When Dignity Came to Harlan

Jul 12, 2022 | Book Reviews

Unlike certain other twigs in my family, I’ve always gravitated to family trees, their roots, and stories of ancestors. I wish I’d heard more family tales growing up. It wasn’t till years later that I missed what I never had. So I had to start digging on my own and asking for stories. I became the family scribe.

So over the years, I learned about my immigrant great-grandparents who were celery farmers in southwest Michigan, and other great-grandparents with multiple businesses in cranberries, peach orchards, ice houses, and a tearoom. One grandpa was a railroad man. Another abandoned farm work for the automobile industry. I’ve enjoyed hearing about their challenges and successes over the years.

After my maternal grandma passed away, Mom and I discovered her diary. I was thrilled at the prospect of learning more about this enigmatic woman, and what made her tick. But one swipe through the pages dulled my excitement. Each entry was no more than a weather report. It was like reading The Farmer’s Almanac. No major events. No interactions with people. No emotions.

Decades after finding the deadbeat diary, I interviewed my dad and mother-in-law. I captured their life stories on paper, and printed copies for each child and grandchild. My hope is that the kids will value their heritage, even seek out their grandparents for more tales of the old days.

One of the most surprising—and funniest—things I learned was that my Dad went to a Beatles concert in 1966! If you knew my dad, you’d be laughing, too. He was a serious, no-nonsense businessman at age thirty-six. His musical interests went no further than Lawrence Welk and church hymns. The only concerts he attended were ones my mom dragged him to, and those featured patriotic songs or 1930s and ‘40s big band music. But the Beatles? No way!

In 1966, the Chevrolet company in Detroit hired the Beatles to privately perform for all Michigan Chevy dealers at their annual convention. My dad knew they were a sensation, so he figured he’d better watch, if only awhile. He stayed thirty minutes. 

Wow, I know people who would have killed to see the Beatles! And there was my dad, checking them out because he knew he shouldn’t miss the opportunity.

Anyhow, I loved recording family memories. Doing so honored my ancestors, and brought their legacy to light for future generations.

The novel When Dignity Came to Harlan is such a story. Rebecca Duvall Scott took the coming-of-age experience of her great-grandmother, May Wood Elliot Kerr, and re-cloaked it as historical fiction—a poignant tale, worthy in its own right. But in the loving hands of May’s great-granddaughter, it became a unique tribute. And knowing its roots in reality definitely enriches the reader experience. 

Emerge Publishing, LLC–January, 2021

Back Cover Blurb

“Y’can do this, child – show ‘em why I call y’Dignity,” my old friend winked at me.

Skillfully written and sure to draw you in to its pages, When Dignity Came to Harlan is set in the early 1900s and follows twelve-year-old Anna Beth Atwood as she leaves Missouri with her family dreaming of a better life in the coal-rich mountains of Harlan County, Kentucky. Anna Beth’s parents lose everything on the trip, however, and upon asking strangers to take their girls in until they get on their feet, Anna Beth and her baby sister are dropped into the home of Jack and Grace Grainger – who have plenty of problems of their own. Anna Beth suffers several hardships during her time in Harlan, and if it wasn’t for her humble and wise old friend who peddles his wisdom along with his wares, all would be lost.

Based on a true family history, this is a story of heartbreak and hope, challenges and perseverance, good and evil, justice and merciful redemption. It exemplifies the human experience in all its many facets and shows what it means to have real grit.

Take the journey with us and see how, with the unseen hand of God, one girl changed the heart and soul of an entire town.

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My Thoughts

This story snagged me in the first chapter with its beautiful writing. Relevant similes and imagery drew me into the setting. Twelve-year-old Anna Beth Atwood engaged me. The right amount of foreshadowing made everything believable.

Knowing the story is partially based on the author’s great-grandmother’s experience is part of the pull. Regardless, the story is compelling and true to life. And heartbreaking.

Life is rough in Missouri, so when her father hears of better times in Kentucky’s coal mines, he moves the family for a fresh start. But along the way, they lose everything. 

It’s hard enough to pick up and move away from your roots, leaving a dear older sister and her husband behind. But it’s quite another thing to find yourself dropped off at the home of strangers indefinitely, until your parents can find work and support you again. These are complete strangers, not even relatives or distant friends. To Anna Beth’s dismay, she and her two-year-old sister Olivia are left with the Graingers. Two other sisters end up at separate homes.

