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A Chosen Few

Bandeaux Creek
Between the Rivers,
Book II

Aunt Mag's
Recipe Book
Heritage Cooking
from a Carolina Kitchen

Between the Rivers


Ask Carolyn



"Between the Rivers"

Q. What is the setting for Between the Rivers? The time?

A. The setting is coastal North Carolina, Onslow, Pender and Bladen Counties, but mainly a wedge of woodland known as Colly in Bladen between the Cape Fear and the Black rivers. The time is the first quarter of the twentieth century, a time when industry and mechanization were beginning to reach even rural areas because of expanded railway systems. Easier access to distant cities also meant that higher education became a reality to a new generation. My own grandmother came of age during this time and was among the first students at Baptist Female University, now Meredith College.

Q. Is this a true story.?

A. There is some truth to my story, but only to the extent that it grew out of some oral history that I heard repeated many times in my family.

Q. Is that where the story begins, with Maggie going off to school?

A. No, the story begins in 1927 at the scene of a house fire. Maggie, her husband, Tate Ryan, and their two sons watch helplessly as fire rages through their home, destroying everything--everything except Maggie's trunk. Soon the reader learns that it is the second time fire has destroyed their homes and the second time that the only thing salvaged was Maggie's trunk. The story that follows is told in flashback until we come full circle.

Q. Why did you begin there?

A. Because that's the bit of oral history that I heard repeated many times: She was burned out twice and the only thing they saved both times was her trunk! It was always said in a misgiving tone. By the time I reached the I-want-to-write-about-this stage, I was old enough to know that there was more to it, as Grandmother used to say.

Q. Is this a mystery?

A. Why yes, of sorts. The question haunted me: What was in her trunk that made it the first (and last) thing to be retrieved? I decided to repack the trunk, gathering bits and pieces of her life as she went from young adulthood to middle age. That's how I wrote the novel, by beginning with the truth, but going well beyond it to fill in the missing pieces. The trunk was quite full when I finished.

Q. So the trunk was real and you have some of her things?

A. Oh, yes, her 1910 wedding dress for one thing. It's a simple embroidered cotton batiste dress like the girls at Meredith (BFU) might have worn on graduation day. There are pictures of her in it. She was quite lovely as a young woman, but she seemed so old when I knew her. She was also very possessive and full of self-revolving sentimentality. But my mother said she was not always that way--that her mind had snapped when she lost a ten-year old child. So, I tried to re-invent her, examining her past life, studying her writing, looking at other women in our family who had similar experiences. Times change, but there are certain inherited characteristics that are passed down from generation to generation.

Q. The novel is autobiographical to a certain extent?

A. Heavens no! I didn't mean that. I just found it easy to get into her head because of my life experience. I couldn't have written this book when I was in my twenties or thirties.

Q. What were some of the things you have experienced that you were able to relate to in your story?

A. There are many. Some I can single out like my sister dying of breast cancer. I was there in the room with her, which is where I would have been in the early 1900's. Back then, there would not have been nurses around the clock, or the ease of a hospital bed. As for other things, number one would be the marriage experience among the women in my family. I have seen divorce and depression as the result of unhappy marriages. Divorce was unheard of in my grandmother's time, and depression was certainly not recognized as a mental or emotional illness. Incidentally, Freud said that all neuroses among women--he called it melancholia--began in the marriage bed.

In my story, Maggie Lorena Corbinn, is sort of an advocate for women's rights. She doesn't want to end up like her mother with nine children and her health ruined. She wants to marry a man that "can afford to hire his field hands." Eager to learn, she wants to go to college to become a teacher, to be certified. She also wants to be a writer, to find romance, to be somebody. But her father, a Civil War veteran who is haunted by the role he played in the War, says "no." She doesn't need an education. Besides, there's only enough money to send her five brothers off to school.

Q. But she does go. How?

A. Maggie had an advocate, her Aunt Mag, who convinced her proud brother-in-law, George W. Corbinn, that it wasn't a sin to accept a little charity from the church. Baptist churches all over the state were being asked to help fill the halls of the new school by sponsoring young women.

Q. George W.?

A. Yes, that's what I called him from the beginning, but my editor thought that it might have some political connotation, considering our recent election. I ended up calling him G.W., but I'll always think of him as George W. His character is based on a very real person.

Q. Can you tell me who that is?

A. Yes, I'm quite proud of him. He was a captain in the Civil War, fought in numerous battles including Chancelorsville, was wounded a couple of times and captured and sent to Fort Delaware where he was imprisoned and became one of the "Immortal 600."

Q. You said earlier that he was "haunted by the role he played in the War."

A. Yes, he gave the order to "commence firing" when Stonewall Jackson was killed by his own men at the battle of Chancellorsville.

Q. Is that really true?

A. It's another story that has been handed down in my family. My cousin, Dr. Richard Corbett, documented it.

Q. Tell us more about her Aunt Mag. Was she a real person?

A. I never knew her personally, but she was real. She died before I was born, but she came alive to me the day I started to write about her. She represents that great strength women have to get things done when the going is tough. And they said she was such a good cook that she could make gravy out of squirrel's tracks!

