Friday, June 27, 2014

Why I chose to write about emancipation, a guest essay by Bradley Greenburg, plus giveaway

Today at the blog, I'm welcoming Bradley Greenburg, a debut historical novelist who is also a professor at one of my university's sister schools.  He has an informative essay detailing the background to his new novel, which spans over sixty years and details the experiences of one American family as they endure racial tensions and create a life for themselves in the Midwest.  There's a giveaway at the end, too, for US readers.

Why I Chose to Write about Emancipation
Bradley Greenburg

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed explores the consequences of declaring emancipation without being able to enforce it. In the United States after the Civil War, African-Americans had freedom on paper but not in their daily lives. As Reconstruction altered the political and social realities of the South in the wake of the Civil War, emancipated blacks faced an everyday struggle to work, live peaceful lives, and raise their families.

For the McGhee family, who are the focus of the novel, this leads them to pick up and move to the North in search of a new beginning. Small-town Alabama of 1868 offers few possibilities, so they head for Nashville in search of work. But while the divisions between North and South in the period of the war were clear, post-war America did not as a whole embrace its newly enfranchised citizens. Ironically, the skills that made them sought after as slaves – e.g. carpentry, building, skilled labour and craftsmanship – render them unemployable after emancipation: why would you pay a black man to do something which previously you could get him to do for nothing?

The only option for the McGhees is to be self-sufficient, to buy and cultivate their own land. James McGhee leaves his elderly parents, wife, and three children to ride north in search of a piece of land where they can make a new life free of the openly hostile prejudices of the former slave states. Eventually, he succeeds in buying a farm in northern Indiana, but when he brings his family to join him, they find many enemies. The conflict that ensues – violent and bloody – demonstrates that the color of one's skin is still an important issue. I chose to write about emancipation not in terms of a freedom that can be declared but a freedom that has to be struggled for, not once, but continually, year after year.

They are pioneers who have as yet no community to support them, so the allies they make are from minorities like themselves, Polish people, for example, who have also faced resistance and prejudice. Already, America is made up of a complex mix of people from many ethnic and religious backgrounds, so the racial and social tensions that lie beneath the surface erupt continually in open dispute and violence. There is of course money to be made, and even in such a new continent, there are vested interests which fear being diluted or compromised. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed charts the history of the McGhees as they become pioneers and make their way haltingly, like the US itself, towards true emancipation.

The second half of the novel moves ahead to the year 1901. Clayton McGhee is a grown man and has his own children now. There are still racial tensions in the community but now the subject is emancipation from the past. How do people overcome the events that have formed their character? How do prejudices persist? While the McGhee family may have found some measure of freedom from the predations of 1868, there are new troubles on the horizon. Those who opposed them in the past have their own sons and grandsons, and the hostile attitudes and beliefs of the past find their way down the generations.

By this time, the opposition to emancipation has to some extent gone underground, but is more organised and potentially more deadly.

On another level, the novel is also about fathers and sons and how difficult it is for younger men either to live up to the courage of their forebears, or emancipate themselves from the prejudices and crimes of the past.

Bradley Greenburg grew up along the Wabash River in Tippercanoe County, Indiana, a few miles from Prophetstown and the Battle of Tippencanoe site. He teaches Renaissance drama and English literature at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. This is his first novel.

When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloomed by Bradley Greenburg is published on 19 June 2014 and is available at all good bookstores and online, price $19.00.

The publisher, Sandstone Press, is offering a giveaway of Bradley Greenburg's novel for US readers.  Please fill out the following form to enter (one entry per person, please).  Deadline Saturday, July 5.

Update 7/6/14:  The giveaway is over - congrats to Noreen Trotsky!


  1. This sounds like a wonderful read. But the cover is not very well done. Hope it does not detract from sales for the author.

  2. Ironically, the skills that made them sought after as slaves – e.g. carpentry, building, skilled labour and craftsmanship – render them unemployable after emancipation: why would you pay a black man to do something which previously you could get him to do for nothing?

    That's one of the most heartbreaking of the many heartbreaks about failed reconstruction with the assassination of Lincoln, that by the official instituting of Jim Crow the number of skilled African Americans had fallen far below what they were in slavery days.

    Skilled African Americans were viewed in the north particularly as rivals for skilled work, while in the North too, wages began a long fall. So African Americans were kept out of the international as well as the national labor rights movements -- which is one of the big reasons the Unions failed progressively from Reagan and Co'.s relentless assault upon labor and wages -- and the poor.

    This is why we must keep Haiti always ground down by outside power -- the Haitians set the benchmark for pay in the Western hemisphere, to the great benefit of employers.

    Love, C.

  3. P.S. -- For me, the cover is very effective -- that it shows up so sharp and clear (including the horse and rider) in the small online image is the number one thing!

    Love, C.

  4. It's rare for me to find what sounds like an amazing novel based on the Reconstruction period. Over the years, I've truly enjoyed reading slave narratives and this novel truly piqued my interest!

  5. This one sounds especially evocative & relevant even today. It's rare to find a novel that specifically addresses the relationship between father & son.