Historical fiction presents new challenges for Josephine Humphreys
On the telephone from her home on the coast of South Carolina, Josephine Humphreys talks about her new book in a soft, thoughtful voice. Her accent is a beautiful subspecies of East Coast Southern. The overall tone is similar to the compassionate voice that has won her fiction both popular and critical acclaim. Probably best known for her novel Rich in Love (which Hollywood made into a film), she is the author of two other highly regarded novels, Dreams of Sleep and The Fireman's Fair. She has also been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Humphreys speaks excitedly about the arduous but joyful task of writing her new novel, Nowhere Else on Earth. "The new book is almost a total change for me, in terms of subject, method -- everything's different," Humphreys says. "Before this book, I used to say that my ideas for a story began with a vague feeling that I wanted to follow. In my first three books, writing was a process of discovery for me. Everything was written without a plan. I never thought out a plot in advance."
Nowhere Else on Earth was a whole new ballgame. "The story existed before I began," Humphreys says. She has had it in mind ever since she heard the facts behind it as a teenager. Rhoda Strong, the book's narrator, was a real woman who came of age during the Civil War. She lived in an impoverished Indian community along the Lumbee River in North Carolina, the daughter of a Lumbee Indian and an immigrant Scot. Rhoda's heroism in the face of white violence and attempts at subjugation became legendary in the region. Humphreys researched the setting and era until she breathed its very air. By doing so, she allowed her characters to perform their drama on a fully realized stage without seeming like reanimated museum pieces.
There are two kinds of historical fiction -- lightweight genre pieces about a certain era (a perfectly respectable form of entertainment) and serious novels that happen to be set in the past. Nowhere Else on Earth is in the latter category. Although it is fast-moving, suspenseful, and amusing, it is very much about what Serious Critics like to call "the human condition": growing, loving, working, and dying.
"My life and era are illuminated by Rhoda's in a thousand ways," Humphreys says. "One is that my notion of 'Southernness' has changed because of her, because of the book. My thinking about race has changed. My ideas about community identity and racial identity, about the fate of Native Americans -- these have all changed. Also, I think I know more about the difference between private dreams and community dreams. While I was working, I saw what she dreamed of in the beginning as a girl. She dreamed of private discovery and love. But she learns through the man -- and he learns through her -- that it's important to work for a better, bigger world."
Humphreys orchestrates masterful changes of pace and tone even in a single scene. For example, about halfway through the book Rhoda is left to tend a dying soldier. At first she finds his bloody, filthy body offensive. However, thinking that he is dying, she cleans him up and even cuts his hair. As she nurses him, reflecting on her mother's comment that one who comforts winds up comforted, she begins to see him as a sacrifice, then a heroic figure, then the very embodiment of America. She reads the heartbreaking note he left to be found on his body. Yet suddenly the scene turns comic as the soldier begins to revive. Then it takes still another direction. When you reach the end of the chapter, you realize you have been in the hands of a writer who is securely in charge of her material, and that it comes alive for us because it came alive for her.
"There's a wonderful crossover between me and Rhoda, a connection that I haven't had in any of my earlier books with characters. I feel that. . . ." She pauses and thinks about it and begins again. "Trite as it sounds, I feel that she, for a short while, inhabited me. I feel that there was such an amazing closeness that I realized a power that fiction had never had for me before -- and that I really would never have guessed that it could have. When I describe it, it sounds like hallucination. But as I get older, life does get more mysterious and more wonderfully surprising -- whereas my young life was very rationally controlled. Now I realize that there is more that we don't know."
"I don't feel that I have a mission to discover and publish untold stories," Humphreys points out. "The Rhoda story is well known in North Carolina. I don't approach things that carefully. I just know that there's a presence that I can't ignore. To ignore it would be to write something not necessarily inferior, but somehow secondary to what I should be doing. To think of it as alchemy -- to think of it as the discovery of a transformation process that I can get back into -- seems a good approximation of what I feel. You want something that explains other things to you. I think that's why I love this woman -- because getting back to her helped me understand so much of the rest of the world. I hated to let her go." Humphreys laughs. "But that's the great thing about writing -- that you can keep doing it and, even when you finish a book and give up those characters, there are more waiting. I love it. I feel very lucky to be allowed to do this."
Fans of Nowhere Else on Earth will be pleased to learn that Humphreys is already working on a second historical novel. "It's about a man I inadvertently came across and was stunned by -- a man I had never heard of before, but who seems to me crucial to understanding our history."
She laughs again. "I am obsessed and possessed already. My family is dismayed. They knew how long this Rhoda book took me. And they heard me say several times in the past few years that I would never undertake another historical novel. Every time I said that, everybody said, 'Thank God.' And now I am beginning another one and no one can believe it." This time she laughs almost in embarrassment. "But I can't help it. I honestly can't help it."
Michael Sims is a writer, curator, and regular contributor to BookPage.
Author photo by Tom Hutcheson.