There are a few things I’ve always wanted to do before I die, as they say. I learned how to fly and received my private pilot’s license a few years ago. Check. Learn to play the guitar comfortably, half-check. Open my own little coffee shop, no check yet. Sigh.
I’ve always wanted to write a book, as well as music someday. While I love to write and manage to sound coherent most of the time, I’m generally not the creative artsy type. I admire the free spirit and abandonment to risk that artists take. They expose their most intimate selves to the world and rise or fall on their merits. That’s admirable to me, but I’ve never considered myself the fiction writer type. The dialogue confuses me. I’m far too analytical and philosophical at times to write fiction, I think, but who wants to read an autobiography of a former preacher turned… well, something else?
As it turns out, the book I’m going to write is fiction after all, well, fiction based on fact. That seems a safe enough bridge to cross for the first time. I’ve picked up my grandmothers love of family history/geneology and have been tinkering away at it for the last six years or so in her place. It fascinates me. I want to know who I am and where my family came from. Along the way I’ve discovered some amazing stories of love, loss, hardship, and even murder. There are at least three or four stories that beg to be told. I’m starting with the story that’s fascinated me the most.
An Irish immigrant finds love and heartache in the Bayous of Louisiana, or something like that. It’s a story from the oldest known ancestor of my grandmother’s paternal line, the Burns. I’ve always had a love of all things Irish. It turns out for good reason. There are at least two lines of my family that trace their roots back to Ireland.
The young Irish immigrant is Sarah McWilliams born in 1780 in County Cork, Ireland. She came to Louisiana at some time before 1800 with her family and married a young Irish-Scot, John Burns in Opelousas shortly thereafter. After settling in the pioneer region of Morehouse Parish and giving birth to their third child, John died, cause unknown. Within a couple years this young widow met a young North Carolina boy named Gabriel Beasley fresh off the trail from Tennessee and married him. They bought a plantation and expanded their family for 10 years in North LA, while the Louisiana Territory became part of the U.S. and sugar became king over tobacco and cotton. Around 1820 they moved near Napoleonville in Lafourche Parish and slowly carved a sugar plantation out of the wilderness of the Attakapas Canal, which later became Wildwood Plantation where they enjoyed a long life together. Sarah died at home of pneumonia at age 80 in 1860 and Gabriel died later that same year, just in time to miss the destruction of the Civil War.
There are so many questions that I have about the blanks in the story. Thinking about those questions for years now has fueled my imagination about why, what, and when. Their story is romantic, adventurous, and heartbreaking all the same. Sarah’s life in Ireland and coming to America is a great story. The first love of her life died way too young leaving her a widow in a strange land with three children. A young North Carolina boy fell in love with a young widow and took her children as his own. They worked hard and built a wonderful life for themselves and their children for generations, only to die oddly enough months apart.
I’ve been doing a lot research into life back then, people, places, history, social/economic conditions, etc. It’s been really fascinating and sort of like trying to solve a mystery with whatever clues you can find. You have to take a certain license of liberty to fill in the blanks of their life and make choices about what you think happened and why they made the choices they did. I’m trying to make careful decisions about what most likely happened and also what would make the best story. This will be a work of fiction after all, but I hope to honor their story as best I can, before its lost and never told again.
Sarah’s lifespan parallels the history of the birth of the sugar plantation, the state of Louisiana, and the arrival of the Acadians. There are several other things that make the story really interesting to me. They tie together the history and culture of north Louisiana and south Louisiana which are worlds apart. Half my family is from south La and half from the north. I’ve spent half my life in each and know them well, but there is a lot of the Acadian French-speaking world of the bayous that I only know through story. Gabriel and Sarah were like other Anglos that came to the bayous chasing the sugar boom, feeling out of place and working to adjust to a different kind of life.
This is going to take awhile, but I think I’ll enjoy it. I don’t have any high aspirations of selling the book or of many people reading it, but I will feel especially accomplished when I finish it. I think my grandmother would love it. She was so passionate about her family history and took such pride in where she came from and who she was.
I’m working near the southern site of the story and plan to spend some time there doing some research and getting a feel for the story. I hope to make a trek north to the earlier homeplace and do the same in a few weeks. I won’t make it to Ireland though, so books will have to do. I’ll be blogging from time to time about my progress, the challenges, and nuts and bolts of putting a book together. I hope it challenges you to step out on a limb and check off one of your boxes too.