A former student of mine, originally a British immigrant, credits me for teaching him how to read in fifth grade. Prior to that, he struggled with reading. Years later, the day he became an American citizen, he called to tell me personally, and thanked me for teaching him to read.
His phone call and heartfelt thanks has always touched me. As a teacher, I’ve enjoyed many opportunities working with students, whether it’s opening their eyes to new vistas of learning, watching them express themselves through paint or collage materials, or seeing their delight in impacting people with their carefully crafted written words.
But my breadth of influence hardly matches that of Cora Wilson Stewart, the first female superintendent of education in the state of Kentucky. She was on a mission to eliminate illiteracy. For both children and adults.
In 1911, Cora—at age 36—started Rowan County’s Moonlight School, so called because these classes for adults occurred at schoolhouses in the evenings. Folks walked there by the light of the moon.
Instead of using the same reading materials the children used, Cora developed a newspaper with practical content on farming, finances, and family-related information. Supposedly 700,000 Kentucky adults participated in the Moonlight Schools during the first twenty years.
Cora’s influence went well beyond Rowan County. She created a name-writing technique later used by others to teach thousands of African Americans for purposes of voter registration. She encouraged President Hoover to start the first National Advisory Committee on illiteracy to train Native Americans and prison inmates to read. She advocated at the Democratic Party convention in 1920, and spoke on radio broadcasts and in person across the nation.
Learn more about Cora here:
Impressive, right? But I’d never heard of Cora Wilson Stewart until I read The Moonlight School by Suzanne Woods Fisher. This piece of historical fiction brings Cora’s passion to light through her fictional cousin, Lucy Wilson. Lucy’s not a teacher, but I could easily relate to her. Upon her first visit to cousin Cora in rural Kentucky, she felt like a fish out of water.
That was me, on my first visit to southern Appalachia during college years ago. Our education professor took a couple dozen teachers-in-training into the rural schools of Madison and Buncombe Counties in North Carolina.
Outsiders—that’s what we were. And that’s what Lucy is.
By the way, if you were with me last week indulging in The Sweet Life—a contemporary romance—you might be pleasantly surprised by the versatility of Suzanne Woods Fisher and this completely different genre of historical fiction.
Haunted by her sister’s mysterious disappearance, Lucy Wilson arrives in Rowan County, Kentucky, in the spring of 1911 to work for Cora Wilson Stewart, superintendent of education. When Cora sends Lucy into the hills to act as scribe for the mountain people, she is repelled by the primitive conditions and intellectual poverty she encounters. Few adults can read and write.
Born in those hills, Cora knows the plague of illiteracy. So does Brother Wyatt, a singing schoolmaster who travels through the hills. Involving Lucy and Wyatt, Cora hatches a plan to open the schoolhouses to adults on moonlit nights. The best way to combat poverty, she believes, is to eliminate illiteracy. But will the people come?
As Lucy emerges from a life in the shadows, she finds purpose; or maybe purpose finds her. With purpose comes answers to her questions, and something else she hadn’t expected: love.
Inspired by the true events of the Moonlight Schools, this standalone novel from bestselling author Suzanne Woods Fisher brings to life the story that shocked the nation into taking adult literacy seriously. You’ll finish the last page of this enthralling story with deep gratitude for the gift of reading.
This is a satisfying blend of fact and fiction. The ambitions and accomplishments of school superintendent Cora Wilson Stewart complement the floundering of fictional cousin Lucy Wilson. The story is relayed primarily through Lucy’s perspective, and through the eyes of two angsty teenagers, Angie and Finn.
Plagued since childhood by her sister Charlotte’s disappearance, Lucy has no direction or prospects. At cousin Cora’s request, Lucy’s father sends his listless daughter from her wealthy, comfortable home in Louisville to aid Cora in the back hills of Morehead, Kentucky in Rowan County.
Cora bears a touch of Christy — an educator wanting to make a difference. But not Lucy. She doesn’t care about that sort of thing. Yet.
Lucy shows up expecting to do simple office work for about six months, tops. But Cora has other ideas. Local boy Finley James and music teacher Brother Wyatt escort Lucy to various homes in the area so people can dictate their letters to her. Just plodding up the mountain to their ramshackle houses was adventure enough for Lucy. She’d never ridden a horse before.
These candid visits are eye openers, expanding Lucy’s horizons to a world of nature and southern Appalachian traditions of music, clogging, storytelling, and cornpone—side by side with poverty, superstition, and illiteracy. She sees firsthand how illiteracy affects a family’s daily life and status. One’s inability to read a simple contract makes him easy prey for lumber companies.
And prey they did—by ravaging the land, chopping down trees, rerouting streams. For the first time, Lucy, the outsider, learns how her father’s lumber mills affect the people she is beginning to empathize with. This is where her father grew up, too. A place he chose to leave for opportunities in the city.
