Growing up with asthma, Sharon Dennis Wyeth spent much of her childhood in the public library, engrossed in books with characters that were never like herself. "Much later I found Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s `Light in August,’" she says. "He was the first light-skinned African-American protagonist I ever met. Even though I couldn’t really identify with such a worldly character, I realized how much I missed reading about people like me." A writer of children’s fiction for the last 10 years, Wyeth — who is in her late 40s and a resident of Upper Montclair — is helping fill that narrative vacuum.
She has written a successful picture book entitled "Always My Dad" and authored several series, including one on character Ginger Brown for First Stepping Stone Books. In her 1994 young adult novel, "The World of Daughter McGuire," Wyeth set a girl of mixed race in the same Anacostia section of Washington, D.C., where she grew up, "a struggling, working class neighborhood," while "Vampire Bugs" in 1995 presented six tales based on African-American legends and songs.
"Once on This River" is her young adult historical novel published this month by Alfred A. Knopf, and it continues her imaginative journey back into the teeming though seemingly invisible world of her black ancestors. "Very few signs of the African-American presence have been preserved, and I had so little sense of my own past identity," Wyeth says. "I knew so little about the people in whose memory I call myself African American." Wyeth kicks off the Black History Month programs at the William Trent House with a reading from "Once on This River" on Sunday, February 1, at 2 p.m.
What Wyeth calls the "springboard" inspiration for the novel was a 1749 estate inventory she found at Philipsburg Manor on the Hudson River in Tarrytown, New York. Compiled after the death of the manor’s owner, the inventory lists, among the silver tankards and "earthen pots," the given names of 23 slaves. "My
imagination was really caught, and my heart went out to those people who had no
last names. Their occupations and relationships weren’t noted either, but I knew they had been together for quite a long time — and were about to be sold. I was very touched by the starkness of that list."
Another shard that worked on Wyeth’s imagination was a petition written by a freeborn black who’d served in the British Navy, only to be captured by the French during the Seven Years’ War and sold into slavery. "He wrote to the Attorney General of New York in 1769, asking help in regaining his freedom. Seeing this man’s handwriting, which was fine penmanship for the time, on paper so worn, I was moved to tears. It was couched in such respectful language —
it had to be because it was a formal petition — but imagine the rage, the injustice, not just of the entire institution of slavery but in this one man. When you can connect with an individual story, you get a little glimmer of the struggle these people went through."
That actual petitioner became, in "Once on This River," the character Frederick de Groot, whose 11-year-old niece, Monday, returns to America from Madagascar with her midwife mother to help him secure his freedom.
Set in 1760 in New York City and the Hudson Valley, the novel depicts the world of colonial African Americans, some enslaved and some members of the vibrant community of free blacks that lived for several generations in what is now the West Village. Several characters are slaves sold from Philipsburg Manor 10 years earlier. Instead of being invisible — the usual hue of African Americans in historical records and fiction — blacks are present in every one of the novel’s settings, just as they were in actual colonial life, from the remote de Groot family farm near Kingston along the Hudson, to the Dutch pinkster celebration at Philipsburg Manor that the African Americans make their
own, to the sight and sound of slaves being sold along Manhattan’s crowded wharves.
For Wyeth, writing the novel was an immersion not only in the drama of slavery but in the whole spectrum of black experience.
"I hadn’t really planned on having a free African-American protagonist," she says. "The idea came to me right off the bat, but I was doubtful at first. How plausible was it to have a woman booking passage on a boat for herself and her daughter, a woman working as a midwife and visiting relatives who were free African people? It took research and consultation with historians to convince me it definitely could have happened."
She toured the areas settled during the colonial era in New York City and was influenced by information from Manhattan’s African Burial Ground. Much of Wyeth’s research took place at the New York Historical Society, the New York Public Library’s Rare Book Division, and New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Although there are a growing number of important scholarly works on slavery, it was primary sources that proved invaluable: newspaper clippings on runaway slaves, some of whom were skilled blacksmiths fluent in French; ships’ logs in their captains’ hand, documenting their slave cargo beside the bolts of calico. "The people were all mixed up with the
objects," Wyeth recalls. "It’s one thing to hear about slavery, but to
actually see these meticulous records, it just leaps off the page and I found
it shattering." Excerpts of the public recorded head each chapter of "Once on This River."
Her research provided details not only on the life of slaves — a revelation, since "we don’t associate slavery with the North" — but on the free community of New York blacks. It also changed her perception of colonial African Americans. "The prevalent image in our national psychology is of blacks as poor, powerless victims. That’s the story we tell ourselves about slavery. We know there were a few exceptions like Sojourner Truth, but we think most of our ancestors were despised people who couldn’t help themselves — and who
couldn’t read, to boot! I became aware of a variety of people, living in
communities under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, a picture of a much
more varied population which, for me, was very liberating."
Having lost her father when she was young, Wyeth was one of four children raised by her mother, Evon Dennis, "a black woman on her own, putting herself through school, starting out as a secretary and traveling as far as she could go. The older I get, the more respect I have for her accomplishments." Wyeth’s mother began working with computers "when they were still as big as cows," starting out as a programmer and continuing as computer librarian for the space program. Wyeth began writing in elementary school — "plays, poetry, my own journal, the school newspaper" — and spent two summers during high school as a public relations writer for the Office of Economic Opportunity, doing newspaper features on VISTA volunteers. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1970 with a major in social relations, "a combination of sociology, anthropology, and psychology. It was great background for a writer."
She moved to New York City after her graduation, working as a family counselor for five years while she studied acting in the evenings. By the time she and a partner opened their own off-Broadway theater, she was a full time performer and playwright. When her theater closed and her interest in acting waned, a tough apprenticeship in genre fiction taught her writing fundamentals. "I wrote for soap opera and then a supermarket series of 10 romance novels, doing each book
in eight weeks. As a playwright, I knew I had a gift for atmosphere and dialogue, but I found plot to be incredibly difficult. Writing books so quickly, I learned how to create dramatic action with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That really taught me how to write." After producing several series to publishers’ specifications, Wyeth began to pursue her own ideas and research. She and husband Sims Wyeth, a communications consultant, have a 13-year-old daughter, Georgia.
The characters she created to populate colonial New York City and the Hudson Valley became her adopted, if fictional, family. "I think many African Americans have this craving to know their ancestors," Wyeth says. "When you have somebody backing you up psychologically, people you can respect and identify with, it gives you a great sense of power." For most of her life, the one ancestor of whom she was aware was named Minerve, a slave living in Virginia at the time of the Civil War. Yet as she was revising "Once on This
River," Wyeth met for the first time a great-great aunt Cleo who was in her 90s and living in Jamaica, Queens. "It turns out she’s spent years researching genealogy," says Wyeth. "Now the earliest African-American ancestor I know is a man named Martin Colly, born in 1769, and described in a census as `a freeborn mulatto with a scar on his face.’" He was a property holder, and one of his sons became the first undertaker of Charleston, West Virginia. "They were just two of the people on aunt Cleo’s family tree. I was shocked at how good learning about them made me feel."
Family anecdotes will be worked into Wyeth’s next young readers’ book, to be called "Proud Road." It will be set in Virginia and follow three generations of African-American women. "I’ve been very lucky to be able to contribute to the body of children’s literature," Wyeth says, "which now has much more variety. A child not of color can read books and see the whole road map, the big picture. That child can say, `You were there with me. We were all in it together, just
like we’re all here together now.’ And a child of color can now pick up historical fiction and think, `I was there too! Some of us could read, some of us had land, some of us tried to get away and were punished severely, but many of us made it.’"