Grace Grainger is kind, with maternal instinct but no children of her own. Her husband Jack, on the other hand, is gruff and demanding. He sees no sense in caring for abandoned children unless he can get some use out of them. He starts Anna Beth out in the field picking corn from stalks taller than she is. 

Periodically, Anna Beth’s parents send a letter through the general store. But letters become less frequent . . . and time slips by. What happened? Has Pa found work yet? Surely they’ll be back soon. Maybe by Christmas . . .

Meanwhile, Anna Beth works on the farm when she’s not attending school. Mr. Jingles, the peddler, befriends her, always offering an encouraging word. He nicknames her Dignity, because that’s the way Anna Beth conducts herself, always trying to do her parents proud.

But where are they?

As Anna Beth grows older, life on the farm gets tougher, in ways Anna Beth never anticipates. After enduring abuse, she finds herself caught in a nightmare dilemma, afraid to speak out. 

“Secrets have a life of their own; they scratch from the inside,
clawing their way to the light.”

Rebecca brings her ancestor’s story to life in a beautiful way, full of hope and redemption. Her research and accuracy in portraying the region and its history is evident—another testimony to the way she values her family heritage. I’m glad she brought her great-grandmother’s story to light. It needed to be told, and Rebecca does it justice. At the end, note the “Truth vs. Fiction” chart showing similarities and differences.

Though I heartily recommend this well-written book, I’ll mention three caveats. First, if you’re a survivor of sexual abuse, this story could be a trigger for you. Second, the dialect has a lot of clipped words that took some getting used to, but was manageable. Additionally, there’s a long, preachy church scene. Though the relevant father/orphan theme fits perfectly, the emotionalism might appear to be a substitute for sound theology.

But none of these are reasons to skip this book. If you admire young heroines with compassion, intelligence, and grit, if you seek a story of hope and redemption, you’ll find them here.

Join me for some Q & A with author Rebecca Duvall Scott.

Author Rebecca Duvall Scott

Questions about When Dignity Came to Harlan

What inspired you to write this story? 

Rebecca: My grandmother, Lois Elliott Duvall, told me many family stories, but her mother May’s fascinated me the most. May traveled in a covered wagon from Missouri to Kentucky with her parents and sisters—hoping to start a new life—only to be parceled out to strangers and not know what happened to her family until later in life. 

May, like Anna Beth, grew up in a harsh, unwelcoming foster home and was even listed as “servant” on local census reports. She somehow overcame these great odds and became a wonderful, God-fearing woman who won people over with faith and kindness—even though she, too, was raped but not privileged to the same justice Anna Beth had.

May’s story planted a literary seed within me—a tribute to human grit, the spirit of dignity and perseverance, and above all, redemption. My only regret is that my grandmother who planted the seed didn’t live long enough to see it come to full fruition, though I fully believe she knew one day it would. 

What are some similarities and differences between your great-grandmother’s childhood and Anna Beth’s? 

Rebecca: Firstly, my great-grandmother May lived in foster care from around 1900 – 1919, and my protagonist Anna Beth lived with the Graingers from 1918 – 1920.

In Missouri, money was lacking and finding work was difficult. May’s father (Asberry Wood) heard about prosperity in Kentucky and moved his family to Edmonson County, rather than Harlan County. They left their firstborn and her husband behind in Missouri. Both the actual and fictional families traveled with four daughters who were put in foster care in Kentucky. The girls’ ages vary a bit from the original. May and her siblings went to separate homes in the same town, whereas in the novel, Anna Beth and her youngest sister Olivia stayed together in Harlan.

In real life, after the move, May’s father died and her mother Emily returned to visit her children three years after dropping them off with strangers. With no money, she left them in foster care. My story portrays this differently. 

To avoid spoilers, you can read more similarities and differences at the back of the book after finishing the novel!

What research did you need to do? 

Rebecca: I researched Harlan, Kentucky to get an idea of the coal mines and landscape for the setting. Since dating barely overlaps, I also researched basic time period details, like when electric lights and indoor plumbing started coming into the homes, when covered wagons and early motorized vehicles co-existed, and especially the legal system in KY concerning rape and wife-beating—so at least in the story, justice could be served.

How did you decide which details to use and which ones to change from your great-grandmother’s life?

Rebecca: I started out with all the bits of truth I had been told by family as the bare bones of the novel. Within that construct, I began to imagine characters in the same situation (what their thoughts and feelings might have been), and as they naturally took on personalities of their own and started interacting with each other in the story, the gaps in the truth easily filled in with fiction!

