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.
12 thoughts on “The real Blanche behind ‘A Story to Tell’”
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And also, I really like the Blanche character. And the photos of real life Blanche. 😊
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thank you, Lisa!
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So interesting! I like hearing family stories more as I get older, too. But I agree that it can be tricky to ask about details when people may not want to relive the pain.
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What an incredible story behind the story! I always find family histories so interesting; there are so many things our ancestors did and could have done. And it’s nice to be able to imagine what life might have been like for them.
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I think so too but like I said —- my imagination is too vivid sometimes
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My husband is Volga River Russian, or Germans from Russia. They are so documented! And his paternal grandma wrote a book in cursive for each of her 30+ grandchildren (she had 10 kids). We know so much about them. My dad’s family is from England. Paternal grandpa was eldest of 10. I met most of them as they took “holiday in America.” Most of my paternal grandma’s family immigrated here at some point. My parents are both only children so I have no close extended family. I have 2-3 photos of my mom’s parents as kids and young adults, but I know NOTHING about her family. Because extended family is pretty much zero for me, I really became a Kaiser when I married! Out of the blue one of my paternal grandfather’s nieces in England sent me a family tree. It goes back to 1055AD. It’s huge. But as my mom sinks deeper into Alzheimer’s, I wonder about her and who she really is. I’ll never know. But I can gaze at photos and think things up. Maybe I’ll write about it some day. A queer/odd thing is my mom’s dad’s parents adopted a Maori boy (they lived in New Zealand) and it was so controversial in the 1800s to do that. We adopted outside our race and it’s pretty freaky to most people. So I have that in common with them. I’m rambling. Sorry. But you got me thinking…good for you!!! 😂❤️📚❤️
I love the rambling!!! What a rich history you have learned about. I’ve been amazed what I’ve learned about family I didn’t know much about on ancestry.com. My husband really doesn’t know his family at all – on his mom or dad’s side. His dad left when he was three and he never saw that side. Then his grandparents passed away and his mom and sister no longer speak to him (no idea) and his uncle passed away. Family history is a weird and interesting thing, that is for sure. And that is awesome about the adoptions!
I love family history also, Lisa! But like you said, it can get overwhelming after a while too. My maternal Grandmother left handwritten stories that are part history, and part journals. When I was a teenager, I loved to sit in her storage room (it was a combination pantry and library!) and read what she had written. After my Grandma died, my Mom made copies for all the family members who wanted them. So now when I read them, I feel like I am whisked back in time to the 70s, on their farm, reading Grandma’s stories about the depression! I am looking forward to reading your book too!
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That is so neat about all the letters and stories! My grandmother wrote poems and hymns and we have some of them and I have so many letters from her too. They are such a treasure.
Nice to know some of the real story behind Blanche. That’s one of the great things about being a writer, you get to write the ending (well…to some extent anyways! 😉 ) I’ll try to be open-minded about Blanche’s second husband…I will try 🙂 I think Blanche looks like she was a very nice woman. She went through a lot for sure. It’s it funny how we never think to ask questions when we are little, and then sometimes it’s too late. But that’s where fiction comes in! God Bless!
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