Friday, September 14, 2012

Feeling Grave

WEST BROOKSVILLE - I stood back and perused all the gravestones in front of me.
Standing at Mount Rest Cemetery in West Brooksville, I could scan all the names and see various ancestors buried in all corners of this small Maine coastal town resting place.
There were not only members of the Mills family but also families named Wasson, Douglass, Farnham (or Varnum) and Jones.
As I realized how many ancestors were scattered around this small resting place, I realized that so many of the characters in my first novel, Sons and Daughters of the Ocean, were based on many of the people there.
In fact, I started to do a quick mental checklist in my head and concluded that almost all of the characters in Sons and Daughters that were based on actual people were buried there. There was one that I knew that wasn't - because he was lost at sea. But then I discovered his stone (pictured below). Though he wasn't buried here, he was at least memorialized here with all the others.
Sons and Daughters of the Ocean is a historical novel based loosely on my ancestors that lived in various parts of Brooksville. It is a coming-of-age tale of sorts about three teens growing up in a small coastal village called Brooks Harbor. The shipbuilding and sea faring is the lifeblood of the town. And there in Mount Rest Cemetery, almost all the characters are buried. It was like my novel coming to life right there before me.
I stopped by the stone of Mary Mills Tapley and her baby, whose tragic story opens my novel. She was my great grandfather's sister and Mary Miller Fuller in the book.
The real life George Miller, Albert Miller and Sarah Dyer are buried there. The Watson's and the Dyer's that play prominent roles in the story are there. So are the Fuller's, though not related, their lives were interspersed with those of my ancestors. There was the real life Lizzie, one of my favorite characters. She actually died as a teen in real life, but I liked her character enough that I didn't want her to die young like in real life. So much so that she is still alive and well in my follow-up novel Breakwater.
It dawned on me that in both of my novels, I shared the lives of so many people and told their stories. It was very powerful and a bit overwhelming to realize this.
It truly made me feel guilty, as if I had intruded on their lives and exploited them.
I felt the same feeling a week or so later. I was on the Victory Chimes anchored in Pulpit Harbor in North Haven. Not far from there is the cemetery on the island where my grandfather's first wife is buried. Her story is the basis for a character in  Breakwater, as is the life of my grandfather and many other ancestors of that generation.
Again, I felt as though I had taken advantage of them. I had used them. I felt a significant amount of responsibility in telling their stories and using their lives the way I did. I wondered if I did them justice. I wondered if I was true to who they were and what their lives were about.
None of this had come to mind when I wrote the two novels. I knew I was basing characters on the lives of these people. But - other than my grandfather -  there was no feeling of any kind of responsibility toward them or their lives.
Now I began to wonder if I had treated them carelessly and irresponsibly. I actually wondered if they'd be displeased with the work I had done.
I mulled this all over a little longer. Then came the reflections of the 911 tragedy. I knew a couple of people that were killed on that day, including a childhood friend and neighbor.
What struck me was the honor and reverence I tried to make, as did others, to the lives of the people that perished. I didn't want to mourn their tragedy. I wanted to celebrate their lives and acknowledge the impact they had on this world.
Then I realized I had done the exact same thing with these characters in my novels. I had not exploited them. I had not used them. I had taken their stories, whether tragic, historic or heroic, and shared them. I had lifted them up and kept them alive and showed how their lives impacted the world around them.
It still feels powerful and overwhelming. But I don't feel guilty. I still hope I did them justice and served them well. But I'm also excited about the fact that these people and their lives live on through my work, to some small extent.
It is still a great responsibility to feel but a rewarding one as well.

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