Some of the characters took on such strong personalities in my mind and heart that I also had to exchange bits of truth for the fiction that had become so real to me. An example of this would be not having Anna Beth’s mother come back in book 1. I could see an emerging story line for books 2, Teaching Dignity, and 3, In Search of Dignity, and the abandonment/redemption issues only intensifies. Now there are days it’s hard for even me to separate the truth from fiction. 

How do you want this story to resonate with your readers?

Rebecca: Mary Jo Thayer, best-selling and award-winning author of Close to the Soul, said it best with her endorsement of book 3: “In Search of Dignity is another brilliant page-turner by Rebecca Duvall Scott. The theme of reconciling with life choices occupies much of the story, as gutsy characters seek the interior peace that comes from repentance, forgiveness, and redemption. Good literature should elevate humanity, and the entire Dignity series offers timeless lessons which ignite and hoist the human spirit.”

All of my books carry the contrasting message of heartbreak and hope, challenges and perseverance, good and evil, justice and redemption. But most of all I want hope to resonate with my readers. There’s hope in the darkest of times if we have the right mix of courage and humility to seek it.

When Dignity Came to Harlan is based on a family story, and Teaching Dignity is a continuation of Anna Beth’s life as an adult. How much of Teaching Dignity is based on your great-grandmother’s history?

Rebecca: Teaching Dignity is all fiction! While my great-grandmother May did end up having a fulfilling life, the character of Anna Beth took on a life of her own as she wanted to become a teacher. Originally, there were to be only two books: When Dignity Came to Harlan (based on my great-grandmother’s childhood) and its sequel, In Search of Dignity (based on my great-grandfather’s adulthood when he marries May).

However, as 5-star reviews and questions came flooding in after book 1, the question of what happened to Anna Beth and how she processed the trauma begged to be answered. Thus, Teaching Dignity was born! I took the liberty of filling in a large gap in the truth with fiction to better set readers up for book 3, and now I cannot imagine the series without Teaching Dignity. 

Questions about 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?

Rebecca: While I love classics (we just came home from a beach vacation where I devoured Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days and The Diary of Anne Frank in a week), I also have just about all the Mitch Albom books, Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam, and Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture on a shelf of honor in my living room.

Lisa Wingate’s Christian historical fiction novels are also a close favorite… but nothing I read influenced my writing or confirmed my dream. I knew I was born to help people through my stories as early as the 4th grade and to this day, I still haven’t “learned” to write even though I was an English major! I just write because it is who I am.  

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.

Rebecca: I think I’m a little of both! I start every novel with an outline (usually bullets of truth but at least a vague plotline that I add to as the story evolves), and then I start researching anything that needs to be factually correct to make the story authentic and believable.

When I start drafting, I’m a hole-myself-up-in-my-room-and-barely-eat-or-sleep-until-it’s-done kind of writer. A few of my full-length first drafts have been written in just a couple of weeks. The most time-consuming part of my process is then sending the manuscript I consider best effort to my editorial board readers so they can poke holes in it! I work continually to rework any problem areas they find, send it on to an editor, then finally on to publishing.  

Where do your story ideas usually originate from—character, plot, setting, theme, or a combination?

Rebecca: Mostly character and plot first, then setting, and surprisingly, I rarely consider my themes until the book is well underway and in the review process. I have a story in me begging to be told, and it’s not until I look back at it that I realize—wow, look at all these emerging themes that really mean something! At that point, I go back and strengthen areas that really champion the themes for the reader.

Please share about the third book in this series, released on June 21. 

Rebecca: In Search of Dignity is based on my great-grandfather’s adulthood, told from his character’s viewpoint, and loops back into the May/Anna Beth story when he meets her for the first time in the post office of Harlan County, Kentucky. I loved being able to showcase his story but still carry on my great-grandmother’s. I think is even more special for readers to see Anna Beth through the eyes of someone who truly cares for her! Here is part of the official synopsis:

Risking life and limb in the first World War, veteran Daniel Johnston returns home to realize he has lost everything precious. With his wife in love with another man and him feeling like a ghost among his children, he is leaving them and setting on a personal quest to fill the void of longing and despair. The only adventure he never considered, however, was falling in love with a woman a third his age as he passed through Harlan, County, Kentucky on his way to the Gulf. Little did he know, the angel of the post office, one Anna Beth Atwood with a mysterious story of her own, would not only renew the joy of his natural life but also lead him to the one whose spiritual peace mends every broken soul.

Do you have any other writing projects, whether fiction or non-fiction? What direction do you want to go as an author?

