Saturday, July 09, 2011

Phoebe Lois, or How Reality Influences Fiction

I would like to remember my maternal grandmother Lois Bourland today. July 9 was her birthday and were she still living she would have turned 116 years old. Phoebe Lois Rankin, known as Lois, was seventeen in 1912, the same year I set my first Alafair Tucker novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. In fact, the character of Phoebe in that book and all the subsequent entries in the series is named after her. Phoebe Tucker physically resembles Lois Rankin, as well, and I based her gentle personality on my grandmother’s.

All of the characters in the Tucker family are named and/or modeled after ancestors and relatives of mine. Alafair is one of my paternal great-grandmothers, Shaw a great-grandfather. Alice is my other grandmother, and closely patterned after her. All the other children, Martha, Mary, Gee Dub, Fronie, Blanche, Charlie, Grace, Ruth, are aunts, uncles, cousins of my parents. Gee Dub (G.W.) was my father’s cousin, and one of my earliest memories is of watching him saddle-break a pinto pony. It was my own personal bucking bronco rodeo and made quite an impression on me.

It is obvious to anyone who has read my Alafair books that all of those beloved relatives made quite an impression on me. One reason I set out to write this series was because these people were of a type that hardly exists any more and I felt it is important that they not be forgotten. Both men and women were a kind of tough that is hard to believe, self reliant in a way that is practically impossible today. They were unsentimental and had little sympathy for weakness. In fact, they were kind of scary, at least to a spoiled little baby-boomer such as I.

When I created the Tucker family I made them somewhat softer and more civilized than my real relatives. The real people were loving and talented and funny as hell, but truly clannish and entirely willing and able to take matters into their own hands. “Rough justice” was no joke. I had a great uncle by marriage who was known as a womanizer and a wife beater. He was found dead by the side of the road one morning, shot off his horse by persons unknown. No one ever found out who did it, either, or perhaps I should say no one was ever arrested for the crime. My great-aunt’s brothers did like to mention that he got what he deserved, though. This was around 1920.

I said that such people are rare these days, but they’re not extinct. They can still be found if you care to search far off the beaten path. In his novel Winter’s Bone Daniel Woodrell gives us a glimpse of life in the wilds of the Ozarks, where my dear grandmother Phoebe Lois Rankin was born and raised. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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