When a friend of mine read part of my novel, A Story to Tell she asked me “What happened to the real Blanche? Please tell me her life got better.”
The real Blanche is my great-grandmother (as I wrote about before I even considered writing the novel) and the truth is, for the most part, I don’t know if the real Blanche had a happier life after she left my great-grandfather (whose real name was Howard, not Hank) and returned home with my grandfather, who was a year old at the time. On the surface, looking at cursory information on Ancestry.com, I would think so, but I didn’t know her. She died in 1954, long before I was born. I wrote the book based on my own idea of what someone who lived through what she did (or might have lived through) might think, act like and do.
My father says he doesn’t remember as much about his paternal grandmother (Blanche) as he does his maternal one and that in some ways she was a tough lady, but she was also kind. Her mother was also a tough lady and the rumor is that she’s the one who refused to let my grandfather have his biological father’s last name. I think Blanche’s dad is actually the one who chased Howard off with a shotgun, but who knows if that family folklore is true.
If you have read A Story to Tell, you know my story takes place in the mid-1950s, while the real story happened in the early 1900s. I wrote the novel as a piece of fiction, changing the dates because I really did not want to write about the early 1900s, to be honest. This week, I realized I probably should have changed the names of the characters too, but I didn’t write the novel expecting a lot of people to read it (and not a lot have) and I definitely wasn’t worried that the people involved would read it because they all passed away long ago.
I also didn’t use the real names completely, but they are close enough that if anyone knew the history they would know who they are “supposed to be”, even though I made up almost all of the details, adding characters and circumstances I am sure never happened. I didn’t have the characters move where the real-life couple did after they were married either. And I did not give my grandfather’s name to Blanche’s little boy in the book.
The sequel to A Story to Tell. A New Beginning has nothing to do with the true story of Blanche and is completely made up from my own imagination. The only similarity is that one of the characters in A New Beginning has the same name as the real Blanche’s second husband. The character is nothing like the real person, though. I just stole his name.
None of the other characters are real. In real life, Blanche had three sisters and two brothers. In my book, Blanche only has one sister. In real life, Howard, had four sisters and four brothers, though two of the brothers died in infancy. In my book, Hank only has one brother.
In my book, Hank is abusive and joins the KKK. In real life, I have no idea what Howard was like, but he did join the local KKK at some point, according to family members. I have no idea if he held on to these beliefs as he became older and I have no idea if he ever redeemed himself from his past mistakes. It remains to be seen if the fictional character based on him will find some sort of redemption and learn from his mistakes.
I actually know very little about the real “Hank” other than the fact he had a wallpapering and painting business, played the fiddle, and once had his ribs broken when a horse kicked him. I have never even seen a photograph of him, that I know of. Someone shared a photograph from a reunion of Howard’s family on Facebook recently, but my dad says he doubts Howard was in the photo since he wasn’t exactly well liked back then. I, however, zoomed right in on a man in the back because he looked almost exactly as I had pictured Hank in my mind when I created his character.
In real life, Blanche was pregnant within a month of being married at the age of 17 and gave birth to my grandfather at the age of 18. In my book, she got married at 17 and then pregnant about six months later.
The real Blanche did get remarried at about the age of 28. She had another son from that second marriage and he passed away in his mid-20s from Lymphoma. She also had two daughters from the second marriage, who lived well into their 80s. This past week a search on Ancestry.com and a comment from another member, when I asked her what she knew about my great-grandfather’s second wife, led me to dig deeper and discover that while the family knows Blanche left Howard within a year after my grandfather was born, records show that the divorce actually didn’t go through until 1919.
Blanche remarried in January of 1920 and Howard remarried in September of that year, but here is what is interesting about Howard’s second marriage. He ran off with and married his nephew’s wife. Apparently, his nephew and he were the same age since his older brother was a lot older. Howard appears to have been the “oops” baby in the family.
The second wife’s niece told me that not only did her aunt run off with Howard, she also abandoned her 2-year old daughter and husband to do it. Her name was not allowed to be spoken in her ex-husband’s household after that. To make it all even more awkward, Howard and his second wife moved to the same small town as the jilted husband and daughter. It is the same town where I live now. Howard’s second wife didn’t have contact with her daughter until her ex-husband died sixty-some years later.
Needless to say, Blanche looks a lot better in it all than Howard. However, it is interesting to note that Howard remained with his second wife until his death in 1974 and Blanche also remained with her second husband until her death in 1954.
I wish my grandfather had been alive when I was older and that I could have asked him more questions about how hard it was growing up under all of that, but I have a feeling he wouldn’t have talked about it anyhow. Why would he want to? Stuff like that happens a lot these days, but it was much more scandalous and embarrassing back then. I wish I had asked his wife, my grandmother, more questions about her life too, but when you’re young, you don’t think about such things — the past of the older people around you; their stories.
You also don’t think about how those older people most likely don’t want to talk about those parts of either their lives or the lives of their family members. To us the memories are history, but to them, they are dark parts of their past. We all have dark areas in our past we don’t care to remember.
Family members of mine who are alive now may not have even been alive when whatever happened between Howard and Blanche happened, but maybe it is a little uncomfortable to think about the pain their ancestors faced, whether self-inflicted or not. I never met any of these ancestors, but I have to admit that even I feel bad for them and am a bit over finding out more sad aspects of their lives (which is why I’m taking a little break from Ancestry.com this week).
The fun thing about being a fiction writer is that I have the power to write a different ending for any ancestors, or family members, who I feel were hurt in life and deserved a better ending. I can’t change the real-life endings their stories had, but in my stories, I can create characters based on them and those characters can have the happy endings the real people should have had.