The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou

The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou was a quarter finalist in the 2012 Amazon Break-Out Novel Contest!

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In the twilight days of slavery, thirteen-year old Ephraim Wright is stranded between two worlds – that of free whites, and of enslaved blacks.

Raised by an Arkansas Unionist family since he was two years old, Ep is never once required to call Jonathan Wright, his benevolent owner, “master.”  The other slaves in the community chide him for being a “pet nigga” and “talkin’ like white folk” because his speech, manners and outlook on life are more akin to those of his white “siblings.”

His life changes irreversibly when Confederate conscript officers take the family’s oldest son at gun point and a bushwhacker gang ransacks the farm, steals the livestock and guns down Jonathan Wright.  The law forbids a slave to touch a firearm, because a “Negro with a gun is a nervous thing to white folks.”  But where his family’s safety is concerned, Ep is never one to care about what the slave laws say.  As a result, a desperate battle is raging in Ep’s soul.  By seeking to send men to hell, Ephraim almost sends himself there as well.

The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou is my first novel. After years of writing non-fiction it was a joy to create new characters in the real places and times that I had studied for all of my adult life. The core of the story is based on family tales recounted to me by my great grand uncle Ezra Hagerman. He alone in the family had absorbed the stories of his grandmother’s family during the Civil War. When I visited him in the late 1980s he was thrilled to pass on the stories of Jonathan, Sarah, Sam, Melinda and others. Until then it seems no one else had placed any value on the family tales he treasured for so long. I am indebted to Uncle Ezra and feel so fortunate that I was able to get to know him better before he passed on in 2002. He kept these stories alive in our collective family memories.

Stories of the Wright’s war time experiences have been handed down, but with very little detail. I have had to use my imagination to flesh out those details and added fictional particulars of their day-to-day lives. The hardships of war that they faced were not unlike thousands of other people in the rural South, and existing accounts of many other families helped to fill in those details.

The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou is written for boys in the 12-16 year old range, however I have found that both male and female adult reviewers have enjoyed it as much as its intended audience. The fast paced story line and the descriptions of everyday life for both black and white inhabitants of the wartime south would be excellent teaching tools for American history classes and African American studies at the junior high school level. Although set during the Civil War, it is actually the story of loyalty to self, loyalty to family, assuming responsibility during adverse times and struggling to find forgiveness.

The main character and the villains of The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou are products of my imagination. By creating the slave Ephraim Wright, I was able to provide the reader with a character who could see into the lives of both the slave and free residents of 1863 Prairie County Arkansas. Although Ep is fictional, his character’s voice speaks for numerous real slaves. Many of his thoughts and the dialog of other African Americans in the story come from interviews with ex-slaves that were conducted by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. The Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves recorded the memories of 2,194 survivors of the horrors of the “Peculiar Institution.” Ex-slave interviews were conducted between 1936 and 1937 in seventeen states. Nowhere was the program more energetic or fruitful than in the state of Arkansas. 677 narratives, in seven volumes, were collected in Arkansas, accounting for almost one third of all the interviews for the program. The next highest state, Texas, had less than half that number.