The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou
By Mark Hubbs
Review by Arley McCormick, TVCWRT Newsletter Editor
I, quite frankly, didn’t know what to expect. When Mark was on the Round Table board he corrected my writing on occasion but everyone does that so I had to set aside for a time that a former infantryman, Co-founder of the Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table, and professional Civil Servant can actually write. I mean, really write; really. Mark’s book is tightly written with a clear and insightful perspective on the life of a family during the civil war. He delivers a fresh portrayal of the Southern Home Front from the perspective of a slave describing the struggle to sustain a family caught in war and mystery. A war where recalcitrant characters use strife and patriotism as a cloak for personal enrichment and Confederate government policy inflicts pain on everyone to promote Southern independence. Mark’s characters are believable and he eloquently illustrates the emotion of a young man growing up in a white family that views him as a member of the family, neighbors that few him as a slave, and slaves that view him differently. Mark’s story is not only a history of life in a conflicted community but a powerful illustration of the conflicts, personal and regional, that make the American Civil War such a compelling era to study and understand.
An Interview with Mark Hubbs on the creation of “The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou”;
Editor; When did you decide to write Civil War historical fiction?
Mark Hubbs; In this case, I didn’t set out to write Civil War fiction so much as record family history. I wanted to take some scattered occurrences that my Great Uncle told me and expand them into a comprehensive story line. It’s funny, but I don’t really think of Wattensaw Bayou as a Civil War book. It occurs during the War, and much of the conflict in the book stems from the War, but I see it as a story about family, loyalty, overcoming adversity and above all – finding forgiveness.
Editor; What was your motivation for writing a story from the perspective of a slave?
Mark Hubbs; The novel is written primarily in first person. I needed a character that could see into the lives of all the people in this backwoods community, free and slave alike. Thirteen year old Ephraim became my protagonist. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that he ends up in the Wright household as a 2 year old. And, although officially a slave, he becomes a member of the family. Mister Wright continually struggles to balance what is best for the boy and what his neighbors might think about him for having a slave living in his household as a family member.
Ep, as he is called, takes on a southern white dialect and shares the same outlook on life as his white siblings. Other slaves along the Wattensaw accuse him of being a “Pet Nigga” and “Talking like white folk.” And white people, assume he is putting on airs or mocking them by “talking smart.” He becomes stranded between the world of free whites and the world of enslaved blacks.
By having Ep as my main character, he can interact with everyone in the settlement, thus propelling the story line with input and dialog from many other characters.
Editor; Could you explain your creative process leading to writing the book?
Editor; Could you explain the process that you used to capture the principle storylines?
Mark Hubbs; These two questions are related, so I’ll answer them together. I don’t think I had any kind of process that I was conscious of. I had a basic story line in my head, however once I got started; the book developed a life of its own. A couple of times I felt I was just along for the ride! Major characters turned out to minor, and minor characters grew to have major roles. Details and twists and turns emerged as I fleshed out the story.
I had my biggest epiphany late one night while I was TDY. I was staring at my computer screen in my little room on Kwajalein Atoll and it dawned on me how to most effectively frame the story. That was when I decided to add the Depression Era Slave Narrative interview, and have the elderly Ep tell the story of the thirteen year old Ep.
The Slave Narratives played a major role for me in developing the African American characters. The Work Progress Administration was the “Stimulus Plan” of the great depression. Did the WPA help the economy? No, but some of its products are priceless. The Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves is one such product. The project recorded the memories of 2,200 survivors of the horrors of the “Peculiar Institution.” Ex-slave interviews were conducted in 1936 and 1937 in seventeen states.
Nowhere was the program more energetic or fruitful than in my home state of Arkansas. 677 narratives, in seven volumes, were collected there, accounting for almost one-third of all the interviews for the entire program.
The Slave Narratives are now on-line and include an excellent search engine. I knew that Dr. Hazen, a real life character in my story, owned slaves. On the off chance, I searched each volume for “Hazen.” I was astounded to find not one, but four of Dr Hazen’s slaves mentioned in the narratives. It was like finding a needle in a haystack, and I had found four of them!
Three of those slaves became characters in my book. The fourth will appear in the sequel.
The first was Israel Thomas. I had already developed a black character that was a lay preacher and would play an important part in Ep’s spiritual growth. You can imagine my surprise and delight to find this passage in an interview of 63 year old Betty Hodge:
“My mama was Lucy Lea till she married Will Holloway, my papa. Then she married Israel Thomas the preacher here at Hazen. He come from Tennessee with old Dr. Hazen.
Of course Israel Thomas became my lay preacher in the story. He became a preacher after the war and started a small ministry. The place of worship that he founded is now known as Prairie Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. It still holds regular meetings in Hazen, Arkansas.
Months after this, Phyllis and I made our first visit to Hazen to look for locations that are portrayed in the book. My geological survey map showed a small cemetery in the area that I guessed was the old Hazen farm. It was small and poorly maintained, with scores of unmarked graves.
The first gravestone that I discovered was that of Reverend I.G. Thomas! The hair stood up on the back of my neck. It was almost like Israel Thomas was waiting for me to find him. I found two other Hazen ex-slaves in the same cemetery.
Editor; Will there be a sequel or another book focused on the Civil War?
Mark Hubbs; My publisher has already commissioned a sequel to Wattensaw Bayou. Poison Springs will continue Ep’s story through the rest of the Civil War. I’m only four chapters into Poison Springs. I’m in the fortunate, but stressful, situation of having a book sold, but not yet written!
Editor; What would you most like the readers of The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou to take away from your writing?
Mark Hubbs; Foremost, to have an enjoyable read. I love it when someone tells me that they hated for the book to end, or that they had trouble putting it down. That is most gratifying. After that, I hope they come away with a better understanding of Southern culture during the era and, that not all Southerners were Secessionists.
Editor; I understand you’re writing a blog. Is there anything else you would particularly like your readers to know?
Mark Hubbs; I’m almost finished with the first draft of my next novel. For it, I move from 1863 Arkansas, to 1415 England. The Archer’s Son, also based on some family history, follows a young boy and a company of archers on the Agincourt Campaign during the Hundred Years War.
You can see Mark’s history and archaeology blog at: http://erasgone.blogspot.com/
Mark maintains a Facebook page (M.E. Hubbs) and an Amazon author’s page at: http://www.amazon.com/M.-E.-Hubbs/e/B00CLKCK82
This book is available directly from the author, at Books-A-Million stores, or can be ordered from most on-line book seller such as: http://www.amazon.com/The-Secret-Wattensaw-Bayou-Hubbs/dp/1934610763