Sunday, January 6, 2013

December Chapter One Winner: Jessica McCann

Characters have the ability to make or break any story.  The main one in Jessica McCann's All Different Kinds of Free is rich, vibrant, sassy and a woman you want to read about page after page.  It's the way McCann brings Margaret alive on the page that prompted me to choose her chapter as the winner for December.  


Mama always told me bad things happen on Wednesdays, 'cause it's the middle of the week and the Lord just ain't looking then. I never really understood what she meant by that, because I thought the Lord was always supposed to be looking. But her explanation still consoled me when the goats got into the saltbox and Mr. Ashmore took the switch to me for it, or when my stomach was growling at night because rabbits had gobbled up our small garden and all we had to eat that summer was Johnnycakes.

I'm grown now, and Mama's long since gone. But, oh, how I pray she was wrong about Wednesdays and that the Good Lord is looking down on York County, Pennsylvania every day.
"Margaret, hello," Nellie shouts to me as I cross Lombard Street. She works as a housekeeper for the Forten family on the north end of town. The Fortens are the wealthiest colored family in Philadelphia, maybe even the whole country, so Nellie is paid well and always dresses sharp. The bell of her bright red dress dusts the ground as she glides along the planked sidewalk. "I didn't expect to see you in town in the middle of the week," she says.
"I heard a new shipment of fabric arrived at McFarland's yesterday, and I wanted to take a look before it gets picked clean," I say.
"Of course, they did get in some fine bolts, but it sure is strange to see you here because I was just talking about you yesterday. There was a man up here from Maryland asking around about you."
"What man?" I ask.
"Said his name was Mr. Prigg, and he needed to find you right away. I hear he's a bounty hunter."
"No, Ed Prigg was our neighbor when we lived in Mill Green down in Maryland. He worked for Mr. Ashmore at the mill. I can't imagine why he'd be looking for me, though."
"Well, he sure is looking for you," Nellie says, lowering her voice and looking around. "I didn't say a thing about where you lived, Margaret, but I know he was heading to the Constable's. So you best be watching your back."
Nellie doesn't trust white folks. She was bought as a housekeeper in Connecticut when she was just ten years old. Her mistress had her working from five o'clock in the morning until ten at night, washing, cooking, sewing, cleaning, tending the children. She got Sundays off, and she was promised that after ten years of labor she'd earn her freedom. But when ten years came up, her mistress said Nellie had done such a good job, she couldn't possibly let her go. One spring evening, when Nellie was about twenty-three, she'd had enough. She went out for a walk, with nothing more than the clothes she was wearing, and she just kept walking. Didn't stop till she reached the North three weeks later.
I never had it that hard. My mama and daddy got their freedom after years of slaving for the Ashmore family, and I was born a free Negro in a town where there weren't but a handful of us to be found.
"You're a good friend, Nel, but don't you worry about Mr. Prigg. I'm sure his business with me is legitimate, whatever it is. He probably just has news from Mill Green. Perhaps the Widow Ashmore has taken ill, God forbid."
Now, it's true old Prigg has a mean streak in him. I learned early on to stay out of his way. But he was a good friend to the Ashmores, and they were decent enough for slaveholding folks.
It's been almost five years since I've thought about the Ashmores or any of the other folks we left behind in Mill Green when my husband Jerry and I packed up our children and moved here. We had planned to go far, to the northern part of Pennsylvania. But York County was the first place we came to after we crossed the Maryland border, and I just fell in love with it. We built us a cabin about two miles outside of Philadelphia, just a stone's throw from a clear lake jumpin' with fat fish. The thick, sweet-smelling woods were so different from the open, rolling hills of Harford. I quickly forgot about my old home.
York is a wonderful place to live, especially in spring, when the sun rises early and warm, and you wake up to the music of snow drip, drip, drippin' from the roof. Little shoots of green start peeking up from patches of black mud on the ground all around our cabin, between melting drifts of dirty snow. In the morning, deer come out from the woods to nibble at it.
