By Patricia Dunn-Fierstein
Two years ago, I began to write a novel called Finding Grace. It was a lot like putting a five thousand-piece puzzle together without the helpful picture on the lid of the box. But like most puzzles, the corners went in easily—the solid anchors of the beginning, the end, and the key plot points. I knew it was a coming-of-age story, set in the racial turbulence of the early sixties with a thirteen-year-old protagonist – Charlotte “Charlie” O’Brien – caught in a life-altering dilemma. I wanted her in a pressure-cooker, forced to choose between the worn-out values of the bigoted south shared by her alcoholic father and the burgeoning spiritual truths developing within her own heart and mind. I knew these truths would begin to crystallize after an accidental meeting with a new girl in town, Violet Marshall. Charlie would fall in love with Violet and her mother before ever finding out the cataclysmic racial secrets that they held—secrets that would ultimately force Charlie to search her own soul and come face-to-face with death.
As any novelist will tell you, an author must be a detective, willing to ferret out answers to ceaseless questions. After devising a good-enough reason for the Marshall family to move from Maryland to Virginia in 1960, holding racial secrets that could threaten their very lives, I had to learn where Violet would be permitted to attend school.
As I researched Virginia education during the early sixties, I came upon the shocking details of Massive Resistance legislation. It was just the added catalyst I needed. I turned up the heat on my protagonist, entangling Charlie in one of the 1958 school-closings and keeping her trapped for two years in one of the small, all-white, private academies that had cropped up during that time. From the start of the story, Charlie would be eager to meet the worldly and intelligent Violet Marshall and she’d be desperate to begin high school anywhere but “Chesapeake Academy.”
In my research, I learned about the Special Collections Library at Old Dominion University, headed by Sonia Yaco at the time. Ms. Yaco directed me to the DOVE website and gave me more information about the work of its volunteers who traveled around the state to collect stories from the people who had been disenfranchised from their basic right to an education.
My husband and I flew from Tampa to Norfolk to explore the area and visit the library, where we collected facts, stories, and quotes from the vast array of source material that had been carefully catalogued by Ms. Yaco and her diligent staff and students. I was stunned to learn of the five-year shutdown in Prince Edward County. Mark Twain’s words came to mind, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” and I knew that I would include these facts in my book. The stories of Andrew Heidelberg and the rest of the “Norfolk 17” were invaluable in giving me a clear sense of the intensity of the era.
I obtained a lot more than facts from DOVE. I gained a palpable awareness of the emotional climate of the time, which aided in my writing a story that resulted in some of my Beta readers reporting that they stayed up until two a.m. reading or that they couldn’t stop crying.
Finding Grace is completed and I am in the final stages of perfecting it for print/e-book. I’ve begun to look for an agent and publisher and would welcome any ideas that readers might have. I am putting the finishing touches on my website www.patriciadunnfierstein.com, which should be live in the next few months. There, you will be able to download the first several chapters for free and decide for yourself if you would like to read more. At the encouragement of Ann Jimerson, I am writing this post in order to invite others to consider using the DOVE website as a resource for their own fiction writing. There are many stories to be told from the appalling history of Virginia education. I know this as a psychotherapist and DOVE has proven this truth as well—the healing process begins when we have an empathic ear and the courage to share the story of our wound. The stories heal all of us who hear them as well. It is why I wrote Finding Grace—to tell a story of courage in the face of devastating truths, and to show that we can find grace in more ways than one might ever imagine.