Tragedy & Triumph

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The Slaves: Aunt Binah, 1837-43

The following is an excerpt from Tragedy and Triumph, a recollection of the slave Binah. Read on as she recounts her experiences crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a slave ship.


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Interview with Indie Author Winfred Cook

This week, I am excited to be able to feature fellow indie author Winfred Cook whose book Uncle Otto takes readers on a cross-country journey through Prohibition-era America.

Read on as he shares his motivation for writing the book and ask him your own questions on social media via Twitter and Facebook.


author, novelist, independent publishing, indie authorWhat drew you to write about the Prohibition Era? Why did you choose the cities you chose?

The period chose me. My uncle was born at the turn of the century, which made him an adolescent at the beginning of Prohibition. My family originated from Arkansas, and I made Beaumont Arkansas up. I thought I was being original only to find out there were hundreds of Beaumont’s around the country.

Why did you write your book in the style of a memoir, knowing it is a fabricated story?

Uncle Otto started as a short story, a factual short story. As the old adage goes for beginning writers; write about something you know about. There was an incident that occurred that only my uncle and I knew about, it’s in the book, so I wrote about that incident. When I decided to write a novel about my uncle’s life, I had no references; everybody had passed on. One aunt remained but she was the youngest of the siblings. So after much hesitation, and not a clue as to what to write or where to begin, I finally thought, “just start.” Then the question was where to start. The answer was, “from the beginning. I sit down to my computer and wrote the birth, which is the first chapter. After I finished the book, I made the short story the prologue.

How important are familial bonds and how do they drive the story? Why is family important?

My family is a very close family. My mother and aunts were like best friends. It wasn’t hard to visualize them as children. My mother told me stories of how they were as children, and from that I was able to see them as kids. I put most of her stories, as anecdote, in the book but I used my own knowledge and life experience to fill in the gaps. All of the characters in the story I had come across sometime in life. Otto’s best friend was like my best friend growing up. The family dynamic was all-consuming. We always spent holidays, Christmas, Thanksgiving and so on at my grandparents house. There was no such thing as not going to grandma’s house for either of those holidays. If I or any of the grandchildren resisted going, we heard the same thing from our parents; “That is my mama, and you are going, period”

prohibition, american history, us history, family, african-americanDid you learn anything surprising during your research for your book?

There wasn’t a lot of research, except for the factual aspect. There was the dates and activates of Prohibition. Mary’s meeting with Madam C.J. Walker, the riots in East St. Louis, and a few other things that I had to be accurate on. No surprises and nothing new; I just had to be accurate.

Will you return to this era/location in the future works?

I don’t know. I love historical fiction, in fact my second novel, Wayfarers, is set in the post-civil war era. Then my latest novel, Ruby, has yet to be published, and is contemporary.

What did you discover about yourself during your writing journey? How did it change you/how did you change?

I’m not sure how I might have changed but I was surprised at the emotional tug writing had on me. I experienced the death of my uncle Napoleon who died at the age of thirteen, around 1922. I knew of him and how he died but nothing prepared me for writing about the incident. Of course it was all made up, but when I started to write about it, especially when the news first got back to his mother, (my grandmother) I started to well up, and the tears began to flow; I could hardly see the computer screen for the tears.

How important is knowing family history to personal identity?

I think it’s very important. Even now with my cousins it’s as if we were brothers and sisters. Our parents saw to us being close. We still laugh at how our parents insisted that we gather at our grandparent’s house for the holidays. We could all recite that unforgettable statement from anyone of my aunts and uncles; “That is my mama, and you are going.” And this occurred as far back as I can remember. As a result, even as young adults, as long as my grandparents lived, all the grand’s showed up at our grandparents house for the holidays. That to me is family values.

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The Yellow House

The modest yellow house stands across the street from the Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York. It hasn’t always been there; its first home was blocks away but moved several years ago to overlook the rows of tombstones. I visited it recently, sat on its front steps and cried.

Built in 1869, it was the home of one of the uncelebrated individuals of the Civil War era: John W. Jones, an ex-slave who had helped 800 runaway slaves to escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad. He knew how dangerous it was to elude slave hunters and informants, as he himself had run away from a plantation in Virginia years before, eventually settled in Elmira. The most startling fact about him is this: between 1864 and 1865, he buried nearly three thousand Confederate soldiers from the Elmira POW camp with meticulous care, noting the names and locations of each one he buried. When questioned, he answered that he hoped someone would have done the same for him, so his family would know what had become of him.

