Mysteries. Manuscripts. Melungeons.
Already sold on Lisa Wingate
I first found Lisa Wingate when our book club chose to read Before We Were Yours.
Published in 2017, Before We Were Yours is historical fiction based on the true story of Georgia Tann, a woman who kidnapped and stole impoverished children from their families in Tennessee, put them into state-run children's homes, and then sold them to wealthy families all over the United States.
Before We Were Yours had a dual timeline story, compelling characters, and a fact-is-stranger-than-fiction plot. It was a good read, and I wasn't the only one who thought so. Before We Were Yours sold over 2.2 million books and was the longest-running best-seller on the Publisher's Weekly list in 2017.
Then I read Wingate's The Book of Lost Friends, a recounting of how freed slaves published ads to find their relatives after the Civil War. It was another great story based on fact and filled with interesting characters.
So when I ran across another Lisa Wingate book that dealt with the publishing industry, I was intrigued.
The Story Keeper
The Story Keeper is a book published by Tyndale House Publishers in 2014 before Lisa Wingate had risen to fame as an author. The novel was about my own passion: writing, publishing, and becoming a successful author.
First, the novel deals with a young woman trying to make it in the publishing industry. Jen Gibbs is an ambitious agent who has recently gotten a job at a legendary publishing company, Vida House and is determined to make her mark, acquiring the biggest and best authors she can find.
Second, the plot of The Story Keeper centers around the huge slush pile that hasn't been touched in decades. When a chapter from a very old manuscript mysteriously appears on Jen's desk, possibly pulled from the depth of the slush pile, she is mesmerized by the story and entranced by the writing, obviously done by an amateur writer who had sent the manuscript complete with hand-drawn cover art on construction paper years ago.
Something about the writing style nags at Jen's consciousness. She believes it might be an early work of the ultra-famous, ultra-reclusive author, Evan Hall, the wildly successful creator of the Time-Shifter series.
On to Appalachia
Jen convinces her boss that Evan Hall may be the author of the compelling manuscript. The partial story is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia and tells the tale of a mixed-race couple, Rand and Sarra, in the 1800s. Rand was from an affluent family in Charleston, South Carolina. Sarra is a poor Melungeon girl living in the hills, abused and mistreated because of her race and her sex.
Like the character she's reading, Jen Gibbs grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, too, a century later. With the help of a beloved mentor and teacher, Jen escaped her family, who were impoverished, isolated, and belonged to a cult called The Brethren Saints. The family, while they deride Jen, still expects her to support them financially because "she has a job."
The Melungeons and Literary Luck
The story in the manuscript that appears on Jen's desk is the love story of Rand and Sarra. Sarra is a Melungeon girl.
That's where what I call "literary luck" comes in.
My version of literary luck is when I happen to find the same theme in several literary works within days of each other.
I'm sad to say that I had never heard of Melungeons until I read Lisa Wingate's book, The Story Keeper. Within a day of finishing this book, I started reading Demon Copperhead by
Barbara Kingsolver. Lo and behold, the Melungeon people also play a major role in Kingsolver's masterful novel.
If you don't know what Melungeon means, don't feel bad. One of the best things about reading is how much you learn. For me, learning about the Melungeon population is just one benefit of reading books recently.
Melungeon refers to a a group of people who settled in the hills of Appalachia in the 1700s, but whose ancestry is unknown. Many anthropologists suggest that they are descended from Portuguese seafarers who came to America and traveled inland, intermarrying with Native Americans, blacks, and other Europeans. They are often noted for their dark skin and intense blue or green eyes. Some scholars even suggest that the Melungeons are descendants of the Lost Tribe of Roanoke, but no one knows for certain.
It was my "literary luck" that drew me into two very different books, both of which involved Melungeons.
The predictable, but interesting plot of The Story Keeper
Jen Gibbs goes back to her roots in the hills of Appalachia to track down Evan Hall and see if he is the author. Along the way, fragments of the old manuscript mysteriously drop into Jen's reach. The more she reads of Rand and Sarra's story, the more determined she is to find the man she believes wrote it. The literary agent in her understands the enormous monetary reward of finding the first story a mega-author wrote.
Along the way, (as is often the case in novels) Jen learns the stories of the people around her. She connects with members of Evan Hall's family, forming attachments and attractions. In the midst of her search for the author of the old manuscript, Jen battles the pull of a demanding family who is angry at her for leaving.
Tense situations arise. Funny things happen. Family drama erupts. Romance blooms.
While the reader suspects from the very beginning of the book that the author is exactly who Jen thinks it is, the fun of the book is in watching her push through difficulties, piece the clues together, and follow her conviction to the end.
Lisa Wingate and the Carolina Chronicles
Lisa Wingate is the author of The Story Keeper and other novels set in the Carolinas, a group of stories termed the Carolina Chronicles. While she started out publishing Christian fiction and was recognized with multiple Christy awards (an award from the Evangelical Christian Publishing Association for "fiction of excellence written from a Christian perspective,") a Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Award, and seven American Christian Fiction Writer Awards, her work has gained wider appeal and branched into the mainstream with the publication of Before We Were Yours, a New York Times bestseller.
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