A good friend chose to restore a house on her property in the Ellett Valley to its original condition. The house, built in the early 1800’s, had in succeeding decades been remodeled and refurnished innumerable times. In the course of stripping away layers of wall to expose the original framing, workmen found a woman’s high-top leather shoe. The leather was stiff, the upper fabric brittle, and the laces were missing, but once upon a time that musty relic had graced a tender foot knitted to a living body strung with nerves, pulsing with blood, and animated by a beating heart and active mind. She who wore that shoe and its mate bore a name, possessed a history, hopes for the future, and worries over troubles all her own. What were her thoughts when for the last time she laced up that shoe for a trip into town on her own?
That shoe is like the word “historical” in “historical fiction”: a form made of facts, waiting for the author’s imagined character to put on those facts and walk us into a story.
In the case of A Partial Sun, the “shoe” or form made of facts with which I began were the recollections of a Monticello slave named Isaac Granger, written down by a Charles Campbell in the late 1840’s, about twenty years after the death of Thomas Jefferson. These recollections, which I found published in a slim booklet entitled Jefferson at Monticello, are prized by historians for their behind-the-scenes glimpses of Jefferson and life at Monticello. What especially interested me, however, was a two page digression which began: “the fust year Mr. Jefferson was elected President he took Isaac on to Philadelphia; he was then about fifteen years old.”
Just as I had examined that mysterious shoe discovered in a wall to learn what I could about the woman who had once worn it, so now I examined this passage to discover what I could about Isaac. I noted the phonetic spelling of “fust”—evidently Campbell’s effort to reproduce Isaac’s dialect, and Isaac’s plausible mistake in stating that Mr. Jefferson was elected President, when in fact he had been appointed by Washington to be Secretary of State. I wondered at Isaac’s speaking of himself in the third person and reflected that he knew only approximately how old he was when he commenced his momentous trip to Philadelphia because most likely he didn’t know exactly when he was born.
From little clues such as these, I endeavored to imagine Isaac’s character and his world. Another example: of his journey to Philadelphia in company with Mr. Jefferson, a Mr. Rattiff, and “Jim Hemings, a body servant,” he says this: “Fust day’s journey they [note again Isaac’s hiding of himself behind the third-person plural] went from Monticello to old Nat Gordon’s, on the Fredericksburg road, next day to Fredericksburg, then to Georgetown, crossed the Potomoc there, and so to Philadelphia.” Looking at a map, I could trace their route basically along I-95. Much has been wiped out in the building of this highway and the growth which followed, yet I managed to find a historical marker here, a preserved tavern there, the remnant of a river ferry docking station elsewhere. The paucity of detail in Isaac’s account and the insubstantial evidence gave me the freedom of invention. Such freedom allowed me to summon up Isaac and his experiences from inside myself, and in this way he became a “living soul” for me.
Of his living arrangements in Philadelphia, he says only that he “lived four years with Old Bringhouse,” and that he was “the only black boy in Bringhouse’s shop.” Contemplating these terse, matter-of-fact statements, I began to picture the startling reality which they represented. Having all of his life lived in the “Negro quarter” at Monticello, he was now living with white people in their own home, and working side-by-side with white apprentices, all of whom, I surmised, shared living space in the attic. He was substantially alone in a white world. The simple experience of sitting down for breakfast at the same table with these white people must have been, especially the first time, an experience that made his heart pound and his hands sweat. Yet he says not a word of this. Why not? The answer to this question reverberated profoundly for me: because he was relating his experience to a white man, and he, Isaac, was a Free Black, still trying to eke out a living as a smith, in Petersburg, Virginia, a decade and more before the Civil War. It would have been unwise, even dangerous, to reveal his personal thoughts or feelings to a stranger, especially a white stranger, who expected to publish them in a book. Suppose Isaac’s white customers read that book, took offense in some way, and refused any longer to seek his tinsmithing services? Or refused to pay for services he had already rendered? Breaking through what I believed to be Isaac’s deeply cautious silence about himself, to convey for readers an inner life, was perhaps the most essential and most rewarding task I faced.
In one detail at least I sought to honor him: by preserving in the novel his naming of the tinsmith as “Bringhouse,” even though this was probably a mistake. This I learned when, early in my writing process, I petitioned the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, for information about this signal individual in Isaac’s narrative. A researcher responded in time with a letter, which included a xeroxed copy of a city directory listing no Bringhouse, but instead a James Bringhurst, “I think,” wrote the researcher, “there’s a good chance that he is the tinsmith to whom Isaac was apprenticed.” Faced with this likelihood, I felt at first that I must of course change the tinsmith’s name in my novel from Isaac’s mistaken “Bringhouse,” to the historically verifiable “Bringhurst.” Then I balked. If Isaac himself referred to the man as “Bringhouse,” then so be it. I would follow suit. Isaac would be my authority, not a city directory. Yet I nearly recanted, when I further reflected that the rendering of “Bringhouse” in Isaac’s narrative may have been Charles’ Campbell’s mistake: he mis-heard Isaac’s pronunciation of the word. On the other hand, Campbell was a published historian and seemed to me to have listened carefully to Isaac and faithfully recorded his reminiscences. So I held with Isaac after all: his tinsmith would be “Bringhouse.”
The objective of historical fiction is not, I think, to combine segments of factual history with artful fabrications where the facts are lacking; no, its objective is an indissoluble unity, like the combining of two molecules to create a new element. The truth of that element is neither in one molecule or the other, in history or imagination, but in the two becoming one. That one is a verisimilitude, a telling likeness, radiant with meanings and faithful to the wellsprings of human life.
My, my, look what that shoe has led us to!