Q. You've done a lot of food writing. Is there much about food in the novel?

A. Of course. I don't give any recipes, but there's a lot of talk about food--Aunt Mag's grape hull cake, her biscuits, her chicken and pastry.

Q. How about Maggie, was she a good cook?

A. Maggie liked to eat, but I wouldn't say that cooking was one of her stronger points. She was pretty self-revolving, liked to spend a lot of time in her room writing stories and such as that.

Q. Like you?

A. No, I like to cook. I may be a better cook than I am a writer.

Q. What did Maggie do after she finished college?

A. Oh, she didn't finish college. She dropped out after one semester because she said she went blind in one eye. After that, she went to Onslow Country to teach school.

Q. She said she went blind? Did she or didn't she?

A. Well, that's another bit of oral history that has been contradicted. I've used it in my story to great advantage I think. As I tell it, she did have some sort of ophthalmic trauma, but it was not the cause of her dropping out of college. Something terrible happened in her life--two things in fact--that changed her direction and sent her into a deep depression. In Onslow County, she began to recover.

Q. She boarded with the family of one of her father's war buddies in Onslow County and taught school. How did that come about?

A. At the time, the state was on the verge of passing legislation that would require teachers to have at least two years of college and certification, but that did not come about until the mid-1920's. Until then, conscientious local citizens--most of them farmers like Bill Ryan, Tate's father, continued to find teachers the best way possible and to house and board them for the school term. Maggie lived with them while she taught school in the little one-room school house.

Q. Is Tate's character built upon a real person?

A. Sort of, but he did some things in the novel that he might not have done in real life.

Q. That sounds ominous. Was he dastardly?

A. My goodness no! Let's just say he got fed up.

Q. Is there romance in the novel?. Did they fall madly in love?

A. No. Maggie was in love with someone else, the second love of her life.

Q. Who was the first?

A. Wash Pridgen. Maggie met him on the train on the way to BFU. He was a law student at Wake Forest. Aunt Mag had warned her not to fall for the first young man that "tipped his hat" to her, but that's exactly what she did. Theirs was a young innocent love.

Q. And the fellow in Onslow County?

A. His name was Reece Evans and he was smitten with Maggie Lorena from the moment he saw her. There are quite a few scenes with him, some sensuous, but my editor helped me to make them abstract. Unfortunately, Reece's life was a complicated at the time. Maggie ended up marrying Tate and they moved back to Bladen County when the house Tate had built for them burned. That was the first fire.

Q. What happened to Reece Evans?

A. Oh, he turns up again in Raleigh a few years later.

Q. With Maggie? What is she doing back in Raleigh?

A. During that first semester in college, she became great friends with her elocution professor, Dr. Abigail Adams and her mother, Vanessa Burchart. Maggie was a little older than her classmates and she lived in one of the cottages that the school had purchased for the students who couldn't afford tuition and board. Abigail Adams and Vanessa Burchart lived next door. They had invited her to a music festival where she met Reece Evans again some years later.

Q. Does Tate go with her?

A. No. This is part of the plot and I can't give it away.

Q. Is Abigail Adams a major character?

A. Yes, she and her mother influenced Maggie a great deal. They were very fond of Wash Pridgen, too.

Q. Wait a minute. What happened to him?

A. Let's just say that some of the things in Maggie's trunk belonged to him.

Q. Can you give us a hint of some of the other things in the trunk?

A. Well, there's Mary Ellen's book of Browning's poems, and some clothes that belonged to Yancey.

Q. Who's Mary Ellen? Who's Yancey?

A. Mary Ellen was her sister. Yancey was her son.

Q. Was?

A. Do you want me to tell you the whole story?

Q. No, but this is sounding more and more like a mystery.

A. There are mysterious elements in the novel--a little who-done-it; but more so, I think it is an accurate perspective of life in the region before electricity and indoor plumbing, before penicillin and tetanus shots. If an area was fortunate enough to have a doctor, he was obliged to treat everything from tuberculosis to mental illness; in fact, medicine lagged far behind other sciences in urban as well as rural areas. This was a time when patent medicines and home remedies were the most powerful drugs available, and no home was without a thick home medical guide. There were no vaccines or antibiotics to keep epidemics in check, leaving families helpless against influenza, tuberculosis and whooping cough.

Q. You did a lot of research for this novel?

A. Yes, but some things I knew first-hand. I remember well the kerosene lamps in my grandmother's house, the thunder pot under the bed and the snaky outhouse out behind the grape vines. I remember the unpaved roads and mules and carts and the smell of chicken mess and manure. I also remember freezing to death in a bathtub beside the kitchen stove. Today we can't imagine going without a shower for a whole day.

Q. So, who do you think will read your book?

A. I think those with similar memories will relate to it, particularly in North Carolina. Women will find the historical perspectives interesting. You know we didn't get the vote until 1920! Even after that, we weren't supposed to talk about our sexuality, much less enjoy it.


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