But, mostly, I think York is wonderful because they don't have slaves here. A colored woman can be free here. Free to earn a living. Free to raise a family. Free to kiss her husband on the street without getting the back of a white man's hand. Of course, we were free in Maryland, too, but there's all different kinds of free.
Nellie's voice calls me back from my daydreaming to the streets of Philly.
"Land sakes, Margaret, you're a trusting soul. All the same, you best watch yourself."
"I will, Nel, to be sure. Now I better be on my way if I'm gonna get back home before sundown."
We part company, and I head east on St. Mary's Street, past the African Presbyterian Church. They say Philly is the capitol for America's black leaders and the abolition movement, and I believe it's so. The Free African Society is down a block or two, and over on 15th Street is the country's only black publisher. It's the biggest city I've ever seen, and I love just rambling through town soaking up the place.
Any time of day the cobbled streets are teaming with traffic – buggies, carts and wagons of all sizes, carrying everything from society folks in silk suits to bushels of fresh fruit and coal. Every now and again all the drivers get jammed up in total confusion. Traffic stops and everyone starts shouting and cursing one another. Then a policeman dashes into the center of it all to take charge. Shouting out commands, pointing and waving with complete authority, he aims each vehicle in a clear path. One by one they move along, and the steady clip-clop of hooves on stone resumes.
"Apples, fresh apples! Care for some fresh apples today, ma'am?" A boy calls out to me from beside his pony cart piled high with golden fruit. His head is a tangle of flaxen curls, his light eyes barely peeking out between the thick locks.
"What's your price today?" I ask.
"Just a copper apiece, ma'am."
"They're fine looking apples. Are they good for baking?"
"Oh, yes ma'am. They're best for baking. I'll give you a dozen of these beauties for a dime, special just for you."
I reach in my purse, digging around for the shiniest coin I have. I'm rewarded with a wide grin from the young man as he carefully loads the apples into my shoulder bag.
I'll curse myself during the walk home, as I juggle the fruit and the bolts of fabric I'll purchase next. And Jerry will laugh when he sees me hobbling down the muddy rutted road leading to our cabin. But I can never resist the street vendors when I come into town, especially the children. They call me ma'am and treat me with perfect manners, even the white ones. It's so different than the vendors and businessmen back in Mill Green, where a colored woman is lucky to complete her necessary purchases during her trip. Surely, a young white boy would never have offered me a "special" price there, unless it was double what he charged his other customers.
"Thank you, ma'am. Thank you much."
"Thank you, young man. I hope you sell the whole lot today."
With this final word of encouragement, the boy laughs and bows to me, then turns his cart up the street. "Apples, fresh apples here! Get yer apples!"
McFarland's General Store is up ahead a half-block, just past the dress shop, where I stop to look in the windows displaying the latest fashions from Europe. Velvet ball gowns with yards and yards of lace flounce imported from Paris go for $300 or more, a year's wages for both Jerry and me if we got lucky. I love the traveling dresses best, made of rich black silk or velour, with their high lace collars and long straight skirts. Those go for about $100, depending upon the fabric. They're a far cry from my plain cotton dresses, to be sure, although I doubt the quality is any better. I wouldn't be braggin' to say I've got the straightest hem stitch in York County.
I make my way into McFarland's, eyeing the big clock above the counter. One o'clock. I've got to be out the door by two if I'm going to make it home in time to get dinner going. It's harder than it sounds. I once spent four hours in McFarland's without batting an eye. Seems to me there's no end to its treasures.
I'm greeted by the smell of coffee, sugar and beans in oak barrels along the east wall. The ingredients give off a delicious crunch and fresh burst of perfume each time the patrons dig in with their scoops to fill up their sacks. A group of children buzz about the candy counter, eyeing the brightly colored taffy, peanut brittle, fudge and popcorn balls behind the glass. I scan a table of books, dozens of them, mostly dime novels with paper covers, but also a few thick leather-bound volumes. My fingers brush the spines and fall upon a fine copy of Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Just published last year, the library's copy of the book is already well worn because of me.