I loved this juxtaposition—the daughter of the lumber firm’s owner facing the people of the land. But life isn’t just black and white. Lucy also starts to see her father as the complex person he is.
While growing more connected to this land and its inhabitants, Lucy’s friendship with Brother Wyatt grows. She finds herself in the middle of an aggravating rivalry between Angie who wants to be a teacher and Finley James who avoids school at all cost. She continues regular visits to Barbara Jean and her many children, young Sally Ann and her baby, and an elderly midwife Mollie.
Lucy gradually finds purpose beyond just being Cora’s scribe. Cora wants to give these people a voice, and the only way to do that is to teach them to read.
“Our illiterates have been victims of educated scoundrels
who have taken advantage of their ignorance.
The only way to lift people is to teach them to lift themselves.
Literacy is the only road to true freedom. . . .
literacy gives a voice to the silent.
Only a literate people can have a truly democratic government. . . .
Indifference is our only obstacle.” —Cora, p 265
If visionary Cora is like a constantly glowing light bulb, Brother Wyatt is a candle, a quieter, steady source of wisdom and strength. Cora loves a challenge and pushes Lucy beyond what she thinks she’s capable of. Lucy is drawn to Wyatt, but also to Andrew, a smooth-talking lumber company employee.
The mountain talk dialect is not insurmountable. The glossary helped. Even with unusual speech, the dialog flowed and kept the narrative moving. Beautiful descriptions of nature and mountains were woven in. Be sure to check out the author’s notes at the end: “So . . . what happened next?”
One thing greatly disappointed me near the end because I really wanted to see a situation go a different way. That disappointment reflects my investment in the characters. But it made sense, and it didn’t diminish the overall effect of this engaging, heart-warming story with several surprises.
Join me for some Q & A with Suzanne Woods Fisher.
Questions about The Moonlight School
The Moonlight School is another departure from your Amish novels. What was your inspiration for writing it? What’s your personal connection to Kentucky, Cora Wilson Stewart, and/or the time period?
Suzanne: The idea behind The Moonlight School dropped into my lap. I listen to a classical music station as I write. One morning, the radio announcer casually mentioned that on this day in history, the Moonlight Schools began. There was just something about that phrase that made me stop and research it. I took the idea to my editor and it wasn’t long before I had a contract.
The Moonlight School was published last year and will always be one of my favorite novels. And it’s all based on an incredible true story!
I didn’t have any personal connection to Kentucky or to Cora Wilson Stewart, or to that time period—other than curiosity. After The Moonlight School was published, a relative of Cora connected with me and sent me copies of some private family letters, handwritten by Cora. Her tone in the letters was similar to the Cora in my mind. So pleased!
What was involved in creating protagonist Lucy Wilson and her backstory (father, father’s profession in the logging industry, lost sister)? Did you consider other protagonists and/or points of view first?
Suzanne: Lucy Wilson was an outsider coming into a close-knit community. She provided “fresh eyes” as she described what she observed. For example, on the first day she arrived in Appalachia, she went into a woman’s cabin and was shocked to see the cabin floor was dirt.
How do you plot a story that integrates fact and fiction, especially if you’re trying to be faithful to the facts you know, yet have to fill in the gaps with your imagination?
Suzanne: I tried to stay close to the facts of the Moonlight Schools, but I also needed to create a story, full of conflicts and resolutions. In the Author’s Notes in the back, I explained what was fact and what was fiction. I want readers to have confidence in my books.
What research did you need to do for this story?
Suzanne: I wrote this during the Pandemic, which limited travel, but it didn’t limit connections to those who had written about Cora Wilson Stewart, nor did it limit all the books I read, and even old film clips I studied.
A few months ago, a school in Morehead, Kentucky studied the book and went into the one-room schoolhouse on the Morehead State University campus for my Zoom presentation on the topic. It was such a thrill! I felt as if I were right there.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you like southern fiction set in Appalachia, you might enjoy my recently re-launched novel All That Is Hidden. Though set almost sixty years later (1968) in western North Carolina rather than Kentucky, my story shows the connections in a tight-knit community in the face of northern exploitation. Additionally, a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
In June, I was named a semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest for All That Is Hidden.
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Suzanne Woods Fisher Bio
Suzanne Woods Fisher is a Christy finalist, a Carol Award winner, a two-time ECPA Book of the Year finalist, and the Publishers Weekly, ECPA, CBA, bestselling author of more than thirty books. Her genres include contemporary and historical romances, Amish romance, and women’s fiction. She and her husband live in a small town in California, where everyone knows everyone else, knows what they are doing and why. Most friends act a little nervous around Suzanne because they usually wind up in one of her novels. She has four grown children and enough grandchildren to keep her young. Visit Suzanne at suzannewoodsfisher.com.
Join me next time for a visit with Denise Hunter.
Meanwhile, have you read The Moonlight School? Do you have a favorite historical fiction based on a real person, or a favorite Southern novel? Answer in the comments below.