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.

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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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