Q&A: Robert Hicks on His Novel About a Murder in the Reconstruction-Era South

Robert Hicks’s The Widow of the South was a powerful novel about a Confederate wife who transformed her Franklin, Tennessee plantation into a hospital and cemetery.  In his latest work, Hicks returns to to the same town, but sets the action after the Civil War in another difficult era for the South — Reconstruction.

The Orphan Mother tells the story of Mariah, a freed slave who has become a respected midwife. When her handsome son, who has political aspirations, is killed before delivering a speech in the town square, Mariah sets out to find his assassin. Hicks recounts this dramatic quest, against the backdrop of an era in which blacks moved into freedom, while many whites refused to accept the Confederate defeat — and hope and rage mixed in a combustible brew.  Hicks reflected on writing The Orphan Mother with The National Book Review.

Q: You address this in the Author’s Note at the end of The Orphan Mother, but perhaps you can elaborate here. How do you respond to the idea that as a white man, you can’t possibly get into the heart and mind of an African-American woman?

A: That really is THE question. The truth is, while I will never know what it is to be a woman, or a woman of color, any more than I will ever understand what it’s like to lose children as Carrie did in The Widow of the South and Mariah has now in The Orphan Mother, I do know what it is like to be human.

Please understand that I'm not being flippant when I say this. We need not dismiss or shelve the value of our connection as humans… nor the power of empathy. If I start saying that I will never be able to understand the heart and mind of an African-American woman, then how far are others from being able to declare that African-American women will never be able understand the heart and mind of someone else? Of course, all of us bring a different set of understanding into the arena, but to say that somehow we cannot transcend ourselves and our limited understanding is something I refuse to accept. I think such thinking is light years backwards. I would ask for the reader—black, white or whomever—to be the judge.

While on tour for The Widow of the South, not one woman who had read The Widow ever said I hadn't understood what it was for a mother to lose a child. Instead they asked how I had understood what it was like. Don't get me wrong, there's no boast here, but they claimed, often with dismay, that I had gotten it right. My reply was always the same; I simply tried to understand as a human what it would be like to lose a child. Nothing more. Again, don't get me wrong. It's not easy to transcend ourselves, to seek out and listen to others, to move beyond ourselves, even for long enough to develop a character, but not being easy doesn't mean impossible. I will never claim that growing up in proximity to African-Americans somehow has given me the ability to be black. I am not. But, I do seek to understand and to care.
Q: The central character in The Orphan Mother is Mariah Reddick, a freed slave who is a midwife. She was a figure in your previous novel The Widow of the South, as the slave of Carrie McGavock, a Confederate widow whose plantation became a hospital, and cemetery, during the Civil War.  How did you decide to write a novel focusing on her?

A: As I pieced both the facts and my fiction together, in The Widow of the South, Mariah emerged, in my mind, as a “mystery” I couldn't solve there. I found her the single most interesting person in the story, yet she was an unknown. I wanted to pursue her story.
Q: Mariah Reddick’s son is murdered at the beginning of the novel, and he’s portrayed as an idealist. Is there room in this world for idealists?

When I look at politics these days, both within the national and international scene, I could become very discouraged, but I hold on to the hope that there is room in this world for the idealist. They may be knocked down, over and over again, but somehow I believe that they will triumph in the end. The march forward is rarely in a straight line, but despite all the steps backwards, we slowly move forward, onward and upward.
Q: You’re from Tennessee, and set The Orphan Mother there, and in the town of Franklin in particular. How similar are Franklin and your own town?

A: Well, I live in Franklin, or at a least near it. But Franklin then is a far different place than it is now. Remember, my belief that we are moving onward and upward in the last question? Well, Franklin is proof of that. Of course there are still greedy folks who pop up now and then, folks who take advantage of others. But there are more of the decent folks, the Mariah Reddicks around these days and less of the scoundrels. I am grateful that we have moved forward.
Q:  As you were writing The Orphan Mother, did violence and tragedy in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere across America, influence your writing, and if so how?

A: The violence and tragedy of Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston all really happened after I was pretty much finished with the manuscript. But, racial violence is nothing new in this country. There has always been plenty to reference. While I'm creating and using characters who lived more than a hundred and fifty years ago, understand that they could be out of today's Huffington Post.
Q: Without giving anything away, one of the central characters in the novel, George Tole, is a very complex character and his own story is central to the novel. How did you conceive of him as part of the story?

A: What I can tell you is that I wanted a character that was different from all the rest. He is black, but was never enslaved. As a man of color, born and raised as a free man, he has a completely different understanding of the world. Yet, he is a flawed hero. He hates some of his flaws and lives fairly comfortably with others.
Q: You did extensive research for The Widow of the South, and I wonder if you did more research for The Orphan Mother or if you built on what you had learned earlier?

A: The two areas I needed to understand were midwifery and Reconstruction. I now know way more about midwifery than I wish I knew. I also have a far better understanding of Reconstruction now.