Historical fiction is tricky. Pure fiction gives the writer total control and omnipotence. No Google search or history book can bore holes into their plot.
But altering the story of a historical figure who lived decades – sometimes centuries ago – can be tricky. What parts do you hold on to? What do you change? Where do you start?
That dilemma was one that My Haley, the widow of Alex Haley, encountered as she poured through the historical records to develop her
first novel, “The Treason of Mary Louvestre,” loosely based on the true story of Mary Louvestre, a black woman who became a spy for the Union Army in Norfolk, Va during the Civil War. The novel tells the tale of Louvestre’s dangerous journey to deliever sketched copies of the plans for the South’s ironclad steamship to Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy. Released earlier this month, Haley is on a regional book tour and will be in Washington Tuesday evening.
“I said, ‘I would really like to write my own book about a woman of substance and purpose, but I want to write about someone that I really emotionally connect with,’” Haley says. “There are lots of women that I could have written about, but I had to wait and find the right one.”
Haley has been toying with history since the 1970’s. When she met her late husband he had just delivered as speech at Ohio State University, whereshe was earning a doctorate in communications.
Impressed by “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” author’s speech, Haley decided she wanted to work with him as soon as the ink on her degree was dry. She became his apprentice, helping him with his research on “Roots: An American Saga.” Soon, they were married.
“’Roots’ was really my training ground with Alex. When I got with him, I was a fresh PhD from Ohio State and Alex had been knocking around for about 12 years, trying to complete the first third of ‘Roots,” says Haley.
By the time she began working with him, he had already gotten Kunta Kinte through the Middle Passage. She began to help him through Kinte’s arrival in Annapolis, where he was sold at auction.
“Most of my work, up until that time, had been academic, so it was truly a master-apprentice relationship, with on-the-job training,” says Haley. The two of them dug through the mountains of research he had collected, organizing the material into workable chapters.
After the book was published in 1965, and the Haleys began working on the “Roots” miniseries, Haley became interested in working on her own project. It wasn’t until after her husband’s death in 1992 that Haley was able to pick up her work seriously. She began researching Civil War era Norfolk – the tensions, the clothing and the landscape.
“When he died, I was able to look through it again, but life wasn’t finished with me then. I went through a lot of stuff with my family. I lost just about every member of my family to cancer. I wasn’t really able to concentrate on it until a couple of years ago. It was just kind of like the coalescing of everything,” says Haley.
She used the lessons she’d learned while serving as her late husband’s apprentice – that most of writing is rewriting and to make the “unfamiliar familiar and the familiar extraordinary”– to begin rewriting Mary’s story.
Despite her accounts of working “Roots,” Haley has never been credited as one of her husband’s researchers.
“It was truly a master-apprentice relationship and I don’t think it occurred to either one of us at the time. I was startled when I finished typing [the title page] and I wasn’t on it, but it wasn’t like it stopped anything. How many women have done that, y’know? How many women have been behind the show?” says Haley.
Still, Haley says that no one has questioned her involvement in developing “Roots” during her book tour.
“I think when you listen to me talk, that I have a credibility that you don’t doubt it. You can hear that I was there. How many of our women have done this? We were behind the scenes doing peace work weren’t we?” she says.
Her ties to Alex Haley have given her a huge edge, now that she has begun her literary career.
Haley’s publisher, Joe Coccaro, the executive editor of Koehler Books, the fiction imprint of Morgan James Publishing located in the Norfolk area, was interested in the book for two reasons: it explored a different side of slave life and because of My Haley’s work on “Roots.”
“We knew the Haley name would garner curiosity and attention. But signing a ‘Haley’ was really a secondary motivation. My's novel needed to stand on its own — and it does,” says Coccaro.
Like most accounts of black life during slavery, Mary’s true story is murky. There are ongoing debates about whether or not she was actually a free woman. Even the correct spelling of her name is a mystery.
“I came across Mary Louvestre, Mary Louvest, Touvestre, Touvest. I just had to make a decision. Which name am I going to go with? And I liked the feel of Mary Louvestre – that sounded kind of regal to me,” says Haley.
In fact, the only aspect of Mary’s story that Haley found to be irrefutable was what she did for the Union army: risking her life to get those plans to Welles.
So Haley took liberties with the other details, making Mary a house slave whose “world was really circumscribed by affluent whites.” Mary is brought into the Louvestre’s home as a young child, and they take a liking to her, helping her to get educated and hone her talents.
“I make her a designer with hopes and dreams that someday she will get to the point that she can control her own destiny by getting to the rarified air where you’re such a public figure that nobody is going to threaten to sell you away,” says Haley.
The relationship would only change under “the pressurized condition of war,” and would show the Louvestre’s own struggle with the knowledge that the lives of so many people lay in their hands.
The book is strongest when Haley recreates the 19th century past. You can almost smell the filth of the rundown slum where Mary’s best embroiderer, Cecilia, lives with her two daughters Fortune and Pluck. It is so pungent that Mary, and the Louvestre’s driver, Devereaux almost choke from the stench.
For a true history buff some of the liberties Haley took in creating Mary’s version of Civil War-era Norfolk could be frustrating.
Norfolk State University’s Professor Cassandra Newby-Alexander, was disappointed that Haley chose to run with the idea of Mary Louvestre being a slave.
A professor of history at Norfolk State University who focuses on Modern American and African-American History, as well as Abolitionism and the Underground Railroad, Newby-Alexander has come across several differing accounts about Louvestre’s past. The most accurate account, in her opinion, is written in Ervin Jordan’s book, “Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in the Civil War Virginia.”
This account says she worked at the Navy Yard, but Newby-Alexander has also seen accounts that say she was married to a tavern owner who was originally from Guadalupe. Newby-Alexander believes that this is where the accounts became muddled. People began to believe that Louvestre had been a slave, herself.
“Haley could have dealt with the complexities of free blacks, and that to me, is a far more interesting story because it hasn’t been told that much – of free blacks in the South,” says Newby-Alexander. There have been more stories of free blacks that left for the North, or those like Frederick Douglass, who gained their freedom by escaping slavery.
According to Newby-Alexander, one of the only documents that lists Mary Louvestre as a slave is a census record which is strange, because a slave wouldn’t have been listed by name in the Census.
After she completes the Mary Louvestre series – six books, in total – Haley plans to finish her late husband’s work. Before he died, Alex Haley had been working on several projects including his own autobiography, a novel about Madam C.J. Walker, and the white side of the “Roots” saga, tracing the journey of the Jacksons, Alex Haley’s Irish ancestors, through America.
“I’ve been in training to hone my craft to be able to do these things honor,” says Haley.
Since Haley’s new novel was released, Koehler says the response has been favorable.
“The book, and My Haley, have generated a buzz. Her speaking appearances and book signings have been well attended. She has spoken, or will be speaking, at several major universities, historical museums and other venues. She's doing lots of signings at bookstores. We're very pleased,” says Koehler.
Koehler Books focuses heavily historical fiction – or as Koehler likes to call it, “informed inspiration” – and hopes to continue working with Haley as she continues to develop Mary’s story.
“It’s so good to be able to go out here and tell a little known story about our Americana. Not just Black history, but our Americana – which is part of the fabric of our America,” says Haley.
Haley will be signing and discussing “The Treason of Mary Louvestre” at the Howard University Bookstore Tuesday Feburary 12 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
More from The Root DC