Monday, January 21, 2013

What's Real & What's Made Up From The Ballad of Jessie Pearl?

I received an email from a high school friend who has recently read my book. She wanted to know which characters were based on real people and if any of the characters were simply made up. Since I believe lots of  readers from my hometown will want to know the answers, I'll paste my response to her below:

Hi Rynn,

Thank you for reading my book and writing to tell me how much you liked it.

Basically I took a snippet of a family story and then used research and my imagination because everyone associated with what really happened is long dead.

The story takes place in the house that you call Bobby Marler's house. When I was growing up that was my grandmother's house. My grandmother, Lena, is Jessie Pearl in the book. She was fourteen when her sister Crawley died from tuberculosis. Crawley was 20 when she died and left behind a ten-month-old baby, (Junior Wooten), and a letter planning her own funeral. I have never seen the actual letter. I believe that it is in a safe in Savannah, Georgia. 

When I asked my mom what she remembered about her mother and her sisters, she said that Anna, the oldest sister, liked to sew and used to cut her own patterns from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue. She also told me that when Anna contracted TB, she was determined to go away for treatment because her sister Crawley had died from it. All of those details made their way into the book. Anna's daughter was actually named Vivian, but I shortened it to Vivi in the book. 

My mom told me that Lena, (the youngest sister), would rather work outside than do housework. She wasn't much of a cook because her older sisters had always done most of it while she was at work in the tobacco field. Those details shaped the character of Jessie Pearl.

My mom didn't know much about Crawley, the middle sister, because she died so young, but she told me the letter she left behind was incredibly sad. Another relative said that Crawley loved to sing and so I made her musical in the book. I changed the name Crawley to Carrie because Crawley reminded me of "creepy crawley." It also has significance because the family had to "carry her" when she became ill.

Yes, Tom and Sophie are based on the Tom and Sophronia Hennings that you found in the Hennings family genealogy. I used to walk to see "Fronnie" with my grandmother. Tom and Fronnie actually lost two of their children to diphtheria. Fronnie told me the story of losing her children when I was just a little girl. Tell your daughter I changed Fronnie to Sophie because I thought it was a more beautiful name. I am pleased she doesn't mind that I borrowed it. (Rynn's daughter is actually named Sophia Hennings).

Viney Speer is probably the only person still alive who attended Crawley's funeral, but she was a little girl and doesn't remember too much about it. I changed the last name, but borrowed the name Viney for the book because I thought it suited the time period.

Maude is basically a made up character. There used to be a granny woman in the Flint Hill community whose last name was Patterson. I gave Maude that last name, but chose her first name because I thought it fit the character I had in mind. Two things influenced me when I was writing the character of Maude. The first is a self-published book by Miss Irma Matthews about life in early Yadkin County. In that memoir, Miss Irma writes about one of her relatives who would come for long visits and stay past her welcome. The rest of Maude is from my Grandmother Williams who used to watch over me, much like Maude watches over Jessie.

Liza Phillips is also a made up character. She's a combination of two characters I loved to hate when I was growing up: Nellie Olson from the Little House books and Liza Colby from the now defunct soap opera "All My Children."

My editor told me to let go of what really happened and just tell a good story. That's what I've tried to do. I wanted to tell a good story and at the same time capture this bit of Hennings family history so that it wouldn't be forgotten. 

Thanks again,



  1. Very interesting^.
    Although I made it clear that my MG is *fiction*, I too received this very question at my book launch party. Thank you for giving such a detailed answer. I really liked your book.

  2. Thanks, Mirka. I think it's only natural that people wonder where stories originate from. I'm not surprised that you got the same question.

  3. It's always interesting to see how stories originate. Thanks for posting the letter.

  4. Ballad of Jessie Pearl sounds like my kind of book. I love Could-Be-True books. Your blog reveals someone who knows who she is and one who writes very well.