Let Persimmon Wilson tell you his story
“The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson,” by Nancy Peacock. Lystra Books & Literary Services. 2013. 331 pp. $16.
The cover of “The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson” certainly looks like it contains frontier adventures inside.
But that’s just part of this sweeping story. Author Nancy Peacock has created a character who ends up as a sort of everyman as he experiences incredible things in his life and travels .
The opening words will grab you: “I have been to a hanging before, but never my own.”
You can’t help but read on as Persimmon, Persy, writes his life story down before the noose ends his life. And you can’t help but admire the man for his honesty, his drive, his faithfulness.
Persy starts out a slave on a sugarcane plantation outside New Orleans, does a stint in the Army as a free black man, learns to break horses, joins the Comanche and becomes a warrior and more.
Peacock says once that opening line came to her, Persy “came to me full blown. His voice was so strong that I couldn’t change anything about it.” She has heard that stories and characters choose writers more than the other way around. “It was great to work with a strong character and he had so much to say.”
Persy is unique from the beginning. He’s been taught to read and write, though he must hide that from the new master, Wilson. Wilson is the archetypical bad slave owner. He works his slaves to death, then buys new ones. He picks out women to use as he pleases; he shoots people with little provocation.
Persy is sold at the same time as Chloe, a young woman with soft, curly brown hair. “Her skin was light, the color of pinewood, and the contrast made her seem all wrong and out of place, as though a white woman had gotten in among us and somehow made herself for sale.”
Chloe brings on Persy’s problems when the two fall in love. Master Wilson takes Chloe as his woman, to care for his ailing wife and do his bidding. Persy, who’s just 18 when he enters Wilson’s service, is determined to free Chloe from her awful situation. He tells readers up front that he’s going to hang for killing Master Wilson. As the story progresses, readers might end up feeling Master Wilson’s death is more than justified.
Peacock researches as she writes. She started wondering if there had been black Indians. She knew there were white people adopted by Indians, and she ended up reading a book about the Comanche and found out there were black Indians on the East Coast.
Learning about New Orleans and the Civil War was not hard; she knew New Orleans fell pretty early in the war. She found out how the Comanches were pursued by the Buffalo Soldiers and about a lot of incidents and battles. She made “a big wall chart of what happened 1868-1874,” pulling facts from different books. She made an even bigger chart to cover the final year.
Peacock grew up in Chapel Hill and thinks “our history is something we should all be interested in, and that includes slavery and the subjugated Indians. … And we’re all living together and need to figure it out.”
Exploration is key, she says, and writing is her way of exploring and learning things.
She worked on “Persimmon Wilson” for two years, a rather short time, considering how much research she did. “I was really into it and driven.” She published the book herself, through Lystra Books. She had tried traditional publishing for previous works and wanted to try self-publishing to see if she could succeed. “It’s going pretty well. I am enjoying being in control of my scheduling and not feeling like I have to be somewhere immediately.” Peacock says the average shelf-life of a book is six weeks, but by self-publishing, she hopes to take time to regroup and go out again and maybe prolong the life of the novel. She enjoyed working with a book designer and was inspired to use the log letters after seeing a reprint of a Civil War journal. They added the map and Peacock included the horse.
Peacock said she learned a lot about sugarcane plantations, and is grateful she lives near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill library, where she found diagrams of old sugarhouses, most of which did not survive after the war. That’s how she learned that sugar growers used up their slaves and replaced them. Growing, harvesting and making sugar is back-breaking work, done in swamp-like conditions with flies, mosquitoes, snakes, extreme heat and humidity and little food.
“Persimmon Wilson” reads as if a storyteller is speaking aloud, and Peacock likes that style. “I believe novels should tell a story.” This one, she says, is educational and thought-provoking.
Persy’s story “put a lot of pressure on the narrative. I knew he had two and a half days to write his story, he was driven to do it by his love for Chloe. … I really created a character who did not dilly-dally around while he tells the story.
“I think all my characters may be about to die from now on,” she jokes.
She also has a fondness for Mo Tilly, a talkative rancher in Texas. “I wanted him to be a buffalo hunter, but I found out there was no such thing in Texas at the time. … He was strong and funny and interesting.”
The Comanche really spoke to her, too. She sees the book in three parts: Persy in the sugarcane; Persy in Texas; Persy with the Comanche.
Since she self-published, she’s visiting independent bookstores and is looking forward to visiting libraries and book clubs, as well. A writer who goes the traditional publishing route ends up on the road a lot. “That does not serve my creative process. I have to wait until I have some psychic space. I need time between books. I really want to look after my creative life and how I envision it to be.” For her website, she interviewed herself, she says with a laugh.
Peacock will be at the Literary Bookpost, 110 S. Main st., on Saturday, Nov. 2, from 1-3 p.m.
“I hope people come. I really think it’s a great story and I really believe in storytelling. As a writer, I know this is a great story.”