically galloping to her tent, leaned down and whispered in embarrassment, “Sweetheart, please hurry, you’re holding up the whole army.” How real this made these people seem! How endearing, timeless and funny! How quickly too I realized that there must be many women’s stories of that time that were simply never heard. As a novelist, I felt called to give at least one of these a voice.
When I began collecting research materials to write a novel set in the Civil War, my favorite book quickly became Reminiscences of a Soldier's Wife by Mrs. John Logan. You have to read nearly half of the book before you find that Mrs. Logan’s first name was Mary. She, like many, simply disappeared into her husband’s life. And yet, in this primary source, I discovered that when Mary Logan was sixteen she had personally witnessed Lincoln debating Stephen Douglas. The scene she wrote was so mesmerizing that I “lifted” it for my novel, giving credit to Mary Logan. And thus my novel grew over a period of seven years, taking on a hybrid feel between fiction and nonfiction. But how I got to the beginning is in itself a funny story.
You see, it was inevitable that I would write a novel set in the Civil War, since my childhood was simply soaked in the history of that war. Everyone in my immediate family was even named after Robert E. Lee! My grandfather, the only family doctor in our little Arkansas cotton town was Robert Lee Fraser. My father was named R. Lee at a time when it was fashionable to give children only initials as a first name, and yet everyone knew what R. stood for. Then when my brother came along, he was named Rhitt Lee; and then I, Shelley Lee, as if carrying part of the famous general’s name would be an instant job recommendation—at least in the South.
The story of my family’s love affair with the general’s name was so amusing that when my mother was chosen to be on a radio show during a visit to New York in l949, the producers invited her back at the dawn of television to appear on one of the first quiz shows, “Two for the Money” sponsored by Old Gold Cigarettes. (How many remember those days?) There in the Big Apple in l954, my parents bantered with the show’s M.C. about their love affair with Robert E. Lee’s name. The M.C.’s punch line was, “I don’t suppose anyone in your family is named Grant?”
In 2004, searching for a Civil War story to bring to life in a novel, I looked on a website where family members of those who fought in the Civil War post anecdotes. I found there exactly what I was looking for. It began as a few sentences about a Confederate officer, taken prisoner at the surrender of Fort Donelson, who sent a note to General Ulysses Grant asking permission to ride into Clarksville to find someone to care for his seriously ill wife. If granted this permission, he promised to then report back to General Grant as his prisoner.
Such gallantry is so typical of the brutal Civil War, and today seems unbelievable. Indeed, the idea that Grant allowed this request was intriguing, for what if this Confederate officer hired one of the women who followed the army--a camp-follower prostitute, to care for his wife, who then, after the wife’s death could impersonate her?
To study a young woman emerging from an underworld, dealing with shame, employing all her talents toward survival—and learning that more can exist between a man and woman than physical desire—wouldn’t this be a fresh approach to a Civil War novel, one that would illuminate much of the women’s side of the war that has yet been untold? The fact that I grew up near Clarksville, Tennessee, which was occupied by the Union Army for the entire war, gave me confidence in setting the pivotal scenes of the novel there. Furthermore, since the occupation of Clarksville would be the time when my character Eliza would emerge from her past, there would be an intriguing echo for the book’s title.
These thoughts were the seed for The Occupation of Eliza Goode.
If I carefully and deeply researched such a novel, I felt that my chosen audience of book clubs would be pleased. For I know that book club readers are intelligent, well-educated and eager to experience something new and lasting by the choices of books they read. I learned this not just by being a book club member, but most particularly when I was a newspaper columnist for four years leading my reading public through novels in a newspaper-based book club, “Novel Conversations.”
The photograph that I always considered to be “my Eliza,” I first saw on the cover of Storyville, by Al Rose, taken sometime during the years of l898 to l917 by Ernest Bellocq when prostitution was legalized in New Orleans. Ernest Bellocq is the photographer fictionalized as a character in the movie “Pretty Baby,” which introduced Brook Shields as an actress. Living with that image for so many years while creating Eliza, I was thrilled and relieved to discover that the photograph is in public domain, and therefore available to be on the cover of this novel.
On my way to writing the end of The Occupation of Eliza Goode, an unexpected, wonderful thing happened: I became less of a regional citizen and completely aware of being an American. Frankly, I don’t think that is a slight reason for any of us—especially in this Civil War sesquicentennial—to pause for a moment in our crazy, techno-driven lives to revisit, and relive through the power of story, the war that saved us. I’m hoping too that this novel, which represents one woman’s voice retrieved from the silence, finds as much meaning in its readers’ lives as it has in mine.
Shelley Fraser Mickle is an award-winning novelist and NPR commentator whose family history (everyone in her family was named after Robert E. Lee) led her to the life-long belief that one day she would write a Civil War novel. Shelley’s debut novel was a New York Times Notable Book; her second became a CBS/Hallmark Channel movie; and her third became a suicide-prevention tool in high schools, winning the 2006 Florida Governor’s Award for suicide prevention in an educational setting. She was invited to be a commentator for NPR’s “Morning Edition” in 2000. Her radio essays can be heard at NPR.org. She is also the author of the children’s classic, Barbaro, America’s Horse.