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The Post Office Mural Project in the Novel "Big Lies in a Small Town"

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

An artist descends into madness

post office mural, Elgin, Texas. Farm workers

Diane Chamberlain, Novelist

I’m sorry to say that until I found the book, Big Lies in a Small Town, I had never heard of Diane Chamberlain, an American author who has written 26 novels.

Big Lies in a Small Town was released in January of 2020. It’s historical fiction dealing with art, the creative spirit, and the parallel stories of women living 78 years apart. An artist who’s losing her grip on reality, a topic that always arouses my curiosity, is part of the plot. On top of those factors — all of which sounded interesting — the story is based on a historical event: the creation of Post Office Murals during the Depression.

I love fiction that is based on history, and the Post Office Mural tie-in struck a note with me. Not long ago, I had seen a huge mural restored to its former glory on the walls of a nearby Courthouse, so I understood the concept. Art in public spaces seems like a great idea to me.

But the book, Big Lies in a Small Town is so much more than that…

Courthouse mural depicting struggles of women

The Plot

Morgan Christopher is serving time in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. When two women come to her cell on her earliest possible release date, they make her an offer she can’t refuse. The women are emissaries for Jessie Jameson Williams, a prominent African-American artist who has recently died. In his will, he names Morgan, an art student, as the one person to restore an old mural originally designed for the Post Office in Edenton, North Carolina. She’ll receive $50,000 if she gets the mural restored in time for the opening of the art gallery that Williams had been planning.

The mural, never displayed in the Post Office, has been stored in the artist’s closet and is covered with grime. Morgan — who has never studied art restoration — is coached by the curator of the new gallery, a handsome guy named Adam.

As the work progresses, odd things begin to appear in the mural. Inappropriate, misplaced objects are painted into the mural…blood drops, knives and even a motorcycle emerge from the grime. Morgan is bewildered. Why would the painting veer so far off the path of the original sketch?

Curiosity aroused, Morgan begins to research Anna Dale, the artist of the original 1940 commissioned mural. Anna Dale was from New Jersey, and she had been chosen as one of the winners of the Post Office Mural Project from a national competition.

The more Morgan researches Anna Dale, the more intrigued she becomes. Anna Dale disappears from all records after being assigned to paint the mural, and there’s no way to find out what became of her.

Post office mural of dairy workers wearing white:

The Plot Thickens

Two parallel stories are occurring. The 1940’s plot centers around the arrival of Anna Dale in Edenton, North Carolina, and her plans to create a sketch for the mural. Anna Dale is an independent young artist, Bohemian in dress and attitude, and a far cry from the typical Southern gentlewoman. Enter Martin Drapple, a native portrait artist who had also entered the mural competition but lost to Anna. Three local art students, one of them a talented black kid, study art with Anna after school and help her with tasks related to creating the mural, but the Southern town is horrified by a single white woman’s willingness to spend time with a young African-American male.

And then something tragic and unexpected happens that changes Anna’s life.

The modern plot centers around Morgan’s restoration of the mural and her search for answers about the original artist, Anna Dale. To get her $50,000 payment, Morgan has to complete the restoration by August 5th, and it’s not just Morgan who has a lot to lose if the deadline isn’t met.

As the deadline approaches, tension builds, especially when the painting — with all its oddities and macabre details — is completely restored the morning of the gallery opening.

In a story that is part mystery, part history, part art, and part romance, the events and the characters from four generations come together in unexpected ways.

Any artist, whether it be a writer, a painter, a photographer, or sculptor, will understand the euphoria of creating art and the feeling of urgency when inspiration strikes. Publishers Weekly says,

“Chamberlain’s depictions of creative beauty and perseverance across time and in the face of inevitable obstacles will keep readers turning the pages.”

The Post Office Mural Project

The joy of historical fiction is the history I learn from reading.

The Post Office Mural Project was an actual Depression-era project, (1934–1943) created to provide work for artists. The Federal government was supporting the arts — and was heavily criticized for it because many people believed that there were far more important needs than art.

Harry Hopkins was the Relief Administrator during Roosevelt’s tenure, and he rebuked the criticism that said the arts weren’t deserving by quipping,

“Artists have got to eat just like other people.”

The Courthouse Murals were they were commissioned, managed, and directed by “The Section,” a division of Fine Arts, administered by The Procurement Division of the Treasury Department and directed by a guy named Edward Bruce. Bruce’s goal was to provide high-quality art as decoration in public buildings.

The Post Office Mural artists were chosen by a national competition. Artists submitted sketches depicting “American” subjects. Modern and abstract art was discouraged, and artists were told to avoid controversy. In total, 850 artists were commissioned to paint 1371 murals, most in post offices.

Of those 850 artists, 162 were women, and 3 were African-American.

Post Office Mural, restored: Street Fair in Iowa

The Post Office Murals were painted between 1934 and 1943, more than 80 years ago and need cleaning and/or restoration. Many are in small, old buildings that will be decommissioned. You can read more about that effort here.

If you’d like to see the courthouse mural closest to you, you can find a complete list with illustrations in the Wikipedia article.


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