I’ve always been drawn to older generations, even in my twenties. Long ago, I asked my grandmas for their stories and was mesmerized by their tales about the olden days. Unfortunately, my grandfathers both died while I was young, so I never heard theirs. Later, I primed the pump for my parents’ memories, too.
Last year, I interviewed my mother-in-law Joyce and my father for the purpose of writing up their life histories and making copies for their kids and grandkids. I thought I knew them pretty well already, but boy, was I surprised. Once the story fountain started, it sprayed in every direction and there was no squelching it. I heard more about Joyce’s family moving from farm to farm when she was a child, my father-in-law starting Cedarville College’s education program, my great-grandparents’ challenges running their celery farm and coping with disabled children, and my grandpa’s successes and failures in starting a business in the 1920s.
We can discover fascinating facts about people when we take the time to listen. To ask questions, to prod and probe, then sit in silence and let them have their say. Not just to hear about the humorous anecdotes, but the difficult times, too, and lessons learned.
In Under the Tulip Tree by Michelle Shocklee, young Lorena (Rena) Leland has that opportunity with 101-year-old Frankie Washington. This time it’s the 1930s, and Rena’s on assignment as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (1936-1938). She’s interviewing a former slave.
During the Great Depression (1930s), under President Roosevelt, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) sought to hire the unemployed through the Federal Writers Project (FWP). They gathered over 2000 interviews with former slaves living in seventeen states—finally giving voices to the voiceless. By the 1930s, these men and women were reaching the end of their lives.
The slave narratives are in the public domain, now digitized and online, too. They includes hundreds of typed pages, audio recordings, and photographs, all made accessible by the Library of Congress. Read more here:
- The Historic New Orleans Collection–Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938
- FWP article from The Atlantic magazine
- Museum of Durham History—Slave narratives of Durham, NC residents
- National Museum of African American History & Culture–Smithsonian Institution exhibits
Michelle Shocklee used these slave narratives as the basis for a work of historical fiction inspired by an unlikely friendship between Rena and Frankie.
Under the Tulip Tree was a Christy Award Finalist and a Selah Award Finalist in 2021.
Back Cover Blurb
Sixteen-year-old Lorena Leland’s dreams of a rich and fulfilling life as a writer are dashed when the stock market crashes in 1929. Seven years into the Great Depression, Rena’s banker father has retreated into the bottle, her sister is married to a lazy charlatan and gambler, and Rena is an unemployed newspaper reporter. Eager for any writing job, Rena accepts a position interviewing former slaves for the Federal Writers’ Project. There, she meets Frankie Washington, a 101-year-old woman whose honest yet tragic past captivates Rena.
As Frankie recounts her life as a slave, Rena is horrified to learn of all the older woman has endured―especially because Rena’s ancestors owned slaves. While Frankie’s story challenges Rena’s preconceptions about slavery, it also connects the two women whose lives are otherwise separated by age, race, and circumstances. But will this bond of respect, admiration, and friendship be broken by a revelation neither woman sees coming?
This split time novel is bookended by two traumatic times in our nations history: 1) slavery in the 1800s, and 2) the stock market crash and Depression (1929-30s). The former situation afflicted African Americans, victims as a result of skin color. The latter impacted everyone—white or black, rich or poor—with no distinctions of race and status.
Perhaps this is why Rena is the perfect protagonist for this story. If she and her family hadn’t fallen victim to the stock market crash, would Rena have been as empathetic to Frankie?
In Nashville on the morning of Tuesday, October 29, 1929, Lorena wakes up happy, excited, and ripe with expectations on her sixteenth birthday. She’s full of plans for college and journalistic dreams in New York City, but by afternoon, every hope is dashed. The celebration is over.
So is life as the Lelands knew it. The stock market had crashed. This event caused the demise of her father’s banking business and impacted his personal well being. He takes to the bottle. Her sister marries a loser. The family becomes all but destitute. Rena eventually finds work as a reporter, but in hard times, her boss lets her go.