Mrs. Ashmore took it upon herself to teach me to read when I was a child back in Mill Green, and I'll be forever grateful that she did. Few Negroes where I'm from know how to read, and those who do learned it in secret. In Maryland, the law doesn't allow blacks to go to school or learn to read. Mama worried her missus would get in some kind a trouble for teaching me. But Mrs. Ashmore would just cluck through her teeth and say, "I had no vote in the making of such a law, and I have no intention of abiding by it, either." Mama always thought that was real brave of her.
Well I took to reading like you wouldn't believe, and Mrs. Ashmore was so pleased. I remember she used to say to me, "Margaret, a book is like the best friend you can imagine. Once you read a book, it stays with you forever." And she was right. Next to my children, reading is the greatest blessing I ever got, and Emerson is a treasure. "A nobler want of man is served by nature, namely, the love of Beauty."
But the book is a dollar today. It'll have to wait. I head toward the fabric bolts, lined up in the middle of the store, the prize of the week.
"I thought I might see you this week, Mrs. Morgan."
Mr. McFarland smiles at me from behind his round spectacles. The small circles of his glasses sit high atop his apple cheeks, making his head look even larger than it is, if that's possible. McFarland is plump all around, right down to the short chubby finger he uses to poke jovially at my thin arm.
"Yes, sir. News of your fine goods travels fast. I'm hoping to find some nice linen today."
His laugh rattles through the store, and he pulls a bolt from the rack.
"Pink, the finest linen you can buy, straight from England. You'll look lovely in a dress made of this."
I take the bolt from him and hold it up to my chest, turning to face a tall mirror trimmed in wood. The pink does look lovely against my dark skin. I can easily picture it – a striking gown with a v-neck and pointed waist, perhaps a bodice laced up with silver hooks at the back.
"I'll take five yards," I say, although the dress will not be for me. Nellie mentioned just last week that Mrs. Forten would be needing a new dress for the July 4th celebration, and this fabric will turn her eye, I'm sure. I'm her favorite seamstress, and she will easily pay me $30 for such a dress.
Three yards each of a flowered gingham and crisp white linen round out my purchase. It'll be enough to make two sets of skirts and blouses, which I can sell at the May Day picnic. McFarland hums as he carefully folds and packs the fabric into my bag. I heave the package over my shoulder and turn for the door, checking the time on my way out. Two-thirty. Not bad for a shipment week.
It's a delicate dance, working one's way along the back roads of York in spring, all mucky and thick from the rains and heaps of horse manure. The walk's taking longer than usual because of my heavy load, but I know these roads well and there'll still be plenty of sunlight left when I get home. I hope Jerry and the boys had a good day down at that lake. Boiled fish and baked apples would make a fine dinner tonight. If not, we've got plenty of supplies for salt pork and biscuits.
Our cabin is coming into view as I make my way along the muddy road. The children usually keep an eye out when I head into town, but they're not running up the path to greet me. Maybe Jerry sent them down to the well to get some water for the evening.
A black wagon hitched to two massive horses is parked beside the cabin. A brass horn is mounted at the dashboard. It's the constable's wagon.
"Jerry, I need a hand with these packages," I shout, struggling through the front door.
Inside, the children are sitting straight-backed along the bed. John, my oldest, looks smart in the blue sweater I knitted for his tenth birthday just last month. He's got his arm around Emma, in that protective big-brother way he has. She's half his age, and just half his size to boot. Sammy Jr. sits on her other side, looking far less bold than his brother. His left foot is twitching where it dangles off the edge of the bed and has set the ruffle on the quilt into motion.
Jerry moves to help me with my bags, but he doesn't speak. Constable William McCleary and Mr. Prigg are seated at the dining table, drinking coffee, no doubt brewed fresh just for them.
"Jerry?" I ask, handing over the apples first, missing the hearty laugh I had been expecting from him. His face looks ashen beneath his cocoa complexion, telling me without words that these guests were not invited. Jerry worked a plantation in Georgia growing up, before he bought his freedom, so he knows how to behave around a man like Prigg. But I know his silence doesn't come easy to him.
"Mrs. Morgan," Constable McCleary speaks up, as he and Prigg stand up from the table. "This here is Mr. Prigg from Harford County, Maryland. You know him?"