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Defining a Legacy

My children were not born with silver spoons in their mouths.

Instead, I gave them something far finer: I slipped books into their tiny hands. It was their legacy. My love of reading was given to them during those early, formative years, and thankfully, grew within them into their adulthoods.

Books were always around. Swaddled in a blanket, each infant was propped up against my lap as I sat in a rocker, watching and listening as I read my favorite children’s books. As they grew into toddlers, they curled against me and pretended to read, babbling away and patting the pages as I read.

We visited libraries and bookstores as much as possible as they grew older. Instead of buying dessert after a meal at a favorite restaurant, we walked to a bookstore and bought a book. For years, a box of books at Christmastime was one of their favorite gifts. I don’t know who had more fun: me collecting the classics, adventure stories, fantasies and nature books, or my children reading them. I used to find them huddled under blankets late at night, the light from flashlights outlining their silhouettes.

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How to Write a Battle Scene

Or rather, how to write a historically accurate Civil War battle scene as a retired teacher in the 21st century. One of the most difficult sections to write about in my book was how to get my central character, Truman Haden, in and out of one of the most horrific battles in the Civil War. I wanted to ensure that the scene was realistic and engaging, but also true to the character’s abilities and the story. Truman was an older conscript, a lawyer, not used to strenuous physical activity. A solitary man, he had spent his lifetime relying on no one. He had little understanding of weaponry, tactics and combat. How was he going to survive a battle? What was he going to feel like as he watched the enemy move towards him, his feet pressed against the earthworks with an impenetrable wilderness behind him?

How in the world was I going to make him feel and act in an authentic manner? Even more, how was I going to allow the battle experience to change him?

American Civil War, battle, war, Bullrun, Conferderate, Union, soldier, warrior, fight

The first battle of Bullrun

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What it Takes to Make History

Periodically over the past seven years my friends and family would ask, “how’s that book coming along? Are you still writing that violent battle scene? What happened to the mutilated slave? Is that runaway slave based on a real character? Did those brutal things really happen inside Elmira’s POW camp? Why is it taking so long to write your book?” I would nod my head, smile and reply, “Research. It takes a long time to write an honest and truthful historical novel.”

US Civil War, battle, slavery, abolition, freedom

The Battle of Atlanta during US Civil War

I lived near Elmira, New York for almost twenty years, fascinated by its historical participation in the Underground Railroad as well as its little-known involvement in a Confederate prisoner of war camp. It was almost eerie to drive by the tree-lined neighborhoods in the southern section of town and try to imagine what bravery, courage and horror had happened in those places one hundred and fifty years before. It seemed so peaceful and bucolic until I looked down at the partially caved-in sidewalk where an underground tunnel had once been carved inch by inch by desperate prisoners. A neighbor showed me a dirt hidey-hole in her basement where years before runaways had been hidden. I wondered what it felt like to remain curled in the hole waiting in terror for a slave catcher to find me. There were stories that wanted to be told.

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An Interview with the Abolitionist and Underground Railroad Official

From my book, Tragedy and Triumph, Elmira, New York, 1835-65

An Interview with the Abolitionist and Underground Railroad Official

The black man leaned forward in his seat and in a staccato voice, as if reading from a list, said, “Under no circumstance draw attention to yourself. Work to become a trusted part of the community. Confide in no one; simply keep your own counsel. Always be on your guard. Do not attend any abolitionist meetings, associate with anyone labeled that way. You must appear indifferent to the cause. Remember this well: you have volunteered to help fugitive slaves reach freedom. If you fail in this, you fail us all.”

Elizabeth nodded solemnly.

Joshua Edwards scowled at her as they sat across from one another on two wooden chairs. The small room, located in the musty third floor of the university’s library, contained little furniture other than the chairs, and a table filled with jars of glue, needles, thread, and books that needed to be mended. A small window nailed shut to its casement in the corner let in little light. Elizabeth wished that she could open it but remained seated as she waited for him to speak again. There was no sound in the room; a dense silence that spoke of the heaviness of their meeting pervaded the air.

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