Will Emily forego love for a chance at independence?
Emily Preston wants only to become an artist. As the nation teeters on the brink of civil war, she must wage her own battle against the restrictive ideology of her father. Women belong at home on the plantation beneath the watchful eye of a husband or father–NOT at a university. But several schools in the North have opened their doors to women. How can she make her father see just how much it means to her to study under a master?
Independence isn’t the only contentious point between them. A recent visit to her uncle’s home in Detroit has called Emily’s entire upbringing into question, but her father doesn’t appreciate her criticisms of his management of Ella Wood, the Preston family plantation. Then there’s the problem of Thaddeus Black, the handsome, charming young man who simply won’t take no for an answer. It could be that the real fight lies within her heart, which stubbornly refuses to accept that a choice for independence must be a choice against love.
“Poetic” and “nuanced,” Ella Wood is the story of a young woman standing at the edge of war and struggling with questions of morality, purpose, and love.
Targeted Age Group:: General adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
When planning a trip to Gettysburg, I came across the story of a Detroit innkeeper named Seymour Finney who hid runaways in his barn while housing slavecatchers in his hotel. The story prompted my middle grade book The Candle Star, which was so well-received I wrote the Ella Wood trilogy to follow my main character, Emily, into young adulthood as the Civil War approached.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Seymour Finney was the inspiration for Uncle Isaac, Emily's innkeeping uncle and a key figure in The Candle Star. Emily, a young, spoiled Southern plantation owner's daughter, came about as a foil to Isaac. It was his influence that began the transformation in Emily, that finds its fulfillment in the Ella Wood trilogy. (It is not necessary to read The Candle Star first.)
Emily floated to her room that evening on spirits made buoyant with expectation. Her art instructor had provided some criticism, but his response was overwhelmingly positive. She had to choose a new medium for her next assignment. Perhaps a pencil sketch of a hand. Hands were so mobile, so expressive. Her mother had aristocratic hands. Maybe she could be persuaded to sit for an hour tomorrow after church.
She pulled the pins from her hair and let the strands cascade over her shoulders. Lizzie would be upstairs soon to wash it for Sunday services. While she waited, she’d brush up on some Renaissance art history to prepare herself for the lecture. Unbuttoning her shoes, she kicked them off and selected a few books from her shelf to carry to bed with her.
A college lecture! She could hardly wait. Of course, she’d have to invent some sort of deception to get herself to Charleston. She’d write to Sophia and enlist her help. Sophia would know exactly what to do.
The evening darkened outside her window. Emily read through several chapters by the light of her lamp and still Lizzie did not appear. After an hour, she slid off the bed and padded upstairs to the third story where several of the house slaves slept. The tiny rooms were empty.
“Deena!” she called as she descended the stairs. The old woman appeared in the hallway. “Have you seen Lizzie?”
“Not since dinner. Would you like me to check with Josephine?”
“No, I’ll go.” Emily muttered to herself as she traipsed outside, growing more impatient by the minute. It wasn’t like Lizzie to shirk her duties. She’d better have a good excuse. It took a long time for her hair to dry, and she was already tired.
The kitchen was dark, so she veered toward Josephine and Lewis’s cabin. “Josephine, is Lizzie in there?” she asked, rapping on the door.
The door opened and the cook peered out. “Lan’ sakes, chil’. What dis be about?”
“I can’t find Lizzie. Is she with you?”
“No, miss. We closed de kitchen an hour ago. She come to collect some scraps for dat mare of yours, den she gunna tend yo’ bath.”
“She never showed up.”
“Dat ain’t like her. You check with Deena?”
“She sent me to you.”
Josephine’s face grew concerned. “Lewis?” she called into the room.
“I heard.” He stepped around her, pulling on a tattered coat. “I’ll help you look. You take de big house; I’ll check de grounds.”
“Thank you.” Emily felt the first shiver of alarm. Lizzie hadn’t taken it into her head to run away, had she? Certainly she had more sense than that.
She’d nearly reached the house when a confusion of low voices merged behind her and Lewis called out, “Miss Emily, we found her!”