"Yes sir, I know him well. We were neighbors for years and years down in Mill Green."
Prigg looks just as I remember him. His dirty grey hair combed back over his head, too thin to hide the pink scalp showing through. His eyes have that glassy look of a man who partakes in a bit too much ale and is always aching for yet another pint.
"Neighbors?" the Constable asks me.
"Yes, sir."
Prigg snorts and shifts his weight, pounding his tin coffee cup down hard on the table.
"Mr. Prigg has a different way of saying it," says Constable McCleary, looking sideways at Prigg. "He says you're a runaway. Says you and the children are the property of the Ashmore family in Mill Green."
Prigg nods along, looking all smug and self-righteous. My whole face goes hot. Runaways! He's got some nerve accusing me of such a crime.
"That ain't really so, Constable," I blurt out, and then I stop myself. Easy now, Margaret, watch your mouth. I must choose my words carefully. I may be free, but even a free Negro can easily get herself locked up for talking back to a white man, no matter what state she lives in.
"Begging your pardon, sir," I begin again, slower, more restrained. "I did live at the Ashmore estate my whole life, but I never was a slave and neither were my children."
The Constable steadies his gaze on me, looking long and hard into my eyes. Normally, I wouldn't dare look a white man square in the face, but there's something in his soft brown eyes that comforts me a little, with their golden flecks and pale lashes.
Jerry can't stay quiet any longer. "Damn, Bill, you know us. You know Margaret ain't no slave."
"Well now, I know you've been living here quite some time, Jerry. And I always believed you all were free. But I can't rightly take the word of a bunch of Negroes over that of a white businessman, now can I?"
A businessman? That's a fine fairytale. Prigg's nothing more than an underhanded drunkard. I cross my arms across my chest and cluck my tongue against my teeth in disgust.
"Does Mr. Prigg have any papers?" I ask curtly.
With that, Prigg's face turns red with rage. "Papers?" he bellows, stepping toward me, his arm raised. The Constable steps between us, thank the Lord.
"All right now, Mr. Prigg, just hold on. Near as I can tell, this is a matter for the Justice of the Peace. Let's all get in the wagon and head on down to County Hall before dark and get this settled."
Constable McCleary has always struck me as an honest man, strong but kind. Jerry knows him better than me, since they like to fish the same spots and sometimes they get to talking about the kinds of things that men like to talk about. But once, I saw the constable get after a couple a white boys for tormenting a neighbor's dog. He grabbed 'em both up by the ears and marched them right on down to the dog's owner to confess their deeds. Those boys painted fences for two weeks after that, and the constable came checking on them every day of their penance to make sure they were working good and hard. I've liked him ever since then. I figure anybody who looks to make sure a dog gets treated right is gonna be just as fair to any Negro.
"Must we all go?" I ask him. "Can't the children stay home?"
"No, I'm sorry, Mrs. Morgan. The children will have to come along. If Justice Henderson agrees with Mr. Prigg, you'll all need to go along with him back to Maryland."
Back to Maryland. I feel my back stiffen. This can't be. I'm free. My children are free
"Damn straight," Prigg thunders, stomping a heavy boot down upon the plank floor, making a deep hollow thud. The constable shoots him a look that says he'd better tread lightly, but it does little to comfort me now.
What in God's name will we do if the justice of the peace believes his lies? I look at Jerry, and our eyes speak the same panic we work hard not to show.
"Can we ride in our own wagon, Bill?" Jerry asks, just as calm and strong as an oak tree in a storm.
"No harm in that," the constable says, and Prigg tips over his coffee cup in disgust. Emma jumps up to put a towel to the spill, but I raise my hand.
"Don't you worry about that mess, baby," I say, just as steady as you please. Then I glance at Prigg for a second. "I'll just clean that up when we get back home."
Prigg eyes me for a moment, then stomps out the door. Could he see past my calm mask and see my guts tied in knots? I should know better than to play with him that way.
My motherly instincts draw me to the children. I place my hand firmly, but tenderly, on John's back, then Sammy's to lead them out of the cabin. When I reach for Emma and feel her warm innocence, something buckles inside of me. I squeeze my eyes tightly. This can't be happening.
Into the wagon we go. We'll be to County Hall in an hour's time. I can only pray we'll be turning back for home after that.


