In his debut novel “The Hidden Light of Northern Fires,” Daren Wang tells the story of Mary, who uses her New York farm as an Underground Railroad stop for escaped slaves during the Civil War. It’s a risky venture because her town has seceded from the Union.
As Wang (@darenwang) tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson, he was inspired to write the novel by his childhood home in Town Line, New York, which seceded from the Union during the Civil War and didn’t rejoin it until 1946.
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On his childhood home, Town Line, New York, which seceded from the Union in 1861
“We had always heard stories about the secession. The Town Line Fire Department, their shoulder patch says, ‘Last of the Rebels: 1865 to 1946’ on it. So it’s kind of the little town, the little hamlet’s identity, really.”
On the house he grew up in, which was part of the Underground Railroad
“That part was a little bit more hidden, I think would be the term, because we’d had rumors about it being an Underground Railroad station, but we also heard ghost stories about the front house as well, and it all — you know, if you’re growing up, you’re 5 or 6 years old, it all kind of melds together. And I left that place when I was a fairly young child. It was only years later that I found an oral history of the Willis family, the family that had built the house, that kind of detailed the Underground Railroad activity and the rest of the family’s involvement in the Civil War.”
On the inspiration for the main character in the novel, Mary Willis
“In this oral history, it talks a little bit about her. And then I just went on this crazy three-year long process of research because, you know, growing up in Town Line, I always felt like it was the middle of nowhere, but suddenly I found out that there was this deep, rich history of the place I’d grown up. And I interviewed a bunch of her descendants. I did a lot of research in legal records around town and down in the Erie County, New York courthouse, into all kinds of house museums and everything all around the area. So, I kind of dug in every kind of corner I could find.
“She graduated from Alfred University, which was only the second school in the country to accept women on a coed basis. And she came home and started running this Underground Railroad station in 1858, 1859, and that’s such a radical thing for a young woman to do if you — I have a list of confirmed Underground Railroad operators in western New York, and it’s couples or it’s gentlemen, and then there’s one single woman on the list. So the idea of her as, kind of, this radical feminist abolitionist kind of came together, because that’s what her biography says. It’s a radical thing for a woman to go to college in 1858.
“I felt a real kinship for her. You know, I grew up in her house. I’d get up in the morning and see the same things she would. So, it’s a combination of that sensibility, I think, you know, of knowing a landscape and knowing a place. And I think knowing her sense of isolation. Town Line was not a place that would have been welcoming to a woman of her politics.”
On whether it would be hard for him to imagine what life was like for Mary Willis
“Yeah. I mean, certainly, but — you know, so I’m half Chinese, and I grew up in this very, you know, it’s the kind of place that would secede from the Union. It’s not friendly to minorities. It certainly wasn’t at the time when I was there. And I understood her isolation, I think, and that helped me drive her character forward, helped me understand who she was. But also, you know, I consider myself something of an idealist, and I think that she was as well. She was very political. In her records, I find, for example, her children, her first son’s middle name was Lincoln, her second son’s middle name was Sherman. You pretty much have a good sense of where her politics lay.”
On why this story resonates today
“You know, in essence, we’re still fighting the Civil War. The battles ended, the generals stopped issuing commands, but there’s still still shots being fired on a daily basis, I think. The Civil War was never properly finished. You know, when Lincoln was shot and his ideas of Reconstruction and reconciliation fell by the wayside, those issues never were taken up. You think of how South Africa dealt with essentially the same kind of issues, and how things have leapt forward for their country — it’s far from perfect, but the idea of reconciliation has never been resolved in this country, and certainly our politics today have driven this back to the surface again.”
On promoting this book in the South
“Certainly the memory of the Civil War is much more alive in the South than in the North. It’s interesting to me how the North kind of ignores all of these stories unless it comes up in the context of current news, whereas the Civil War is present on every street corner in the South. I think it also extends to a greater sense of history, too, in the South. The South is obsessed with history in ways that the North is not.”
