Tracing the Trilogy

Article excerpt

During the fourth or fifth revision of my children's book The Secret of Gumbo Grove - around 1984 or 1985 - my extraordinarily patient editor Jeanne Vestal at Franklin Watts crossed out yet another passage of my precious prose and tactfully explained, "You can't put the whole history of Black America into this one book, Eleanora. You're telling the story of just one little girl." Jeanne was right. What I had to tell wouldn't fit into one book, so after the publication of The Secret of Gumbo Grove (Watts, 1987), I wrote two more - Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! (Watts, 1990), and A Blessing in Disguise (Delacorte, 1995). The three became my "Carolina Trilogy." I spent most of my fourteen years (1978-1992) of living in Myrtle Beach (Horry County), South Carolina, writing these slices of realistic adolescent fiction about some very special African American girls, their families, and their neighborhoods in the coastal Carolina Low Country as my way of acquainting readers in print with what I was blessed to experience in reality.

My writing room and our front porch on Carver Street located in the main African American neighborhood of Myrtle Beach became a window into a state whose heritage of exciting, evolving, and often turbulent African American struggle is evidenced not necessarily through the physical and rhetorical "plantations" found on almost every corner in the region, but more through the evidence of things not seen. Felt instead, from boneside out. What I saw and experienced in Myrtle Beach and Horry County - with its contrasting beer-guzzling, golf-crazy, yellow-shirt-and-green-pant-wearing, bikini-biker-beach resort-attracting, plat-eye ghost-roaming, millionaire and poverty-stricken, overalls- to swimsuit-wearing, tobacco-chewing, snuff-dipping, Gullah-speaking, roots- and hoodoo-working, fight-for-the-Confederate flag-till-you-die-evoking, pageant-prancing, ancestor-worshiping lifestyles - went straight into the books. I didn't have to make what I wrote larger than life, in other words.

All I had to do for The Secret of Gumbo Grove was create a strong sense of place in a mythical "Calvary" County, South Carolina, to collect obscure history, develop full-fledged characters, particularly strong-willed Raisin Stackhouse (who'd probably be a rocket scientist by now), and then transform these observations, emotions, personalities, and research into a meaningful dialogue with the reader. That alone took me seven years.

Having done that, writing the second and third books was easier, because they take place in the same county. All I needed to do then was give voices to their heroines, Mary Elouise Avery in Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! and Zambia Brown of "itsy-bitsy, do-nothin', countrified" Deacons Neck, South Carolina, in A Blessing in Disguise. An American Bookseller "Pick of the Lists," A Blessing in Disguise is "a timely book that speaks to the subject of drugs and crime in a rural Southern town," wrote School Library Journal, "and a valuable addition to most collections." The ALA Booklist called Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! "clear-eyed and accessible," and it was named a National Council for the Social Studies-Children's Book Council Notable Children's Book. Kirkus gave The Secret of Gumbo Grove a "pointer" and called it "a slice of Americana that would be widely enjoyed." Gumbo Grove received a Parents' Choice Gold Seal award, was featured on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, and remains on state children's book recommended reading lists. Both Gumbo Grove and Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! are under contract to be made into audiotapes by Recorded Books, Inc.

I've tried to offer a body of work that brings northeast coastal South Carolina into a finer perspective for both young and young-at-heart readers everywhere. If nothing else, the collection might in some way nullify the claim expressed years ago to me during my initial research - which I have Raisin's teacher tell her - "that nobody Black around here had ever done anything good worth talking about" (Secret 16). …