1.       Tell me about yourself: Where are you from and how long have you been writing?

I grew up in the metro Phoenix area and am happy to still call it home. I've been writing for as long as I can remember and landed my first paying job as a writer my senior year of high school.

2.       Tell me about the novel—what inspired it?

The novel was inspired by a true story. It is a fictional biography of Margaret Morgan, a free woman of color who was kidnapped in 1837 with her free children and sold into slavery. She fought hard to regain her freedom, and she endured tremendous loss and hardship. Her ordeal led to one of the most pivotal Supreme Court cases in America’s history, Prigg v. Pennsylvania. When I first read the court case summary, my curiosity was piqued because it only mentioned Margaret once. That struck me as so odd, since it all began with her, and I was curious to know how her story turned out. So I dug around a bit. But the more I looked, the less I found -- some obscure footnotes in law journals, conflicting news accounts from the time. It really bothered me that her part of the story was little more than a footnote in history, especially since there were thousands of other women just like her -- wives, mothers -- who suffered a similar fate during that dark period in America's history. So I decided to tell Margaret's story in novel form, and All Different Kinds of Free was born.

3.       What genre do you write in and why?

Historical fiction has been my favorite genre since before I even knew the definition. The dry facts and statistics of "history" bored me in school. It has always been the stories hidden within history that captures my interest. I like to say that historians write about dead people, but historical novelists write to give them new life.  

4.       What’s the next project for you?  Tell the readers about it.

I'm working on another historical novel, inspired by the "black blizzards" of the 1930s Dust Bowl. This was the worst man-made environmental disaster in our nation's history, and I'm amazed by the fortitude of the people and communities who endured it. My novel will tell their stories.

5.       Let’s put the novel aside and talk about YOU for a minute—what are your hobbies and what can’t you live without that’s non-book related?  What do you do when you are not writing?  If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be?

Taking care of my family keeps me busy and is the most-prized non-book related aspect of my life. When I'm not writing or reading, I try to stay physically active. Yoga, swimming and hiking are my favorite ways of keeping physically fit and mentally grounded. 

It's interesting that you ask where I would live, if I could live anywhere. My husband and I have often talked about that in our more than 20 years together; and we always seem to come right back home to Phoenix. It's a vibrant city with so many entertainment options and just a few hours' drive to remote desert camping or snowy mountains. We do love to travel, though. If I were to dream, I'd love to take one month a year to live in different states, in cities big and small, just to explore and soak up the different lifestyles and atmospheres.

6.       If a reader asked you to recommend the three BEST books to read, aside from your own, what would they be?

Whoa, only three? My bookshelves are crowded with books that have left a lasting impression on me. One that I've reread many times is John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men;" it's a slim book, expertly written with memorable characters, and it reveals something new to me each time I pick it up. Another fabulous book is "The Invisible Mountain" by Carolina de Robertis. It's a sweeping epic of three generations of strong woman, set in Paraguay and Argentina from 1900 to 2000.  I read it a couple years ago, and I still often find myself thinking about the characters. Among the more recent releases that I enjoyed immensely are "The Snow Child" (Eowyn Ivey), "The Light Between Oceans" (M.L. Stedman) and "The Lost Wife" (Alyson Richman). OK, I cheated, that's five. So many good books, so little time. 

        7.    If you could have dinner with one author, who would it be and why?

It's probably cliché and a common pick, but I would have loved to spend time with Mark Twain, a fabulous storyteller and a man who pulled no punches.

       8. Post where you can be found—website, blog, twitter, facebook, etc.

To purchase All Different Kinds of Free on Amazon, click HERE.

Lori Ann Lesko: Our Daughters

Marilyn Holdsworth: The Beautiful American

Think you have a fabulous first chapter?  Enter the January 2013 contest HERE
Best of luck to everyone.

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