Book Excerpt: ‘The Hidden Light Of Northern Fires’
By Daren Wang
Chapter 1: Railroad
RAN AWAY from the subscriber on the 27 Dec., a negro man, 5’11”, medium dark, known by the name of Joe Bell. I will pay $1000 CASH for delivery to me at Walnut Grove Plantation of HARPERS FERRY.
J. YATES BELL
(Newspaper clipping dated January 3, 1861, pasted into Mary Willis’s journal)
The shoes had been sound when he set out, but the frozen fields and mountain crossings had worn through the soles, tearing apart the stitching at the heels and toes. Joe had bound them together three nights earlier with a length of rough twine he found by the side of the road and had not taken them off since, afraid they would fall apart and leave him nothing.
Every step broke the crust of snow with a crackling noise and the fine powder beneath sifted into his shoes through the holes and the split seams. The faint sound echoed across the frozen meadow.
He felt as if he’d been hungry forever. He had spent the day hiding in a luggage car under a horse blanket, and the crust of bread he’d eaten had been so dry it had made his gums bleed. The porter, a freedman named Mayfield, had brought it to him along with instructions: “Get off at Alden. The stop after that is Town Line, and the station agent there is a serious one. Checks for stowaways most every night. When we slow down, get yourself off the back of the train so no one will notice you. Stay away from the road. Head west and look for a barn with a white horseshoe. About three miles. Keep your head low. Don’t mess around with no one else. There’s copperheads in Town Line and they’re looking for anyone they can make a reward from, free or slave.”
“Is there a sign for Alden?” Joe asked.
“You read?” Mayfield asked, surprise in his voice.
“You don’t sound like any fugitive I ever seen before,” the porter said. He shifted baggage around to better hide Joe and make himself look busy. “There’s a sign, but I don’t know what it says. The conductor will call ‘Alden station.’ Fifteen more miles from there down to Buffalo and the Niagara.”
Looking at his shoes Joe asked, “Can’t I just stay in here until we get downtown?”
“All this sneaking around you done, you seen any of these fools with a penny pinned to their coat?”
“Copperheads,” Joe said.
“They watch the trains down near Buffalo. You see one of them boys, you better run,” Mayfield said. “The underground will get you to Canada soon enough.”
Joe had been warned about copperheads after he crossed into Pennsylvania. Northerners looking to make reward money on any escaped slaves they could find.
Mayfield straightened up and turned toward the passenger cars.
“What’s it like over the border?” Joe asked.
“Shh,” Mayfield hissed, his eyes locked on the little round window in the compartment’s door. “They see me talking to you, they’ll send me back south with you.”
He put his hand on the doorknob and looked down at the floor.
“They got no more use for us over there than they do here. There’s whole camps of men begging for work, and there ain’t nothing about you going to make it any different. But at least you don’t have to call them massuh when you beg.”
He shook his head.
“Now you stay quiet, cover yourself with that blanket, and don’t get old Mayfield in trouble,” he said.
When the town was called, Joe jumped from the train and cracked his knees on the frozen ground. Moments later the train came to a rest at a long building on the edge of the field near a clutch of horses tied to a post outside. Joe could see men standing at a bar through the yellow windows of the station and wondered if any were the bounty men Mayfield had talked about.
Joe moved as fast as he could, but the open fields left no place to hide and the full moon lit the field like a calcified sun. He winced as each footstep left a snow-white scar in the gray of the train’s coal-ash trail.
He had measured nearly two miles when he heard horses and the bark of a dog on the nearby road. He dropped to his stomach midway through a field, and he turned his head to see the silhouette of two riders making their way up the road, passing a bottle between them. The riders were mismatched, one a skinny boy bundled under a threadbare coat and a knitted skullcap on a mare so swayback the boy’s feet were on the verge of touching the ground, the other a giant of a man with an unkempt beard and a shearling coat open to the frigid night air riding a gray-black stallion.
The dog scampered from one side of the road to the other, nose to the ruts in the frozen mud.
Joe had always hated dogs. Whenever there was a runaway at the Bells’ plantation, the foreman would take Bell’s hounds out and their bays and yaps would echo across the Virginia hills for hours and hours. Afterward, they lazed by the back door of the big house, wrestling over a ham bone given in reward. He’d eye the bone, knowing that in his mother’s hands it would have made a week of meals.