Rebecca: I really have two genres I work in: Christian historical fiction and self-help memoir with a special needs focus. With my novels, I have thoughts and feelings floating around for a possible book 4 and 5. With my non-fiction self-help books, I am working on Sensational Spouses, Sensational Families: Relationship Support for Parents with Special Needs Children, a companion book to my best-selling and award-winning memoir, Sensational Kids, Sensational Families: Hope for Sensory Processing Differences.

Once I get Sensational Spouses published (projected for fall/winter 2022-23), I am going to take a mental and emotional break to recharge my creative juices… that will be 5 books in 2 years! 

Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?

Rebecca: If you want to be an author, just keep writing. When you have a manuscript ready for other eyes (remember to harden your shell and allow people to help take it from good to great!), try out an editorial board of family, friends, and professionals who would be a good representation of your readership.

Then, when it comes to professional editing and publishing, research which way works for you—there are different ways to make the dream come true! Traditional publishing is what most people think they must do, but there is also collaborative (be careful it is not a vanity publisher that cares about money over quality) and self-publishing. Done well, you can be just as successful as the next person.

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Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .

If you enjoy When Dignity Came to Harlan, you might enjoy my recently re-launched novel All That Is Hidden, also with a southern Appalachian setting decades later (1968). Though set in western North Carolina rather than Kentucky, my story shows the connections in a tight-knit community of a small rural town in the face of northern exploitation. Instead of a family disbanded by tough economic times, a father’s secret tests family ties.

On June 24, I was named a semifinalist in the Serious Writer Book of the Decade contest for All That Is Hidden. I’m thrilled and honored! Learn more and watch the trailer here.  

I invite you to join my monthly newsletter for updates, freebies, and giveaways. Sign up and I’ll send you a free gift: www.StandoutStoriesNewsletter.com

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Rebecca Duvall Scott Bio

Rebecca Duvall Scott is an award-winning author with titles holding #1 bestseller within her publishing companies long after release. Her first work was self-help memoir, Sensational Kids, Sensational Families: Hope for Sensory Processing Differences, which she wrote in the years following her son’s sensory processing disorder diagnosis and their family’s successful treatment plan. While her special-needs advocacy has a large part of her heart, her roots have always been in historical fiction. Rebecca lives with her husband, Eric, and their two children, Annabelle and Jacob, in Louisville, Kentucky. In addition to writing, Rebecca enjoys family, church, educating her children at home, painting, and directing a local homeschool cooperative organization where she works hard to accommodate all special needs.  Learn more on her website.

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Join me next time for a visit with author Christina Sinisi.

Meanwhile, have you read When Dignity Came to Harlan? Do you have a favorite ancestor story you’d love to read or write as a novel? Answer in the comments below.

Ever reading,

Laura

 www.StandoutStoriesNewsletter.com

Coming soon: A Hundred Magical Reasons, a novel

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4 Comments

  1. Anita Klumpers

    What a great way for Rebecca to honor her ancestor’s life and legacy.
    And what an apt lead-in you wrote, Laura!
    The story sounds like many I devoured when I was young—regular people overcoming
    difficult or even evil circumstances. I remember coming up for air after living that protagonist’s story
    and having to readjust to my own reality!

    I loved the idea of practically hibernating to get a first draft done. Would I be able to imitate that commitment? I doubt it, but it still intrigues me!

    Reply
    • Laura DeNooyer

      Yes, I love stories about ordinary people overcoming tough circumstances. This is definitely one of them!

      Reply
  2. Elizabeth Daghfal

    Growing up, I loved to visit my grandparents’ farm where we ate beans right off the stalks. Yes, we had to save some for supper, but you couldn’t get them any fresher than standing in the field. So when I read your comment about your great-grandparents’ celery farm, I pictured this wonderful image of walking down the plant aisles with a package of cream cheese or peanut butter, breaking off a stem of celery and having a dipped snack then and there. 🙂

    On the other hand, May’s story sounds so hard. The idea of leaving one area for a better life and finding it worse than you could ever imagine. I love that Rebecca was able to give the fictional character justice in her attack–and even more that May rose above all the hardship to become a strong, godly woman. This story sounds like a beautiful tribute to her great-grandmother–and one that will affect many going through struggles today.

    Reply
    • Laura DeNooyer

      Love that notion of walking through the fields with peanut butter! My dad has great memories of his grandparents’ celery farm as a kid, such as getting dunked in the tank where they washed the celery!

      Yes, I love what Rebecca was able to do with May’s story, too. Such a tribute.

      Reply

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