Seven years later, Rena is twenty-six and lands a job with the Federal Writers Project. It takes her to the seedy side of town—a place known as Hell’s Half Acre. There she meets Frankie Washington.
What begins as a mere job blossoms into an unlikely friendship—after some time. Trust must be established for Rena to draw out Frankie’s heart-rending stories. After being beat down by white people—emotionally, verbally, and physically—for much of her life, Frankie has to entrust her heart and stories to a white woman, if her tales are going to live on.
Through each encounter, as each story unfolds, each woman is changed. They are more than their roles. They cease being merely the journalist and the interviewee sharing her history.
Frankie endured a plantation childhood that Rena can hardly comprehend. Besides suffering a devastating hand injury, young Frankie was sold by her master to another family. She never sees her mother again. That’s just the beginning.
Eventually, Rena goes off the FWP script to learn more. Caught up in Frankie’s life, Rena begins to question her own. Though Rena’s family has floundered financially for years, social status still matters to her mother. Rena procrastinates telling her mom where she goes every day. And who she’s with. Her mother wouldn’t value such a job. Nor would the social circles they run in.
Rena’s and Frankie’s lives eventually intersect in an unexpected way. Unexpected for Rena, anyhow. I saw it coming. But other events I did not predict—one in particular, a scene with a Confederate soldier that deeply touched me.
As Frankie shares her challenges of forgiveness and overcoming bitterness, Rena faces her own fears about others’ judgments. But this isn’t just a story about one woman’s tragic life as a slave. It’s about the attitudes that put her there—attitudes that still prevail today. Judgments that deem one person better than another based on skin color or cultural differences. It raises recurring themes of social justice and systemic racism in our country, and the ineffective ways we deal with it.
Though forgiveness and peace can triumph over abuse and tragedy, there’s never an excuse to gloss over evil and injustice. How can the abused heal and trust again? How does someone overcome betrayal and hatred? How do we trust that God is still good when He allows such evil to infiltrate His world?
One little caveat: there was an odd incident at the story’s end that was off-putting to me. Though I understand the symbolism, it took me out of the story. But it’s not a reason to miss this book.
I love stories that espouse a relationship between a younger woman and a grandmotherly figure. There is so much to be learned by the old. Rena doesn’t waste a minute to glean all she can. And we have the opportunity to come alongside her as she does.
Join me for some Q & A with Michelle Shocklee
Questions regarding Under the Tulip Tree
What inspired you to write about the 1929 stock market crash and the Federal Writers Project?
Michelle: I first learned about the Federal Writers’ Project back in 2013 while researching my first novel, The Planter’s Daughter, that takes place on a Texas cotton plantation prior to the Civil War. I’ve read quite a lot about slavery and have seen movies involving it, but I wanted the characters in my book to represent the actual people enslaved in Texas. My research led me to the Slave Narratives of 1936, a body of work created by employees of the Federal Government. These FWP writers fanned out across 17 states to interview former slaves in order to preserve their stories. I wrote Under the Tulip Tree five years after learning about the narratives.
Where do your initial story ideas usually originate from–character, plot, setting, theme, or a combination? Which of those was the impetus for Under the Tulip Tree and your other novels?
Michelle: My stories usually begin to form in my imagination after I’ve read or heard about some interesting historical tidbit. The idea for Under the Tulip Tree came from reading through countless Slave Narratives. They sparked a question in my mind and heart that needed an answer: what would it have been like to sit at the feet of someone who’d lived through the horrors of slavery and listen to them tell their story in their own words? As I pondered the answer, the characters of Frankie and Rena soon emerged, and I knew I had to write their story.
What were the main challenges of writing from the perspective of 101-year-old ex-slave, Frankie? What concerns did you have about that? Have you received criticism for undertaking an African-American point of view? If so, how do you handle it?