One time he raised a stick to his shoulder and sighted along it at one of the hounds, but Yates Bell had clubbed him from behind with a pistol and laughed as he lay sprawled on the ground.
Those Southern hounds seemed puny when he looked at the wolflike thing trailing the riders.
The boy on the swayback held out the bottle, saying, “I don’t know why I let you drag me away from the fire to ride this damned road. I’m colder than a witch’s teat, and I still ain’t never seen a n—–.”
“They pass through here, come through here near every day,” the big one said, a strange accent marking his rumbling voice. “I seen their signs around. Marshal Kidder got eight hundred dollars last year for one, even after he killed it.”
“You tell me that story every time, but I still don’t have no eight hundred dollars,” the boy on the swayback said. “Tomorrow night, I’m staying at the tavern.”
“Nein,” the other said. “I need the dog.”
“Shit. Then I get a share, Jep gets a share, and you get the third. Gimme back that whiskey,” the boy said.
The dog stopped downwind from Joe, whined, then barked into the field where he lay.
“Jep?” the boy asked.
The dog snarled in reply.
“She’s got a scent,” the boy shouted. “I think we got one.”
The dog leapt into the field, and Joe jumped to his feet, breaking away from the road toward the looming forest.
The bottle dropped, shattering on the frozen road as the riders brought their horses around for the chase.
“You clumsy son of a bitch,” the big rider shouted. “That’s coming out of your share.”
Joe could feel the hooves pounding the ground behind him as he ran.
At the forest line, saplings lashed Joe even as he raised his arms to cover his face. Even leafless, the trees closing in above drained all the light from the sky. His feet, numb and aching, slipped awkwardly on fallen limbs, snow, and slick leaves underneath. The ground sloped downward and he could hear the rush of water in front of him. The riders cursed as their horses drove them into the clawing overhead branches.
The frigid air burned Joe’s lungs, and the sound of his own gasps drowned out the guttural noises coming from the cur as she closed in on him. He veered away from the moon-soaked flat of a creek bed at the bottom of the incline and ran into an opening cleared by a fallen tree. His shin cracked hard on a limb and he went down, slamming into the frozen ground. He felt the muscles of his left calf tear and snap as the dog ripped into them. Only the sear of teeth kept him from blacking out.
The bitter cold and the tears welling in his eyes clouded his vision as his hands splayed out in front of him. His hand found a thick, jagged branch a few feet long and he grabbed at it like it was his salvation.
Joe twisted around, and flailed toward where the dog gnawed his leg. He felt the limb connect with something. The dog howled and Joe could feel it retreat from him. He rolled onto his back, trying to knuckle vision back into his clouded eyes. The animal was on him again. He could smell the animal’s breath, but he saw only the dark brown and the white blur of fangs.
He wrapped his arms around the animal’s neck and pulled it to him, even as the teeth clacked at his left ear. Joe squeezed hard until he heard something pop.Sobbing, he let the animal fall to the ground where it lay whining.
He pulled himself up with the branch. He used it to limp out of the clearing, the blood from the gash spilling black on the moonlit snow. His breath came heavily and his teeth chattered. He crouched behind an oak to rest and bit down hard as he packed snow into the open wound.
He watched as the first pursuers stopped over the mewling animal in the clearing, his knuckles whitening on the limb as he took in the great size of the man, towering over the dog, musket in hand.
Joe tried placing weight on his ruined leg and choked off a sob of pain. He shivered, but couldn’t tell if it was from the cold, the sharp burning of the wound, or the thought of fighting the man who knelt over the howling dog. He tightened his grip on the limb, measuring its heft, looking for cracks, noting the juttings of broken offshoots, then he pulled himself upright behind the tree and listened to the snow-damped quiet of the night.
“This b—- don’t look like she’s good for nothing anymore,” the man shouted. “Get over here and shoot her. I need my load for the n—–. He’s got the jump.”
He stood and surveyed the clearing, spotting the blood-marked trail.
“He won’t be getting far,” he muttered…
From THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF NORTHERN FIRES by Daren Wang. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.