“Oh, thank goodness.” She turned around and marched back toward the cabin. “Lizzie, when I get my hands on you—”
A tall figure reared up in front of her. “Ketch!” Then she gasped at the sight of the figure in his arms. “Lizzie!”
Her maid shivered uncontrollably. Dirt and bruises spoiled her face. One sleeve had torn free of her shoulder, and a litter of leaf mold clung to her hair and clothing.
“What happened?” Emily asked.
“She resisted,” Ketch answered.
Josephine hustled them inside. “Lay her on Lottie’s bunk.” The child scrambled out of the way, watching through innocent, frightened eyes.
Lizzie moaned as Ketch lay her down. Her skirt shifted and Emily saw blood smeared across the inside of her leg and running in thin lines past her knee. Emily’s hands lifted to her cheeks in horror as she realized the nature of the assault.
“Ketch,” she demanded, her voice cracking, “did you do this to her?”
The black man unbent slowly, the disgust in his gaze so powerful she looked away. Without a word, he stepped across the cabin and out the door.
“What foolishness you talkin’, Miss Emily?” Josephine hissed. “Ketch found her in de woods behind Mr. Turnbull’s place.”
She hung a kettle over the fire to heat while Lewis spread a blanket over the girl.
“Mr. Turnbull did this?” Emily asked in disbelief.
Lewis answered. “We don’ know. Ketch didn’t see nothin’. Just heard her whimperin’.” He placed a hand on Lizzie’s head, his face churning with emotion, and strode softly to the door. “Come along, Lottie. We’ll step outside while de women tend her.”
Emily gazed down at the misshapen face with pity. Lizzie was hardly recognizable beneath a split lip and swollen eye. She knelt down and touched her cheek. “Lizzie, can you hear me?”
One brown eye opened and regarded her soberly. “Miss Emily?” she whispered.
“Yes, it’s me.”
A tear streaked from the corner of her eye and dripped into her ear. She moaned and clutched at her stomach.
Emily felt a hard blow of anger, like a hand pushing her toward rage she’d never known before. The attack was so brutal, so cruel. Her jaw clenched. “Who did this to you, Lizzie?”
Fear leaped to the young woman’s eyes and she didn’t answer.
“Was it Mr. Turnbull?”
Lizzie pressed her lips together and turned her head away.
“Was he black or white?”
Another silent tear rolled over the bridge of her nose.
Josephine approached with a basin of hot water. “If he black, Ketch and Lewis take care of him but good.”
Emily didn’t miss her exemption. If he was white, there was nothing anyone could do. She ground her teeth. “My father will see that justice gets done.”
Lizzie clutched Emily’s arm, stark terror in her eyes. “You can’t tell him.”
“Promise me you won’t.” The girl held on with a desperate grip.
“All right, Lizzie. I won’t tell him.”
She relaxed, sinking into stillness that resembled sleep except for the chattering of her teeth.
Josephine knelt down, wrung out the rag, and gently wiped the dirt off Lizzie’s cheek. Then she pushed aside her skirt and began washing the blood from her legs. It stained the rag and pinked the water in the basin. If Emily looked only at the water, she could almost pretend she had just rinsed out a red brush. The fantasy shattered when Josephine hitched the skirt higher. The blood was too thick, too sticky to be paint.
Suddenly, Emily saw the phantom of a bleeding finger thrust into her face and heard the echo of Julia Watson’s far-off voice: “When we’s hurt, we bleed de same color, Miss Emily. You and I, we both bleed red.”
We both bleed red.
The words speared her with a new, utterly abhorrent idea. Far beyond anger and pity, this new thought sped her toward a revulsion so overwhelming that she rose and stumbled out the door. Clinging to the porch support, she fought down a rising nausea.
Black. White. Red. They were just colors, weren’t they? She was an artist. Pigments were her passion. But what if the shades had been rearranged? What if, instead of red on dark skin, it had been red on light?
Emily coughed, choked, steadied her breathing, and forced herself to ask the unthinkable question.
What if she'd been the girl lying broken on the bunk?
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