Lisa Wingate writes about Melungeon people and Federal Writers’ Project in new novel

HISTORY MYSTERY: In Lisa Wingate's new novel The Sea Keeper’s Daughters (her 25th book in 14 years), the mixed-race Melungeon people of the Appalachian mountains and a group of oral history gathers, subsidized by government funds, are at the center of the plot. Photo courtesy of the author

Novelist Lisa Wingate was planning to set her novella, The Sea Glass Sisters on the Texas coast. She lived in that state at the time and was familiar with how a hurricane could wreak havock on the shoreline. But Hurricane Irene had just hit the Carolina coast and a friend on the Outer Banks implored Wingate to write about that area to draw attention to its plight. “He offered me the use of his beach house,” the author says. It was too tempting to pass up.

The location lent a lot of history to the book, says Wingate, and introduced her to the lore of the Lost Colony, a 16th-century settlement on Roanoke Island whose disappearance fascinates North Carolinians to this day. Now six books into her Carolina series, Wingate touches on the Lost Colony again in her newest novel, The Sea Keeper’s Daughters. But it’s other little-known populations — the mixed-race Melungeon people of the Appalachian mountains and a group of oral history gathers, subsidized by government funds — that are at the center of the plot. Wingate presents her book at Malaprop’s on Tuesday, Sept. 22.

The Sea Keeper’s Daughters is part history and part mystery. It follows the stories of three characters: present-day restaurant owner Whitney; her grandmother Ruby, who lived in The Excelsior, a hotel on the Outer Banks; and Ruby’s twin sister Alice, a member of the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project, stationed in Western North Carolina.

Sea Keepers Daughters coverIt was a member of Wingate’s “sister circle” — a long-distance reading group — who shared a personal memory. “[She] mentioned driving through Appalachia as a child and looking up and seeing doors in the mountainsides,” Wingate says. When the girl asked her father about the doors, he said that during the Depression, when people lost their houses, they’d move into caves. Pieces salvaged from abandoned homes made the caves livable. While trying to research that story (fruitlessly, though the doors in the mountainsides do appear in the novel), Wingate discovered manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project.

“I was fascinated by the work of these writers who literally wandered all of the back roads, looking to find ordinary people to share their stories,” she says. “That’s what generated that book. I started following the trail of these federal writers and wondered, ‘What’s been written about their lives?’ Not a lot.”

In the The Sea Keeper’s Daughters it’s Alice, a widow, who joins the U.S. Work Progress Administration program as a means to support herself and her young daughter. She recounts her adventures in lengthy letters to her sister, telling of the mountain people she meets and prejudice she encounters. As Wingate learned, federal writers (who collected narratives from former slaves, among other marginalized groups) were often on the wrong side of racial and political bias and offended those who didn’t wish their way of life to be made common knowledge. Adding to the tension, Alice and her companion, a young photographer, attempt to deliver a pregnant mixed-race teen to a secret school for Melungeon children.

Meanwhile, in present day, Whitney — already embroiled in a fight to save her restaurant — travels to the Outer Banks where her ailing, estranged stepfather still lives. While trying to arrange for his care, Whitney discovers Alice’s shredded letters. Piecing together the fragments, she recovers a lost family history.

But in a way, Wingate is also recovering lost history. If her doors-in-the-mountains scenes are fictional, the works of the Federal Writers’ Project participants — among them Zora Neale Hurston and John Steinbeck — are factual and nearly lost to time. The program faced criticism from the House Un-American Activities Committee. The writers themselves were not forthcoming about their involvement as they had to take a pauper’s oath to join the New Deal program. And, while the oral histories are now resurfacing, Alice’s story (culled from the writings of real-life federal writers) is likely to spark interest in that project that was defunded nearly a century ago.

The author, on the other hand, shows no signs of stopping. The Sea Keeper’s Daughters is her second release this year — her 25th book in 14 years. “I’m very regimented about it,” she says. “I write seven double-spaced pages a day. I pretty much don’t shirk on that unless I’m traveling.”

Wingate adds, “Ideas come from everywhere. What makes it magical is when real life intersects [with the story]. … That’s what makes it an adventure.”

WHAT: Lisa Wingate presents The Sea Keeper’s Daughters
WHERE: Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
WHEN: Tuesday, Sept. 22, 7 p.m. Free

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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One thought on “Lisa Wingate writes about Melungeon people and Federal Writers’ Project in new novel

  1. David H Hunt

    I’m a proud Melungeon and I hope my play”Bloods of Color” will shed light on our existence. Thank you so much Ms. Wingate.

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