Michelle: The challenge I faced with writing from the perspective of a101-year-old former slave was the pressure I felt to get her story right. The character of Frankie was, in many ways, going to be a representative of the real people who told their stories to FWP writers in the 1930s. Getting her right was of utmost importance to me. Thankfully, the Slave Narratives themselves served as my guide. Nearly everything that happens to Frankie over the course of the book was taken from the first-person stories told by former slaves or from biographies of former slaves like Frederick Douglass. Some readers believe that because I’m not African American, I shouldn’t have written the book. I fully respect their opinion, but I obviously don’t agree with it.
What intrigues you most about this time period?
Michelle: I’m a firm believer in learning from the past in order to make the future a better place for everyone. The years before and after the Civil War interest me for different reasons. One is that my own great-grandfather fought for the Union Army. History doesn’t seem so far removed when someone in your own family participated in it. I also find it mind-boggling and unimaginable that my great-grandfather lived in a time when someone could be owned simply because of the color of their skin. So for me, studying about and writing about this period of history helps me understand the world, then and now, a little better.
How well did you know your characters at the beginning of the novel, or did you primarily get to know them as you wrote? Did the plot stick to a pre-determined plan or did it evolve?
Michelle: I knew Frankie and Rena’s stories before I began writing the book. Or, at least I thought I did. As I said before, getting Frankie’s story right was vital. However, I wasn’t too far into writing the book when I knew something wasn’t working. Frankie’s character was flat. She was very two-dimensional, yet I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I went back to the narratives, but that didn’t help. As I wracked my brain for a solution to the problem, my gaze landed on a picture I have of a former slave woman sitting on the front porch of her Mississippi sharecroppers cabin. One of her hands is resting in her lap. As I studied the picture, I realized there was something very wrong with her hand. It looked deformed, and I gasped. “What happened to her hand?” I asked myself aloud. The answer I imagined became Frankie’s story and took her character to a whole other level.
Have you ever had an older woman mentor in your life, or a meaningful friendship like Rena had with Frankie? How was it similar or different? How did aspects of it enter into your story?
Michelle: I’ve been privileged to work with older women for the past 25 years. I also had a wonderful grandmother who lived to be 103 years old. When I was developing the character of Frankie, all of these precious women found their way into her character in one way or another. Grandma was a master storyteller. I loved hearing her spin stories about the Great Depression and farm life. She saw many changes in the world during her time on earth. I’ve also enjoyed the stories told to me by my elderly clients through the years. I hope someday some young person will want to hear my tales.
Have you ever found yourself in Rena’s shoes, trying to relate to someone of a different age, race, or circumstances? How did that situation aid you in writing about Rena?
Michelle: I was blessed to grow up in a family with mixed heritage. My father’s family is Hispanic and my mother’s roots go back to Germany. I also grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with various cultures–Spanish, Mexican, American, and Native American–intersecting. Because I was exposed to so much beautiful diversity from an early age, I didn’t realize the world was such a divided place until I attended college. Rena’s naivety about the world around her comes from my own experience, although her story is very different from mine.
Questions about Michelle’s writing
What books have been most influential for you as a writer? Was there a book that sparked or confirmed your desire to be a novelist?
Michelle: Two books in particular have had an impact on me as a writer. From an early age, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott instilled in me a desire to become a writer like Jo March. I remember the summer my mom read this book aloud to my sister and me, and although I didn’t truly believe I could be a writer, the seeds of a dream were firmly planted in my heart. The other book that changed my writing path was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I was in my 40s when I read the book for the first time, and it completely wrecked me. It wasn’t long after reading this book that I discovered people had once been enslaved in the area of Texas where my family was living and that stunned me. My research into this shocking revelation led me to write my plantation novels.
