Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
“The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts”
By Tiya Miles
John F. Blair, 2015, pgs. 256
Tiya Miles’ novel, “The Cherokee Rose,” is refreshing. That might be a surprising word used to describe a book subtitled “A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts.” Regular readers of the column have probably noticed I love both mysteries and historical fiction. “The Cherokee Rose” blends both genres to create ghost story mystery around The Cherokee Rose Plantation—a.k.a. “The Hold House”—in northern Georgia.
Jinx Micco is living in Oklahoma after walking out on her history Ph.D. She has carved a niche for herself around the Cherokee and Creek as a tribal historian. An accusation veiled as a challenge sends her to Georgia to investigate Mary Ann, a young Native American woman who disappeared from tribal records around the time of the forced Indian relocation of the early 19th century. Jinx sets off on a road trip to the plantation to try to find some answers. Unbeknownst to her, the plantation has just come up for sale by the state of Georiga, which has ceased operating it as a museum.
The two-fold loss is felt through the local community: the loss of income from tourists coming to the plantation and the silencing of the history of the Cherokee in the area. But an Atlanta debutante, Cheyenne Cottrell, has decided it is exactly what she wants. More so, she has the family resources to buy the property and open it as a boutique bed and breakfast.
Fresh from an interior-designing job in Atlanta, she hits up local real-estate mogul Mason Allen (favorite son of the county and most well-connected of Plantation Princes) who wants the property. It never occurs to him he won’t win the local auction, nor that he would lose to an African American woman from Atlanta. No surprise he begins terrorizing her to try to get her to leave as soon as she takes possession of the house.
In the midst of all the upheaval, a third woman arrives: Ruth Mayes, a freelance writer from up north, who is looking for a story about the plantation’s history, sale and future—and maybe her own.
There are a lot of concurrent themes in the novel; one is how each of the main characters tries to control “the story.” Cheyenne is an anorexic control freak, but she also has a very specific story in her mind of who her ancestors connected with the plantation were and idyllic lives they must have lived, in spite of being people of color during slavery. Ruth is in clear denial of her own past, but also of any possible happy ending for the plantation’s inhabitants or herself. She mirrors the past so strongly she becomes the bridge: The ghost of Mary Ann Battis appears. Three women find the diary of a missionary woman who lived and worked on the plantation. They also find answers to their questions both acknowledged and denied. It is a pretty powerful testament to the written word traveling across time.
The “refreshing” descriptor I used earlier comes from Miles’ writing more than the story. Miles manages to address some very sensitive and heavy-weight topics without dancing around them or beating her audience over the head repeatedly. For example, the Hold Plantation was owned by a slave-owning Cherokee. The painful reality of black Indian slaves is far too under-addressed in American history. It is complicated and doesn’t fit comfortably into any of the established narratives we have about slavery, African Americans or Native Americans. But it was real and part of our shared history.
The role of missionary schools in the early 19th century and the power of literacy—a skill that could mean the difference between being able to forge a pass to leave the plantation or not—is another subtle exploration Miles uses. There is also a romance that blossoms between two of three women in the book. It is not the focus but a natural progression for them, and it adds dimension and never comes close to veering into a story about their coming out. These two women have passed the gateway and are at a different part of their lives, which is refreshing: to see mature lesbian romance handled as a story element rather than the entirety of the plot. I know it is surprising to think adults can have additional interests besides the defining characteristic that puts them in a single box (i.e. gay, Native American, botanist, etc.) but we do. Love is important but so is our ouvre.
I love how Miles weaves all the threads together to make them what they are: parts of a bigger quilt and parts of a bigger story than these three women ever imagined.