As my new book came together in its revisions, I began to feel some parallels to John Baskin’s 1976 New Burlington: The Life and Death of an American Village, a non-fiction opus based on what was then the new field of oral history.
The village he examined was largely Methodist and Quaker, the latter having come en masse from South Carolina as their rejection of living in a slave-holding countryside. In fact, when they relocated as a Quaker Monthly Meeting, they carried their treasured minute book with them and continued their records in Ohio.
His book became something of a classic and was even excerpted as a popular series in the Dayton Daily News.
While relying heavily on quotations from his sources, he did knit the interviews together with some heavy interpretation on his part. And here I was, becoming an active narrator in the action in my own work.
My book, as it stands, is heavily influenced by what I’ve learned writing fiction, in addition to my lifetime career as a newspaper journalist. I view the result as a story.
More to the point, when Quaking Dover came out, one longtime friend asked me if it was another novel. I bristled, I think, “No! It’s a history! Non-fiction!” While also thinking, “Didn’t you read the description? What did you miss?”
I am trying to remember the first time I mentioned Baskin’s book, probably in a Quaker circle in another part of the state, and hearing the response, “It’s all fiction.”
Huh? It seemed pretty solid to me, and the asides on Quakers were rather informative for a newcomer, as I still was then.
A decade or so later, visiting family back in Ohio, I ventured off to worship at the New Burlington Quaker church, which had rebuilt out by the highway after the village had been flooded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
At the close of the service, I was asked why I chose them rather than the more silent Friends in nearby Waynesville. Well, I had worshipped in that historic meetinghouse years earlier but, as I replied, I enjoyed visiting other branches of the Quaker world. And then I added, “Besides, I have the book.”
A moment of awkward silence struck the circle around me before the oldest person, a woman perhaps in her early 90s, softly pronounced, “It’s all fiction.” Obviously, they all knew what I meant by “the book.”
Oh? I was in no place to argue and accepted her verdict as literary criticism. In some ways, I took it as advice, not that anyone knew I, too, was a writer. Those of us in the news biz were already treading on thin ice in too many ways.
Still, as I retold the encounter to a reliable bud, he inhaled sharply and noted, “That’s strange. It’s the same thing Aunt Cecille said. Her words, ‘It’s all fiction.’”
Well, she did live in a town only a few miles up the road, one where the local Friends church had recently petered out. She, too, had Quaker roots and community creds.
As a journalist, I can relay one fine reporter’s observation that he knew he was on course with a controversial issue when he found both sides of the story were upset. Not that I want to go there. Still, I do know that we humans have a hard time accepting our own shortcomings and follies and that we view events through our own lenses.
I should add that Quakers, as a whole, write a lot. It’s a crowded field.
How crowded? The primary Quaker history journal takes this stand: if a book hasn’t been vetted by a peer review panel of historians, it’s taking a pass.
As they did on mine.