Are you an outliner or a pantser? Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Michelle: I was a panster as a young writer. I used to say I couldn’t write a synopsis because I’d know how the book ends and I’d lose interest in the story. Now, however, I always write a synopsis before starting a book. Not only does my publisher require one, but I’ve found that I need a sort of road map to keep me from straying down too many rabbit holes. There are still surprises along the way, but an outline of some type helps keep the story flowing rather than stalling because I took a wrong turn. It usually takes me six months to write a book, although that varies from one book to the next. From the time I submit a book idea to my publisher to the actual release of the book takes a full year.
Three of your four novels have an 1860s setting. Are you planning to write more in that time period? Do you want to delve into other eras? Please share something about a future project or the direction you want to go.
Michelle: My new release, Count the Nights by Stars, is set in 1961 & 1897 Nashville. I’m also working on a new book that will release in 2023 that takes place in the 1940s. So, yes, I definitely want to explore different time settings.
Tell me about Count the Night by Stars (to be released on March 8).
Michelle: Count the Nights by Stars is a time-slip novel set in 1961 & 1897 Nashville. Both storylines take place at the famed Maxwell House in downtown Nashville, and I had great fun researching the historic hotel and bringing it to life for readers. In 1961, Audrey Whitfield finds an old scrapbook among the possessions of reclusive resident Priscilla Nichols, a woman who’s lived at the hotel for decades but who has recently suffered a stroke and is hospitalized. Throughout the colorful pages of the scrapbook, Audrey discovers unmailed postcards from the Tennessee Centennial Exposition with love notes written on the backs describing a forbidden romance. She also finds old newspaper clippings with troubling stories about human trafficking during the 1897 expo. With the help of handsome law student Jason Sumner, Audrey will not only learn more about Priscilla and the secrets hidden in the pages of the memory book, but she’ll also come away with a new perspective on her own fears and regrets.
Priscilla’s story takes readers back to 1897 Nashville when the Tennessee Centennial Exposition took place. My research into the expo was fascinating, and I tried to bring the excitement, sounds, and tastes of this world’s-fair-type event to life. Many of the exhibits featured advancements in the technology of the day, women’s accomplishments, and even offered a glimpse into the first kindergarten class. Vanity Fair, the amusement section of the expo, presented visitors with experiences from around the world, including a Chinese village, the Streets of Cairo, and authentic Italian gondola rides.
Library Journal gave Count the Nights by Stars a starred review, saying “Shocklee’s novel is like the coffee at the Maxwell House: good to the last drop.” I hope readers agree!
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Michelle: Don’t give up. Learning the craft of writing a novel takes time, as does publication. Do go to conferences and workshops. Do join writers’ groups. Don’t compare your journey to that of another author. Don’t compare your skills to anyone else’s. The writer of the Book of Hebrews reminds us in chapter twelve, verse one to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” No one else can run your race or win your prize. No one else can write the books God has placed in your heart and mind.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you enjoy Under the Tulip Tree, you might enjoy my novel Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. Set in Holland, Michigan, this split time novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Similar to Under the Tulip Tree, my story is based on the growing relationship between a college-age woman and an octogenarian sharing her childhood story about a friendship with The Wizard of Oz author, L. Frank Baum. His timeless stories reach across barriers and impact lives. I’m recruiting a launch team to obtain pre-publication reviews. Go here to learn more and watch the book trailer.
My novel, All That Is Hidden, shows how stories and wisdom of generations past come to bear on the troubles of 1968 in a small rural town–similar to Under the Tulip Tree. Learn more about my recently relaunched novel here.
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Michelle Shocklee Bio
Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels. Her work is included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. As a woman of mixed heritage–her father’s family is Hispanic and her mother’s roots go back to Germany–she celebrates diversity and feels it’s important to see the world through the eyes of one another. Learning from the past and changing the future is why she writes historical fiction. With both her sons grown, she and her husband now make their home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Connect with her at www.MichelleShocklee.com
Join me next time for a visit with author Cindy Thomson.
Meanwhile, feel free to comment below. Have you read Under the Tulip Tree How have you benefitted from having a relationship with a grandparent or another older person?